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.”
DuSold 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.