How the closure of NYC theaters affects press agents: an interview with Keith Sherman

With this week’s government-ordered closure of all theaters and performance venues in NYC, we’ve all become aware of the impact the safety precautions implemented to deal with the coronavirus has had on artists, house staffs, and audiences. But another group of theater professionals that has felt the effect of the pandemic is the pool of press agents that handles publicity, coordinates coverage, and provides a point of contact for the shows and stars.

Keith Sherman. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Keith Sherman has been in the business for over 40 years, beginning in the 1970s. He has handled more than 300 Broadway, Off-Broadway, and touring productions, along with awards, organizations, cabarets, dance, music, fine arts, films, television broadcasts, and Olympic sports, as well as such major corporate initiatives as The New York Times. When he first founded Keith Sherman & Associates Public Relations in December 1989, he had just four clients; a month later the count jumped to five, with his representation of the Tony Awards.

Keith Sherman (to the right of the woman in red) with Chris O’Connell on the red carpet at the Tony Awards. Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett.

Since then his numbers have increased dramatically, representing such acclaimed recent hits as Be More Chill, Desperate Measures, Colin Quinn: Red State Blue State, and Harry Townsend’s Last Stand. And over the past two decades he put together a long-time team of respected associates – Brett Oberman, Scott Klein, and Logan Metzler, who have been with his agency for nineteen, eighteen, and eleven years respectively.

During this slow time, in what would have been the busy Broadway opening season before the annual announcements of award nominations (including the Chita Rivera Awards, which he represents), I had a chance to talk to Keith about the business he loves and how he’s coping with the present shutdown.

Have you ever experienced anything even remotely like this current crisis in all your years in PR?

Keith: Even in life – no, no one has. The most recent catastrophe was 9/11, but that was a very different thing. Broadway closed for two performances, but boy did it bounce back! But this is a pandemic, it’s global, so it’s affecting everyone on the planet. It extends beyond the footlights. This is a time when we need to be kind to each other; lashing out won’t be productive. You have to find pockets of joy for yourself. We need to remember that it’s good to be alive. That’s hard, but it’s vital.

Keith Sherman & Associates logo.

What has been the immediate concern in your office and with your clients as far as the disruption of the daily routine and finances?

Survival. A lot of our projects are closed and never coming back. Some are postponing and looking ahead, but we can’t plan. Now’s not the time to reach out about things like that; we don’t want to set it up and have to cancel again. It will be interesting to see which shows go on to open and which ones never will. This is going to be weeks, or months – we have no way of knowing; nobody does. And for so many people, that means no income or the loss of a big investment. After 9/11, I remember the mayor and many Broadway stars held an event in Duffy Square by the TKTS booth, telling people to “Come back and see a show!” We just don’t know when we’ll be able to say that.

Looking back on your career, what is the fondest memory you have that brightens your day and gives you the incentive to persevere in such a difficult period?

That question made me smile! On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) in 1989, I was driving from upstate and stopped at Staples to buy a filing cabinet to start my new business. I went to a friend’s loft, because he had the most sophisticated technology of the time – a fax machine! I think back to that very first day, and it was such a great moment. There have been many more great days since then – with my Broadway shows and clients, at the Tony Awards, and at a Tony event with Julie Andrews. She hosted one year with Jeremy Irons, who was wearing a red ribbon for AIDS awareness. She sang a medley from My Fair Lady and had to do it five times in rehearsal for the cameras. But that very first day of my business comes to mind – that’s where it all started. 

Keith Sherman and Julie Andrews at an event for the Tony Awards, ca. 1990s. Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett.

What are the most important qualities you need to succeed in public relations, especially during challenging times?

I actually have a lot of responses to that! I like to say you need three things: skin of steel; a smart mind; and an open heart. I have another favorite expression: you need the two Ps – Patience and Persistence. When you’re dealing with people, you can’t control their behavior, only your response to it. You have to rise up, to take the high road; you have a choice. Those are some lessons I’ve learned and continue to embrace. It’s how you treat people – it comes back to you. Loyalty is also an important quality. My team and many of my clients have been with me for years. And I love what I do! I know I’m always referencing show tunes, but I have to quote Ethel Merman singing those great lyrics in George White’s Scandals of 1931: “Life is just a bowl of cherries, so live and laugh at it all.”

In your opinion, what’s the best-case scenario for the resumption of business as usual in the theater industry?

Good question, too. Soon is important, but safest is best. We all want to resume, but we’re not in control of that. We need to be safe and healthy, and from there we can figure everything out. I’m an optimist; I spread that and I live that.

Keith Sherman with Patti LuPone and Matthew Broderick at a Tony Awards event at Sardi’s. Photo by Anita and Steve Shevett.

I love your company’s motto: “BIRTH, MARRIAGE & DEATH SHOULDN’T BE THE ONLY TIME YOUR NAME APPEARS IN THE PRESS. WE MAKE HEADLINES.” Thank you, Keith, for talking to us, staying active, and keeping theater in the headlines during this unforeseen hiatus.

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