Train in vain


Robert Lang (personal trainer; Broadway theater producer)

Income: $60,000 (1998)

Health Insurance: $60/mo. (copayment)

Co-Op Mortage and Maintenance: $772/mo.

Utilities: $40/mo.

Phone: $30/mo.

Food: $125/mo.

Transportation: $165/mo.

It was Norma in his water aerobics class who got the whole thing going. “She used to be a dancer with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly and she’s been investing in Broadway shows for years,” Robert Lang said, sitting underneath a twinkling chandelier at Tavern on the Green at the Lonesome West opening-night party. He was explaining how he, a personal trainer, came to be a big Broadway producer in only a month.

“Norma takes my class at the New York Health & Racquet Club. She’d invited me to Beauty Queen of Leenane a year ago. I’d already seen it in London, but I’m not passing up opening night. So she was part of the group mounting The Lonesome West, and she’d promised them $150,000 minimum, which would get her name above the title. The show costs $1.2 million to mount. I said I’d help her raise as much as I could. I talked to my clients. There we are, all pumping iron. I went back to Norma and said, I can get you $50,000. Then things began to snowball. On March 24, it was a Thursday, I got a phone call from Randall Wreghitt offering me an associate producership— my name below the title— if I could raise $100,000 on my own. That was one of the happiest days of my life.” Lang raised $87,000. He got his name in. “I could have raised more if I had more time. Forty-eight thousand dollars came out of my life savings. No, I never questioned doing this.”

Because of the potential success of the play? “No, because of seeing my name in lights. I have no talent as an actor. I’ll do anything to be in a show. From the day I saw my first Broadway play in October of 1963, Traveler Without Luggage starring Ben Gazzara, I was mesmerized. I was 13 years old.

“I grew up in the Bronx, a house with aluminum siding. Aunt Rose lived upstairs. I shared a room with my brother and sister. My father was an auto mechanic. My friend Joey lived down the block. During gym, we’d talk about theater. The first play we saw together was Fiddler. We’ve seen 50 shows a year for 35 years. We go to matinees. Joey doesn’t like to go out at night. I myself go to theater, ballet, or opera every night, about $7000 in tickets a year. But I don’t have a lot of expenses— my groceries are sorbet and cat food. Once I owned a summer house in Connecticut. I sold it to my accountant. I lost a lover due to AIDS and there was nothing but memories. I no longer drive. I had a very serious car accident where I killed somebody. I don’t want to be in that position ever again. At that point I was working as an auto mechanic in Yonkers and I was driving on the Major Deegan and a Volkswagen was stuck in the fast lane and I didn’t see the guy behind his car trying to fix it . . .

“I went to CUNY. I did archaeology, first in England, later in Staten Island, but in three months we only found one itsy-bitsy microlithic chip. I was with CUNY. The people with Columbia University at least found a heap of shells.”

So much for archaeology. “I went into the family business, new and rebuilt carburetors. I earned a good living. But the other auto mechanics didn’t want to sing show tunes. A therapist helped get me out of working for my father. I became a photo researcher, $30,000 a year. Then Rudolf Nureyev died. I got in a real depression because I’d been HIV-positive for almost 18 years. Here’s this guy, just a little older, in the best physical health. If a man like that could not fight that disease, what chance did I have? I began bodybuilding, made this magnificent transformation. Then I started training other people.” He charges $85 an hour at the club. “I plan on semiretiring in 2000.

“Will I make money on the play? I hope so. Then I’ll invest in more shows. If I lose, I’ll make it back in three years.”

For opening night, Joey gave Lang cuff links of theater’s tragic and comic masks. What was Joey doing at the opening-night party when he only goes to matinees? “I insisted he come tonight. I’m the producer.”