By Tom Lady
Get in on the Ground
“It’s so enjoyable to work on something new. There’s great pleasure in helping build performing arts organizations ….This goes back to my Off-Broadway days in New York, when I joined Circle Rep just as the company was reorganizing under new leadership. That hands-on experience is incredibly rewarding, satisfying and well worth my time and energy.”
They say you should try to get in on the ground floor of any venture. That way, you can influence its growth and evolution. You can learn from it while it learns from you. Always the ideal situation, right?
Most of us are lucky to find that harmony even once. Gary Murphy, on the other hand, catches that lightning seemingly wherever he goes, starting a quarter-century before he arrived at LA Opera as its first ever Director of Public Relations.
To wit: Throughout the eighties, Gary worked in PR, marketing, and advertising for then nascent Off-Broadway venues such as the above-mentioned Circle Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club, Classic Stage Company and New York Theater Workshop. “The 1980’s were a great time for American theatre, particularly Off-Broadway. It was vibrant, creative and a heck of a lot of fun,” Gary says.
When he relocated to the City of Angels in September of 1991 to follow his now-husband Jason for the latter’s burgeoning career in film and television casting, Gary first landed a political consulting position. California politics were undergoing a seismic shift, what with the elections of Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein to the U.S. Senate. Gary met and collaborated with local leaders in the political as well as entertainment industry. Not only did he experience a new political reality for California from the ground up, but he found a job that showed him how his new city worked from the inside. “L.A is unlike anywhere else in the world. In New York you know where everything is thanks to the tidy grid structure and great mass transit system. Fashion District is down there, Financial District over there… But L.A.? That’s a real learning curve for sure.”
Geffen and Operalia
In the mid-nineties he synched up with the great Gil Cates, director and producer extraordinaire. Gil had just acquired the Westwood Playhouse and it was his mission to create a resident theatre company associated with UCLA’s School of Film, Television and Theatre. With David Geffen’s initial support, the Geffen Playhouse was born and Gary worked with Gil to get the new company off the ground and help establish it on the greater LA cultural landscape. Towards the end of his fifth year with the Geffen, a certain legendary tenor joined LA Opera as artistic director. This legend wanted to bring his Operalia competition to the U.S. for the first time and, better yet, host it at UCLA’s Royce Hall. As it turned out, Gary and Maestro Plácido Domingo had friends in common who brought him onboard to help launch the international vocal contest in L.A. That was how Gary landed the gig to promote the very first American iterations of Operalia.
Now let me ask you: How do you think this self-described “New Yorker who lives in L.A.” followed up the Geffen and Operalia adventures?
Hello, LA Opera!
If you guessed that he went on to become LA Opera’s first ever PR Director, you nailed it. While LA Opera wasn’t brand new in 2000, it was undergoing a big transition with the end of Peter Hemmings’ tenure. At the time, Gary was an LA Opera subscriber and vividly recalls seeing the final performance of Billy Budd in the spring of 2000. “When the curtain calls were winding down, a shy Peter Hemmings stepped out from stage right and waved goodbye to the audience. It was a very sweet and poignant moment,” Gary remembers.
A few months later, Gary found himself behind the PR director’s desk at LA Opera. Although he didn’t start going to opera until he was a young adult, opera-going had become a habit and he knew more than enough about the art form to make a company like LA Opera shine. “Opera is not different from theater, it IS theater,” Gary says. “But with a bigger budget. The orchestra often has 75 musicians instead of 12 in a Broadway orchestra pit. It’s theater on steroids. Opera is organized chaos, so big and massive, and with so many moving parts, everything and everyone has to work together to create the perfect moment, that sublime moment.” When he arrived at LAO, folks weren’t used to having in-house PR. Gary laughs at the resistance he faced when he changed things up. “Folks were used to doing things a certain way. But I said, ‘We’re still a new company. Let’s try and rethink how we do things.’”
The PR World Demystified
“Public relations is basically about presenting your client’s positive image to the greater public. My job at LA Opera, in a nutshell, was to devise a strategy to share LA Opera’s amazing work with the outside world. It overlaps with advertising and communications. You have to all be on the same page all the time. PR and advertising are two sides of the same coin….PR is the unpaid promotion, such as stories, reviews, feature articles, online buzz, TV and radio, while advertising is paid promotion.”
Next up: Gary Murphy PR and Consulting
After 15 years of the day-to-day at LAO (half of LAO’s life to date), Gary says it’s thrilling to have stepped away to create his own business: Gary W. Murphy Public Relations Consultant. Don’t think he’s completely out of LAO’s orbit either. Besides being on the League’s Board of Governors, he’s working with LAO on promoting their thirtieth anniversary season
Two of his other clients right now are The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Northridge. Once again, he’s getting in when these organizations are still nascent, what with the former being three years old while the latter’s only two. Both present a wide assortment of performance from classical to pop, from dance to theater.
Coming up on October 28, the Wallis will present James Conlon conducting the works of Walter Arlen with musicians from Colburn School in The Poet in Exile.
Additionally, Gary is working with the L.A. Tourist and Convention Board on a cultural tourist promotional initiative about the top dozen performing arts organizations in our fair metropolis.
Food and Thoroughbreds Are Like Theater Too
“I spend an inordinate amount of time at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market,” Gary says. “I’m a foodie. Some of my favorite people in LA are at the farmers markets around town. I love the vibrancy of the market and the discovery of new things. Jason and I are both good, adventurous home cooks. He specializes in elaborate dinners while I like breakfast and lunch so we don’t run into ‘kitchen conflict’ at home.”
Gary’s other little-known passion is the racetrack. “I love Santa Anita, the ritual of the racetrack, the horses, the fashion, the guesswork and the betting.” He reminds us, “There’s no such thing as the sure bet! I still make my annual pilgrimage to Saratoga, New York, once a summer.” Indeed it was at Saratoga where a ten-year-old Gary saw his first race. There was no going back after that. “Horse racing is like theater. You begin with great anticipation for each race which has a complete narrative arc—a fast beginning, an ever-changing middle, and an end usually filled with drama, comedy, and tears….It’s thrilling. When you go, you should stand at the rail and get as close as possible. When the horses burst out of the starting gate you feel this huge wave of power and energy. It’s an amazing experience.”
The live moment, lived well.