Former Chicago PSM Glad to Escape Ambassador Theater “Snake Pit”

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Terrence “Terry” Witter, one of the original stage managers with the current Broadway production of Chicago, in front of the Ambassador Theater during happier times.

After hearing from Broadway stalwarts Robert DuSold and Jill Nicklaus in previous posts, a member of the production crew with Chicago at the Ambassador Theater has come forward.

Terrence Witter was one of the original stage managers with the current revival of Chicago and stayed with the show for almost 18 years when he was unceremoniously asked to leave with no explanation other than, “Barry [Weissler, one of the show’s producers] wants to make a change.” According to Witter, he was “destroyed.”

“Robert DuSold’s comments are chilling to say the least and really resonate with me,” Witter said. “’Twenty-two years in a show is your world, your family, and your life.  It’s your security and your comfort.’ This is so true.”

According to Witter, he was notified on his day off by a phone call and was not allowed back into the Ambassador Theater after being part of the Chicago “family” for 17 and a half years. “Not allowed to pack my own things, completely cut-off, as if I never existed in that building,” he said, explaining that he was bought out of his contract but the “shock and devastation, as well as the shame, humiliation, and isolating tactics at Chicago made me suicidal as well.”

Witter scoffs at the phrase “Chicago family.”  “The word family was bandied about throughout my time with this production,” he said. “Most families do not disown family members that have been with them for 17 and a half years because ‘Barry wants to make a change.’  Just sayin’.”

“Destroying People’s Lives”

Witter said that this production of Chicago has a history of “destroying people’s lives.”  He explained that earlier in the run of the show, the production terminated performers and other employees by simply sending them a notice via FedEx on their day off. Later, people were notified by phone and received a FedEx afterward, he explained.

“Now apparently the method is to make life so miserable for an employee by publicly humiliating and shaming them, that the hope is that you will cry uncle and quit to make the pain stop,” Witter said.

Witter brings up an actor named Mark Anthony Taylor, a swing who started at Chicago in 1997. He describes him as “Someone who saved many a show by being ready, willing, and able to do multiple tracks in performances where more cast members were out of the show than we had covers for.”

According to Witter, Taylor worked at Chicago for a decade before he was replaced in the same manner as Witter was: called on his day off and told not to come to work anymore. “But at least he was allowed in the building, albeit under security escort, to pack his things, unlike myself,” Witter said. “My belongings were shoved into a box and shipped to my house.”

Apparently the method is to make life so miserable for an employee by publicly humiliating and shaming them, that the hope is that you will cry uncle and quit to make the pain stop.

“Mark Anthony was never the same after he was disowned by the Chicago ‘family’ in 2007,” Witter explained. “He never worked in theatre again and washed up on the shore of Sandy Hook, N.J. three years later.”  The cause of death was classified as “undetermined.”

While Taylor’s death has not been ruled suicide, there is no doubt in Witter’s mind that being unceremoniously dumped by his Chicago family had a profound impact on his well being.

“My Spirit Was Crushed!”

“There are talented performers who were bullied at Chicago, particularly in music rehearsals, while at the same time marquee stars with virtually no musical theatre talent were treated with kid gloves,” Witter said, adding that the literal textbook definition of harassment is “a single incident or pattern of behavior, intentionally targeting someone else with behavior that is meant to alarm, annoy, torment, or terrorize them.”

Once the news of Loeffelholz’s death spread, people started talking to each other about the prevalence of bullying and intimidation backstage. Witter even heard from an actress friend who was in the Chicago ensemble who texted Witter with her pleas for an end to bullying behavior as well as recounting her own experiences with musical director Leslie Stifelman: “Leslie needs to be stopped! This is just awful news! I was in dire pain from her bullying!!! It was bad! I was miserable too!!! Leslie was vicious to me! My spirit was crushed!!!!!”

“That Jeff was bullied with so many theater personnel around and not one person — cast member, crew member, wardrobe person, stage manager — not one person said ‘Enough! Stop!’ is unconscionable.”

“That Jeff was bullied with so many theater personnel around and not one person — cast member, crew member, wardrobe person, stage manager — not one person said ‘Enough! Stop!’ is unconscionable,” Witter said. “Many of the people that witnessed this are mothers and fathers who have children of their own that they are teaching right and wrong to and not one person could speak out?”

“Bullying is unacceptable on a playground and should never, ever be tolerated in the theatre. Full stop.”

“Lack of Empathy and Integrity”

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Witter in the midst of his stage managing duties at Chicago.

“My partner and I grieve for Jeff and his partner, Peter, and Jeff’s family in Oklahoma,” Witter said. “The pain, humiliation, shame, and utter despair that Jeff must have gone through is heartbreaking. Any time I think about this, it has me sobbing and reliving my own personal anguish.”

Witter has been online quite a bit since he heard of Loeffelholz’s death. “Reading some of the posts of people who have no idea what it’s like to go through something like this and chalk it up to ‘this is just the way theatre is’ strike me as the same kind of people who did not speak up for Jeff at the time he was bullied,” he said.  “A serious lack of empathy and integrity.”

Witter said that he is proud to be “old school,” meaning that he treated everyone in the [Ambassador Theater] with respect, “from the leading woman or man, to the stage door personnel, to the porters, ushers, and engineers,” he said.

Another “old school” value is to not publicly speak ill of his colleagues, former as well as current, Witter added. “I do not engage in backstabbing or slamming people that I have worked with in the past or present,” he said. “However, I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” he said, quoting Lillian Hellman’s quip to the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1952. “My conscience does not allow me to remain silent.”

Witter said that he is grateful through the grace of a higher power, loved ones, and prayer that he is still alive and that he did not end up isolated, forgotten, or dead. “And that I am no longer a part of the snake pit at the Ambassador Theater,” he added. “I pray that Jeff … will not have died in vain and that something is done to protect anyone who works in the theatre.”

“If you do not or will not have the capacity to feel empathy for others, then ponder this: you could be next,” he said.

 

 

A Jeff Loeffelholz Scholarship?

cropped-mary-sunshine-e1530646501787From reports in other media, it seems that the producers of the Broadway revival of Chicago were completely unaware of the behavior by director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman during the June 22 rehearsal that might have contributed to Jeff Loeffelholz, one of the longest running standbys in Broadway history, taking his own life shortly thereafter.

If the producers (Fran & Barry Weissler/NAMCO) are sincere in honoring Loeffelholz’s memory, why not a scholarship in his name for an aspiring college theater major in the amount of what it would have cost for the production to have simply bought out his run-of-play contract (that Bobbie apparently had an issue with, according to Loeffelholz’s notes from that rehearsal) – $30,000.

Obviously such a scholarship would be presented annually. 

What a grand and important gesture it would be for the producers of Chicago to honor Loeffelholz’s memory in such a way. And such a scholarship would clearly prove that the producers are 100% against this type of behavior in the world of theater. It could also pave the way for another small-town theater kid to realize his or her own dreams on the Great White Way … free of bullying and intimidation, of course.

J Loeffelholz PICAlso, it would be great to see a plaque, bust, or some other type of memorial permanently installed at the Ambassador Theater in honor of Loeffelholz. Seriously, being one of the longest serving standbys in Broadway history is a monumental achievement. And it deserves equally monumental recognition.

This would also honor Loeffelholz’s commitment to Chicago as well as his historic status as a longtime standby.

This scholarship and permanent memorial at the Ambassador would go a long way in bringing about the healing process which has deeply affected the theater community, both in New York City and around the world.

If anyone else has any suggestions on how to honor Loeffelholz’s memory and dedication to his craft, please feel free to share in the comments section. 

One “Humiliated” Roxie Hart Shares Her Chicago Experiences

Jill-Headshot-Small-square-300x300
Jill Nicklaus

 

Stage veteran Robert DuSold recently came forward and told his own tales of bullying and intimidation both on Broadway and on tour in a previous post, which has in turn inspired other actors from Chicago with their own tales of harassment at the Ambassador Theater.

These stories follow in the wake of the last rehearsal Jeff Loeffelholz had with Chicago director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman on June 22. The vivacious actor left the theater shattered after that rehearsal, feeling that he had been “marked” and eventually succeeded in taking his own life a few days later.

One such performer who came forward to share her story is Jill Nicklaus, a former understudy for Roxie Hart as well as various other roles in the current Broadway revival of Chicago. “I too was viciously bullied and humiliated by Leslie Stifelman for years during my time at Chicago,” she said. Nicklaus has also appeared in Cats, Movin’ Out, Sweet Smell of Success, and more.

Rehearsals at Chicago got to be so bad for Nicklaus that she requested that there be a stage manager present at all of her “private” rehearsals. “Management told me that I had to learn to deal with it and I must get along with [Stifelman],” Nicklaus said. “When I would go on she would sabotage me.”

“I too was viciously bullied and humiliated by Leslie Stifelman for years during my time at Chicago.

As an example, Nicklaus described a moment in the show where there is an interaction between Roxie Hart and the conductor on stage (Stifelman). All the actresses who portray Roxie do it individually and add their own comical spin, according to Nicklaus. “[Stifelman] deliberately ignored me so the moment wouldn’t work,” she said, adding that after the show Stifelman barged into her dressing room and berated her in front of her guests.

On another occasion, Stifelman asked Nicklaus if she would sing the show in another key because it was too difficult for the band to change keys. “The musicians told me that was ridiculous,” Nicklaus said. “They play different keys for many stars and actresses that go on in the show on a daily basis.”

“In my opinion, [Stifelman] was trying to make my voice sound bad to illustrate to management that my singing wasn’t up to par,” Nicklaus alleged.

On the other hand, Nicklaus notes that assistant conductor Scott Cady was always pleasant, kind, and professional and was “always supportive and conducted the show with fervor and exuberance,” she said. “He and the band members were stellar! Stage managers were also kind and professional. Leslie was just toxic.” Nicklaus also pointed out that all of her interactions with Bobbie were positive.

“I was committed to letting this go and focusing on the next chapter of my life. However, Jeff’s passing brought it all back. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Jeff. He was extremely talented, kind, and a gentle, loving human being.” 

Ironically, Nicklaus was on one night when Chicago’s composer John Kander was in the audience and loved her voice, she said. “He thanked me for singing his music the way he wrote it and complimented me on the vulnerability and sexiness I brought to the role,” Nicklaus said. “I feel Leslie was trying to get me fired or have my understudy taken away.”

Nicklaus has now retired from theater and is teaching dance and choreography to children.

“I was committed to letting this go and focusing on the next chapter of my life,” she said. “However, Jeff’s passing brought it all back. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Jeff. He was extremely talented, kind, and a gentle, loving human being.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Justice for Jeff blog reached out to Leslie Stifelman for her response to these allegations. She has not responded at the time of publication.]

Obituary: Jeff Loeffelholz, 1961 – 2018

J Loeffelholz PIC

 

 

Remembering Broadway actor Jeff Loeffelholz: January 26, 1961 – June 29, 2018

Jeff Loeffelholz was a proud veteran cast member of the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Chicago. He made his Broadway debut with the production in 1996 when director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Ann Reinking, writers John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with the show’s producers, Barry and Fran Weissler, cast him as the standby for the role of tabloid journalist Mary Sunshine. It was his dream role. He opened the production as part of the original cast alongside Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, James Naughton, and Marcia Lewis on November 14, 1996 at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

The production broke theatrical records to become the longest running revival in Broadway history. Jeff committed himself to the production and the role, continuing his duties as standby for Mary Sunshine for the past 21 years. He was the last remaining member of the original 1996 opening night cast who was still part of the long-running hit.

cropped-mary-sunshine-e1530646501787Jeff’s talents were unique, rare, and a valuable asset to Chicago. As written and conceived by Bob Fosse in the original production, Mary Sunshine is played by a male actor dressed as a woman. Mary Sunshine isn’t a drag role, it’s a carefully crafted illusion. Key to the illusion and the most challenging requirement of the role is that the actor must sing in a high soprano and convincingly sound like a woman during Mary Sunshine’s number “A Little Bit of Good,” a song that showcases extreme range and incorporates vocal flourishes.

The vocal demands make this role extremely challenging to cast. Few male performers possess this unique ability, and only a small number have actually dedicated their training to developing their upper register, while also mastering the operatic technique and control required to sing the role. It’s taxing on the performer vocally and requires careful pre-show warm ups and constant maintenance.

Jeff became part of Chicago‘s history opening the show at the Richard Rogers Theater, transferring with the revival to the Shubert Theater in 1997, and again in 2003, when it moved to its current home, The Ambassador Theater.

Chicago 20Anniversary Bebe_Kander

For over two decades Jeff dedicated himself to his role as standby, calling in eight times a week to check if he was needed, and then remaining free throughout the duration of the performance as stipulated in his production contract. From the first preview in October 1996 up to the week of June 27, 2018, Jeff fulfilled his duties to the production, the cast,the crew, the creators, and the producers. For over 8,900 performances he was ready to go on at a moment’s notice, rush to the theater, and perform the role, sometimes midshow. Jeff was so dedicated to the show, that during the run he and his longtime partner, Peter De La Cruz, moved to be closer to the Ambassador. Jeff’s knowledge was integral to Chicago to the point that recently he was phoned and asked about the location of a prop for another actor’s rehearsal.

As with any Broadway show, actors sign a Production contract, which guarantees that they have a job as long as the show is open. Jeff was on a standard Principal contract along with the other leading actors in the show. The other contract would be a Chorus contract for the members of the ensemble.

There are three ways in which this contract can be terminated:

  • The actor can give two or four week’s notice, depending on their rider, and therefore would not receive unemployment or any severance pay.
  • The contract can also be terminated with “just cause,” which requires documented evidence that the actor is not performing the role as required. This is usually documented through written warnings alleging failures and may be in the form of notes. All written warnings are required to be reported to Actors Equity and the producer with a copy going to the actor.
  • The last option for a producer to terminate the contract is to buy out the actor’s contract as required by the union. This gives severance pay to any actor on a Production contract, which is defined as one week’s pay for every five weeks of employment with a cap at 15 weeks.

Broadway producers have used the buy out clause in various productions such as Annie, Les Miserables, and Wicked. In these cases, the orphans grew too tall or actors aged out of their parts as students.

The role of Mary Sunshine is described in Chicago casting notices as: “Any age, any ethnicity and requires a male soprano or countertenor who can sing legitimately up to a high B flat; acts like a good-natured talk show hostess, but is actually a high-powered gossip columnist; actor must be a good comedian and a great legit singer.”

Chicago’s producers presented Jeff with the opportunity to take over the role full-time on several occasions during the run. Such a move would terminate his original production contract, and require him to sign a new contract with new terms set forth by the show’s producers. Jeff declined the offer, and chose to remain on his original contract.

Jeff Loeffelholz succeeded in taking his own life on Friday, June, 29th, 2018 at 2:19 PM after enduring an unusually brutal rehearsal run by music director Leslie Stifelman, and Walter Bobbie, Chicago’s original director on June 22 at the Ambassador Theater.

Jeff believed that Stifelman and Bobbie’s behavior during the rehearsal was an attempt to coerce him to quit on his own, and avoid the Producers/NAMCO’s contractual obligation to “buy out” his contract.

In the family’s letter to the producers it stated that their “intention is to end the institutional intimidation, harassment and bullying at the Ambassador Theater by the immediate removal of Leslie Stifelman and discontinuing Walter Bobbie’s access to the theater and cast.” Furthermore, their hope is there will be an examination of these reported practices in the theater.

Jeff is survived in New York City by his partner, Peter De La Cruz. Jeff hailed from Norman, Oklahoma, where his surviving family members reside. He graduated with a BFA from The University of Oklahoma.

Jeff Loeffelholz_Peter De La Cruz

In lieu of flowers Jeff’s family requests that donations be made to BroadwayCares/Equity Fights AIDS in his name. A Go Fund Me campaign has been established to cover the cost for Jeff’s memorial andto support his partner Peter De La Cruz during this difficult time.

Plans for a memorial will be forthcoming.

#nobullyingonbroadway

#stopbullyingonbroadway

#nobullyingintheater

*This obituary was provided by the friends and family of the deceased and is being shared with all media outlets. 

Loeffelholz’s Text Message from That Grueling Rehearsal

As was stated in a previous blog, Loeffelholz was in a rehearsal with Chicago director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman June 22, Loeffelholz’s notes state.

After his rehearsal, Loeffelholz not only took copious notes, he also texted his friend Brian Rardin, another theater veteran, both on Broadway and around the country, with his concerns. The conversation is brief.

Below is a screen grab of that conversation (the text in grey is from Loeffelholz):

Jeff Text1A subsequent text exchange that following Tuesday June 26, Loeffelholz said to Rardin: “I would go hang out at the [Ambassador] Theater but I feel I have a scarlet letter on me.”

By using the phrase “scarlet letter,” Loeffelholz was insinuating that he felt he had become a “marked” performer like the character Hester Prynne in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlet Letter. He was clearly afraid of being shunned by the other cast members who witnessed the previous Friday’s rehearsal.

He then texted Rardin screen grabs of the Actor’s Equity rules regarding intimidation. He then sent Rardin a screen grab of the Equity rules regarding “Just Cause” and added “It was a set up.” Rardin responded, “Of course it was.”

Loeffelholz simply replied with a frowning emoji.

Ain’t No Sunshine When He’s Gone, Part 4: “Blood on Their Hands”

dusold
Broadway veteran Robert DuSold

Jeff Loeffelholz’s death by suicide has rattled the theater community. Actors, dancers, musicians, stagehands, and anyone who is involved in a Broadway show have been talking. And writing. And posting on social media. It’s painfully obvious that what happened to Loeffelholz has happened to many others over the years, both on Broadway and on tour.

Backstage bullying is essentially Broadway’s dirty little secret. Or rather, it was a secret; more and more performers are speaking out and telling their stories. One of whom is stage veteran Robert DuSold who has performed on Broadway and regionally for over a quarter of a century.

Loeffelholz’s death struck unusually close to home for DuSold, for although he did not personally know him, DuSold had also served as a standby for the role of Mary Sunshine in the first national tour of Chicago in the late 1990s.

“Twenty-two years in a show is your world, your family, and your life. It’s your security and your comfort.”

Curious about the incident, he spoke to a friend who has been a member of the Chicago cast for a number of years. When he asked what happened, she said, “I can honestly say [Loeffelholz] was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I have ever met in this business. A truly wonderful guy.”

According to DuSold from what he was told, “management wanted to get rid of [Loeffelholz],” he said. “He was on a run-of-play contract for twenty-two years, but I’m assuming they were too cheap to buy him out.”

DuSold said that the actress told him that evidently the conductor (musical director Leslie Stifelman) – who the actress has her own issues with – “was relentless in badgering him, bullying him.”

DuSold had his own experience with Stifelman; he had to reteach the Chicago score to a friend who was in the show a few years ago because he was so “mind fucked” and bullied by [Stifelman] that he was panicked. “Full on panicked,” he added. DuSold’s friend left the New York theater scene altogether for the theater community in the Southwest.

At this point, DuSold was rationally trying to listen to the actress who told him that a full company rehearsal was then called with the director [Walter Bobbie] and conductor and “at the beginning of the rehearsal started torturing [Loeffelholz] in front of the cast.” Loeffelholz was told to sing through Mary Sunshine’s showstopper “A Little Bit of Good” over and over again.*

“I’ve played that role,” DuSold said. “Anyone who plays that role is lucky to sing that song once in a day. It’s exceedingly difficult. And the conductor knows it. And the director knows it. And the management knows it.”

At this point in the actress’s story, DuSold said, his knees are starting to shake from what he was being told. “He left the theater shattered,” she told him.

“He killed himself, didn’t he?” DuSold asked. The actress answered simply, “Yes.”

At this point, DuSold was fighting back tears. “Because I have been him,” DuSold said. “Most of us have. Twenty-two years in a show is your world, your family, and your life. It’s your security and your comfort.”

“Anyone who plays that role is lucky to sing that song once in a day. It’s exceedingly difficult. And the conductor knows it. And the director knows it. And the management knows it.”

To DuSold, dedicating one’s life to single show, to a single character, is honorable in the same way a priest dedicates his life to God. “That might sound weird but being in the same show for pretty much your entire adult life and career is a noble thing,” he said.

But DuSold didn’t stop there; he shared a couple of his own harassment and humiliation stories so that Loeffelholz’s death will not be in vain and “hopefully lead to a better working environment,” he said, before adding, “This is the tip of the iceberg, by the way.”

“We Don’t Mourn Our Loved Ones in the Theater”

In 1987, the first national tour of Les Miserables was launched. DuSold was a part of the company as the primary Javert cover but primarily played the role of Factory Foreman and Combeferre, one of the student revolutionaries. He also understudied the lead role of Jean Valjean.

After not having played Valjean for six months, he was thrown on with very little rehearsal time due to his other roles while the tour was in Philadelphia. The stage manager told DuSold his performance was “like the difference between a professional and an amateur.”

“I was absolutely devastated,” DuSold recounted. “And to this day I struggle with all of the shit like that I’ve heard over the years. That erodes your confidence, your soul…your happiness.” He added that there were so many people in Les Miserables who were subjected to the same kind of harassment and worse to the point that some even left the business altogether.

Among the company members of that tour were future Tony winners Victoria Clark and Carolee Carmello, future Tony nominees Willy Falk and Olga Merediz, as well as Broadway mainstays Hugh Panero, Herndon Lackey, and others.

Two years later, DuSold found himself in the first national tour of The Phantom of the Opera. He had gone into the show in only five days and it was a rocky start. “I had worked with the conductor before and he was on me from the beginning,” he said. “I had flown in from London the night before rehearsals started and was vocally fried and asked if we could concentrate on the role first and then mark the choral stuff.” The conductor walked out of rehearsal. According to DuSold, the conductor said if he wasn’t going to sing everything, “he was wasn’t wasting his time.” DuSold thought that was … weird.

DuSold also had to undergo a barrage of belittling, from being asked if he knew how to read music to being told his voice was ruined and he “didn’t know how to sing” after a grueling three-hour rehearsal with the entire cast present. With that, he walked to the stage manager’s office and stated plainly, “I will never set foot in another rehearsal with [the conductor] and I’m quitting. This is so not worth it.”

Equity Intimidation NoteDuSold called director Hal Prince’s office the next day and told them the same thing, and to their credit, they fired the conductor the next day. Then DuSold got an earful from the cast, particularly the understudies, who had been enduring the same type of treatment for years. Some of them even cried. “They were all grateful that I had taken a stand,” he said.

When DuSold was in the original company of Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway, his niece died. She was only five years younger than him, so they grew up more like siblings. “When she was 30 and eight and a half months pregnant, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer,” he said. “She had her baby and decided to fight to live, in spite of being told she had a few months left.”

“I can honestly say [Loeffelholz] was one of the kindest, gentlest souls I have ever met in this business. A truly wonderful guy.”

DuSold’s niece fought hard for two years. When she died, it occurred on a holiday and he called the show’s stage manager, Maureen Gibson, for a single day off to go to the funeral. Her response? “We don’t mourn our loved ones in the theater,” according to DuSold. “We don’t celebrate holidays. She’s not a blood relative and you’re just looking for a day off. No.”

DuSold went anyway and spent the time mourning for his niece being completely terrified he was going to be fired and lose his career. He decided to call Equity and discovered that there was a “stack of complaints against her.” According to the Internet Broadway Database, Jekyll & Hyde was the last Broadway show Gibson ever worked on.

There’s no doubt in DuSold’s mind that this kind of toxic environment backstage at Chicago led to Loeffelholz’s death. “There’s a lot of people with blood on their hands,” he said and added that other performers should feel free to share their stories “because I know you have one. Or two. Or many.”

*The actress’ account of the rehearsal corroborates Loeffelholz’s own handwritten notes that were featured in a previous blog.

During the rehearsal that so shattered Loeffelholz, there were at least a dozen other company members present. Actors. Dancers. Costumers. Stagehands. If things were said, things were heard. It would be great if some of those individuals would share their stories so bullying in the theater world can have its final curtain.