I meet David Black at 7 W. 43rd St., one block from Bryant Park and a world away from the salad bar that tends to command my noontime attention. This is The Century, a self-proclaimed association of over 2,000 authors, artists, and amateurs of letters and fine arts. It’s one of those you-have-to-be-invited-to-be-a-member clubs (Black was invited by Angela Lansbury's brother) with the kind of polished mahogany, hallowed oil paintings, and creaky floors that make preservation societies quiver. This is a historical, handsome spot, steadfast in its address in arguably one of the world’s grandest cities.
As solid and commanding as the environs are and as prestigious as Black's decadeslong career has been, I expect someone aloof, maybe even un-relatable. Like The Century, this man is native to the magic that is New York and, having been a Broadway player, is part of the incomparable fabric of a city reputed to chew people up and spit them out. But the man I meet in the lobby is kind, endearing, and the twinkling sort of persona you’d expect to portray Einstein (which he has).
After introductions, Black graciously guides me to a private study, where we discuss his third and latest book, Falling Off Broadway. Detailing his life from staging a production in his grandfather’s apartment as a child to his most recent endeavors as a fine artist, the book can be generalized as a memoir. More specifically, it is a comedic stream-of-consciousness recalling of the collective coincidences that drew Black toward and then thrust him away from a career as a Broadway producer. “You couldn’t make this story up,” says Black. “And I didn’t make it up—but I did put it down. That’s what I’m discovering. It’s just the nuttiest story you’ve ever heard in your life.”
Black went from pursuing opera to finance to Broadway to painting, with dismissive parents, a blue-blooded American wife, a fleet of prolific performers, and astonishing coincidences peppering his path. “So you have a father who doesn’t believe in God, a mother who leaves you out of her autobiography, and a therapist who invites you out on dates and invests in your Broadway shows, and you live through that,” says Black. “You’ll have something to talk about at least. Right?”
Right. He talks about all of that and in particular his foray into producing Broadway shows. After being told by a friend that a producer “finds a play, hires a star and a director, raises the money, and becomes rich and famous,” it seemed inexcusable not to shuck his job on Wall Street. So Black jumped at the chance, and with little training (as in nil, zero, zip), it was trial by error, with errors happening more often than not; he was once sued by an audience member after an encounter with a mechanical bird and was twice saddled with the anguish of losing $950,000 on flop shows.
It was his desire to be better acquainted with actors and learn how their auditions predicted their future stage performances that ultimately led him to his first book, The Actor’s Audition (1990). This and his second book, The Magic of Theater (1994), were both published traditionally through his then-agent, Diane Cleaver.
“[Diane] got Random House and Simon and Schuster bidding against each other for the rights to The Actor’s Audition and then she got Macmillan to publish my second book,” says Black. Cleaver has since passed away, and with the publishing landscape having evolved significantly since Magic, Black was u nsure how his memoir would be published. Then another one of those nutty, storymaking coincidences surfaced. “It just so happened that the editor of The Magic of Theater, Mark Chimsky, heard about my third book, and he said he would like to edit it,” says Black. Chimsky reached out to a few agents who admitted they wouldn’t know where to start with getting the book published, so Black, now equipped with an editor, turned to Book Baby as a platform for printing, a process about which he can’t speak highly enough. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks after confirming that I have a copy, which features cover art and internal illustrations by Black. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Regardless of the platform for printing the pages, Black has been pleased with the reception of his book, even if he doesn’t fully comprehend the enthusiasm. “I’m trying to figure out what the excitement is about. I think it’s a combination of things. Not all of it has to do with me,” he says. “New York is the most magical city in the world. That has nothing to do with me….And the magic word in New York is Broadway. No one has ever really written about Broadway.”
With his undercurrent of comedy amid brow-slapping disaster, I can’t help but see commonalities between Falling and the highly lauded film Birdman. As with the film, in Black’s recollection of his life as a producer, everything goes wrong behind the Broadway scenes before everything goes right but only because everything has gone wrong first. Regardless of comparison, Black imparts wisdom he has gleaned about the creative process. “If you do whatever you’re doing honestly, then you will not create something that I’m familiar with personally, but you will create something that I can use to say something to me personally,” explains Black. In other words, an honestly performed play will honestly resonate with an audience. The truths for all parties involved, like light refracted through a prism, will be different depending upon the angle.
But Black's most treasured insight into creativity came from one of the classes he taught at the New School when he asked William Hurt how he prepared to enter a stage. “ ‘I become very quiet because I have to prepare for that which comes unbidden,’ ” Black quotes Hurt as saying. “And that is the greatest description of the creative process I had ever heard."
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on his own picture book and teen novel.