The text came in on a Thursday afternoon. The director of “Chicago,” the second-longest-running show in Broadway history, wanted to see the sole remaining member of the opening night cast the next day.
It was an unusual request. The cast member, Jeff Loeffelholz, an understudy who in recent years rarely performed, hadn’t met with the director in a long time.
The encounter was brief, but, for Mr. Loeffelholz, unsettling. In notes he jotted down and in text messages to a friend, he said that the director had been “brutal” and that the musical director had criticized his performance. At the end, Mr. Loeffelholz wrote, the director told him to “respect the production,” which he interpreted as a suggestion that he should consider quitting.
Six days later, Mr. Loeffelholz killed himself.
It is rarely possible to know exactly why someone takes his own life, and suicide generally has multiple causes.
But the death of Mr. Loeffelholz on June 29 has rattled the cast, crew and creative team of one of Broadway’s marquee shows.
“It’s something that has really unnerved the whole company,” Bruce Bonvissuto, a trombonist in the orchestra, said. “It’s really been a very difficult period to go out and do a show every night.”
However complex the causes of Mr. Loeffelholz’s death may be, widespread discussion of his final rehearsal has brought new attention to the way theatrical creative teams wield power in an era of increasing concern about how managers treat subordinates in the workplace.
“Since Jeff’s tragic death, we have heard from a new round of Equity members that bullying is still far too common in the theater, despite our work on harassment prevention,” Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors’ Equity, the union representing performers and stage managers, said.
Some have taken to social media to detail instances in which they felt mistreated or abused. “Backstage bullying is essentially Broadway’s dirty little secret,” Robert DuSold, an actor, wrote in a blog post about Mr. Loeffelholz’s death.
The show’s producers, director and musical director all expressed sadness over Mr. Loeffelholz’s death; the production and the director declined to comment on details while investigations are underway, while the musical director said she has always behaved professionally.
An investigation is being conducted by Actors’ Equity, which hired a lawyer to review the death and said it would share the results with the cast. The producers hired their own lawyer to investigate, but then decided to “rethink the process,” according to a spokesman, after that lawyer complained about a lack of cooperation from the cast, some of whom were suspicious about whether the show’s inquiry would be objective.
Anger has been directed at the producers and directors, but whether that is fair is a difficult question. Broadway, the mountaintop of theater, is by nature a demanding place. Tough rehearsals happen all the time.
And Mr. Loeffelholz, at 57, was dealing with the kind of career and life pains every actor goes through — indeed, the pains that many everyday workers go through. He was not getting any younger, and his character, a small but demanding role, was not getting any older. He and his partner had also lost control of a chocolate shop they ran in Rockefeller Center and were fighting with the owners.
But no one — not his friends, not his partner, not his bosses, and not his colleagues — seemed to know the depths of his despair until he was found, near death, in his apartment.
“Chicago,” a musical satire about a group of murderous women seeking to parlay their notoriety into careers in vaudeville, is among the best-known shows Broadway has produced; a 2002 film adaptation was the rare musical to win an Academy Award for best picture. The current Broadway revival — the original ran for two years in the 1970s — opened in 1996, and has been performed more than 9,000 times, grossing $625 million thus far; the show is also running in London, and has had multiple tours. Only “The Phantom of the Opera,” which opened in New York in 1988, has been on Broadway longer.
Mr. Loeffelholz was an unusual figure in the “Chicago” milieu — a standby for the character Mary Sunshine, a journalist with a soft spot for sob stories who is played by a male soprano dressed in women’s clothing. Mr. Loeffelholz’s responsibilities involved calling in eight times a week to see if he was needed, and, if not, staying near the theater while the show was running. When the revival opened, he signed a standard contract guaranteeing him a job for the life of the show; such a provision was not unusual, but most productions measure their life spans in months rather than decades.
The role was a dream for Mr. Loeffelholz, a theater lover who could sing high notes most men cannot reach. He brought a comic flair to the part, and took pride in the enormous applause he routinely received when his character is revealed to be a man.
“It was the perfect role for him — it fit his voice and it fit his personality,” a cousin, Donna Wynn, said.
Mr. Loeffelholz’s domestic partner, Peter De La Cruz, said the couple chose their apartment to be near the Ambassador Theater, where “Chicago” is performed, so he could dash over when needed, and when they would eat out, they would choose a restaurant in the neighborhood. “He loved it,” Mr. De La Cruz said. “Sometimes he would go on midway through the show. You have to have nerves of steel, and he did.”
Mr. Loeffelholz was born and raised in Norman, Okla. His father, Ray Loeffelholz, died by suicide at the age of 23, about three months before Jeff Loeffelholz’s birth, according to a friend and a news report at the time. His mother died, apparently of a heart attack, at 45, when Mr. Loeffelholz was in college; he sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel” at her funeral.
Jeff discovered theater in high school, and studied drama at the University of Oklahoma. In college he got experience performing in women’s clothing — appearing in drag in one of the plays that became “Torch Song Trilogy” — and began developing his soprano, at first as a way of mimicking the divas he adored.
“He lived as if in a musical,” said a friend, Bart Ebbink. “Certain songs would fit a situation he was in, and he would burst into song.”
Upon graduation, he, his boyfriend, and Mr. Ebbink piled into a car and drove to New York. They found an apartment in Astoria, Queens, and embarked on new lives; in 1986 he met Mr. De La Cruz, who was with him until his death.
Mr. Loeffelholz began performing in comedic cabaret acts where he would sing songs normally performed by women — at first in “Soprano Showstoppers,” and then, with Michael Tidd, in “Dangerous Duets.” He played Mary Sunshine in summer stock in Potsdam, N.Y., years before landing the Broadway standby role.
In the revival’s early years, Mr. Loeffelholz went on as Mary Sunshine many times, but in recent years he was rarely used.
Under the contract, Mr. Loeffelholz could be fired for cause. Or he could be bought out — a step that would have cost the budget-minded production, which has used tight cost controls to continue running for 22 years, about $30,000 to $40,000, according to his friends.
Adrian Bryan-Brown, a spokesman for the production, said “the amount of a buyout would not be a limiting factor in making decisions that benefit the production” and that “the producers had no reason to buy out Mr. Loeffelholz.”
Mr. Loeffelholz feared that the production no longer supported him, and he was worried when he was asked to come in just before a full-cast rehearsal, on June 22, to work with the show’s director, Walter Bobbie, and musical director, Leslie Stifelman.
Mr. Bobbie, 72, is an admired stage veteran with 21 Broadway credits as an actor, director and writer; he won a Tony for his direction of “Chicago.” Ms. Stifelman, 58, was a “Chicago” pianist who in 2003 was elevated to musical director; she conducts the onstage orchestra and speaks a few lines of dialogue. She has described the cast as family, and even met her wife, Melissa Rae Mahon, through the show.
Mr. Loeffelholz had no real relationship with Mr. Bobbie, and he felt that Ms. Stifelman didn’t like him, friends said.
“He thought something might be up,” said Brian Rardin, a close friend and Mr. Tidd’s partner.
Mr. Loeffelholz texted Mr. Rardin during breaks in the rehearsal, and jotted down notes afterward. “Walter was Brutal and I feel like it was a set up directed towards me personally!” he texted to Mr. Rardin. “They made me do the song about 5 times at one point he got mad and walked out.”
In the notes Mr. Loeffelholz left, he said that, as he repeatedly sang Mary Sunshine’s big number, “A Little Bit of Good,” Mr. Bobbie asked him to “quit overperforming it and being draggy”; said he couldn’t hear the song’s lower notes; and described himself as “very disappointed” and “very upset” before leaving the auditorium. Ms. Stifelman then said she wanted to work on the middle section of the song with Mr. Loeffelholz, saying “you always do it wrong,” according to his notes.
Much of his description was confirmed by witnesses who heard parts of it, but asked not to be identified because they feared endangering their positions with the show. Mr. Bryan-Brown said those descriptions “do not represent our understanding of the events of that day,” but declined to be more specific while the investigations are ongoing.
According to Mr. Loeffelholz’s notes, he and Mr. Bobbie had a brief final conversation at the lip of the stage, which none of the witnesses heard. He wrote that Mr. Bobbie had asked him to “respect the production,” said “I cannot tell you what to do, but 22 years”; said that he did not agree with run-of-production contracts; and said “you make more money than I do with this production.” (Mr. Bryan-Brown said the actor did not out-earn the director. Mr. Loeffelholz made an estimated $106,000 a year, the current Broadway minimum.)
Stage rehearsals, of course, can be demanding, and repeating a song or scene is common; witnesses said the interaction with Mr. Loeffelholz was not as tough as some they had experienced at “Chicago,” and a stage manager’s report that day noted nothing unusual. But the Mary Sunshine song is taxing for the male voice, and the exchange hit Mr. Loeffelholz hard. He was in a dark mood by the time he got home. “He was definitely upset, depressed, despondent,” Mr. Tidd said.
The following Monday, Mr. Loeffelholz met with a representative from Actors’ Equity, the union, to report the interaction. But over the next few days, he remained out of sorts. “He said, ‘I have a scarlet letter,’” Mr. De La Cruz recalled. “He was so mad that they took this route.’
On Thursday evening, Mr. Loeffelholz sent a round of texts to friends, saying “I love you”; wrote “No joy” on a notepad; and then swallowed a lethal amount of alcohol and pills. When Mr. De La Cruz got home from work, he found him unresponsive; the next day he was removed from life support. The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide.
Determining the cause of suicide is, of course, difficult. Many people are treated roughly at work, and even lose their jobs, without killing themselves.
Mr. Loeffelholz had experienced some financial stress. After working at, managing and investing in a Teuscher Chocolates shop in Rockefeller Center for years (he would often bring champagne truffles to “Chicago”), Mr. De La Cruz was laid off and Mr. Loeffelholz resigned in 2016, when the shop’s owner moved to bring in new leadership. The couple sued Teuscher, and the case is pending in state court.
“They weren’t struggling, but they were worried, and the stress of being an older performer on Broadway is tremendous,” said the couple’s lawyer, Juan C. Restrepo-Rodriguez.
“Chicago” performers interviewed said that, although they were stunned by Mr. Loeffelholz’s suicide, they were not surprised by the incident that preceded it. Multiple current and former musicians, most speaking anonymously because they feared retribution, said Mr. Bobbie could be intimidating and Ms. Stifelman could belittle or disrespect performers.
“She would regularly be cursing, slamming things, and trash-talking musicians and performers,” said Dan Peck, a musician who previously played the bass and tuba for the show. “And whenever Jeff was on, despite the audience loving him, she would be throwing shade and rolling her eyes.”
Ms. Stifelman, who has stayed away from the show since shortly after Mr. Loeffelholz’s death, disputed the descriptions, saying in an email, “In two decades working at “Chicago” I’ve trained hundreds of performers with the utmost of professionalism and respect and any insinuation to the contrary is just not true.” She said she never told Mr. Loeffelholz “you always do it wrong.”
“No words can ever begin to express how profoundly saddened I am by Jeff’s passing and for all that Jeff’s family and friends are going through,” she said. “In the 20-plus years I have worked for the producers of Chicago, my job has been the music, never hiring or firing, and in all that time without incident.”
She has support from Rob Fisher, the show’s original musical director, who said, “I’ve never seen her belittle or humiliate, and it’s hard for me to imagine that.” Mr. Fisher also said “everybody loved Jeff,” but added that the role of Mary Sunshine “is not something that people can do for 22 years — male vocal cords can’t sustain singing in that range.”
Mr. Bobbie declined to comment, but his union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, released a statement on his behalf. “With two investigations ongoing, it is not appropriate for our member Walter Bobbie or for S.D.C. to discuss the tragedy,” the statement said. “Walter is deeply saddened by Jeff Loeffelholz’s death and offers his sincere condolences to Jeff’s family and loved ones.”
Mr. Bryan-Brown said the production had received no prior complaints about Mr. Bobbie or Ms. Stifelman.
Initially the producers, Barry and Fran Weissler, named as their investigator a lawyer, Judd Burstein, who had represented them, leading some performers to believe he would not be objective. Many performers refused to meet with him, and another lawyer, Bruce Maffeo, appointed by Equity to conduct a separate investigation, discouraged such meetings. When Mr. Burstein publicly objected, and said Equity was in “circle the wagons mode” because of its own handling of Mr. Loeffelholz’s concerns, the Weisslers decided to reconsider how to proceed.
“It is important to them that both the unions and the company have confidence in the process for investigating the matter,” Mr. Bryan-Brown said.
Mr. Loeffelholz’s friends are hoping the investigations will have an impact.
“We want the whole truth,” said Marshall Coid, the “Chicago” violinist. “We seek change in his name as a fitting legacy for a wonderful and much-beloved man.”
While the investigations proceed, family and friends are planning an Aug. 7 memorial at St. Malachy’s Church, known as the actors’ chapel, where Mr. Loeffelholz, who was raised Catholic, would occasionally attend Mass.
And in a backstage stairwell at the theater, there are two tributes to Mr. Loeffelholz. In one corner is a shrine with candles, photos of Mr. Loeffelholz, and a plastic bag holding his body mic. And on the next landing, cast and crew have begun writing in iridescent markers on a black wall words expressing their hopes for change: “Love.” “Kindness.” “Support.” “Respect.”
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