Adam Zotovich is a Broadway performer and producer who has appeared in or brought us some of the best remembered shows of the recent decade. With a background in concert dancing, he has graced the stages of Chicago, Contact, and Fiddler on the Roof. The six shows the 34 year old has so far produced have led to tours, a London engagement, and have grossed a total of over $245 million; they include Driving Miss Daisy, The Addams Family, Legally Blonde, and The Color Purple, which was nominated for eleven Tony Awards.
Zotovich is that rare breed of crossover from on-stage presence to behind-the-scenes facilitator who manages to exude the gravitas of a New York producer while maintaining the exuberance of a Broadway performer.
I read somewhere that your mother bribed you to take dance classes?
That’s true. I am one of six kids, and our parents wanted to encourage us to be well rounded. So, if we were more athletically inclined, they would also push us in artistic directions. And vice versa. I pretty much did everything growing up—fishing, riding horses, playing football, taking piano, going to debate camp….anything you can think of we pretty much did it.
Well done of your parents. Six kids and having time to “well-round” each one!
That’s the trick. I have two daughters now and they are both under two years old. Now, as a parent looking back, I’m sort of on to their thinking. I think they just wanted to get us the hell out of the house!
Back to the forced dance lessons.
It stuck with me. I don’t understand why more guys don’t dance. I think that is changing a lot. If you talk to dance purists, they hate shows like So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars. But I think those are great platforms to educate society about what it means to be a dancer.
It is a fact that I am one of the only straight guys around who does it. I sort of feel like a unicorn in an enchanted forest; people have heard about me, but they’ve never seen me. But MMA fighters and wrestlers and programmers and race car drivers, these archetypal males, are on TV dancing. I think it’s totally making a different impression on kids. I think a lot more guys are going to be dancing. There are going to be a ton of guys out there, because it’ll seem more of a legitimate pursuit, like baseball.
It’s almost like boys are discouraged from dancing. As though it’s dangerous somehow, risks making them effeminate.
Yes! But it’s hugely athletic. It’s such a great thing for people to do because it is a physical as well as creative outlet. I grew up playing sports, I am still a huge sports fan, but… there is creativity involved in sports, but there’s not the same platform for personal expression as there is when dancing.
In a lot of ways, society segregates people. So a lot of athletic gay men didn’t have an opportunity to play on sports teams. But I think those things are shifting.
It was definitely an unconventional choice. But really, I love women, and it just makes so much more sense for straight guys to be involved in dancing than in football. The odds are pretty good, you know?
Ha! Yes. My fiancé actually says the same thing. He chose to do musical theater over sports in high school because he said that’s where you met all the girls. What was that first dance class like for you?
I felt like a fish out of water. I remember looking around and thinking, I’m the only guy here, what’s going on…?
You needed to be bribed, at that point.
I did. But if you look at it strategically, I loved football, but I’m six feet tall, 175 pounds, you know? There might be one guy in the NFL my size. And how many professional basketball jobs are there? There are thousands and thousands of jobs for dancers. And there are, like, five hundred for basketball players.
That is the pitch, huh? Boys: dance!
[Laughs.] Yes. I did some theater too. And they’re always trying to get you in…
Who is ‘they’?
Any dance studio, any choreographer, any show— they need a guy. It’s like: Just stand next to a girl and put on a jacket, she’ll dance around you.
I started taking ballet classes for classical training. That was hard for me. They were private lessons. I am better in social environments. I was with this South African lady who was torturing me at seven o’clock in the morning, by myself. It was all discipline and no joy. But, I guess that was a life lesson. You have to do things that you don’t want to do, but they help you go where you want to go ultimately.
When did you really get serious about dancing?
The day that I graduated from college, I took a red eye that night to audition for Alvin Ailey the next morning. I was dancing all through college. I was still just okay; a big fish in small pond.
Are you being just a tad too humble? Alvin Ailey is a pretty big deal.
I got an apprenticeship [with Ailey]. I had gone there the summer before with my girlfriend who is now my wife. Coming to New York then just opened up my world. I was blown away by the scale that everything was happening on. I had always been the best guy, you know what I mean? Coming to New York and seeing these badass guys just dominating the dance studios…I needed to see someone who was good. I realized quickly, “I will never be like those guys, but I can really up my game.”
Tell me about this apprenticeship with Alvin Ailey.
I was in the Ailey school. Fifteen classes a week plus rep for two years. And then I performed with the company at City Center for their fortieth anniversary season. It was amazing. But it ultimately wasn’t the right place for me.
I knew I wanted a family at some point, and once I started paying attention to the financial aspect of concert dancing, I found it to be very depressing. When I moved to New York, I didn’t think about mortgages and 401(K)s or what my salary requirements were; I loved music and drama and dance and I wanted to go to the center of that universe. But once I was operating in that universe, I knew I wasn’t going to be the next Matthew Rushing. So, I think I needed to do something different.
A lot of life is about re-defining the dream along the way. That has helped me. I haven’t ever just set my mind on one thing and if I didn’t get it, I would be totally devastated. I want to follow success. So, I’m not someone who, if I don’t get what I want precisely, will just give up. Instead, I have found a way to make a life in the arts for myself. I’ve had a pretty great career and it is still unfolding on a number of levels.
I can live with failure— although I don’t like it— but I can’t live with inaction. So, I always have to be moving toward something, chasing some sort of dream.
You left concert dancing and moved to Broadway- a new dream?
The first show I did on Broadway was Contact, which was a perfect transition because dance was the primary storytelling vehicle; it was a kind of dancicle.
How did you break into Broadway? That must have been a very different world.
A totally different world. It was not fun. It was sort of like being in my first dance class all over again. It was all these guys, sitting around doing splits, who already knew each other, and everyone was kissing each other in a very familiar way. And I’m thinking, “What the fuck am I doing here? Why am I here?” I had all these existential questions. And then, when it came down to doing the actual dancing, I could absolutely hold my own; I just didn’t know anybody.
But I just played to my strengths. If there is one thing that got me hired, it’s “guyness”. Just, having that energy. Having a man and a woman on stage…
They saw the unicorn.
Yes! There are a lot guys who are a lot more skilled than me who would never work [for certain parts], and I think that is what I’ve sort of focused on. Sure, I’ve tried to tackle my weaknesses, but more than that, I’ve supported my strengths. When I was in the concert dance world, it was all about attacking my weaknesses. In the musical theater world, especially because I wanted to up my income, I decided to abandon weakness and reinforce strength— really a very militaristic way of looking at the world.
For how long were you performing on Broadway before you segued into the producing side of things?
I think I was doing my second show on Broadway when I segued into the beginning of my producer career.
What was the thought process there?
It was multi-faceted. When I got my first job on Broadway, I was the youngest guy in the company by like ten years. I was looking around, seeing these guys who had had great careers on Broadway, who were making good money, who were in this great show, they all had stable lives, partners, a house on the beach, gray hair…they’d been around. And I sort of got his feeling from them that no one articulated but that I got from them in a very, very tangible way: We’re getting older and this young, buff, Alvin Ailey guy who just walked in here can dance the shit out of us. You know what I mean? And they’re like, “Shit!” They were nice to me, but I was literally the next wave of people coming. Just like the guys coming to New York now can dance the shit out of me.
Dance is not sustainable for a lifetime. There’s a cap.
Oh yeah, there absolutely is. It’s like swimming; you get the gold medal guy from 1950, there are high school girls who can beat him! That’s just the world. And, these people were scared because they didn’t have a plan for what was next. I walked into Lincoln Center that first day so excited but also keenly picking up on that element of it.
I had a pretty plush upbringing, a nice childhood. Part of that generational progress is that I have to do the same for my family. At the very least, give back what was given to me to my future children.
Looking ahead, eh?
[Laughs.] Yes. I was like, “I need to find something else to do.” I remember when I was a kid I would sometimes look myself in the mirror and say: “Don’t be a lawyer! Don’t be a lawyer!” I think I could have been a great lawyer.
I had taken a lot of dance classes while I was on Broadway, and I realized: “This is pretty much as good as I’m going to get. I’m not saying I’m the best, I’m saying: based on my own personal abilities, this is as far as I can go with this body.” I am extremely honest with my own abilities, and I knew there were certain physical limitations.
So, I thought: “What will I do? I don’t need to take classes anymore, I have all this time.” I partied for a while, I was making good money. But then I was like: “What’s next? Am I going to go work in a bank like every other guy in New York, or am I going to go become a lawyer after all? I’ll never make more than $100,000 a year on Broadway.”
You sort of have to keep it real. I want to stay connected to what I’m passionate about, but I don’t want to spend my life chasing these dreams and all of a sudden let the sun set on them without ever breaking it off and starting a new life. I thought: “There is another side to theater; what is the business side of theater like?” I thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to go out to run a theater company, or be the executive director of a dance company, or something?”
So I went back to NYU for a management program in Non-Profit Arts, specifically. After I exited that program I learned a lot, but I thought, “The non-profit world is tough.” I’m all for altruism, but I’d rather go make 100 million dollars by the time I’m fifty and then go give it back. To have something to give back, as opposed to squandering my youth, you know?
When I exited that program I realized that I wanted to be involved in the business side of theater but I wanted to do it in a way that I could monetize. So, my parents sent me to this little three-day course called CTI— the Commercial Theater Institute. It was like, “You want to produce a Broadway show? Well, come to this seminar!” All I had to do was look at the spreadsheets, look at the numbers, and it completely opened up my mind about how the world works from a business standpoint. And my mind understands that stuff very easily in a non-artist way.
So, I saw an opportunity as someone with an artistic background and a business brain. That maybe I could stay connected to what I love and still potentially do well for myself and my future family.
How old were you when you did this?
28 or 29. I was doing Fiddler on the Roof for two years and I had all this free time, so I felt I had to do something else with this time. I actually got a scholarship-grant from an organization called Career Transition for Dancers. They gave me some money to go back to school.
I just…I just don’t want to go work at a bank! There’s a part of me that would consider it— if I can’t be successful as a producer, that’s absolutely what I’ll do. I’ll go work in an investment bank.
Oh come on, stop. You’re just saying that because you know you’re doing alright.
[Laughs.] I’m doing alright now.
Being on stage is one thing, being behind the scenes is something different. What was it like to see the first show you produced go live?
It was sort of surreal. The Color Purple was the first show I produced on Broadway, and it became a pretty big deal with Oprah and all these people involved in it.
Wow. How do you go from wanting to try producing to producing The Color Purple?
Luck beats brains any day.
But you must have laid the groundwork.
That’s what Oprah says— where preparation meets opportunity.
Tell me more about the experience.
There were maybe ten producers on the project and maybe five of us were in the close circle, and maybe two in the nucleus. It was a pretty rare opportunity to be that close so soon. It was learning about the creative development, which I was somewhat familiar with from the performance side, but it’s very different from the producer’s side. To learn about it from the business side was amazing.
But I loved being a part of The Color Purple. I was surrounded by some of the most successful people in New York City who were very generous supporters of the arts and very business savvy. Those were the people that I would be doing business with. Renting my little apartment by Columbia, wearing a suit that I graduated from college in… My mom used to laugh and say, “You’re my one-suit producer.”
At the end of the day, I think I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and my ears open.
What does that mean, exactly?
I think when people have big opportunities, and I’ve been lucky to have some big opportunities in life, there is this part of me, a part of everyone, that just wants to take over. But not in New York City. Maybe one in five or ten million can do that. To me, just being in the room was enough of an accomplishment and I didn’t want to fuck it up. Because these types of people, you can really mess yourself with one or two misplaced comments and then you’re just out of the club. So, I was absolutely learning as much as I could at all times, but I didn’t feel the need to speak up that often. Not necessarily out of fear, more out of respect.
It’s so funny. Sometimes I look back and realize that everywhere I go I am always an outsider. Even though I’m a pretty social guy, whether it’s being the straight dancer or the white guy in the black company, or the dancer who’s a producer, or the non-gazillionaire who’s financing a show…for some reason, there must be something about me that I haven’t really tapped into.
That might be a source of strength, actually. Because you’re always a little bit out of your comfort zone. People like the unicorn, I guess.
[Laughs.] They want to pet it and feed it…
Back to The Color Purple.
Anyway, the first time I heard about The Color Purple was through my Ailey connections, because some of the dancers I had danced with in the company were involved in the workshop. I paired up with a buddy of mine, another guy who has a concert dance background with the Paul Taylor company. He was a sports fan as well. He had a fantasy football league that he invited me to join. That is sort of how we got to know each other. And then when I showed up to that little producing seminar, he was there. We produced The Color Purple together. He was in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the time, I was in Fiddler on the Roof.
We literally just looked up the lead producer in the White Pages. He was a hugely smart and successful investment banker and a huge film finance stud. We called his house. He didn’t know us. His wife answered the phone and said, “I think you should call him at the office.” So we called him at the office and he said, “Wait a second. You’re a couple of actors, and you want to produce a Broadway show?” We said, “Yes.” He said, “Alright, come meet me.”
At the time I didn’t know that it [The Color Purple] was a tough show to capitalize. Although it is a Pulitzer Prize winning book, and a Spielberg movie that was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it wasn’t the most obvious property to be musicalized. This is pre Oprah’s involvement, obviously. There’s no getting in on something after Oprah is involved. So, knowing what I know now, they needed the money at that time. But we also happened to catch a big fish on a good day. I think on another day, this guy wouldn’t have even bothered with us because the world is his oyster – believe me. So we suited up and went to his office—
In your one suit.
Yup. I had a briefcase and inside this briefcase were my softball glove and jersey and cleats because I was in the Broadway Show Softball League in Central Park. There were no briefs in this briefcase. I didn’t want to walk in with a duffel bag, and I was going from that meeting to go play softball. We talked a little bit, he felt us out. Then he said, “Come back in two weeks with a million dollars and you’re in.” We left and were like, “How are we going to do that?!”
We didn’t quite reach our goal, but we got close enough to be billed above the title and let us get in with the show, and get in with some great partners.
How did you raise that money in two weeks?
I think I’ve been lucky in that people believe in me, you know? I don’t see myself that way, I see myself as this little guy trying to make it happen. But people who had a few extra bucks, they weren’t investing in that show, they didn’t know anything about Broadway finance, I didn’t know anything about Broadway finance!, but they believed in me. I approached family and friends who are high net worth individuals.
What was it like to do that?
I didn’t think it was that fun. But, I just remember saying to myself: “I am not a salesman.” I think what I did, and what I’ve done since, is let people know what I’m up to. And if you’re interested in what I’m up to, and you have a bunch of money, you’re probably going to say, “Tell me more about that.”
And I think I just sort of got lucky. At the time, the economy was doing great. It was 2005, a lot of people had a lot of money. I guess it’s not so fun to brag about your stock portfolio in the locker room of your country club, but it’s better to say, “Yeah, I put money into a show on Broadway…” It’s visible and sexy. I mean, that opening night party was bananas.
Pretty blazing way to start.
I want to be a part of life-changing art, theater, music, drama, dance, and I want to make money doing it. I don’t think that makes me any less of an artist. I want to be standing at the corner of art and commerce. I have the mind of a businessman and the heart of an artist and I just want to see where that will take me.
I can’t wait to get to the day when I can just greenlight anything I want to. Part of that is going to be big brash musicals, but I can’t wait till I find something that touches me and moves me and have the resources to not look for any sort of recoupment in any other way than that I’m supporting an artist to write or to paint or to sing or dance. I am looking forward to that. But I have to be really careful to get there. It’s very easy to fall off track.
But you’re also still performing on Broadway. Tell me about the decision to keep performing alongside producing.
You have to remember, I came here [to New York] for one reason and I need to stay connected to that reason. I’m also only 34. In terms of a dancer’s career, I could do it for another ten years. It’s definitely an ephemeral part of my life. And I just know that once it’s done, it’s done. Forever. And that will be very sad. I know what it’s like to get all the juice out of the orange as a performer, throwing myself around to powerful music, seeing the sweat fly off my face in the sidelights, knowing that I gave my best that night…
I like working all day and giving my oldest daughter dinner, a bath, putting her to bed, zipping uptown, then just busting through the crowd in Times Square and disappearing through the stage door.
It’s like that locker room thing. Why doesn’t Brett Farve retire, he’s got a ton of money? It’s sort of how he has identified himself. And the dynamic of slapping ass and telling jokes, and bla bla bla backstage. That’s just what I’ve been doing for ten years.
People like to put people in boxes. I’m twenty years younger than all my peers. Not only am I a former actor, I’m a current Broadway performer. I think they want to put me in this chorus boy box or he’s-too-young-to-know-what-he’s-doing box. I’m not just going to choke off some of my dreams to make it easier for people to put me in a box.
What was the living like before you broke off onto the producer track, when you were performing in New York?
I had nothing. Nothing at all. We would just eat macaroni and cheese and tuna. I remember literally going to get four boxes of generic macaroni and cheese for a dollar and then like two cans of tuna for fifty cents. They don’t call us starving artists for nothing!
When you say ‘we,’ do you mean you and your girlfriend who then became your wife?
Yeah. We just had nothing. If someone was taking a cab, we would be like, “I can’t believe you’re spending money on a cab!”
But those were the good old days. All we cared about was dancing. We were at the Ailey program together. She was a Rockette for a number of years.
Where did you live?
The living situation was not great. In some ways it was amazing, and in some ways it was less than amazing. It was a pretty big apartment and the rent was very affordable, but the neighborhood [Morningside] was not well taken care of. I sort of felt the urban oppression. Just a lot of trash, spitting, cursing.
Do you look back at that time fondly?
It depends on what part I’m looking at. I certainly don’t miss litter and spitting. What I hope to always stay connected to is focusing on what’s important. Just the purity of intention and that ignorance is bliss. I mean, I wasn’t even worried about trying to achieve what I’m trying to achieve now, and I think that was appropriate for then. But I’m definitely more comfortable now.
I remember when I was going to go to New York, everyone asked me, “What is your back-up plan?” Adults, peers, everyone. I was like, “Fuck you! What do you mean back-up plan? So you’re assuming that I’m going to fail. My back-up plan is that I’m going to kick ass, so there.” I think it’s a pretty typical juvenile response.
Tell me about the jobs you had to support yourself.
I was a waiter at two different restaurants. And then I worked performing at a club for the Russian mafia out in Brighton Beach.
It was an awesome job. What happened is, when I was waiting tables a lot, my dancing started to plateau. I felt like I wasn’t getting any better in a quantifiable way. Then I realized that after I took my three classes and did my hours of rep, I would, like, jog from Lincoln Center to Ocean Grill on 79th and Columbus and sling oysters around for eight hours, on my feet, and I think my body just didn’t get an opportunity to rest. I would walk the subway stairs and my legs would burn out. So, I needed to do something different.
We heard about these friends who were performing at a random cabaret way out in Brighton Beach. If Tina [his wife] and I both got this job, just working Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, just doing a short little show, we could totally cover all of our expenses. Not, like, put anything away, but we could totally live. So, we went to this audition. And the guy who was the choreographer was a guy I knew from California! We walked in the room and it was done.
What was the performance like?
The show was the worst show you could ever imagine. It was all in Russian. Tina would wear bunny ears…I remember being in a clown costume at some point… I have no idea…dancing around to Russian music. It’s so random, right? But believe it or not, it was a great gig for us at the time.
When we left that, we plugged other people into it. I think networking is the most important thing in New York City.
Did you network very actively?
I didn’t grow up in a family that was very network-savvy, but I figured it out pretty quickly. I just think you’re so lost here [in New York] without it.
The painter Will Cotton told me that he started deliberately socializing within the art world in order to build his network and get ahead.
Oh yeah, I did the exact same thing. You have to go to parties. You have to. At the end of the day, let’s say there are two hundred guys and there are two jobs. Let’s say fifty of those guys can do the job. But how are the two going to get it? Well, maybe you’re fun to hang out with and I’m a pain in the ass. They’ll pick you. Or maybe they know you. You know?
Like when you walked into the Brighton Beach cabaret and saw your friend from California.
Yeah. That’s how it works. It got to that point where I would be at some Christmas party and would run into a director who’d ask, “Do you want to do this new Broadway show with me?” I didn’t even have to audition! I would get offered shows at parties! Whereas I used to pack my dance bag, staple my resume, get on the train, and wait, sweat it out. Sometimes, I was definitely the best guy in that room, but I didn’t get the job because someone’s friend so-and-so got the gig. I could get angry about that, but, you know?
So you can’t sit around and wait for the world to discover you.
Unless you’re that rare, rare, rare talent. If you’re the next Baryshnikov, someone will find you. Absolutely.
And it can be hard for dancers. We are used to being seen and not heard. Our art form is primarily non-verbal communication. Figuring that out, I think, helped me get involved with producing. Because you have to know how to build community.
Any advice for young creatives just starting out?
I would say, get a good survival job. I was a waiter in college in California and I got a job waiting tables here. That helped me work things out. I think a lot of people I went to college with came out here and then disappeared really quickly. What happens is that people get temp jobs, and they end up working all their time on it. “I’m an administrative assistant at a law firm…” And I’m like, “Well, why did you go to a liberal arts college for four years?” But people get sucked into the city and the expenses.
Was there ever a time when you felt like you just wanted to give up?
Oh yes. Oh totally. I mean, many moments. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I felt a lot of pressure to provide. To be an artist in a city that is caught up in the froth of Wall Street money… the richest people in the whole world being here sort of escalates everything. To just be this little artist who wants to have a family? You have to man up!
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, my producer career was definitely moving along. When she was pregnant the second time, I thought: “Alright, I need to man up further.” So I set a goal for myself with a number that I had to hit and I said, “If I don’t hit this number…” I’ve had some offers to work at invest banks, so I thought: “I’ve had enough fun messing around as an artist in New York City, but now I have to look after my girls. And if that means I have to go work at a bank, then that’s what I’ll do.” It can’t always be about me and my dreams. That’s one of the things about having a family, now I’m looking after them.
But, luckily, I exceeded that number. Now I’ve set a new goal for myself.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo courtesy of the artist.