Press agent Susan Schulman tells Broadway tales

WARREN — Susan L. Schulman shared stories from a nearly 50-year career as a Broadway press agent on Wednesday during a Trumbull Town Hall lecture at Packard Music Hall.

Schulman got bitten by the theater bug at a young age. Growing up in New York City, she saw her first Broadway show at age 5, she said, and after seeing Mary Martin in “Peter Pan” the following year, “I was hooked.”

She realized she didn’t have a future as a performer, but she had a knack for getting attention for the shows she was in and drawing a crowd, so after majoring in English and theater at NYU, she got a job working for a press agent.

Earning the trust of Lauren Bacall when she made her Broadway debut in the musical ”Applause” in 1970 led to a career where Schulman worked closely with such stars as Bob Fosse, Glenn Close, Katharine Hepburn, Yul Brynner and Robert Redford.

She described the primary role of a press agent as “creating the right expectations.”

When Fosse created “Dancin’,” a musical revue of dance numbers he always wanted to stage, the show was savaged by critics in its Boston tryout because it didn’t tell a story like his previous musicals had. Before the show opened on Broadway, Schulman arranged a Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section feature and encouraged Fosse to emphasize it wasn’t a traditional book musical.

“He did. When the show opened on Broadway, it was 95 percent the same show that opened in Boston, and the critics said, ‘It’s fabulous! There’s no book, no story!’ We created the right expectation. We got it right.”

Schulman also said — several times — how sexy Fosse was and talked about having one very memorable dance with him.

Bacall had a reputation for being gruff but always was nice to her, Schulman said. George C. Scott made a career out of playing tough guys, but he was a pussycat offstage and unconcerned with the trappings of celebrity. Zero Mostel “was fabulous on stage, not so much off stage.”

She worked with Mostel on a play called “The Merchant.” It was a production where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, especially for Mostel, who died while the show was in tryouts in Philadelphia.

After seeing Martin in “Peter Pan,” Schulman wrote the star a letter, and she wrote back. They continued to correspond, and Martin even sent her tickets for an opening night performance one time. Decades later she got to talk to Martin backstage after a performance in Washington, D.C., this time as two theater professionals instead of stage star and starstruck child.

“We left the theater, came out the stage door, and there were people waiting for her autograph,” Schulman said. “I looked at all those people, and I knew exactly how they felt, because I was them, and I still am them. Inside me is that little girl who used to stand outside the stage door and tell them how much they changed her life.”