At 28, Mini-Mogul Dreams of Geffen

“I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone else,” said Adam Epstein as he bit into a forkful of a 10-ounce butterflied filet mignon at the Palm on a recent afternoon. With rounded cheeks and flashes of prematurely gray hair, Mr. Epstein spoke in fast, truncated sentences as he described why he became a Broadway producer. He’s something of a natty dresser; on this day, he wore a rainbow-striped Paul Smith shirt, blue blazer and Johnston and Murphy loafers. He will tell you he’s going to be a mogul on the level of David Geffen or George Lucas, and before he’s finished his steak you just might believe him.

“I’m in love with my work, I’m in bed with it, I certainly feel married to it,” he said, hitting his fist on the table. “You have to be willing to reach out there. To be a mogul, you have to spend your life jumping off ledges.”

What kind of mogul does he fashion himself to be? “I would probably want Scott Rudin’s career, but David Geffen’s money.”

He could be on his way. Shows that Mr. Epstein was involved with as a producer have received 37 Tony nominations; he was one of 16 above-line producers on the 2003 Tony Award–winning Hairspray . He raised $1.4 million for the show, which is still sold out for months and is preparing a national tour. In February, he organized a fund-raiser for Presidential hopeful John Edwards, raising $130,000 for the North Carolina Senator with a showing of Hairspray at $1,000 a seat. This summer he inked a deal with Brian Grazer, Imagine Entertainment’s manic chief executive, to turn director John Waters’ 1990 Johnny Depp film Cry-Baby into a Broadway musical. All this, he says, is only the beginning. He is, after all, only 28.

“I want to be a multimedia mogul and have a foothold on Broadway in big commercial musicals. It’s the only thing I want to do,” he said.

Mr. Epstein eats in the Palm’s wood-paneled dining room several times a week, at his usual table, which he shares with Dan Rather. Right above his table, a portrait of Mr. Epstein is painted on the wall alongside caricatures of Palm notables such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, Cameron Mackintosh and Natasha Richardson.

The restaurant is three blocks from his television and film production company, Bonmar Entertainment, which is located above the Virginia Theatre. Muppet toys are strewn on the floor of his office. Contracts and letters are scattered across his brown wooden desk along with recent issues of GQ and Details . Two statues of his Labrador retrievers, Bailey and Moose, gaze languidly at each other. Pictures of Mr. Epstein with Hollywood’s elite are displayed next to his black and silver Tony for Hairspray .

“Hey, listen, anybody who is a mogul is an idol to me,” he said as he ogled a photo of himself with Steven Spielberg taken backstage after a Hairspray performance. “He loved it-loved it. We spent about 30 minutes together after the show.”

Mr. Epstein grew up in Miami Beach. His father ran a successful radiology practice, and his mother was a social worker. Mr. Epstein’s father’s family made loads of money selling gaskets to Ford and General Motors. Trips in the family’s company jet were not uncommon.

“My forebears are all descendants of scrappy Eastern European Jewish guys, who came over with nothing from Russia and Poland and went to work themselves,” Mr. Epstein said. “I guess that’s somehow the business version of the Mayers, the Goldwyns and the great showmen of old Hollywood.”

His passion for musical theater bloomed early: At age 5, his godfather, the New York publicist Charlie Cinnamon, took him to see Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan . At 13, Mr. Epstein started his own D.J. business, spinning records at birthday and New Year’s Eve parties. At his private high school, he had lead roles in The Wiz and Jesus Christ Superstar .

“I always thought I was older than I was,” he said. “I was so itching to get out of Miami. I always thought of myself as an adult trapped in a child’s body …. I remember when I was 14, at the time of the ’88 election. At school I would be like, ‘Did you see the debate? What do you think of Dukakis?’ Kids gave me weird looks.

“I used to go to my dad’s office or my grandfather’s office and hang out and try to learn things. I would think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could sit in the chair and delegate right now ?'”

His parents divorced when he was 16; his dad relocated to Aspen. Mr. Epstein attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts because “it was New York, and it was acting.” After two years he transferred to political science. Summers, he interned for Senator Phil Gramm in Washington and Rudolph Giuliani in Manhattan. Meanwhile, at age 20, he came out of the closet.

“My dad told me he knew I was gay,” he said. “I guess a parent can sense these things. The two pivotal moments in my life were my parents getting divorced, and coming out of the closet. I’ve been very centered about being gay. I’m not someone who is defined by it. I’ll absolutely admit it and won’t hide from it. But I don’t define myself by it. I define myself by me.”

Before Hairspray and Bonmar Entertainment, there were internships. Mr. Epstein’s first job out of N.Y.U. was at the Johnson-Liff casting agency.

“I did four internships and I was unpaid,” he said. “Nobody ever paid me. No one ever bought me a soda. Now, everyone comes in and is like, ‘I got to have this and that .’ I’ve had interns who have come in trying to make a deal . I said, ‘What, are you nuts ? You’re making a deal with the wrong guy.’

“It’s not about being cheap, it’s like, ‘What are you here for?’ I’ll be the first to tell you I’ve risen fast, and I haven’t not appreciated it. But I worked like a dog for hours as an intern. Filing, pouring coffee-all the horror stories. I did it all .”

After the internships, Mr. Epstein went to work for Marty Richards at the Producers Circle Company.

“His personality was evident every time he got on the telephone and started to raise money for shows we were doing,” said Mr. Richards. “He wanted to learn everything, and he did. And he remembered names-if you can’t remember names of directors, actors and writers, you don’t belong in the business.” Mr. Epstein was given a production associate credit for the 1997 Cy Coleman musical The Lif e. In 1998, he left Producers Circle to open up his own shop and spent $75,000 of his family’s money as the associate producer for the 1998 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge , which featured Anthony LaPaglia and Brittany Murphy.

“The money was mine and my dad’s,” he said. “And it was important to me to get that credit, even if it was linked monetarily, because I can at least show my face to someone else and get something out of it, and the next time I would bring more in.”

By 2002, he’d been a producer of a revival of Amadeus in London and New York, and revivals of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and A View from the Bridge . But he felt like he hadn’t done a really big show ….

“I felt like, with the other shows, everyone was like: ‘Oh my God, you’re doing great!'” he said. “To me, it was not where I wanted to go. There was a sense of being slightly dissatisfied. After doing Hairspray , I don’t feel malnourished now.”

Along the way he’d met producer Margo Lion, the woman who has mentored him. As lead producer on Hairspray , she brought him on board.

“I always say I ruined his life, because now he’s going to think they’re all like this,” said Ms. Lion. “And you’re lucky to have one show like Hairspray in your life. He’ll have his failures and moments of self-doubt. But I think he’ll be very resilient, and I think he’ll be very successful.”

She added, “One of the things that I find is a characteristic of Adam that I haven’t stumbled across a lot with young people is that he’s not intimidated about asking for money, or dealing with some very experienced partners on the business side. I was blown away when he had Senator Edwards in his office. There were a handful of us, and Adam was totally self-assured and not at all sheepish or insecure about having this guy in the room, a potential President.”

Mr. Epstein lives in a one-bedroom apartment near Riverside Drive. “My building is a modern high-rise, but I have to tell you, I can’t wait to get out of it,” he said. “It’s a cookie-cutter building. I don’t love the Upper West Side …. Everything is Starbucks, Baby Gap and Sleepy’s. I think I need to be in a lofty kind of thing in Soho.”

The conversation shifted to cars. “The truth is, if it’s raining or snowing, the real luxury is having a driver,” he said. “Not a limo-I find them just so gauche. Just some kind of sedan or a Lexus truck to drive around, because the dogs can go in it. I could take them to work-which I sometimes do-and have someone just on demand. It would be great,” he said. “That, and a Gulfstream V.

“To me, a plane is the greatest toy, because now flying is such a hassle,” Mr. Epstein continued. “With a private jet, you pull up to the Teterboro curb, get in and get out of there. The plane leaves when you leave. I can take my dogs. Right now, I’m building. I’m still building the empire.”

He said he’d like to be bicoastal, have a presence in L.A.

“That’s what I want: I want a place there and a Village-y loft in Soho,” he said. “That would be ideal. And obviously, ultimately, even if I don’t have a G.V., I’m beginning to get to a place that I can afford myself whatever it is. If I have to charter a plane to fly the dogs, I’ll fly them to stay out there. If I can maintain cleaning ladies while I’m gone, and caretakers, fine.”

Cry-Baby will be Mr. Epstein’s first major production in which he’s firmly at the center of the production team.

“My intention is, I know where we are financially, I don’t need any outside people,” he said. “Why should I take them? Who wants all those cooks making a soup? It’s less control; it dilutes your share. I’d rather take the risk. I just think that obviously I’m in a different position now. People have already called and said, ‘Can I partner with you on Cry-Baby ?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just not taking any partners.’ Not rudely, but it’s like, ‘If something comes along, I’ll let you know.’

“I love everybody,” Mr. Epstein continued. “But there are buttons in me you push, and it’s just a pet peeve. I love reading about all the old moguls, about Geffen, and all these guys have this thing where you know you just do not go there . If I have to put my foot down, I have. And if it means beating up on somebody, I hate to do it, but sometimes somebody just doesn’t get the point, and you say, ‘Listen, buddy, you better back off!'” Mr. Epstein pounded his hand on the table again.

Some of his current partners are just getting to know him.

“I didn’t know Adam that well-I just knew that he’s really effective,” said Brian Grazer from his Los Angeles office. “What I had known prior to that was that he had helped finance and produce Hairspray …. I found him to be dynamic and very interesting and fast-talking, and he knew mini-cultural references that I thought were peppery and fun. I could see the fit-Adam to Hairspray , Adam to John Waters-and, of course, when I met him, it could fit with me as well.”

“Adam’s a dynamo. He gets it,” said John Waters from his Cape Cod vacation home. “I remember him a lot in Seattle. That’s where we were trying out the play [ Hairspray ], and that is where things were certainly changing a lot. He knew how to get people to change to his way of thinking without being an asshole about it. That’s a major challenge as a producer.”

“He has definite opinions on everything,” said Harvey Fierstein, the gravel-voiced, house-dress-wearing lead of Hairspray . “He’s not afraid to tell me what he’s thinking, and he’s an honest person to work with. I trust him. I don’t feel like he’ll bullshit me.”

John Waters did have one caveat.

“I did ask him to hitchhike with me in Provincetown, and he wouldn’t-that’s the only thing we’ve ever disagreed about,” Mr. Waters said. “His greatest strengths are the ease in which he moves with investors, and his confidence in his vision. His most negative thing is that he won’t fucking hitchhike. And that is a problem.”

“The nice thing about Hairspray is that it came early in my career, where it will bring me a lot of financial gain, but it leaves me able to do much bigger things,” said Mr. Epstein. “People are telling me, ‘Now it’s time to hire more people.’ Hire more people to do what ? You go into Time Warner–Warner Brothers, and they want to see me . If I want to do the deal, I have people who can help me administratively. But what do I need development people for? To develop what? I develop it.

“Most people have a fear of success. I have an enormous fear of failure,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t want to go out for things they want. It’s kind of like when you liberate a country: ‘Now you have the freedom, what are you going to do with it?’ I’m like, ‘You give me the freedom, I’ll figure it out.’