Broadway Producer Ron Simons On His Career and Timeless Style
This feature is in the October Style Issue. Click here to subscribe.
PHOTO BY BOBBY QUILLARD
“I hate putting on a suit, but I do like putting on a nice sports coat with some nice jeans.” Notable four-time Tony award-winning Broadway producer Ron Simons’ style of dress is casual. His passion and drive for the arts, specifically theater, is absolutely not.
Simons grew up in Detroit, Michigan, an only child of a single mom and raised partly by his grandparents. Driven by wanting to create a more secure life for his soon-to-be-retired mother and retired grandparents, after college at Columbia University, he decided to go into the tech industry, moving to the Bay Area to begin a financially fruitful career, tucking his interests in the arts in his back pocket.
And the scholar did very well for himself.
“I know some friends of mine who go and chase eclipses all over the world,” Simons shared. “I could have done that, but I felt like I had something I had to do, some story I had to tell.”
Simons’ deep affinity for the performing arts kept him from settling down, like his eclipse-chasing friends. “I always had in the back of my mind this dream of acting,” the former technologist reminisced. “I was like, well, I really want to try it out. I felt I had something to say.” And his heart wasn’t wrong.
He left California and moved back to New York, diving headfirst into the entertainment industry. He became a company member at The Classical Theatre of Harlem, scored an agent, and then began booking television and film roles. As momentum in his acting career picked up, an observation shifted his direction.
“In 2009, I decided there was a lot of mediocrity out there,” Simons opined. “I saw a lot of plays and films that were whatever. I felt I could do whatever. In fact, I felt I could do better than whatever. I wanted to be a producer.”
He asked and he received.
Surprisingly, his first project as a producer was a film — 2010’s Night Catches Us, starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie as the leads. This gift of a first outing as a producer helped move him into Broadway, where his first production was a revival of ‘The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,’ which starred Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis. Luck or destiny, several more starry Broadway shows later, Simons carved out a unique space for himself in the industry, picking up acclaim and great notice along the way.
The 2021–2022 season on Broadway was challenging for Simons. Although he had three shows on the Great Bright Way, they all closed in unfortunate ways. Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations—a certified hit pre-pandemic in 2019—closed in January of 2022 to the surprise of many. Thoughts of a Colored Man, which opened in October 2021, was ravaged by the COVID omicron variant, abruptly ending its run in December of the same year. And his production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, the show’s first Broadway revival since its original staging in 1976, failed to find considerable audiences, even after the show received seven Tony nominations and a popular grassroots movement was created (by producer and writer Ayanna Prescod) to make tickets more accessible.
“I FELT I COULD DO BETTER THAN ‘WHATEVER.’” –RON SIMONS
In a regular season—one that wasn’t bouncing back after a 17-month shutdown, and one that wasn’t greatly dictated by many people’s continued fear of COVID—it’s difficult to not believe the shows would have fared better. Simons noted, “Those shows all closed prematurely before they should have, but I felt such great pride at having three shows on Broadway, all about Black people, in the same season.”
But a major part of Simons’ producing style, and personality, is persistence. And this season he’s back with a production of Death of a Salesman, a raved-about London transfer starring Wendell Pierce. Simons’ expressed, “I saw it in London and I sat next to [Pierce’s] attorney. At intermission, tears, just tears, tears, tears.”
Anticipating the opening night of Death of a Salesman (which was last month) brings about thoughts of the red carpet arrivals. Unlike movie premieres, the styles presented at a Broadway opening aren’t dictated by sex appeal and trends, but instead lean into, as Simon describes, something more expressive. And opening night isn’t the only place style is acknowledged.
Through the decades, the way Broadway audiences dress when attending a show has shifted from tuxedos and evening gowns to more comfortable streetwear.
“The world we live in is so much smaller. And because it is so much smaller … you may or may not necessarily get dressed to impress someone in places that years ago you would have dressed to impress,” Simons theorized.
This new “come as you are” outlook on style in the theater industry benefits the stories Simons places his belief and effort in. It offers space for more people from different backgrounds to feel welcome to his shows — a big part of his personal mission in producing. (“Part of my style is telling stories from a unique point of view, with a unique voice. That's my style as a producer and the work that I do as a producer.”)
Whatever the outcome on the business side of Simons’ newest venture this fall (he sees every show as a new company, with the producer in the position of CEO), the fact that the production raised the millions of dollars every Broadway show requires these days, booked a theater and, expectedly, will open is a miracle Simons has already performed many times over. And although he will likely give way to his disdain of suits and wear one opening night, his casual self-belief will likely quietly ponder about the next dream he’ll make a reality on Broadway or the silver (maybe streaming, in these times) screen.
Towards the end of our conversation, Simons said, “I tell you, sometimes I look at this industry and I go, 'What are you doing? Why are you here? What's happening? You know this is crazy,' because it's very hard to do this kind of work.” He continued, “But when I sit down in the theater and the lights go down and the curtain goes up, I literally get choked up.”
“So you say, would I do it over again? I wouldn't like to, but I would because of the end result."