From Zero to Reagan: Theater Publicist Susan Schulman Looks Back on Four Decades in the Business

If you can't beat 'em and you can't join 'em—represent 'em!

She micromanaged the money shot: the president, the first lady, ‘little Ronnie Reagan,’ his wife and Robert Joffrey. “I got Mr. Joffrey right in the middle so he couldn’t be cropped out, and, when I saw everybody was too spread out, I rushed up and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. President, could you get a little tighter, please?’ He knew exactly what I needed. He wasn’t an actor for nothing. We got the shot, and that picture ran on the front page of every paper in the country. As a result of that, the White House press director sidled up to me and presented me with a jewelry box and said, ‘The president would like you to have this.’ I said, ‘Oh, really? The president said, ‘”Make sure you give this to Susan Schulman?”’ He laughed and said, ‘This is actually quite high in the pecking order of White House goodies.’ I opened up the box, and it was a presidential bracelet with a bangle that had the president’s signature on one side. My mother, being the good Jewish mother she is, said, ‘Get it appraised.’ There was no K stamped on that bracelet, so I knew it wasn’t gold, but the value wasn’t in gold.”

Then there was that Star named Lesley Ann Warren, so billed in Dream, a musical revue celebrating the lyrics of Johnny Mercer. She was supported by lesser lights like John Pizzarelli, Margaret Whiting (Mr. Mercer’s goddaughter) and Jessica Molaskey. The latter did “Moon River” during the Nashville tryouts, but Ms. Warren pulled a Pearl Bailey and, invoking Diva Right, claimed the song for herself when the show came to Broadway. She got the song, but Ms. Molaskey got Mr. Pizzarelli.

When Sidney Zion, the journalist, caught an early preview and called Ms. Whiting to say he thought it was the best ensemble he’d ever seen on a stage, she relayed the news to the cast, annoying Ms. Warren no end. “Don’t ever say that again!” she told Mr. Mercer’s goddaughter. “I didn’t sign on to be part of an ensemble. I’m a star!’ Ms. Whiting replied, “Well, I’m a star, too, but I’m proud to be part of this ensemble,” prompting Ms. Warren to crow, “ No, you don’t understand. I’m a big star.”

Critics eventually stepped in to balance the books, paddling Ms. Warren while praising the ensemble. Humbled, she posted a notice on the company board that sent  “a psychic hug” to one and all. “Soon after that,” Ms. Schulman recalled, “she got a letter, hand-delivered to the theater, that said it would take more than ‘a psychic hug’ to right her wrongs. Obviously, it came from somebody in the company. We spent days discussing who it might be, but it was like Murder on the Orient Express. Ultimately, we realized it could have been from anyone of 50 people.”

Ms. Schulman’s memoir is full of such rollicking stories, but what mostly comes across is her undying love for the theater. “I remember going in and out of stage doors on a Wednesday matinee with my boss, Merle Debuskey,” she said. “And one day, he looked at me, and he sorta gleefully said, making fun of me, ‘Ya just love it, doncha!’ And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Don’t you ever make fun of that,’ because the fact that I can walk into a Broadway stage door and have someone say, ‘Hi, Susan, How are you?’ is amazing to me. There’s nothing cavalier or casual about it. The fact I belong and I’m a part of this and I’m a recognized player still awes me.”