“The first thing that I said to the company in the room that day, very honestly, was that this was the most terrible thing I’ve ever had to do in my professional career,” the producer Hunter Arnold says. On March 16, he called in the cast and crew of the upcoming Broadway play Room to convey the worst news possible. The show, slated to begin previews on April 3 at the James Earl Jones Theatre, would not go on. A big chunk of the financing had fallen through. “I was very honest with them that I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that any company should ever have to hear,” he recalls. “They’re total victims — they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong but give everything there is to give. But the frank reality was, one of the lead producers told us they had no intention of fulfilling their obligations for personal reasons.”
Arnold described the untenable money situation to the cast and crew and offered to answer questions. Adrienne Warren, the Tony-winning actress slated to play the lead role, collected everyone into one group to sit on the floor of their (now former) rehearsal room and work through the moment together, grieving. “The next thing that happened was brainstorming among cast members,” says the show’s sound designer, Justin Ellington. “Oh, maybe this person could help out.” Up until then, he says, the production as a whole had been a real “family situation.” “People were making sacrifices they ordinarily wouldn’t make. Which adds to the ouch.” So what happened? How did this family get broken up?
Nine days before, one of the lead producers of the play, Nathan Gehan, founder and CEO of ShowTown Theatricals, emailed his fellow producers to say that he would be pulling out of the production. He was facing a “personal crisis” involving his daughter and said that he and his producing partner, Jamison Scott, could no longer be financially liable for their considerable portion of the show’s cost. It was an extremely late and nearly unprecedented move: Room was less than a month from its preview opening.
Gehan says that he and Scott offered, “in writing,” a gesture: They would continue working on the production with ShowTown Theatricals operating as its general manager, doing some of the labor of producing, but they would still pull their investment and lose the financial liability. He told the other lead producers — Arnold, who is based in New York, and Sam Julyan and James Yeoburn, who are in the U.K. — that he and Scott had “a tremendous amount of capital investors teed up and ready to continue conversations, and ready to help contribute money.” Gehan adds that they offered to do the work of producing “without billing,” because the show needed someone to get that work done, and “Hunter is very busy and our other partners are in London and have never done this before.” Most of the conversation, he says, “was about the timing of when [potential replacement producers] were gonna get in, because the capital raise was due by opening night.”
“They did provide us a list,” Arnold says. “Of course we wanted their list.” But from his perspective, it was not nearly enough. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and know all of the players in the space. Just looking at the list, it was obvious that it was insufficient in scale, but more importantly, it was not a viable list to help our situation.”
Once Gehan and Scott backed out on March 7, “the response from [the other producers] was that they wanted us to have no further meetings and attend no further rehearsals for the production, and to stand by for further details,” Gehan says. “And then we never heard from them for days.” During this time, ShowTown Theatricals stayed on as general manager; Gehan continued “coaching” other staff members of ShowTown Theatricals on how to run the production.
Meanwhile, Arnold, Yeoburn, and Julyan were in a mad dash to find new money. “We started the process of immediately looking for new, large, additional investors pretty much the moment that they indicated they wouldn’t fulfill their obligations,” Arnold says. “But it wasn’t until maybe a day and a half or two days later that we understood that they had virtually nothing coming in.” Despite not specifying how much money Gehan had committed to the show, Arnold is willing to call the situation they found themselves in the “worst-case scenario,” which, given Broadway production costs, implies a seven-figure shortfall. They made hundreds of phone calls and emails to prospective investors. They researched people with “deep pockets” who would emotionally connect to the story enough to write a check.
On Monday, March 13, Gehan sent a note asking how the production was going, as he had not seen any capital contributions come through, and told the current producers that “we have a right to end this.” He says the producers responded that they were finding a new general management firm, which ended up being KGM Theatricals.
The producers who were left, meanwhile, set themselves a deadline of 7 p.m. on March 15. By that Wednesday, Arnold says, they would face “accumulating expenditures on the payroll side but also the preparation to start moving into the theater.” The next day, Thursday, they would have to commit to starting the tech process. “Once you do that, that’s another huge chunk of money. So we just knew that if we couldn’t comfortably say to the Shuberts, ‘Let’s go on Monday,’ we had to raise the white flag.” That Thursday morning, they told the cast and crew and sent out a press release, saying that Room would be “postponed indefinitely,” that “we are incredibly disappointed,” and informing the theater world that the show had closed because of “personal reasons”: a lead producer “did not intend to fulfill their obligations to the production.” Gehan says he didn’t know the release was going out.
One irony is that, by many accounts, the creative side of the show was going uncommonly well. Arnold calls it “absolutely stunning,” saying, “the passion and love and work this company put into this piece is one of the most heartbreaking parts about this.” Warren, together with her fellow cast member Ephraim Sykes and choreographer Galen Hooks, took to Instagram on Sunday to offer a similar sentiment about the show.
Ellington notes that in hindsight, there were a few business-related “red flags that popped up outside of the rehearsal room,” some of which he and his colleagues may have ignored out of a sense of optimistic devotion to Room’s mission and the quality of the show. He adds that the union is negotiating a way for the production’s employees to land softly, but adds that, for many, there’s more of a desire that Room’s story could potentially still be told. Despite the heartwarming dynamic, he says, “optimism intruded into reality.”
For Arnold and his fellow producers, the coming weeks’ tasks are “threefold,” he says. First is “understanding all of the contracts and all of the finances, and getting those into the hands of [KGM], so that we understand all of the humans that need to be taken care of.” The second, “concurrent” step, is to figure out “what the show can be.” That means taking care of the “artistic hopes for these creatives, but also turning every stone over from an opportunity standpoint, because that’s our job as producers.” Finally, they need to fulfill their “paperwork” duties, including settling the contracts with unions and carrying out the process of “winding down a show.” What’s next for Room? “None of us believe that this theatrical journey should be over, and we’re all committed to doing everything in our power for it not to be.”