His given name is Emanuel, but for 50 years Broadway has known Manny Azenberg as a theater lifer connected to some of the stage's most acclaimed shows. On Sunday, June 10, 2012, he is also receiving the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report in 2010.
Emanuel "Manny" Azenberg doesn't live in the past. But he does reflect, understandably.
"I'm 76 years old! When you're 76, you get reflective. What else do you have to do? You can't dunk anymore," jokes Azenberg.
With Manny Azenberg, the sports references are never far away. They reveal his love of the game, but also after 10 Tony Awards and 50 years in the business, producing shows like "The Real Thing," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and every new Neil Simon show since the early 70s, they help him express his feelings about life and career.
"Contentment. I don't have to fake it. I'm not chasing anything anymore. And I really could hit the ball," says Azenberg.
But for the old ballplayer, this has been a difficult and disheartening season. A new production of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" closed, "Broadway Bound" didn't even make it to the stage, and a revival of "Ragtime" closed after only two months.
"We all need humility lessons, to be reminded that we're not as good as we think we are," says Azenberg.
"Ragtime," a show about turn of the century immigrant America, was an especially painful chapter.
"'Ragtime' is about something. And I thought that mattered," says Azenberg.
From the corner table at his favorite Theater District hangout, known as the Polish Tea Room, there was perspective.
"When 'Ragtime' failed, Lani, my wife, turned to me and said, 'nobody died,'" recalls Azenberg.
But for Azenberg, the closing of "Ragtime" is part of a larger story which he's watched throughout his career -- theater's diminishing role in the culture, thanks to movies, television, computers and, of course, money.
"When we did 'Sunday in the Park with George' originally it cost $2.5 million. When we did 'Brighton Beach' originally it cost $500,000. Now it cost $4 million," Azenberg points out. "About 30 years ago, we unbalanced the economics and now we're paying for it. We answered every one of our economic problems by raising the price."
As Azenberg describes it, his job of producer sounds a lot like a manager or a coach getting everyone to work together. He's worked with two of the legendary playwrights Tom Stoppard, and most prominently, Neil Simon. As he grew more comfortable as a producer, he learned to say not more, but less.
"Where did Neil Simon come up with 'Lost in Yonkers?' What was that process? Well, there had to have been one. But you're not privy to it. So when you come up and say 'I don't think the guy should say this.' You're intruding on something that's mysterious."
"A suggestion that doesn't really get it buries you for life. Once you make a stupid comment to a playwright, the curtain comes down. You're labeled as an idiot," says Azenberg. "I think people who produce are people who are trying to escape their mundane life and think they're going to find some fulfillment in the theater, in the arts. But then we're all sideline-sitters."
But when a production is in trouble, as Azenberg says "Movin' Out" was on opening night in Chicago, a producer can play an important role.
"'Nobody leaves the canoe.' That was the expression I used. This is affirmation time. Tomorrow, you start working all over again. Now you know what's wrong with it. Let's fix it," says Azenberg.
When Manny Azenberg was growing up and going to summer camp, his friends' names sounded like characters in a play.
"Blackie Feffer, Whitey Arkish, Peter Bendatovisch. Those were real names. Nobody was called 'Sean' in those days," recalls Azenberg.
Growing up in the Bronx in the 1940s and 1950s, he went to the theater regularly, and not necessarily for entertainment.
"If you saw something good -- 'Death of a Salesman' -- you walked out and you were gonna change the world. So it was another experience. The audience was different. The audience went to theater for something other than 'The Little Mermaid.' That's changed," says Azenberg.
Azenberg grew up in a home with a strong moral code.
"I was offered to pledge a fraternity. And they didn't take black guys. When my father found that, he just said, 'Then you don't join,'" says Azenberg.
Azenberg says he also had a lifetime connection to Israel, and remembers his father following the 1947 UN vote to create the new state on the radio.
"He sat in the kitchen in the Bronx, checking off the countries as they voted. And when the U.S. voted, that was it. He put the pencil down and said, 'It happened in my lifetime,'" recalls Azenberg.
Azenberg went to Bronx Science, then NYU and served as a platoon leader in the U.S. Army after the Korean War, giving him a chance to lead kids from Mississippi and Alabama and Oklahoma. He calls it a seminal experience. It also affected his career choice.
"I found out what work was and I didn't wanna do it. And going to the office is better than working. In the army, boot camp in the army, was work," says Azenberg.
Azenberg worked for the legendary Broadway producer David Merrick, but the most important introduction of his life came thanks to his play in the Broadway show league.
"I could pick up a ground ball. And Redford recognized that, recruited me on the team, and I met Neil Simon because he played second base and I played shortstop. It had nothing to do with the theater or education," recalls Azenberg.
Years later, Simon decided to change producers.
"A very healthy collaboration. Real Trust. Never a piece of paper, by the way. No lawyers, no nothing -- handshake," says Azenberg.
It was 35 years of knowing what to say and when to say it.
"He saw me taking the script and flipping the pages. And all I was doing was seeing how long this damn scene was, because I didn't like the scene. And he said, 'Don't worry, I know how to fix it.' And two days later, he wrote the scene that made the play," says Azenberg.
But the shows he says he's most proud of -- "The Real Thing," "The Lion in Winter," "Children of a Lesser God" -- are not Neil Simon shows.
Budd Mishkin: Did You ever feel among the theater people that you had to defend yourself...this goes beyond being Neil Simon's producer?
Emanuel Azenberg: There's a hubris, an ego that wanted to be other than Neil Simon's producer. I read about it and it says "Neil Simon's longtime producer." It's like my other name.
He has five children, three with his current wife Lani and two from a previous marriage.
"I've been married twice. The sacrifice was the first marriage. Not because of success, because of being young. But other than that, I've had a charmed life," says Azenberg.
And as for the balance between his family, work and everything else in this rich life, Azenberg not surprisingly used a line from one of his shows, "The Real Thing."
"He looks at her and says, 'Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.' Good curtain line for this, also, by the way.