When Broadway producers Rachel Sussman and Sammy Lopez see an open bag of rainbow confetti in the Playbill studio, their infectious smiles widen. “Are we going to throw confetti?” Sussman asks. The experienced producer, with all the tenacity and confidence of a theatre kid, clarifies that both she and Lopez began their careers in the arts as dancers. The utter delight that each of them exude, reaching carefully into the bag to grab handfuls of confetti, is palpable. For both Sussman and Lopez, that sense of joy and wonder is one theatre has inspired in them from childhood. In their work as producers, they are hoping to inspire that same sense of play.
Sussman and Lopez are transforming the landscape of the business side of theatre, paving a path for the queer women and gay producers of color of tomorrow.
This season, the Sussman is a co-producer on Parade and Prima Facie, the former just earned Sussman her first Tony Award (as part of the producing group Runyonland Sussman). She is also the Vice President of Plate Spinner Productions, which is a producer on Here Lies Love, and will be making her Broadway lead producing debut with Alex Edelman’s one-man show Just For Us, about Edelman’s experience as a Jewish man infiltrating a group of neo-Nazis.
Lopez’s Broadway co-producing credits include A Christmas Carol, The Kite Runner, and the Tony Award-winning A Strange Loop. Lopez also co-founded The Industry Standard Group, a cohort of BIPOC producers unified by their shared experience of often being the only person of color in the conference room.
“We had no end goal other than questioning what does it mean to invest or co-produce on Broadway,” Lopez explains, recalling the early days of The Industry Standard Group. “It grew into so many different avenues of community building, but what's at the center of it? It's a curiosity.”
Though they are friends and collaborators, Sussman and Lopez came to theatre through different avenues. For Sussman, it was a New Year’s Eve performance of Les Miserables she saw in the late 1990s. “I was enamored,” she says. The epic scale of the production, with its mesmerizing effects, the turntable, so suspended her disbelief that she remembers being shocked to see the young actor playing Gavroche come out to take his bow. “I thought that he died in battle!”
For Lopez, his first theatrical experience was in a gazebo in Los Angeles. “It was really my Abuelita that inspired this idea of art as community,” Lopez says. In the company of his grandmother, Lopez attended performances by Luis Valdez and the Latino Theatre Company, seeing his community on stage. What was happening in the audience drove him to be a theatre maker.
“I want to create that same feeling that I felt at that gazebo, but on the country’s biggest stage,” Lopez says. “To bring a community together in any given space and say, ‘Let’s breathe together. Let’s go on a journey.’”
As producers, Sussman and Lopez are gardeners, committed to the painstaking, often multi-year process of tending to a text and nurturing the artists behind it—with the conviction that, once blossomed, the piece will nourish countless others. The two also have a common ethos: If there is more diversity in types of stories and storytelling, there is a wider breadth of potential audience members and continued fodder for filling stages.
As Lopez explains, “It really widens perspective. You can sit next to someone that does not have the same background or lived experience as you, yet you can still empathize together.”
In 2019, Sussman co-founded The Business of Broadway, an educational initiative that pulls aside the iron curtain of sorts that separates those who see themselves as artists from those holding the purse strings. By leading courses which detail the conventions of commercial theatre-making, ranging from Producing 101 to Assessing and Transacting an Investment, Sussman seeks to build a more equitable Broadway business model.
Having worked closely together since Lopez joined The Business of Broadway in 2021, the pair are invested in each other both philosophically and literally. Lopez, now a partner in The Business of Broadway, is also co-producer in the Sussman-led Just For Us.
The pair are now such good friends that they often finish each other’s sentences. “We’re together, like, all the time having these conversations,” Sussman says through laughter.
In putting their ideas to action, Sussman and Lopez seek to democratize money making, demystifying who can produce and the pathway from page to stage. The perception of producers Sussman and Lopez hope to shatter through The Business of Broadway is that of multimillionaires who surround themselves with other multimillionaires, devoted to ticket prices and ticket sales.
“There is a strong misconception that producers hold all the cards, have all the answers, and are more interested in money than they are serving the show,” Sussman explains. “[Producing] is so much more involved and so much more complex than that.” The once-closed doors that withheld decision-making power from creatives are being pried open.
Lopez thinks of The Business of Broadway in part as a lesson in empowerment, the key to a transformed industry.
“The Business of Broadway is offering individuals, theatre makers, artists, or just fans of the theatre the opportunity to step into a space of agency,” Lopez states. “It’s offering people the chance to say, ‘Maybe I am a producer, and I didn’t even realize that I was.’”
In encouraging artists of all kinds to believe they can be a producer, Lopez anticipates an organic reshaping to the commercial Broadway landscape from conception to opening night. “Who is within the community and who is offered the invitation to be part of the community?” Lopez posits, emphasizing the importance of having artists, particularly from underrepresented communities, part of a show’s development from the very seed. “How do we start, and who is with us when we start?”
Aside from advocating for a more diverse group of producers, Sussman and Lopez are also focused on changing the types of stories Broadway is telling.
“What I am drawn to personally in storytelling is specificity that creates a universality,” Sussman says. “We should ensure that we are not only serving the usual theatre-going audience, but rather doing the hard work and investigation to expand the demographics and reframe who feels invited to experience each show.”
Speaking from the perspective of a queer Jewish woman, Sussman shares that she often looks for work that is going to make change. “I gravitate toward work that is going to have an activist societal leaning, that is going to galvanize people to do something,” Sussman says.
Sussman is very aware that women like her who have held positions of power in the industry are few and far between. Though mentors with her shared background are small in number, Sussman does not feel deterred. She feels emboldened.
Sussman states that, just as curiosity is a fodder for artistic collaboration and commercial success, so too is firgun. This Hebrew word, which Sussman defines as celebrating the achievements of others without jealousy, is emblematic of her belief that there is space for everyone.
“It feels like we are at the precipice of the new wave, this next generation of leadership," she says. “I believe very deeply in abundance and not in scarcity. I do feel a responsibility to bring more queer stories and Jewish stories to the stage, as well as those outside of my own lived experience, to develop more space for the stories that we know are out there but have not had a platform to be shared before."
At an early age, Lopez aligned acting with advocacy, a correlation he maintains in each of his projects. While growing up in Los Angeles gave Lopez examples of Latiné storytelling, that same representation was not present on the Broadway stage. Lopez is currently developing a piece with John Leguizamo, who allowed Lopez to laugh while inspiring him to want to make change. In seeing that type of storytelling, Lopez is continually asking himself how he is continuing the conversations he has with Sussman. “How do we use the actual device [of theatre] to push culture forward?” Lopez asks. “To push the culture and conversation forward.”
As such, Lopez calls himself a “proud gaytino," a term he attributes to his mentor, Dan Guerrero. The beauty of many identities, many perspectives shaping a piece of art, is something Lopez, like Sussman, sees in himself. And it’s something he wants to foster on Broadway. “It’s still tough at times to see what is landing on Broadway and how limited it is on the 41 stages we have,” Lopez shares. “That’s why I’m here. I’m here to build a path to leave the door open behind me.”
He then adds, “I just think it's one of the greatest gifts to produce.”