As the saying goes, religion and politics are unfit for polite company. But, controversy is always a welcome topic in theater for Sarasota residents, arts supporters and producers Bob and Beverly Bartner.
That makes it fitting that their next production is “The Book of Mormon.” It took writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone seven years to develop the musical satire about the religion. It opened on Broadway in March 2011.
In 2010, Bob and Beverly Bartner went to the reading at Lincoln Center in New York, which featured almost the same cast that opened in the Broadway production.
“We fell in love with the piece. We thought it was the funniest thing we had ever seen,” says Bob Bartner.
The rest of the Broadway world agreed, and Parker and Stone raked in nine Tonys at the 2011 Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical. Now, it’s set to open in March, in London, under the Bartners’ production.
The “Book of Mormon” is not the first controversial show the Bartners have backed financially. Typically, they prefer plays to musicals, but they couldn’t resist what they call a “genius” project.
“Obviously, I think you get more of a thrill and more enjoyment out of doing a little cutting edge, a little controversial, a little different than things that are safe,” says Bob Bartner.
They’ve won Tonys for “La Cage Aux Follies” about two queens; for Scarlett Johansson’s role in “A View from the Bridge” about illegal immigrants; and people were camping overnight to get tickets to their production of “Jerusalem” that presents its lead character as an endearing drug-addict hero.
Bob Bartner didn’t grow up imersed in the world of theater, as his life is now. He saw his first production in college when he took a date to see famous opera singer Ezio Pinza and Broadway star Mary Martin in “South Pacific” to impress her.
Unlike her husband, retired antique-furniture dealer Beverly Bartner became enamored with theater at a young age. When she was 8 years old, her father took her to see famed stage actors Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter, in “John Brown’s Body.” She was so close to the stage she felt like she could reach out and touch the actors, and it inspired a lifelong love.
Bob Bartner met Beverly Bartner in 1962, through his brother’s fiancé. They started seeing plays and musicals together. At the time, he worked at CBS and she would take the train in from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y., to meet him in Manhattan for evening shows.
Bob Bartner says his passion for theater really began in 1995, in Guilford, Conn., where the couple was living at the time. He met the artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater, Doug Hughes, who recruited him to the board at the theater. Then, in 1997, a play named “Wit,” about an English professor’s final hours with ovarian cancer, came to the theater. Bob Bartner loved it.
After its Connecticut run, an interested commercial producer and theater owner in New York was ready to take a chance on “Wit,” if someone would enhance it with $25,000. Without question, Bob Bartner signed the check. First-time scriptwriter and kindergarten teacher Margaret Edson won a Pultizer Prize for “Wit” in 1999.
Bob Bartner’s career successes are well spent supporting the arts. He had a broad career in direct marketing and magazine publishing. And he says his most successful days were creating Maxim magazine, and The Week, a news magazine in the U.K. The Bartners are supportive patrons to Asolo Rep, for which he serves as the president of the board.
Beverly Bartner is also an Asolo Rep board member. Additionally, she serves on the board at The Metropolitan Opera and flies regularly to New York City, where the Bartners have an apartment, to see opera productions. She’s also produced a few shows under her own name.
The Bartners produce one to 12 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions a year, in New York and in London. They just opened “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway, which features Scarlett Johansson. And soon after they will open “Old Times” with Kristin Scott Thomas, in London.
“Two years ago, we were producing so many plays we didn’t know where we were,” Beverly Bartner says.
The Bartners travel often. One day last weekend, they had a morning reading in New York City, another the same day in San Diego — plus they had to get back to Sarasota for the opening night of “Heidi Chronicles” at Asolo Rep. They attend every opening night at Asolo Rep.
The couple moved to Sarasota in 2010, because they’d heard the arts thrive here. Beverly Bartner jokes that they got involved at Asolo Rep right away, because someone Googled them when they moved here, but Bob Bartner says they were recruited at a dinner party. Either way, the strong presence of arts in the community solidifies their love of Sarasota. They belong here, in what they refer to as “the Garden of Eden.”
They give a small-world example of why they think Sarasota is unique: Fellow Tony Award-winner and director Frank Galati, who just directed “1776” at Asolo Rep, lives a few floors below them in the same Boulevard of the Arts condominium.
“We love Sarasota — that’s our final word,” Bob Bartner says.
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