In so many showbiz movie musicals, a young ingénue makes her way to New York with nothing more than the dream of hitting it big on Broadway. However, what's never shown is when their dream is not to be in a show but a hero backstage, creating the magic that that is The Great White Way.
Enter Jennifer Tepper, a widely recognized name in the Broadway community, respected by big stars, directors and producers, alike. Author of The Untold Stories of Broadway, Part One and programming director at the celebrated cabaret venue, 54 Below, Tepper has amazingly accomplished this all before the age of 30.
Tepper's story however, is just as interesting as those brought to life on film, and itself makes for an inspiring coming of age tale about a girl who sets her mind on a dream and grabs every opportunity to accomplish it.
Like so many who dream of making it in New York, Tepper, who spent her youth in Boca Raton, FL, was transported to the Big Apple through the magic of Broadway cast albums. "I was obsessed with theater from a very young age," Tepper shared in a recent interview. "My mom and dad were very supportive of that, so in lieu of ever getting anything else -- like any time I had allowance, or during Hanukkah -- I would get cast albums."
Instead of just being a hobby though, she explains that, "I really learned the [Broadway] canon from cast recordings, and [because of it] I've become a professional musical theater nerd." A phrase she says proudly, Tepper went on, "I feel like I'm living the dream."
Although she studied theater in high school, Tepper knew early on that performing wasn't the path she wanted to pursue. "I loved to perform, but I knew I didn't want to do it professionally... I do think, however, that it's important, no matter what you do in theater, to have that experience."
Having only visited New York three times before graduating high school, Tepper made her way there for college to major in dramatic writing at New York University and use every opportunity to see shows. At school she decided she wanted to be a musical theater historian, something she's accomplished outside of 54 Below through the first installment of her book, with a second to be released soon.
With her big and brazen personality, Tepper took a chance on inviting Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, creators of a musical, to a production she put on and in return they quickly invited her to be their intern -- or "helper monkey" as she describes.
In a moment of good luck, the team learned they would be heading to Broadway, so just a few weeks after graduation Tepper found herself in a Broadway rehearsal room. She says, "I'll never forget how lucky I was to have that happen in that timeframe."
Grabbing every opportunity she could to be in show production, Tepper secured spots as a production assistant (PA) for any show that would accept her, while also "day jobbing it up," including as a tutor.
Reflecting on her commitment and focus on an ultimate goal, Tepper tells her interns at 54 Below that "sometimes you just have to do a million things for awhile, and it's a great and positive thing before you land 'that job.'"
Proving her point, at the same time she served a PA, Tepper was producing and writing her own concert series called If It Only Runs a Minute about short-lived musicals. Through that she was approached by a producer who recognized her writing skills and asked her if she'd like to pitch a book.
The result was The Untold Stories of Broadway, a concept she had been thinking about for a long time, to tell the stories of Broadway's many theaters. "I had been obsessed for a long time with the individual theaters and the idea of what had happened in the buildings throughout the years, with all the shows that had been in them."
"There were these concerts that I had been doing forever and if [her publisher] hadn't come to see one, there wouldn't be a book." "If you do what you love and put it out there, someone will see it," Tepper explains. "You have to keep doing those things because that's what leads to the next thing."
Simultaneously, Tepper had moved up from being a PA to the Marketing and Promotions Director at Davenport Theatrical Enterprises, but it was again through producing concerts that she was recognized by the owners at 54 Below, and asked last year to come on board as Programing Director.
Joining the team at 54 Below at the same time as finishing her book, Tepper understandably explains that she had "a lot of things in the last year that I'm really proud of." Hobnobbing with some of Broadway's biggest stars she says it's "the variety that makes it so good to work here. We have an 80-year-old at 7pm -- a Broadway legend -- then at 9:30pm we have somebody just starting out and then at 11pm we have the cast of Matilda."
Shedding light on the secret to her success, Tepper advises that for children who want to work in theater, they should realize that there "are so many things you can be a part of." "If you're someone who is really interested in theater and you're figuring it out, try to intern in house management or costume design. Try to study these things in college and try to learn from people who are working on shows around you."
"I just feel the best advice is to take advantage of everything around you and learn from it--do a bunch of different things."
As we continue our conversation over dinner at 54 Below, a gentleman interrupts and asks Tepper if she has Neosporin (apparently dealing with a cut) and says, "I figured if anyone would know, it's Jennifer." Despite how much she's accomplished in just a few years, Tepper maintains her warm, humble and approachable personality, one that has surely helped her succeed. "I do know we have a first aid kit," Tepper quickly responds. "See, at 54 Below, it's like running a theater and a restaurant, and a playground, and a college dorm. People will come up to me over the course of a night and ask everything from how to work the cappuccino machine, to what the next Broadway show is that the person on stage is doing, to what the loudest song in the set is, to where the Neosporin is. It's just a million things."