By Ryan Leeds
One might consider Keith Sherman to be the Nellie Forbush of public relations. The veteran cockeyed optimist just celebrated the 30th anniversary of his entertainment-focused agency last year and was sailing high until COVID-19 shuddered theaters and live venues in March.
That’s when he and his husband Roy, a medical director at two nursing facilities, moved from their Hell’s Kitchen residence to their upstate home in Dutchess County, along with their rescue dog, Murphy.
Sherman, whose long list of clients include Mike Birbiglia in The New One on Broadway, Feinstein’s/54 Below, The Town Hall, The Chita Rivera Awards and countless shows on and Off-Broadway (Be More Chill, A Christmas Story), recently spoke with The Broadway Blog about the current state of the arts, the chances for their return, and his own battle with the dreaded coronavirus.
The Broadway Blog: You and your husband were diagnosed early on with COVID-19. Talk a bit about that experience.
Keith Sherman: I left New York on March 13, and that weekend, my husband Roy tested positive and had all the symptoms. I tested negative the following week, but the following day after getting my results, I came down with all the symptoms. Luckily, we both had mild cases and have the antibodies, but we still wear our masks out. It’s not just for us, but for others. We’ve got to show respect that way. We’re healthy now, but I’m just working from home trying to figure out how to go forward when it looks like there won’t be theater for a substantial period of time.
BB: At what point did you realize that the road back to live entertainment would be longer than anyone expected?
KS: There was a time in early May when it seemed that things weren’t going to be happening in the fall. A lot of summer seasons had begun to cancel, and things kept getting pushed further back. I realized that until there was a vaccine or something substantial, it was unlikely that the theater could survive with social distancing, simply because of the economic model. I realized that it was going to be a long haul.
BB: I read that you are comfortable understanding the gray of life. How did you adopt that outlook?
KS: I probably got it from my dad, who was an entrepreneur. I saw him fighting and struggling to keep his business afloat. When you work in the theater, there is so much uncertainty. Shows open and close, and a lot of things don’t last. If you do that long enough, you develop a thick skin. I’m okay with things not being definitive.
BB: As the theater community navigates reopening, what are your biggest concerns and hopes?
KS: Well, concerns for safety must come first right now. The lead time is also another issue. I suspect that it will be a few weeks from the time the Governor says that live events can begin to the time that they actually will. Productions big and small will have to also consider actors’ schedules, whether the money is in place and so many other open questions. I hope that we can ultimately get back to a level that we left in March because the theater was robust, people were coming, and business was strong. There was a great vitality. We want to make sure that both the actors and the patrons feel safe and comfortable coming back to the theater. One thing this pandemic has given us is the gift of time. We can think, plan, and reconnect in a way that we previously were unable to do.
BB: What inspired you to get into public relations in the first place?
KS: I fell into it. One of my college roommates grew up in New Rochelle, New York. His English teacher was Gene Feist, the guy who founded Roundabout Theater. I interned there. One day, one of the producers walked up to me, inquiring what I wanted to after I graduated. When I told him it was to find a job, he asked if I wanted to be the marketing director. I agreed, and that lasted a year. Then I went to work for a Broadway press agent. That started me off on a career. I worked for a while at Radio City Music Hall, worked in television, and finally launched my own agency 30 years ago. The industry has changed, but you’re still dealing with people and the basic tenets of theatrical public relations.
BB: What’s the best advice you’ve learned in your years as a press agent?
KS: Working in the theater, I’ve learned how to live an authentic life. Theater people are very open about who they are. Learning to live with gray in life and not having things be so specific is also valuable. If you’re living in the moment and not living too far ahead, you won’t get yourself too stressed out. Be kind to people because you will run into the same people repeatedly through the years.
BB: Have you ever had any disasters that you had to remedy?
KS: There are always things that come up that you don’t anticipate (which goes back to the gray). When I represented the Tony Awards, there was a time when Julie Andrews was in Victor/Victoria. When the nominations came out, the show only had one nod, which was for her. Everyone else in the cast was — in her words —“egregiously overlooked.” She declined her nomination. I had to be the spokesperson for the Broadway League and Tony Wing contradicting Mary Poppins. There have been some tough personalities to navigate, which were a little left of center, but you just figure out a path forward with harmony.
BB: How do you represent a show that you know is a complete dud?
KS: Oh my gosh… I’ve had so many of those! Theater PR people have to be optimists because of that very fact. It’s business. I’ve got salaries to pay, and there is always a driving force behind every show. Creators don’t ever think it’s terrible, but it’s our job to support them. Plus, you never know when the next star could be involved in a project you’re representing. Or, it could be a promising writer whose next show will be the one to put them on the map. One of the great things about smaller theaters is that they allow artists to fail.
BB: Were there any shows or moments that you proudly look back on and think you couldn’t have done better?
KS: A lot of times it has to do with people… when you’re on the same page with them, you’re clicking with them and doing great things. Together, you’re a piece of the machine that is creating a great show. To me, when you are working on a show that is embraced by the public and the press, that’s the best.