Thomas Laub’s passion for theatre was evident at Providence Day, where he became one of the school’s first nominees for the Blumey, the premier high school theatre award created by Blumenthal Performing Arts. After graduating from University of Michigan, Laub became a producer – naming his production company, Runyonland, after the first song he performed in his first Providence Day Middle School musical, Guys and Dolls.
Last year, Laub became part of the production team recognized with a Special Tony Award for David Byrne’s American Utopia, a concert performance of songs from throughout the former Talking Heads front man’s career (a film version of the show is available on HBO Max).
At the 2020 Tony Awards, which were delayed more than a year due to pandemic concerns, Laub was also a producer on Slave Play, which tied the all-time record for most Tony nominations for a non-musical, with 12 (it won two other theatrical awards but ultimately did not take home a Tony). The play by Jeremy O. Harris has attracted polarized reactions for its themes of race, sex, power, and trauma through the stories of multiple interracial relationships.
Laub recently spoke to his former teacher, Matt Spence, to share the journey that began at Providence Day. Excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity:
I was lucky enough to work with an number of incredible educators at PD and in the Charlotte area as a whole. At PD, I had the privilege of working with (former Upper School Theatre teacher) Caroline Bower, and with Michael Hough. I can’t tell you how many times I went into Dr. Hough’s office and said, “You know, I don’t feel great about this,” or “I feel amazing about this,” and Dr. Hough would really look at me and say, “Get a grip, enough, you’re going to do this better.”
And I was someone who came in as unbelievably arrogant. You know, 14 years old. Dr. Hough said, “You’re not going to decide that you are the best in this 12-foot radius in south Charlotte. You’re going to be better.”
I like to always say that I had the opposite college application experience as so many of my peers, because when I was going into my senior year, I said, “I’m applying to all business schools. I know what I’m doing….” I had decided exactly what program I was going to at NYU.
When I told my parents, my mother looked at me and said, “You’re not applying for theatre?” And I said, “Well, no, I’m applying for business. I like theatre, but what am I going to do with that?” And she said, “No, no, no, no, no. You are applying for theatre.”
I owe it all to my parents of course, as everybody does, but me especially. She basically forced me, for lack of a better term, to apply to the top couple of musical theatre programs. I ended up auditioning at the University of Michigan.
I had no idea of musical theatre history, what I was singing, or why it was important. I just came in with my audition. It turns out that I was auditioning in front of the long-time, 30-plus year founder and head of the program at Michigan musical theatre, Brent Wagner. One of the best professors, and most brilliant folks, in our field.
I came in and performed, unbeknownst to me, his favorite song in the musical theatre canon. I messed up a lyric. He goes, “Um, Thomas, can you go to the piano and check that lyric?” I said “Oh” instead of “though,” so, a layman perhaps might not have noticed, but you know, Professor Wagner certainly did send me to the piano.
I went home, and I sent him an email. “Hey, professor, you might remember me as the person who messed up the lyrics to your favorite song. It was still such an honor to come audition for you. It was such an honor to meet you. Thank you so much.”
He sent me back a two-page note on why my saying, “oh” instead of “though” destroyed the dramatic choices available in the scene for the character and was frankly the worst choice I could have made as an actor. It disrespected the original lyricist and it was just a catastrophe for the musical theatre canon in general. So, I read this email and I was like, “Oh, great. So I’ll see you somewhere else.”
Then the next call I got from him saying, “You’re in!” It was an incredible journey, and he is to this day, one of my favorite, favorite people on this planet, a close friend and mentor.
I think we learn by being the dumbest people in the room. Anyone who puts themself in a position to be the smartest person in the room isn’t learning, by definition. I’ve had the pleasure of getting my ass kicked by all of these amazing professors and mentors throughout my life in so many different ways.
As a producer, my job is to bring a bunch of people into a room who are smarter than me, just like it would be as a CEO at a startup. An incredible writer with a story, and a director to funnel that vision and clarify that vision to an audience; perhaps a music team, if it’s a musical, with a composer and a lyricist to work alongside of the writing and directing team.
Everyone from the top to bottom, both on the creative side with the writing team, the directing team, perhaps the choreography team, but also on the physical production side, bringing together a production manager who understands how to take that director’s vision and construct it. Then to create a design team. Producers work with the production manager and general manager to turn it into something that is, you know, financially viable.
Also the advertising marketing sales side of things, the press side of things. The producer tries to secure one of those spots on Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert. We were lucky enough to have American Utopia on Kimmel, on Fallon, on Colbert.
I like to say when things are going well, you don’t notice the producer is there. And when things are going poorly, the producer is the first person you look to, and that’s the job, right? The job is putting out fires, and the job is putting together a team that is best suited to work with each other.
The producer raises all the money, of course, and the average Broadway play costs probably between $3 million and $6 million. And the average musical probably comes in between $14 million and $18 million. And that’s before running costs. Every week it costs a play maybe in the $400, $500,000 range to run. Whereas a musical’s probably more like between $700 and $900,000 a week.
It’s a large job and that’s why the teams are so large. That’s why there are multiple producers and co-producers who come on to alleviate that burden.
Building those teams and working with those teams is really why we do it. Nobody gets into theatre for their health. They get into it because they love the art form. They love to share these incredible stories. They believe in art, they believe in the power of it to change and bring together. And they love working with these incredible folks that we have the pleasure of working with. Like Jeremy Harris, like David Byrne, like all of these brilliant artists who we’ve been so blessed to even be in a room with.
American Utopia was actually the first Broadway show that I was lucky enough to produce on. That was part of a grant that my company, Runyonland Productions, in college was able to get during my senior year at Michigan. Part of that grant was earmarked to bring a couple of industry professionals from New York to Ann Arbor.
So we ended up ’cold emailing’ three incredible Broadway producers who I really looked up to but had no idea who I was. They were generous enough to come to the University of Michigan. We flew them in, and I kind of trapped them in a room for three hours and had the privilege of talking their ears off and asking all of the questions.
Mike Isaacson, who’s now my closest mentor, came in. And I had the privilege of asking him every stupid question I’ve ever thought of. He was so generous, so wonderful, so knowledgeable, so brilliant. And at the end of that talk, I said, “Hey, by the way, Mike, if you’re ever looking for a co-producer, let me know.”
A co-producer is someone who comes onto a show and has much less responsibility than one of the general partners, one of the lead producers, but raises a significant chunk of money. And is involved in all of the core decisions when it comes to, ’Let’s talk through overall strategy, where can I be of use here,’ et cetera, kind of the more broad strokes. It’s an incredible way to get in a room and learn. I wanted nothing more than to get into one of those rooms, shut up, and take all the notes I could.
Then, two weeks later, Mike Isaacson shot me a note and said, “Hey, I think we have this incredible show. Let’s talk about it.” And, in that first conversation, he said that the amount to raise to get in on the project is $250,000. And I had never raised a dollar in my life. And so I said, “Perfect. That low? Incredible! We’ll sign on.”
So I was so excited about this. I was kicking my heels together, all excited to work on my first Broadway show.
Meanwhile, I’m not raising a dollar. I graduate on a Sunday, drive from Michigan to the city on Monday, and start in the offices at Disney theatrical on Tuesday. On my first day of work, I get a text. It says, “How do you feel about getting in the money by Friday?”
Rather than saying, “Oh my gosh, you know, I messed up. I’ll get a part of this to you by Friday and part a month later.” It would’ve been fine. Instead, my answer was, “Of course, yep. All going well.” So, I went a little bit overdrive in leveraging connections that I made in Michigan and connections that I had in the city. I also had some incredible mentors back in Charlotte with Blumenthal Performing Arts and (Blumenthal CEO) Tom Gabbard, so by Sunday, the full amount was all done and committed.
I’m so excited to say that all of those early committals have all made a significant return on their investment. It was so nice to be able to show a return to those first folks who believed in me when I was a completely unknown quantity saying ’I’d like some money by Friday, please.’
Slave Play is another experience that is still ongoing. I’m excited to see where we go with the performance opportunities yet to come, and making sure that whatever we do, just like we did on Broadway, it is both artistically at a high level of quality and also accessible.
On Broadway, we released 10,000 tickets at $29 or lower to make sure that if you couldn’t pay the typical price for a Broadway play, you could still attend. We started the most ticketing initiatives for lower, no-cost tickets to New Yorkers in Broadway history.
It was great to see an audience that perhaps didn’t look like the traditional Broadway audience and looked a little bit more like the community outside the theatre doors. I think that’s what we were all most proud of on the show. Jeremy O. Harris is a brilliant playwright with a clear vision for how the piece will be released in the future. And certainly you haven’t seen the last of it.
When we won the special Tony for David Byrne’s American Utopia, that was a surreal experience. That’s certainly not what it’s about, but it’s a celebration of the process.
Whenever something is able to be lauded like that, whether it’s a review, whether it’s an award, really what it is as a who are true geniuses in every sense of the term.
If there’s one central theme that pervades here: it’s just the idea of being so grateful to be in these rooms with these people. I mean, maybe I know two percent of what I need to know. And I’m looking towards the 98 percent. My goal is to get to three percent, not act like we’re at 85 percent.