Thursday, June 21, 2018
Stage

How a Largo doctor became a Tony-nominated Broadway producer

LARGO — Dr. Jeffrey Grove stitches up cuts, sets broken bones and treats infections, all of the things family doctors do every day. His father and grandfather did the same. Their diplomas in osteopathic medicine hang in his office near the antique examination table and matching pecan credenza he inherited.

Grove, 53, has devoted most of his life to the practice. But as most of his patients know, that’s not his only line of work. A collage from trips to New York depicts another world, as does a framed poster of the musical Once on This Island with his name above the title. In that world he is not Dr. Jeffrey Grove of Suncoast Family Medical Associates, past president of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians and the owner of several clinics.

He’s Jeff Grove, Broadway producer.

Grove put up a sizeable chunk of his own money to bankroll the popular musical, which opened in December at the Circle in the Square Theatre. By all accounts it’s an experience, the circular stage heaped with five tons of sand transforming it into a beach on the French Antilles, populated by folkloric gods who don costumes on stage before the show while villagers barbecue food and banter with patrons.

He’ll be in the audience at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday for the 2018 Tony Awards. The show has been nominated in eight categories, including best revival of a musical. The whole family is making the trip to New York, including Grove’s two children, his partner and his ex-wife. It’s all part of a personal renaissance over the last several years, during which Grove began investing in theater and came out as gay.

Once on This Island is just the second Broadway show he has co-produced and the third show overall. Putting your money toward theater, he said, is not about making money.

"Historically, it’s not a good investment," Grove said. "It’s about doing something that inspires you, makes you laugh or makes you cry. You have to believe in it."

Once on This Island premiered on Broadway in 1990. It was nominated for eight Tony awards in 1991, including best musical. He believed in it from the first time he saw the run-through. Grove attended an invitation-only, stripped-down performance in New York, the kind companies use to impress Broadway theaters and solicit investors. He watched from a circle of metal folding chairs, surrounding actors and a pianist.

They spoke and sang a story meant to comfort a little girl in the Antilles, frightened during a thunderstorm.

Here’s the plot. Daniel, aristocrat boy, nearly drowns. Ti Moune, peasant girl, rescues Daniel and nurses him back to health. They fall in love. Later, Ti Moune travels to the wealthy side of the island, only to watch Daniel marry his snooty girlfriend. She dies of grief. On the bright side, the earth goddess Asaka transforms her into a tree, which splits the gate separating the rich from everyone else. Love conquers all, but it takes a generation to get there.

Grove found the run-through inspiring; the cast led by Hailey Kilgore (Ti Moune), Isaac Cole Powell (Daniel) and Alex Newell (Asaka) impressive. It also moved him to tears.

"It was clear that it was going to be something special," he said.

He has returned at least 15 times to Circle in the Square Theatre, where it opened in December.

"I cry every time, even though I know what’s going to happen," he said. "There’s a whole issue with storms that have ravaged the Caribbean, there’s a parallel there. And, unfortunately, class and race, and I’ll say it, forbidden love."

Grove grew up in tiny Paxton, Ill. The family moved south, and he finished high school at Northside Christian in St. Petersburg.

He remembers being blown away by a performance of Oklahoma in Chicago. His own acting credits consists of a small role in a middle school operetta.

He began dating classmate Karen Hanlon, who shared his love of Broadway musicals. They went to Florida Southern College and married in 1989.

"He was quiet and very shy," said Karen Hanlon Grove, 53. "He was by no means an actor."

For decades, Grove devoted himself to family and his medical practice, acquiring or co-owning clinics in Largo, Spring Hill and Bradenton.

In 2012, Grove went to New York to see a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His old roommate at Nova Southeastern College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Michael Jackowitz, was co-producing.

Jackowitz pitched Grove on the joys of producing plays, meeting the key players and seeing them come together. Grove joined Witzend Productions, Jackowitz’s company, as a managing partner, entering an increasingly popular class of aficionados who live on the border between art and sales.

The term "producer" doesn’t carry the cachet it once did. Gone are the days when names like Joseph Papp, David Merrick or Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. single-handedly underwrote shows, swayed casting decisions and controlled content.

These days, dozens of people and companies put up significant cash to be listed "above the title," coveted real estate in any show’s billing.

A survey of investors by Ken Davenport, a lead producer for Once on This Island and earlier hits, including Godspell and Kinky Boots, found that investments for Broadway average $25,000, with a minimum investment of around $10,000 and $5,000 for off-Broadway.

A 2014 New York Times story went even lower, saying that a check for $2,500 and a little luck might be enough to brag on Facebook about being a "Tony-winning producer."

Grove gave six figures for Once on This Island. His name appears about a third of the way through a list of more than three dozen names above the title, for a show he said cost more than $6 million to produce.

"You want your name above the title," Grove said. "Those are the people who get an award if you get an award."

Grove started in 2015, investing in an off-Broadway production of Daddy Long Legs at Ken Davenport’s Davenport Theatre, where it ran until June 2016. In 2016, he jumped in on Tuck Everlasting, a children’s story that lasted just five weeks on Broadway.

"I put a lot of money into that show, but I’m proud of it," Grove said.

He invested recently in Escape to Margaritaville, a romance about a bartender and a tourist built around Jimmy Buffett songs, which opened March 15 at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. Producers learned this week the show will close July 1 and go on tour.

Besides perks — meeting Buffett and getting a signed poster, getting to know the cast of Once on This Island — there remains for Grove a deeper reason to stay involved, one that goes beyond sales figures.

He thinks about the way the show moves him, the physical reaction it provokes each time and how well that experience fits with his medical philosophy.

"The body-mind connection is one of the medical tenets of osteopathic medicine," Grove said. "It’s got to be doing something. Whether it’s endorphins — I don’t know how to explain it. But the building up of emotions, keeping something that is not good and to be able relieve that — to experience the highs, truly laughing, and experiencing the lows — that can be healing."

Apart from travel, producing shows didn’t affect his medical practice.

"He’s definitely a doctor first," said Gerald Sosa, 30, Grove’s partner. "He’s very loving and kind and he cares about people. This is something that lets him express the artistic side of what he does."

Grove doesn’t think he understood himself well when he married his high school sweetheart, or accepted his sexuality.

"For a lot of people in my generation, I’m sure they have not allowed themselves to be that way," he said. "I fought it for a long time, but decided I couldn’t do that anymore. Eventually, I met somebody. That’s when I talked to my wife about it all, and in the end we decided to go our separate ways."

The divorce was difficult, Karen Grove said, but both she and her ex-husband describe their relationship today as friendly. She supports his journey.

"It was a massive upheaval, yet we all came down in our own special place," she said. "There is something to be said for becoming authentic with yourself, and having permission to do that."

She decided to join Jeffrey and Gerald, as well as their children Garrett and Victoria and Garrett’s girlfriend at the Tony Awards, if Jeffrey can still snag a ticket.

Nominations for Once on This Island include Kilgore for best leading actress in a musical and best director for Michael Arden. Other nominations are for lighting, costumes, orchestration, scenic design, sound and the big one, for best revival of a musical, up against Carousel and My Fair Lady.

The actual award is eight inches high and weighs one pound, 10 ounces, embossed with the healing masks of comedy and tragedy. Grove hasn’t decided where his might go. But the checkout counter at Suncoast Family Medical Associates is in the running.

"It’s got to go somewhere," Grove said. "And this would be a logical place."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

     
   
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