Broadway producer who grew up in Dayton wins 13th Tony Award

Heni Koenigsberg co-produced ‘Stereophonic,’ winner of Best Play.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Winning one Tony Award can be considered a positive sign of validation but winning 13 Tonys proves you’re in a league of your own.

Last Sunday at the 77th annual ceremony honoring Broadway’s best, producer Heni Koenigsberg, who grew up in Dayton, picked up her latest Tony for shepherding David Adjmi’s humorous, heartbreaking and compelling three-hour comedic drama “Stereophonic,” which was nominated for a historic 13 Tonys and won five including Best Play.

Loosely inspired by Fleetwood Mac and set in a 1976 California music studio, the play, featuring exceptional original songs by Will Butler of Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire, chronicles the joys and feuds within a gifted band meticulously recording an album while on the cusp of superstardom.

“This is lucky 13 for me and it’s pretty wonderful,” Koenigsberg said. “Each time is wonderful, and you can never count on (winning) even if you’re the frontrunner. There were surprises this year. The only obvious favorite this year was ‘Merrily We Roll Along.’”

She was also nominated for co-producing Justin Peck’s stunning storytelling dancical “Illinoise,” which won Best Choreography and was nominated for Best Musical, as well as “Cabaret,” “The Who’s Tommy” and “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” all nominated for Best Revival of a Musical.” But she instantly knew she found something special in “Stereophonic” and was eager to champion such a singular work.

“David Adjmi is a brilliant writer and just a gem,” Koenigsberg said. “And as in independent film, such as the films of Richard Linklater, ‘Stereophonic’ gives you a moment in time. I worked for a long time as a makeup artist and it always felt like hurry up and wait. That’s what you did. And that’s what they were doing in the play.”

Born in Cincinnati, Koenigsberg now lives between Boston and New York. She says her love of the arts can be traced back to her time growing up as a theater kid. In addition to participating at age 9 in the “Once Upon a Time” children’s theater sponsored by Dayton’s Jewish Community Center, she fondly remembers appearing in a Thanksgiving play that fueled her love for the stage while in second grade.

“I was a stand-in and the kid I was standing in for was the understudy,” Koenigsberg recalled. “He got sick and I had one line to say. I was hooked.”

While in high school in the 1960s she was grateful to attend Dayton’s Living Arts Center, a federally-funded after-school program for elementary and high school students. She regards the center housed on Linden Avenue as an influential haven for various disciplines such as creative writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts.

“The Living Arts Center saved my life,” Koenigsberg said. “Hollywood people came to visit us like Agnes Moorehead and Roscoe Lee Browne. And I knew theater was for me. Nobody asks you for a career in theater — it’s a calling. It just is. You just have to do it.”

Having worked as a special effects make-up artist for film and video, Koenigsberg turned her attention to producing roughly 15 years ago. She has received Tonys for co-producing such terrific, critically acclaimed productions as “Leopoldstadt,” “The Lehman Trilogy,” “Company,” “Hadestown,” “The Inheritance,” “Hello, Dolly!,” and “A Raisin in the Sun” to name a few. Her West End credits include “Dear England,” which won the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony) for Best Play this year.

Koenigsberg doesn’t limit herself when assessing what she feels is worthy of producing but there are certain factors that are paramount.

“I want something with commercial appeal but also something that pushes the boundary of the art — pushes it ahead, pushes it forward, hence ‘Illinoise,’” she explained.

Showcasing the beautifully contemplative songs of Sufjan Stevens, “Illinoise” is near and dear to Koenigsberg’s heart. The show is scheduled to close Aug. 10 but is expected to have a London mounting.

“It’s a gem of an artistic show — it’s gorgeous,” she said. “Sometimes the ‘art show’ wins (the Tony), and I like to support the art shows, but other times they don’t get recognized. ‘Illinoise’ had an incredible score but it wasn’t original. Broadway likes to honor shows that have original scores, and I think that was a factor this year.”

Looking ahead to next season and potentially next year’s Tonys, Koenigsberg is excited to co-produce the revival of “Gypsy” starring six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as well as the Broadway premiere of Susan Stroman’s musical “Smash,” based on the NBC series of the same name.

“Let’s face it — Audra can sing the phone book,” Koenigsberg said. “And ‘Smash’ is Susan Stroman at her best. Steven Spielberg is also one of the lead producers.”

She also has her sights set on co-producing the new musical adaptation of “Buena Vista Social Club,” based on the documentary of the same name, and the revival of “Sunset Boulevard,” the remarkable, visually splendid London hit starring Olivier Award winner and Wright State University alumna Nicole Scherzinger. She is confident New York audiences and tourists alike are ready to support Broadway to the fullest post-pandemic.

“The numbers are definitely climbing and people are coming back,” Koenigsberg said. “They were reluctant for a while but there is no question we see an increase. People have been going to see ‘Hamilton’ and ‘The Lion King,’ but if you give them a show they really want to see they will go. People see what they want to see.”

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