A Theatrical Press Agent Steps Out of the Shadows

| 22 Nov 2015 | 11:14

Occasionally, Susan L. Schulman appears in a publicity photo, alongside legends like Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Noel Coward and Cary Grant. Or Lauren Bacall, who had just won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in “Applause.” The star, flanked by her famous friends, grabbed her press agent’s hand as they went to face reporters and paparazzi. Usually, though, Schulman is comfortably in the background, worrying all the details to help her clients shine.

Being a press agent means pitching to writers and editors. Over hot chocolate at an Upper West Side café, Schulman said the Internet had made press lists — the bibles of public relations companies — useless. “Suddenly we needed email addresses, and had to learn how to use Facebook and Twitter. Now my days are 24/7,” she explained. “People email at 11 at night and expect an answer. But clients are entitled to find me.”

Schulman has been a press agent for more than 40 years, a theater pro who has represented Broadway shows like “Death of a Salesman” with George C. Scott and “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. She has also fronted for dance companies and nonprofit arts institutions. Personal clients have included Tony nominee and Drama Desk winner Kathleen Chalfant, who is starring in the upcoming “Rose,” about Rose Kennedy.

For “Rose,” Schulman said she will emphasize that “the playwright had access to 40 hours of taped interviews Rose Kennedy recorded with her autobiography’s ghost-writer.” So, Schulman said, audiences can expect something behind the mask of the stoic matriarch.

Schulman said she thought of inviting members of the Radio City Rockette Alumni Association to a performance of “Kick,” because Joanna Rush, who wrote and stars in the off-Broadway solo show, is a member. And Rockette “sisters” help Rush’s character through a traumatic experience.

Schulman started seeing Broadway shows as a child with her parents and, by the age of 10, was regularly attending on her own, waiting at the stage door to tell the actors how much their performances meant to her.

A New York University graduate, she holds a master’s degree from Columbia University. She’s lived on the Upper West Side her entire life. Currently, home is a two-bedroom, pre-war apartment on West 86th Street. “It’s about familiarity,” she said, “and deep roots developed over decades.”

Her work background includes training with some of the top press reps of the time before she opened her own office in 1978. She moved to television in 1984, but after stints at CBS, USA Network and A&E, she returned to the theater. “In broadcast and film the PR people have no creative input. You’re handed a finished product. In theater,” she explained, “you’re in the room earlier in the process. You get to help decide how a show will be perceived.”

When “Dancin’” was in Boston, critics and audiences expected a traditional musical from the Bob Fosse show. They were disappointed. “When we came in to New York, we made sure that Fosse explained in interviews that the show was a revue.” The result was positive critical reaction, a respectable run and a Tony Award for Fosse.

Karen Ziemba, a Tony and Drama Desk Award winner, said that what makes Schulman special is that “she treats clients as friends or colleagues. It’s like working with a family member.”

Over the years, Schulman has accumulated dozens of anecdotes about the productions and stars she’s worked with — and survived. Her book, “Backstage Pass To Broadway,” is the place to discover how she won her lawsuit against the powerful producer David Merrick, and how she learned that luminaries like Robert Redford can turn their star power on and off. It’s available at dramabookshop.com.

Explaining the use of the “L” in her name is a constant, she explained, because Susan H. Schulman is a Tony-nominated director, and Susan F. Schulman is a well-known literary agent.

Schulman’s favorite star is one she never represented: Mary Martin. She saw “Peter Pan” when she was six, “The Sound of Music” multiple times, and exchanged letters with Martin for years. Her idolization was so well known among her friends that when Martin died, Schulman received sympathy calls and notes.

Life today is filled with business, events touting her book, time with friends, and tap lessons from Tony Award winner Scott Wise, currently appearing in “Allegiance.”

“Happily straight and single by choice,” Schulman says she has no plans to retire. “I always wanted to be in the theater but knew I wasn’t good enough to succeed as an actor. How lucky am I,” she smiled, “to have found a way to be part of this creative world.”