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Home / Arts / Danny Feldman of Pasadena Playhouse honored for leadership in theater

Danny Feldman of Pasadena Playhouse honored for leadership in theater

by May Ruiz
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The Los Angeles Times recently launched “L.A. Influential” and Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman was called one of “The Creators” — a group of outstanding individuals who are leaving their mark in film, art, music, and more.

He was listed with 14 others across all of the arts, joining an esteemed company that includes Eva Longoria, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Jordan Peele, Mindy Kaling, Steven Yeun and others. In the accompanying write-up, theater critic Charles McNulty hailed him “The man who saved L.A. theater.”       

“It’s a little bit of an exaggeration,” Feldman says during a phone interview. He then recalls when he was informed of the honor. “They reached out a little less than a year ago to say I’ve been selected for this influencer list, so I’ve had time to digest it. I didn’t know who else was on this and the full context exactly, but I was a little shocked.”

Feldman clarifies, “I’m very pleased and grateful, but it’s really less about me than The Playhouse — I just get to be the face of it. The tribute is a sign or symbol that the work we’re doing at Pasadena Playhouse is getting noticed. This happened around the time the playhouse won the (2023) Tony for best regional theatre, which was a major achievement for us. It was an embarrassment of riches!”

The exterior of the Pasadena Playhouse. | Photo courtesy of Jeff Lorch/Pasadena Playhouse

“The Tony Award had a tremendous impact,” Feldman emphasizes. “The Playhouse has a storied history with lots of ups and downs. The award honored the legacy and the unique history of the Pasadena Playhouse as one of the most important theaters in America. At the same time, we were recognized at a high point — when we were firing on all cylinders, when we were rising artistically.”

“Financially, we were at one of the more solid places we’ve been in our entire history; we were finding our stride and were on the eve of an expansion,” continues Feldman. “To receive a national recognition, like a Tony Award, for our body of work and for our impact of excellence in the world of theater was overwhelming. So many of us have been working so hard for so long, to be acknowledged with a Tony Award was very fulfilling.”

In May 2025, the playhouse’s building will celebrate its centennial and programming will reflect its history.

“The Pasadena Playhouse is an iconic building and institution in our Los Angeles community as well as in the American theater,” Feldman says. “That’s the theme throughout  2024-2025 so we’re calling it our iconic season. I was aiming for big shows that were iconic in their way — epic presentations that look like New York coming here and having a moment in our theater.”

The playhouse’s historic stage will feel alive with a sizzling Martin Crimp adaptation of one of the greatest plays of all time, “Cyrano de Bergerac”; a fresh new revival of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s Tony Award winner for best musical, “La Cage aux Folles”; and a new production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning classic “Topdog/Underdog” — one of the best new American plays written in the last 25 years, as Feldman asserts.

Danny Feldman. | Photo courtesy of Jim Cox/Pasadena Playhouse

“We’ll have special musical performances with the Civic Auditorium for two consecutive weekends of concerts featuring two of the most enduring musicals of all time: Anything Goes in Concert, starring Jinkx Monsoon as Reno Sweeney and Follies, an encore to our recent Sondheim celebration,” Feldman adds. “It’s a robust slate of shows that are sort of the greatest hits in a way, to honor our extraordinary achievement of having one of the oldest operating theaters in America. These special theatrical events will expand our initiative exploring classic American musicals with our community. ”

According to Feldman, musicals are rarely performed by nonprofit theaters because they’re cost prohibitive. While the Pasadena Playhouse had staged musicals in the past, in 2019 he launched the American Musical Project — a bold and financially risky move.

He discloses the reasoning behind the expensive venture: “We feel that it’s important because musical theater is one of our contributions to the world. And we realize there’s a danger that the next generation and the generation after may not be able to experience these shows the way they’re intended in a 650-seat theater in our community. We started with ‘Ragtime,’ ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ and, of course, our Sondheim celebration. ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ closing this week is the latest. We’re really showing folks our commitment and dedication to the American musical. We do them quite well, I have to say. People are really enjoying the artists and responding to them.”

Watching Broadway musicals at The Playhouse is a singularly unique experience. Feldman explains, “We love Broadway tours! It’s wonderful that our community gets to see these great shows from New York when they come to the Ahmanson or the Pantages. But those shows were created for a commercial purpose for Broadway and they go on tour with mainly New York performers. We do something very different at Pasadena Playhouse – we start with a blank page. I put together a team and they make the show from scratch. ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ has over a hundred local employees working on it; the scale of it is pretty fantastic. I think they’re so successful artistically because of the group of hardworking people who are making it just for the audience that comes to see the show at the Pasadena Playhouse.” 

Not surprisingly, the back-to-back accolades of the playhouse’s best regional theatre Tony Award and Feldman being named the man that kept LA theater alive have put pressure on Feldman. “I try not to think about that,” he quips.“ But, of course I feel a lot of pressure from my daily job — I’m in a very privileged position of running a very important theater in American history and our community. We’ve got to keep raising the bar with every decision we make, every show we decide to put on. Pasadena Playhouse is on the forefront of the American theater, which means there are a lot of eyes on all the things we do. But it’s always been that way.”

“We take the responsibility of being the state theater of California very seriously,” Feldman emphasizes. “And I think you see that in the quality of our work. I’m assembling teams of some of the top theater-makers in America, whether they’re the most experienced — Alfred Molina is on our board and performs on our stage often — or the most exciting new talent. But regardless, these are some of the hardest-working and talented people in theater coming to create extraordinary theater. We operate with the thought that if we don’t get this right it may be our last. Maybe that’s not true now but it used to be true, and that’s what drives us. So while these accolades are great and we feel deeply proud and honored by them, we have a lot more to do.”

The interior of Pasadena Playhouse | Photo by Jeff Lorch / Pasadena Playhouse

Feldman expounds, “We have a big vision for Pasadena Playhouse; we’re setting the theater up for now as well as in the next hundred years. Today we have the luxury of not just thinking about the next show, but about where the American theater is going — how do we lead the way on that — and what it will look like two or three decades from now.”

To that end, he playhouse will present The Next Stage Immersive Summit 2025 in January in partnership with The Immersive Experience Institute, the main service organization for immersive theater artists. The premiere gathering of creators of immersive art and entertainment will draw international guests from the fields of performing arts, themed entertainment, XR and gaming. This is the largest gathering of its kind in the world.

“This year we expanded our audience in a dramatic way with the inauguration of a major youth and family ecosystem — classes and professional shows for kids,” Feldman explains. “Keep your eye on that programming because that’s only going to grow in the future. Theater education is core to who we are. The school at the Pasadena Playhouse was built in the 1920s and by the 1930s the College of Dramatic Arts was one of the top schools in America.”

The public’s involvement is crucial to the realization of Feldman’s ambitious plans.

He exhorts, “The lifeblood of our theater is the people in the community and we urge folks to become members — you get to come along for the whole ride, you get to see all the shows. I think the folks who have been coming recently feel the new energy at The Playhouse and they understand that. But for those who may think it’s not for them or haven’t been here in a while, we encourage you to come take a look at us, come check out the shows, come look at our education program — we’ve really become a force in the world of theater.”

Feldman will mark eight years of stewardship of the Pasadena Playhouse this fall. He took over as producing artistic director when the venerable institution was at its nadir financially and was struggling to get traction in the community. That he even took on such a daunting challenge is remarkable enough. That he then led the way in turning its fortunes around and flourishing during these particularly trying times for American theater is an astounding feat.

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