When "Other Desert Cities" opened in its current venue in early November, I noted that it marked a long-overdue and long-deserved Broadway debut for playwright Jon Robin Baitz. I would now like to note another long-overdue debut among the production team: James Fitzsimmons at the Booth Theater, where the drama is playing.
Why is this so special? Because Fitzsimmons, who is the show's production stage manager and who is known as Fitz, is a descendant on his mother's side of the Booth family for whom the theater is named. (Just to be clear: the building is named after 19th-century American actor Edwin Booth, not his brother John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln.) "I've always wanted to work in this house, for sentimental reasons," Fitzsimmons told me the other day in his backstage office. "And now I'm here."
Given the richness and breadth of Fitzsimmons' resume, is he surprised that it has taken a few years to reach his goal? "No," he said. "Along the way, I've had the chance to work with so many wonderful writers, actors, and directors. That's been more important than which theater I've been housed in."
Fitzsimmons said he began "building my Mafia" of collaborators during his final year of undergraduate theater study at New York University. "As part of that program, I got to work at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway," he said. He took a class from the highly respected production stage manager Robert Bennett, currently working on the new Broadway play "Stick Fly." "I began realizing that I wanted to work in stage management," Fitzsimmons said, "because it allowed me to be a part of all aspects of a production."
Not long after Fitzsimmons began his professional career, he met the director Mark Brokaw, with whom he's worked on at least 20 fully staged productions. With Joe Mantello, the director of "Other Desert Cities," Fitzsimmons worked on the controversial 1998 Terrence McNally play, "Corpus Christi," which depicts Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in modern-day Texas. "My staff had to work closely with security on that one," Fitzsimmons says, mentioning, among other things, a bomb scare that occurred one day during the experience.
Of Mantello, Fitzsimmons said, "He's one of the smartest directors I've ever worked with." He added: "He can be away from a show's run for a while and then watch five minutes of a performance and know exactly what needs adjusting."
Of the "Other Desert Cities" move from the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to the Booth, Fitzsimmons said, "The big difference wasn't the adjustments to the set but the way that the play deepened the more we got to work on it. Having two new cast members" - Judith Light and Rachel Griffiths - "was a great way to re-examine the play while maintaining the quality that we had." Fitzsimmons went on: "I had to re-think the notes I had taken from the original production. That was a lot to go over, because I'm a notorious noter."
Fitzsimmons said that he is extremely grateful to be associated right now with a hit. All the same, he mentioned that there's a little more pressure to keep performance quality high with a success than with a flop. "You have a lot more people who are coming to see you and who expect to see something good. And we try to give them that every night." He added: "You can never get too comfortable in trying to keep the quality high. Even if the cast gave exactly the same performance night after night, the experience would be different, because theater has this huge variable known as a live audience."
Does Fitzsimmons ever wish he was still onstage (he originally studied acting at NYU) instead of behind the scenes, calling the show's cues? "No," he answered, before telling me about one of his last experiences as a performer.
"Early on in my Playwrights Horizons days, I was in the crew for the original production of 'Assassins'" - the 1990 Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical about people who attempted to assassinate American presidents. "As part of my duties, I had to be in costume and get shot by Victor Garber. After one performance, the director, Jerry Zaks, gave me a note that I've never forgotten. He said, 'Can you die louder?' I tried my best to do as he asked."
You might say that Zaks's request had particular resonance for Fitzsimmons: Garber was playing John Wilkes Booth.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.