Martin Richards, who began a show business career as a boy soprano and grew up to become a theater and movie producer who won an Oscar for the film adaptation of the musical “Chicago" 27 years after he helped bring it to Broadway, died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 80.
The cause was complications of liver cancer, said Michael Milton, a longtime personal aide to Richards and an associate producer at Richards’ production company, the Producer Circle.
Flamboyant and loquacious, wealthy and generous, Richards was a high roller in the theater world, and a high liver — especially after his marriage, in 1978, to Mary Lea Johnson, a Johnson & Johnson heiress, who gave him a mansion on Gin Lane in Southampton, N.Y., as a wedding present, where outlandish parties were legion during the 1980s. But far from being a rich dilettante, he was a true man of the theater and knew how to pick a winner. Broadway dimmed its lights in his memory on Tuesday night.
His Broadway credits include “On the Twentieth Century," Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman’s 1978 musical, which starred Kevin Kline, Imogene Coca, Madeline Kahn, Judy Kaye and John Cullum and won five Tonys; “Sweeney Todd," Stephen Sondheim’s grisly 1979 masterpiece, which won eight Tonys, including best musical; “La Cage aux Folles," Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s musical farce about gay-straight relations in a loopy, extended family (six Tonys); “Grand Hotel," a 1989 musical directed by Tommy Tune about the various guests at a Berlin hotel in the late 1920s (five); and “The Will Rogers Follies," based on the life of the plain-spoken humorist, which won for best musical and best score.
“Chicago," directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starring Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, opened in 1975 and was Richards’ Broadway producing debut. He was overwhelmed much of the time, fearful of the imperious Fosse and a junior partner to a more experienced producer, Robert Fryer. However, when Fosse had a heart attack, postponing the opening, it was Richards who stepped up and found the performers temporary jobs, earning Fosse’s respect and loyalty.
Richards was known as a producer who fell in love with his projects, and he probably loved “Chicago" most of all. A dark satire about two murderesses on death row, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb (the original production ran from 1975 to 1977; the current revival opened in 1996 and is still on Broadway), it followed a rocky path to the screen and didn’t make it until 2002, an achievement that by all accounts is owed to Richards’ tenacity.
“Marty just supported it so much; he just thought it was the greatest thing," Rivera, who eventually grew too old for a lead role in the film and played a smaller one, said in an interview on Tuesday. “He never gave up on what he truly believed in. He was a bulldog."