Gerald Schoenfeld: Lawyer and theatrical impresario who became one of Broadway's most powerful figures

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The Independent Online

As chairman of the Shubert Organisation, Gerald Schoenfeld was one of the most powerful men on Broadway.

The organisation owns or runs 17 of New York's 39 Broadway venues, and produced or presented such hit shows as A Chorus Line and the British hits Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and the recently opened Mamma Mia. Schoenfeld himself could be seen at opening nights, an ebullient and jovial character often described as one who could have come straight from the pages of Damon Runyon; the great musical Guys and Dolls, based on Runyon's stories, had its Broadway première at one of the Shubert houses, the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers). Schoenfeld also appeared on screen, in a rare acting role, as a producer in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose (1984).

The Shubert Organisation was founded at the turn of last century by the three Shubert brothers, J.J., Lee and Sam, who produced their first show in 1901. They were immigrants from Lithuania, their foothold in the theatre first gained when Sam, theoldest, sold theatre programmes. By the mid-1920s, their empire encompassed 17 Broadway venues, ranging from imposing palaces like the Winter Garden that housed lavish musicals,to intimate locations, such as the wood-panelled Booth Theatre, where many of Broadway's greatest plays were staged, including You Can't Take It With You, Come Back Little Sheba and Two for the Seesaw. The brothers also owned half of the Music Box Theatre, sharing it with the man who had it built, the composer Irving Berlin. Sam died in 1905, and as the Shubert empire grew, the remaining brothers quickly gained a reputation for ruthless bargaining and frequently vindictive behaviour.

Lee and J.J. Shubert had died by the 1960s, and were succeeded by Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs, who had no blood ties to the Shuberts but were lawyers who had been handling the Shubert's affairs for several years. They were described by the writer Kevin Kelly as "friendly, tough, capricious", and certainly proved more popular than their predecessors.

When they took over the Shubert empire, New York's theatre district was in a sorry state, Times Square having degenerated into a haven for prostitutes, sex shops and porn cinemas. Schoenfeld and Jacobs spearheaded a campaign to clean up the area, which they accomplished to a remarkable degree. The former New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote last week: "It is not an overstatement to say that they saved New York's commercial theatre industry – and, implicitly Times Square – when everyone else had left it for dead."

The son of a clothes manufacturer, Gerry Schoenfeld was born in New York City in 1924. He served in the US Army after graduating from the University of Illinois, then earned a degree in law at New York University. Hired by the firm which included the Shubert Organisation among its clients, he proved so adept at handling its affairs that in 1957 – a year after the Shuberts had been forced to sell many of their properties in the wake of an anti-trust suit by the government – J.J. Shubert (Lee had died in 1953) asked him to work exclusively for the group as their primary lawyer.

The following year, Schoenfeld brought in Bernie Jacobs to sharethe workload, and the two men learnt every aspect of the theatre business from J.J. "You sat at either side ofJ.J.'s desk," recalled Schoenfeld, "from the minute he arrived to the minutehe left, seven days a week. Everything that came over his desk, we had to pass on. As a result, we had total immersion in every aspect of thebusiness."

It was not a good period for Broadway, and after J.J. died in 1963 thetwo men took charge of the ailing organisation and reinvigorated it with shrewd investment and personal productions, their innovations including the introduction of computerised ticket sales. They were to cite 1974 as the year their recovery was complete, their theatres housing such hits as the British import Equus and the musicals Pippin and Grease.

The following year the ShubertTheatre, on the corner of the famed thoroughfare Shubert Alley, became home to one of the biggest hits intheatre history, A Chorus Line. Directed by Michael Bennett, and based on the lives and careers of its cast, the show had been championed by Schoenfeld from its initial off-Broadway performances to its triumphant opening on Broadway, though there were many who were doubtful about it. Said Bennett (who died in 1987): "The funniest remark made in 1975 came from Stephen Sondheim, who saw A Chorus Line and said, 'How can you care about those people?' " In the end, the musical ran for over 6,000 performances (eclipsed only by Cats and Phantom of the Opera, also Shubert productions) and won several Tony awards as well as the Pulitzer Prizefor drama.

Though Schoenfeld's enthusiasm for the Andrew Lloyd Webber hits sometimes put him at odds withcritics, his enthusiasm and tireless efforts for the Broadway community were appreciated – in 1977, as part of his campaign to clean up Times Square, he persuaded the casts of25 shows, plus New York residents, union leaders and members of the clergy to stage a three-day rally to "stamp out smut."

Schoenfeld and Jacobs (who diedin 1996) have each had theatres named after them. The producer Emanuel Azenberg said of Schoenfeld: "His whole life was working in the theatre. I didn't agree with him on a numberof things, but I never, ever questioned his commitment... I'll miss arguing with him."

Gerald Schoenfeld, lawyer and theatrical impresario: born New York 22 September 1924; married 1950 (one daughter); died New York 25 November 2008.