Roy Miller got his start in theater as a teenage apprentice sweeping floors at Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre. Almost four decades later, the Irvington native, now 51, is entering his second season as artistic director of that same Long Beach Island playhouse.
There’s no question Miller knows how to put on a show. His Broadway producing credits include the Tony Award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone and the recent revivals of West Side Story and Ragtime. He has also spent years working at the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
Now it’s up to Miller to find the right blend of shows, scheduling and financing to help the troubled Surflight back to stability.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do here,” says Miller, “and we are watching every penny. But we’re going to give people the Surflight they remember and love, and do it with a really close eye on the business side.”
Miller was brought on board last season after the previous management was terminated in 2010 amid charges of financial mismanagement. With debts mounting, the theater, a not-for-profit enterprise, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2011.
Miller is trying to turn around the situation with the help of Timothy Laczynski, his co-producer for the 2010 Broadway hit The Pee-wee Herman Show. Miller says Laczynski, who joined Surflight as executive producer, was key to ushering the theater out of chapter 11 reorganization in just 10 months.
“Last year was anything but fun,” says Miller. “It wasn’t just about running a theater, it was about saving a theater.”
That meant eschewing Surflight’s typical summer lineup of big musicals in favor of a series of shows with smaller casts featuring stars from classic TV series such as Judd Hirsch (Taxi), Dawn Wells (Gilligan’s Island), JoAnne Worley (Laugh-In) and Cindy Williams (Laverne and Shirley). These household names performed for little or no pay thanks to past connections with Miller. The lineup served Surflight well.
“It kept the doors open and got us through,” Miller says. “We were able to cut costs, while increasing revenue.”
This season, the challenge is to find the winning balance between the mainstage musicals that attracted LBI summer crowds in the past and Surflight’s leaner financial model. The task was complicated by an Easter Sunday fire at a neighboring restaurant, which damaged the theater’s largest housing unit for actors and its costume-storage facility. At press time, Surflight was asking for donations, assistance with alternative housing and the use of cars to transport actors. But Miller says the season will go on as planned.
Surflight’s 2012 season (which began in April and runs through December 21) will include two big summer musicals: Annie, from June 19 to July 21, and The Sound of Music, from July 24 to August 25.
The scheduling reflects a departure from Surflight’s summer-stock tradition of presenting its resident actors in a different show every other week. Miller says the shift, which will reduce costs, is based on audience research by Laczynski indicating that vacation patterns on LBI provide an entirely new audience to draw upon every week.
“We’re going back to what Surflight audiences will view as a more traditional model,” says Miller, who is also busy working on upcoming Broadway projects, including the new musical Animal House (with music and lyrics by the rock group Barenaked Ladies).
Those who have worked with Miller say his experience and entertainment-industry connections will help him turn Surflight around.
“If anyone can make this work it’s Roy,” says Gary Wellmann, who has been involved with a number of Miller’s Broadway productions. The Mountain Lakes resident recently joined Surflight’s board. “Roy’s got a real understanding for how to make things work on all sides—as a producer, fundraiser and former actor,” says Wellmann. “He and Tim have the cash-flow situation fairly well managed. Now we’ll see how this season progresses.”