With business savvy and heart, president Judith Lisi helps the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to soar.
Published Oct. 21, 2007|Updated March 5, 2009

When the smash musical The Producers opened on Broadway, Judy Lisi was there, celebrating with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker and other big names.

When a producer held a luncheon to honor Oprah Winfrey for her investment in The Color Purple, Lisi was seated next to the guest of honor.

Lisi, president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, isn't easily dazzled by stars. But during the cab ride to meet Mikhail Baryshnikov on a rainy afternoon earlier this year in New York, she was excited. "In the performing arts, it doesn't get any bigger than him,'' she said.

When Lisi entered the Baryshnikov Arts Center, he greeted her with a bashful nod and a handshake. Dressed in a taupe suit and suede shoes, glasses perched on his nose, he seemed more graying accountant than soaring dance legend, glumly talking about the money he needs to raise for his new center. He only perked up when the subject turned to dance.

"I thought that was very revealing,'' Lisi said later. "He's not dancing anymore, and that can be a hard thing for a performer. That's what he loves to do.''

The episode also revealed something about Lisi, a star on the tough stage of the performing arts. For 15 years, she has been building relationships to bring dance, music and theater to the Tampa Bay area. She does it by blending impressive business savvy with the personal warmth of the Italian matron she is, the enthusiasm of the musical theater ingenue she was and the listening skills of the Roman Catholic nun she once felt called to become.

A meeting that started rather unpromisingly ended with Baryshnikov and Lisi agreeing to stay in touch about a possible collaboration between his organization and the Tampa center.

No deals were cut, no contracts signed, but Lisi made sure a seed was planted.

"Something might come of it, but it might take a year or two to get off the ground,'' Lisi said. "But these meetings you have to have just to see what's there.''

Who you know

"Relationships are everything in this business,'' said Lisi, 61, a consummate networker who has turned TBPAC into a bustling success, with a budget of $44-million in the 2007-08 season. The downtown Tampa complex, perched on the Hillsborough River, is the largest nonprofit cultural institution in Florida.

On many nights, there are events in each of the center's four halls. Students from the adjacent Patel Conservatory add to the mix. The biggest venue, Morsani Hall, ranked fourth last season in overall ticket sales among facilities its size worldwide, according to Billboard magazine.

Much of that success owes to the popular Broadway subscription series on which TBPAC stakes its identity. This season, Lisi is presenting the series without a longtime partner, a calculated risk that could prove pivotal in boosting the center's income. (See accompanying story above.)

Her annual compensation is $336,930, plus $63,816 in benefits, according to TBPAC's 2005 nonprofit tax return, the latest on public file at the center.

The board thinks so highly of Lisi that it gives her a discretionary fund - $300,000 this year - to invest in Broadway shows. This makes her popular with producers, whom she visits on frequent trips to New York.

"I have never come across a business that is so relationship-driven,'' said Martin Silbiger, a Tampa radiologist and chairman of the TBPAC board. "Judy understands how to put together these relationships in a way that presents our opportunities down here to producers in New York in a very effective way.''

Usually staying at the no-frills Edison Hotel in the theater district, Lisi follows a tightly organized schedule of shows and meetings with Broadway producers, booking agents and others in the business.

"I have big, deep, long relationships with these people, but on top of that, money talks,'' Lisi said of her allowance from the board. "When I'm a player with money to invest, I have an opportunity to secure shows for Tampa if they become hits.''

Spiritual outlook

Judith Tarinelli grew up in Fairfield, Conn., daughter of a home builder who named streets for his family. (There is a Tarinelli Circle and Judith Drive in nearby Trumbull.) For a young woman of her generation in a devout family, the notion of becoming a nun was not too unusual.

"They would tell you in Catholic school that God calls you to do these good works. It certainly appealed to the ego, if nothing else, that you were getting a call from God.''

At 17, she entered a convent run by the Sisters of Mercy in the former W.T. Grant estate on Long Island Sound.

"I loved being a nun. I loved everything about it,'' said Lisi, adding that she gave up the convent after becoming disillusioned with the church. Still, that early training continues to inform her outlook.

"Because I was a nun, I think of the world spiritually,'' she said.

"I always say to my staff, look, we don't sell a product, all we're selling is an experience. And what is it? I think theaters are secular temples where people come together to see a kind of ritual onstage. It's a spiritual experience.''

At age 20, she left the convent to get a bachelor of arts degree at Sacred Heart University. There she met her husband, Ernie Lisi, who had studied to be a Carmelite monk. He went into business, working as a human resources manager for Pitney-Bowes and GTE. He's now a training specialist at the Learey Technical Center in Tampa.

The Lisis have been married 38 years. Judy tears up when she talks about her husband, a big, genial guy who loves opera and film and philosophy.

"He's been with me every step of the way,'' she said. "Coming from such a strict, orthodox background, if I had not had that encouragement, I don't think I would have had the courage to do, or even thought of doing, a lot of what I've done. Whatever we've done, we've done it hand in hand.''

Lisi's 98-year-old mother lives with the couple on Harbour Island, a short drive from TBPAC in downtown Tampa. The Lisis have a son and daughter in their 30s, both living in Tampa.

Lisi went on to get a master's in theater and communications from St. Louis University, worked on a doctorate in theater at the University of Minnesota and studied as a singer at Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera.

Asthma and parenthood cut short Lisi's performing career. In 1980, she became artistic director of the Downtown Cabaret Theater in Bridgeport, Conn., where she had been an actor, and directed shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Pippin.

Lisi's favorite musicals are Man of La Mancha and Les Miserables.

"They're both about people ready to sacrifice for the greater good,'' she said. "They're both about believing your life can make a difference.''

Regards to Broadway

When Lisi took the job as TBPAC president, the board was worried about a deficit of almost $3-million.

They told her she could do as she pleased, as long as she erased the deficit. She appreciated that - and Tampa.

"As an Italian, I liked that Tampa had a kind of ethnic base,'' she said. "If it was someplace else in the South, I don't know if I could have been as effective. I also liked that in Florida, unlike older communities in the North, you have an opportunity to build something from the ground up.''

Lisi had been executive director of the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, famous for pre-Broadway tryouts - Oklahoma! premiered there. After starting in 1984, when the Shubert was deep in debt, she turned things around quickly. The key was Broadway.

Lisi's career parallels the rise of a lucrative industry built on subscription series to touring Broadway musicals, from Cats and The Phantom of the Opera to recent blockbusters like The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Wicked and Jersey Boys. With about 70 percent of TBPAC's ticket revenue coming from Broadway shows, she needs to know her way around an eccentric, unpredictable, highly personal business.

Lisi remembers vividly her first trip as a young, unproven executive to meet with Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the powerful Shubert Organization. Stagehands in New Haven told her Schoenfeld was worth knowing as she struggled to keep the theater's doors open. ("If you want to learn this business, you go to the stagehands,'' she said.)

"I was a nervous wreck,'' Lisi said. "I had on this white winter coat and I dressed up really nice. Sitting in the anteroom, waiting for them to call my name, my knees were literally knocking.''

Schoenfeld - who has a Broadway theater named after him - was fond of the historic New Haven theater and wanted to help.

" 'You don't know a lot about Broadway, do you?' '' Lisi remembered him saying. "And I said, 'That's right, sir. I know a little about opera. I've done cabaret work. But other than seeing Broadway shows, I don't really know anything about it.' 'Well,' he said, 'We're going to teach you about Broadway.' ''

The most important lesson: "At the end of the day, you build your reputation by exploiting your market,'' she said. "The producer has got to make his nut, or you've failed.''

Difficult to diversify

If TBPAC has flourished with Broadway, it has not had the same success nourishing local arts organizations. Only Lisi's passion for opera has kept her loyal for more than a decade to the opera company she created, despite dismal attendance.

"It's heartbreaking when you work so hard on something,'' she said of last season, when Opera Tampa productions of Romeo et Juliette and Il Trovatore played to half-full houses. She hopes this season's double dose of Puccini - La Boheme and Tosca - will draw better. She has hired opera great Sherrill Milnes and his wife, Maria Zouves, to energize the company.

A dance audience has been even more elusive. Lisi has brought in several ballet companies to be in residence, but none lasted. She's trying again with Orlando Ballet, which performs three programs this season and teaches at the conservatory.

Her most conspicuous failure has been with the Florida Orchestra, which often can't perform at acoustically superior Morsani because the hall is tied up by Broadway shows. The orchestra's audience at TBPAC has dwindled, and many blame her.

"Guilty as charged,'' Lisi said, insisting Broadway must be the priority because it pays the bills. "I feel bad about it, and I want to support the orchestra. But at this point, I don't really have an answer, my board doesn't have an answer, and, frankly, the orchestra doesn't have an answer.''

Even so, the orchestra's retired president, Leonard Stone, has nothing but praise for Lisi. "She's as good as any arts executive I have ever encountered,'' said Stone, who has more than 40 years of orchestra management experience. "She could hold her own anywhere. She's just that good.''

Judgment, leadership

After meeting with Baryshnikov, Lisi took a cab to the Harvard Club. There she joined Annette Niemtzow, a producer whose credits includeFrost/Nixon, for which Frank Langella won a Tony Award this year.

"It's almost 3 o'clock, so I'm going to have a glass of red wine,'' announced Lisi, as she and Niemtzow traded gossip about a recent flop, the musical High Fidelity,in which TBPAC had invested $50,000.

Lisi, in a smart blue suit, and Niemtzow, wrapped in a brightly colored shawl, huddled companionably in the dining room, chatting about books they were reading. Niemtzow has a doctorate in English literature from Harvard, and Lisi counts Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates and A.S. Byatt among her favorite writers.

Both women are active in the League of American Theaters and Producers, where the interests of Broadway producers and regional presenters are sometimes at odds. Lisi, a member of the league's executive committee, is known for building bridges.

"Judy is considered a leader in the Broadway community,'' Niemtzow said later. "She has a deep knowledge of both the presenter's market and the producer's market, and whenever there's an issue under discussion, she quickly becomes the voice of reason. Part of this is pure intellect. She takes in information exceptionally well. But it's also because her judgment is sound. If Judy goes along with something, other people will do it as well, because they know she doesn't take excessive chances.''

That afternoon in New York, Lisi and Niemtzow had a deal to make.

"What I want from you is $30,000. That's 2 percent (of the total investment),'' said Niemtzow, making a pitch for Be, performed by Mayumana, a dance-theater troupe from Israel. She described it as "Stomp meets 'O' (the Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas extravaganza) meets Rent.''

Everybody wants to find the next runaway hit, and Stomp is like the Holy Grail, a low-cost show with a cult following that grew into an international sensation, paying back investors 60 times over. Lisi booked the first tour in 1996.

"There was no frame of reference to judge it by,'' she said. "I had seen it and thought it could be really good.''

Lisi thought Be, too, was worth a gamble, but the show closed after a brief run in New York.

"They can't all be hits,'' said Lisi, whose best investment ever was the $50,000 she put into The Producers. It returned almost 200 percent to TBPAC.

Her heart is in it

Sometimes Lisi thinks it would be interesting to become a fulltime producer. She surely has a shrewd sense of what works. At a performance of Mary Poppins, the costly musical that hasn't done as well on Broadway as expected, she had these pithy observations:

"That's the money right there,'' she whispered during the first act, as a mammoth set depicting the upstairs nursery descended.

During a number in which menacing toys came to life, Lisi noticed a frightened little girl in the audience jumping into her mother's arms. "Not the best endorsement for a children's show,'' she said.

When Bert, the chimney sweep, scampered upside-down along the proscenium arch, Lisi wondered why attachments on his belt and shoes were not concealed. "It's a no-brainer,'' she said.

Lisi has received plenty of offers to work on Broadway, but always decides thatTBPAC, Tampa and the relationships she has cultivated so carefully are what she wants to keep building.

"I enjoy being in New York, but I am always happy to be on the plane going back home to Tampa.''

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or