The lobby of the Fisher Building
The lobby of the Fisher Building (Dig Downtown Detroit - Fisher Building Lobby)

Stories surround the family that entered the theatrical world in Detroit and later established themselves through multiple theater ownership and programming reaching way beyond the city.

As the lights are being turned up again at the Fisher Theatre for the 2021-22 season — launching its 60th anniversary — The Nederlander Company turns over its storied production space to International Entertainment Holdings Limited, parent company of Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), a live theater and ticketing organization out of the United Kingdom.

Stories surround the family that entered the theatrical world in Detroit and later established themselves through multiple theater ownership and programming reaching way beyond the city. Stories also surround a stage lineage of acclaimed shows with some following Broadway runs and others tried out in Michigan before reaching Broadway.

There are stories that emphasize the Jewish heritage known personally by the family who moved on to New York headquarters and became friends with the Jewish creators and entertainers that introduced a vast range of drama, comedy and music into the hearts of diverse audiences.

View from the Balcony of the Fisher Theatre, 1970.
View from the Balcony, 1970. Fisher Theatre Archives

The Nederlander Company, also announcing its sale of programming operations at the Detroit Opera House and Music Hall in Detroit as well as the Golden Gate and Orpheum Theatres in San Francisco, will maintain a Detroit presence with the endowment of stage awards given through Wayne State University.

“These unique venues have been home to Broadway’s greatest shows, serving local and regional audiences for generations,” said Robert Nederlander Sr., essentially retired from administrative responsibilities as one of five brothers who learned theater management from their dad, David Tobias Nederlander.

“We are confident that the ATG team will continue to look after the strong foundation that we have created with these theaters in their respective communities and to take them into this next decade with great success.”

A Storied History

Fiddler on the Roof was among the acclaimed musicals tested at the Fisher, where the responses of local audiences led to revisions preparing the show for years of international acclaim.

Fiddler on the Roof touring cast from the production that was here in March 2020,
Fiddler on the Roof touring cast from the production that was here in March 2020. Fisher Theatre

“We didn’t think of it as a particularly Jewish show,” lyricist Sheldon Harnick told the Detroit Jewish News in 1995. “We thought of it as something that was aiming for the universal values we had found in the Sholem Aleichem story ‘Tevye’s Daughters.’

“Nevertheless, we knew in many ways it was a Jewish show. We knew that it was a serious show, and we knew that it was a long show. With all those things, we were worried that it might not be accepted, and we were very nervous about the show’s Detroit premiere.

“By the fourth week [with changes that included making the play shorter], it was close to selling out, and we knew we were OK.”

During the first year of operation, famed Jewish composer and only-time lyricist Richard Rodgers traveled to Detroit, sat in the balcony at a small piano and wrote songs and revisions for No Strings as the cast, starring Richard Kiley and Diahann Carroll, rehearsed with full stage orchestra.

Broaching the subject of interracial romance through dialogue and song, No Strings became a trailblazing and favorite show of Robert Nederlander Sr., whose oldest brother, the late Harry Nederlander, oversaw Detroit operations and commented on the play and its successful run.

“Richard Rodgers was a genius, and Diahann Carroll was terrific,” Harry Nederlander told the Detroit Jewish News in 2001. “It was a show ahead of its time, and the fact that it involved an interracial romance never entered my mind [when we were making our decision to bring it here].”

London-based Sonia Friedman Productions (SFP), associated with ATG Productions, has developed and staged more than 170 varied plays and brought a Fiddler on the Roof run to London in 2019, shortly before introducing Leopoldstadt to the stage as Tom Stoppard’s play about a Jewish family in Vienna.

ThIs photo is from the Hamburg production. Jeffrey Seller accepts the 2019 Apple Award.
Jeffrey Seller accepts the 2019 Apple Award. Fisher Theatre

SFP has won 55 Olivier Awards and 30 Tony Awards.

Alan Lichtenstein
Alan Lichtenstein

Alan Lichtenstein, 40-year executive director for Nederlander programming in Detroit and sometimes San Francisco, worked with SFP in bringing Mamma Mia! to the United States for the first time and looks forward to the opportunities the new associations can bring to Motor City stages.

“SFP recently brought Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to audiences so we hope to gain some priority in bringing their imaginative works to Detroit,” said Lichtenstein, who has previewed and picked hundreds of shows for local audiences.

A New Era

“The Broadway in Detroit family is excited about the new arrangements, which include investments in theater technology. There will be a lot of resources we can tap into for future scheduling while working on the current season, which is in flux because of the pandemic.”

While firm dates are still to be established, the following musicals should go ahead: Pretty Woman in November, Hadestown in December and Hairspray in January. Finalized dates will be posted at broadwayindetroit.com.

Pretty Woman comes to the Fisher Theatre in November.
This photo is from the Hamburg production. Pretty Woman comes to the Fisher Theatre in November. Morris Mac Matzen

“We’re going to end up with six great shows,” said Lichtenstein, a member of the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council and fan of the one-woman narrative Golda, which appeared twice at the Fisher, once with Tovah Feldshuh and another time with Valerie Harper.

“I just don’t know which ones they’re going to be, but I expect to see one Nederlander brother in the audience. Joseph Nederlander, who is 94, remains in the area and was the innovator of outdoor theaters starting with Pine Knob,” Lichtenstein said.

The Nederlander Company, now with an administration that includes third-generation family members Robert Nederlander Jr. and James Nederlander, will perpetually be tied to the city through the family endowment of the Apple Award, started in memory of David Nederlander’s wife, Sara Applebaum Nederlander, known for hosting Fisher stars and serving them traditional Jewish dishes.

David Tobias Nederlander and his five sons. Front row: Joseph, father David and James “Jimmy.” Second row: Harry, Robert and Frederick “Freddie.”
David Tobias Nederlander and his five sons. Front row: Joseph, father David and James “Jimmy.” Second row: Harry, Robert and Frederick “Freddie.” Courtesy of Fisher Theatre

The award, presented annually to a nationally recognized theater professional, is accepted during a visit that features a lecture presented to Wayne State University theater students. Each winner receives a crystal apple and $10,000 intended for a theatrical interest.

Past honorees include playwright Neil Simon, composer Stephen Schwartz and producer Jeffrey Seller, who grew up in Oak Park, became enchanted with the stage by watching Fisher Theatre shows and went on to produce Rent and Hamilton, which appeared locally through Nederlander operations.

“Our Detroit staff has missed the excitement of the theater during the time of pandemic closings,” Lichtenstein said. “Although most staff members were able to continue with pay during the time of the pandemic, we can’t wait for the shows to return and hear the applause, which reminds me of the musical Applause [written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with songs by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse] — another Fisher Theatre world premiere.”

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Suzanne Chessler’s writing-editing career has spanned many years, and her articles have been featured in secular and religious publications across the state and around the country. There was a period of time when she maintained three regular columns in three different publications – one appearing weekly to spotlight metro volunteers, another appearing weekly to profile stage enthusiasts in community theater and a third appearing bimonthly to showcase upcoming arts programs. Besides doing general reporting, she has had continuing assignments involving health, monetary subjects and crime. Her award-winning work builds on majors in English-speech and journalism earned at Wayne State University, where instructors also were writers-editors on Detroit’s daily newspapers.