Billy Crystal in a Rockettes outfit? Diana Ross exiting Sun Devil stadium by helicopter? Scrambling to get Ne-Yo on-stage? Anything is possible with Michael Fiur '77. Michael is one of the leading producers of live event spectaculars and television specials in the country and founded Michael T. Fiur Productions after 10 years at Radio City Entertainment. He draws upon his relationships with artists, managers, agents, publicists and record labels to bring top name talent to a wide range of stadium shows, civic celebrations, and sporting, corporate and charitable events. Michael has gone from the Great Stage at Radio City Music Hall to the 50-yard-line at more than a dozen Super Bowls, and from Center Court at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows to the top of Mount Rushmore...
Wow! Where do we start? Why don't you tell us about your latest venture, "Superstar," which seems to be sort of an "American Idol-meets-Broadway?"
If you were to ask me "what is my dream?" I would tell you that it would be to produce a Broadway musical. I never knew exactly when or how that opportunity would come, but I knew that it would. Almost six years ago, I met with two friends who had an idea for a reality TV-based musical that capitalized on the trend of people watching TV talent contests. They began writing a show called, "Triple Threat," about a search for people who could sing, act and dance. With only six songs written, we hired some actors, rented the theater where they perform "Altar Boyz" and got about 50 people to attend a showcase of the show. Afterwards they went back and wrote the entire script and in 2007, we did a very small, closed reading with a group of actors. People responded really well. Last November we did a full reading with a cast of 12, including Mario Cantone in the title role of Spencer Hamilton, the dark, sardonic host. We rented Maury Povich's studio, since the show takes place in a TV studio, filled two readings with top people from the theater community and the response was overwhelming.
Along the way, the show's named changed to "Superstar," and the creative team grew to be comprised of Jason Michael Webb, Lelund Durond Thompson and Moises Roberto Belizario, three first-time Broadway authors who collectively wrote the book, Music and Lyrics. We thought the new title was much more representative of the concept of who will be crowned the next "superstar." It's a combination of the excitement and glamour that goes into a talent TV contest, but it's also what they don't show you. It's the behind-the-scenes foul play, the backstabbing and the fine print in the contract. During the course of the first act, you meet all the characters and each of them performs an on-camera number. At the end of act one, the audience votes for three characters to continue to the next round. Each actor has an act two number that they will only sing if they are a finalist. At the end of act two, the audience votes to pick the winner that night so every night can have a different ending.
How does the audience vote?
We're working on that now. We think it will be by cell phone. We can use charts on a big screen to show real-time results for each of the contestants; you can see how many votes each person is getting and vote more.
People can vote twice?
People can vote as many times as they want.
Then there will be the politics of voting at "Superstar"...
Conceptually, I haven't heard of an idea like this. Do you think this has the potential to change theater the way that reality TV has changed television?
I think this will be exciting and refreshing for Broadway. I don't think this will be a game changer, because there have been other audience participation shows, but it will be different. A contemporary revival of "West Side Story" will get as many people attending as "Shrek" based on an animated movie. There will always be new mediums within the existing theater world that are based on the hottest thing or nuances in entertainment. We hope to be one of them for sure.
Right now we are trying to find the next place to develop this before coming to Broadway, hopefully in the next 18 months. We have a wonderful group of talented people involved. It's been fascinating to produce something from its inception. We're now building a viral campaign using Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to lay the ground work before the show ever happens.
Speaking of shows, it's hard to top the Super Bowl, and you have produced more than dozen! What goes into the production of such a large event?
Since 1992, I've been involved with all but two Super Bowls, be it in a stadium or on TV. It always takes a lot of people to bring ideas to fruition, and the most successful events are the ones in which so many people contribute that by the end you don't know what idea came from who.
What was your favorite Super Bowl?
Diana Ross in 1996. We landed a helicopter at Phoenix's Sun Devil Stadium. That was incredible to put together. It would never happen today, and I still can't believe it happened then.
I know everyone is wondering if you were involved with the wardrobe malfunction in 2004.
I was in Houston because I produced the pre-game show, but I was not involved with the halftime show. That was the year that Beyonce Knowles sang the national anthem and Josh Groban did a tribute to the Columbia Space Shuttle crew. We thought that it would be one of the more memorable pre-game shows, but of course it was all overshadowed. It is the first question everyone asks, so I thought about putting an asterisk on my bio that says, "Did not produce the Janet halftime show."
As someone who is so attuned to all the details, how did you react?
I was there watching with a colleague of mine from one of the spotlight balconies facing the stage. I had no idea what happened. I wondered to myself if the lights had gone out, but that was kind of what was supposed to happen anyway. You have to think that Justin Timberlake was singing the lyrics, "I'm going to see you naked by the end of this song." So there was a little indication of something coming – or a high probability of a "malfunction." Can you believe we're still talking about this in 2009?
In your many years of producing, have you ever had any sort of hiccup?
We always triple-check everything, but sometimes things are out of our control. When Ne-Yo performed at the 11th annual Arthur Ashe Kids' Day in 2006, his bus decided to leave early Saturday morning instead of Friday night. Long story short, they left very late and got stuck in traffic. We had the Cheetah girls there, who had been dying to be on stage, so I decided to put them on as part of the main show. Ne-Yo showed up with just five minutes to spare and after a quick sound check, we put him onstage. We still let the Cheetah girls do a song, but it was definitely one of the most panicked I've ever been with the prospect of talent not showing up.
You mentioned that one of the things you love about producing is being able to create something and have people see and appreciate your creation. You deal with these incredibly creative, right-brain concepts, but you are also very methodical and detail oriented, which is very left-brain. What is it that makes a great producer?
The ability to entertain an audience of any size, age or scope. Whether live or televised, in whatever medium, you're successful if you have people come away feeling a connection to what they saw. Sometimes that may be highly emotional, and other times you want them to laugh, cry, or scream. At Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the U.S. Open, for example, we measure the
success of the event by teenage girls screaming for the boy bands who perform.
Is that in decibels?
Something like that. It's about having had no surprises, being on budget, and other technical or logistic things. But ultimately, it's about providing the experience that either I or the client or a combination want to evoke in people.
You've worked with singing legends such as Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Aerosmith, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson, to name a few. Who is the most interesting person you've worked with?
Like teachers, it's hard to pick just one. I would say the most interesting and nicest person that I've ever worked with is Carlos Santana, who sent me two dozen white roses as a thank you after he performed at Super Bowl XLVII. I get a Christmas card from him and his wife every year. It's very unusual for any performer to take that time to thank you.
The other person is Paul McCartney. After many years of declining invitations, Paul agreed for the first time ever to participate at the Super Bowl XLVI (2002) because it was post-9/11. As we were going through this process, I was on vacation in the Caribbean and his manager called to say that Paul wanted to know what the show would look like. I sat in my hotel room and without any real drawing experience, created storyboards. Paul loved them. Whew. The concept included using a Keith Haring-designed banner of the Statue of Liberty that was owned by New York-based charity The CityKids Foundation. Thousands of kids had written what liberty meant to them on the banner and it had hung in lower Manhattan for the Statue's centennial in 1986. We arranged for the banner to hang behind Paul McCartney in the Louisiana Superdome when he sang his song "Freedom," as a tribute to the victims and heroes of 9/11. Paul then used a likeness of that banner on his subsequent world tour. It was pretty special to not only work with Paul McCartney, but also to bring together different groups from different portions of my life.
What is it that attracted you to entertainment production in the first place?
I was always attracted to the magic of theater. I like to say that my mother weaned me on Broadway musicals. I grew up listening to Ethel Merman blasting from the record player and going to Broadway shows. That's one of the unique things about growing up in New York City: you may not have little league, but you can go see Broadway and ride the subway. I think the very first show I went to was "Finian's Rainbow" at City Center when I was seven years old. A friend of our family played the lead role of the leprechaun, and I remember going back stage to see him after the show. I was hooked.
And where did you start your career?
After graduating from Binghamton, I spent six years running the political campaign and then the Mayor's Office for the woman who would become the mayor of Binghamton. When I decided to move back to New York City, I got a job working at Radio City Music Hall on a freelance basis. I was signed on to work as a talent coordinator for the "We the People 200 Parade" in Philadelphia for the Bi-Centennial of the Constitution. It was a six month project that led to working on my first Super Bowl halftime show in 1988. At that time I was just a talent coordinator, and I was responsible for handling Chubby Checker, who was one of the acts; Mat Plendl, who was the world's hula hoop champion; a 500 member marching band; and 44 Rockettes.
That reminds me, is that Billy Crystal in a Rockettes outfit on your website?
Yeah. That was his idea, a number of years later. In 1991, I was hired by Radio City as Director of Special Events. I ended up being there for 10 years, eventually becoming their Vice President of Entertainment Properties, which included everything from producing Super Bowl halftime shows to producing six seasons of the Christmas show across North America. I was also one of the people instrumental in getting the Tony Awards to come to Radio City Music Hall. Of course, my fantasy in booking the Tony's to come to Radio City is still that some day I'll be walking up on that stage to accept a Tony award for best musical...[laughter]
How did you get the Tony Awards to come to Radio City Music Hall? What was the pitch?
It was a very long multi-year pitch with a number of people involved. We tried to get them to do it for their 50th anniversary, but they ended up coming for their 51st. We showed them that they could expand from a 1,500 seat theater to a 6,000-seat theater. Granted they had much greater costs, but they also had much greater revenue potential. They were able to grow the show tremendously. And they're still there.
On a final note, what would your advice be to Dwight high school students?
Pursue what you're passionate about and, if you don't know, get as many experiences as possible to determine what you're most interested in. Get involved extra-curricularly, which will not only look good on your resume, but also help you determine what you really like doing. You never know – a hobby can lead to a career. At Dwight, I became business manager of the Actors Company in addition to acting, but because I couldn't sing very well, despite singing lessons, I went more in the route of a producer. It started back in high school, so I really point to my Dwight days as where I began thinking about producing.
Who was your favorite teacher?
Stephanie Evans, our 7th grade English teacher, with whom I'm still friendly to this day. I firmly believe that if you can write well, you
can do anything. That was one of the fundamental things that Dwight enforced, which was one of the best things I got out of my Dwight education.
Pamela Motley, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, was our 9th grade English teacher. I really learned a love for literature through her. She was open-minded and focused on connecting with the students. That's something that stayed with me for a long time.
The last teacher, who is still there today, is Dr. Elaine Chambart. I ended up taking four years of French with her and it was always fun, lively and tough. Merci beaucoup.