Walking into the offices of Vivek Tiwary is akin to entering the lair of the world’s nerdiest wizard. Every square inch of wall or shelf is adorned, but instead of potions, spells, and scrolls, the suite overlooking Union Square is chockablock with Broadway, rock & roll, and comic book memorabilia.
It’s a smorgasbord of curios from every conceivable fandom. Tony nominations (he has two, for producing A Raisin in the Sun and American Idiot) hang above stacks of graphic novels and Beatles ephemera. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn books are piled opposite a poster advertising U. Penn’s 1995 ‘Spring Fling’ concert, which Tiwary orchestrated as an undergrad, booking Sonic Youth, The Roots, and George Clinton. There is even a VHS of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, a hallucinogenic spinoff so awful George Lucas reportedly tried to have all extant copies destroyed. (Mission failed).
Which is all to say: I, a massive and omnivorous nerd, feel like I’ve discovered a hidden treasure trove. And as I get to know Tiwary over the next few days, I come to think he is of a piece. For someone whose background could have produced an obnoxious, bitter mogul, the 46-year-old producer reveals himself to be a rare wellspring of warmth in the frosty tundra of high-stakes entertainment.
But before we can dig deep, there is some serious nerding to be done.
“That album was the first time I realized a record can also tell a great story,” he tells me as I hover over a framed artifact. Even among the room’s spectacle, the mask singles itself out, giving off a creepy, early Tim Burton vibe. But it predates The Nightmare Before Christmas by a decade: it’s an original prop from Pink Floyd’s opus The Wall.
“That’s the kind of thing I try to do. I want to use popular music to create work that has a narrative and some sort of impact.”
This generic soundbite belies a leapfrogging career path and an array of ventures. After years working for Sony and Mercury Records, then independently managing bands, Tiwary set his sights on Broadway, first raising money for the watershed production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers in 2001. Since then, he’s notched another half-dozen in his belt, five of which turned tidy profits – way above par for the notoriously risky industry. Most recently, he’s taken the lead on Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morissette jukebox that opened last month.
While producing these shows, he also wrote The Fifth Beatle, a bestselling graphic novel that tells the story of Brian Epstein, the Fab Four’s closeted manager, as he transforms the boys into a global phenomenon. The book, for which Tiwary won the prestigious Eisner award, is now being adapted into a TV series, tracing the lineage of pop music via the backstage drama that undergirds it, with each season focusing on a different seminal band.
But it all starts with Epstein, who was for years Tiwary’s relatable hero: an outsider who found solace in making art, and artists, impossible to dismiss.
“If the gay Jewish kid from Liverpool could bring the world the Beatles,” he posits, “why couldn’t the weirdo Indian kid from the Lower East Side write comic books and produce Broadway musicals?”
Talking with Tiwary is, put simply, a trip. He’s disarmingly effusive, and speaks in freewheeling, extended tangents, jumping back and forth between subjects, crossing timelines, and generally pinballing about his passions. His knowledge of pop culture is encyclopedic. The office, with its mishmash of memorabilia, is a fitting externalization of his inner array.
But no matter how tangential his train of thought, he always circles back, checking in to make sure I’m not lost in the whirlwind – no audience member left behind. And as much as he enjoys holding court (he quickly cops to being an only child), he is unusually focused on making sure credit is given where it is due.
“I was not actually a producer on The Producers,” he repeats several times into my recorder. “I raised money, I earned my place at the table, but it was not my show. I was a fly on the wall. I told them I just wanted to learn. And God bless them, they let me.”
I’m struck by the lack of varnish. Others might inflate their roles on such megahits, especially for a profile piece. Later over the phone, his partner on Jagged Little Pill, Eva Price, corroborates.
“So many people put on these versions of themselves for show,” she says. “I suppose it is show business – but none of that is there with him. There’s nothing false about it.”
It becomes clear that music was Tiwary’s first true love, and not any single genre. Growing up in the city, his parents took him to the opera, the ballet, and Broadway shows. Then, when he began venturing out on his own as a teenager, he headed downtown, where the myriad indie venues didn’t card him, with a particular interest in the fading punk scene.
“I was lucky enough to catch the Ramones at CBGB,” he says with a conspiratorial grin.
Alongside music, his family emerges as a constant theme; it’s the first subject he brings up when we meet, telling me how pleased he is to drop his kids off at school. He’s not expressing the relief of having them out of his hair, either – he’s just generally chuffed by the idea of being a dad, and doing those dad-type things.
He frames his career within a multi-generational family saga, one sculpted by both privilege and scarcity. His grandfather, to whom he credits much of his entrepreneurial spirit, was born to two Indian indentured servants on a slave plantation in Guyana, from there forcing his way up the social echelons and founding a number of successful import/export businesses.
His daughter in turn married a man with a shared drive for self-determination, born in the Guyanese rainforest. Together they immigrated to New York, looking to build a life on their own terms, he in medicine, she in law. They succeeded.
For Tiwary, this meant a river of opportunities, from the constant exposure to the arts, to his elite education, first at Collegiate, then at the University of Pennsylvania. There was the occasional profiling incident, which he shrugs off now. (“I had green hair, I dressed like a punk, and I was a boy of color. Then I graduated magna cum laude.”) Otherwise, he was living an American dream.
Then: loss, swift and devastating. In the span of two years, while Tiwary was attending Penn, both parents and his surviving grandparents died. After having been surrounded for so long by three generations of family and support, Tiwary was suddenly alone.
It is here that he separates himself from many industry figures I’ve encountered. He’s been more open than I expected about discussing inherited privilege and racial identity, but death is another matter. An undiscovered country, if you will. And while we’ve developed a solid rapport at this point, I wouldn’t characterize it as profound. We’re comfortable with each other mostly because we’re both extroverts with similar tastes in sci-fi and showtunes.
Yet when it comes to discussing his parents’ deaths, Tiwary spares nothing: he is as voluminous with his grief as he is with his love of rock & roll, and as genuine. Nothing is a talking point. Nothing is canned. The tears are real, and while I’m tempted to bill myself as the kind of journalist who routinely extracts them, I know that’s not what’s happening here.
“I was holding her hand when she breathed her last breath,” he says shakily. “If you’ve ever experienced that, you know it’s very powerful. You can feel an energy leave that person’s body and it becomes a shell. This is a fact, regardless of what you spiritually believe.”
I believe him. I spent far too much time in hospitals as a kid, watching my own father succumb to illness, not to. And until Tiwary and I exchanged stories, I’d never cried during an interview, either.
“You never know what to say,” he muses as we both wipe our eyes. “You just have to make the most of it. You have to try to live your life well, love them as best you can, make their end of days as bright as possible, and then try to do something good with the experience.”
For him, that was his nonprofit Musicians on Call, which he founded with his friend and fellow music buff Michael Solomon. Both had lost loved ones to cancer, and both wanted to make themselves useful. One night, they arranged for a musician friend to join them at Sloan Kettering, singing bedside to patients who couldn’t leave their rooms. The experience was, in a word, transformative.
“I thought: This is where all that energy goes. It’s here and music brought it back to this room. Music is a healing power.”
Twenty years later, the organization now operates in all 50 states, bringing volunteer musicians into hospitals for bedside serenades, songwriting classes, even recording sessions. If music is the catalyst of his vertiginous career path, this desire to “do something good” is the ballast that seems to keep him steady as he wheels and deals.
Underscoring this is his experience as the child of immigrants. Though he insists he fails to pick up on everyday racism (“I literally just don’t notice. My wife is always like, ‘What is wrong with you?’”) his identity as an Indian American deeply roots his worldview.
“Part of the immigrant experience for me, and I think for many children of immigrants, is that failure is not an option,” he explains. “I grew up with my parents telling me, ‘You have to work harder than everybody else, because you’re going to have it harder, and you have to give back to this country that we worked so hard to get here for.’ It drives me crazy that this administration and others say, ‘What do immigrants have to offer the country?’ It’s like, well, first of all, their children!”
This lens clarifies much of Tiwary’s trait amalgam: his openness about both privilege and grief, the nonstop productivity, the focus on family, the emphasis on giving credit where it’s due. No matter what he has, none of it is allowed to feel unearned. His parents never let him feel that growing up, and he won’t let himself feel it now.
In that vein, he has found himself in good company on Jagged Little Pill. Alongside Price, he’s partnered with industry newcomer Arvind David; together they make up the most diverse team running a Broadway show this season. David and Tiwary are currently the Rialto’s only two lead producers of Asian descent, and Price is the only openly gay woman in the same position.
“We originally met in 2010, when we were co-producers on The Addams Family musical,” Price says. “And I was really intrigued by him – if only because we both just looked the most different from everyone else in that room.”
“The reason I call my company Tiwary Entertainment Group is that Tiwary’s an Indian name,” he explains. “I’m very proud of that. If anything, I want to telegraph it rather than try to fit in. We are still the exceptions, but exception means exceptional.”
His experience putting the show together bears that out. After years hustling in the recording industry, he had no qualms pitching a megastar like Morissette, and his unpretentious demeanor proved a natural fit for the Grammy winner: they had their first meeting at a communal table in a Le Pain Quotidien.
Also of value was his coup adapting The Fifth Beatle for the screen: he is the first producer to ever secure the rights to the Lennon/McCartney catalog for use in a biographic project.
“If Paul and Ringo said yes to him,” he imagines other artists thinking, “then maybe I’ll take a meeting.”
Now that Jagged is selling over $1 million in tickets a week, and garnered a coveted rave from The New York Times, these artists are calling him in droves, all eager to see if they have a show buried somewhere in their discography. He can’t share names on the record, but the breadth is impressive: everything from pop to reggae to heavy metal.
This influx of attention has spurred him to expand his company to the tune of $10 million, under the new heading of TEG Live, with a discrete board of advisers and dedicated staff. (He’s functionally a two-person operation right now, with his assistant Lenora Sumerling, who answered a Craigslist ad 11 years ago and never left).
The expansion should allow him to oversee up to ten projects, and while he is open to any ideas – Broadway, immersive, amphitheaters – one in particular is in his sights. And, like so much about him, it is not quite what one expects.
“Starlight Express,” he says with an enormous grin. “Not on Broadway. In a skate park. Choreographed by someone like Tony Hawk, with the score remixed by someone like Daft Punk. I’ve already met with Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
When I ask him – as neutrally as I can – why he is drawn to a musical about sentient trains, originally performed on roller skates, which has been revised constantly over the last thirty years after befuddling Broadway, his answer is characteristically unvarnished.
“I literally remember walking out of Starlight as a kid and telling my parents, ‘I want to do that when I grow up.’ And neither they nor I knew what I meant. ‘Oh, you want to be on roller skates?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to act?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to sing?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, what do you mean?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I just want to make things like that happen.’”