Irene Gandy epitomizes every definition of the word "work."
From her tireless sense of self-motivation to her fabulous fashion that turns every hallway into a runway, the longtime producer and press agent has proven, time and again, the power her influence can provide to a production. For instance, in 1981, Gandy was working as the press representative for Lena Horne's show The Lady and Her Music. But there was one problem: it wasn't easy then to entice audiences to come to Times Square.
"When [Lena] came to Broadway, Times Square was all pimps and hoes...and look, I love pimps and hoes! They know where to find the best costume jewelry." Gandy laughs as she waves her own spectacularly accessorized hand in the air. "But everybody was worried about the prostitutes that were hanging out by the theatre."
Gandy brought her concerns to Horne, who came up with the idea of meeting "with the ladies of the evening." After a brief back-and-forth, a first-of-its-kind deal was worked out: The sex workers would willingly vacate the area around the Nederlander Theatre from 8 to 11 PM, allowing Horne's audiences to enter and exit without commotion. Then the area would return to the underworld's domain by midnight.
"That's the kind of person Lena was," Gandy states emphatically. "She understood, and we all had a nice working relationship. They made their money from their audiences, and Lena made her money from her audiences."
Beginning with the legendary Negro Ensemble Company in 1968, Gandy has worked in the professional theatre industry for more than 50 years, breaking many gender and color barriers along the way. And when you ask her, she has plenty of jaw-dropping stories to tell, as well as valuable takeaways.
To hear more of Gandy’s showbiz stories, including working on the national tour of The Wiz, her love for Angela Lansbury, and her working relationship with Kerry Washington, check out the complete video of Gandy flipping through a Playbill binder filled with her favorite theatrical credits in the video above.
Working with Horne on The Lady and Her Music underlined for Gandy how important access to the theatre could be for a community, especially once they took the show on the road.
“The people of color that loved Lena, couldn’t see her back in the day. They weren't allowed in the venues. So for us to revisit those venues, with the doors flung wide to welcome them in to finally see her…” Gandy pauses for a moment, before continuing on, her voice thick with emotion. “People would come back, and tell her that she was their pinup girl, that got them through the war. And some people would bring their own little Lena’s, to introduce her to the child they had named after her. I miss her dearly.”
"Professionally married" to fellow producer/publicist Jeffrey Richards, Gandy has represented more than 100 Broadway productions, becoming the only African American woman to join ATPAM as a publicist. In the 21st century, she's expanded her purview from the marketing department to add producer to her never-ending collection of fabulous hats. Notably, she produced The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, and Ohio State Murders, all with her beloved Audra McDonald.
"Audra was Lady Day," Gandy states, referring to Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, which saw the Tony winning actress transform into the iconic jazz singer Billie Holliday. "Audra had wanted to do this for years. She had studied this woman and her recordings, and I thought she was doing a soundtrack every night. She got that close to sounding exactly like the real thing." For her performance, McDonald would receive her record-breaking sixth Tony Award. "Lady Day would 'come through' her, at some point in the show. It was incredible to witness."
For her part, Gandy has received a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre, a Drama League Fellowship in her name to support BIPOC directors, and a knighthood from HRH Queen Diambi Kabatusuila of the Bakwa Luntu People of Kasai in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yes, that's Lady Irene Gandy to you. "Anyone who knows the Lady Irene Gandy knows, she's no lady!" she laughs, then remarking humbly: "Anyone who knows her knows that Lena Horne was The Lady."
Gandy’s skill at keeping cool next to larger-than-life personalities, like African royalty, has come in handy many times across her career. A case in point: Bob Fosse’s last project, the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity.
Gandy and Fosse had worked together before, with each possessing a professional respect for the other—even though they would regularly fight from their respective vantage points about press and promotion. “One day, the press agent and I were talking about how we had to sneak in a reviewer, because Bob didn’t like critics,” recalls Gandy. “We were talking about how difficult Bob was, and she said, ‘Well, at least when he dies, we won’t have to deal with him.’”
They were just joking. But on opening night that evening, Gandy received an urgent phone call telling her to “come back immediately” to the theatre. Gandy thought that Fosse had discovered her subterfuge, and was angry about her inviting the critic.
“I slowly meandered back to the theatre, slowly as I could to avoid the fight. And by the time I got there, Bob had passed.” Fosse died from a heart attack while walking to the opening night performance of Sweet Charity at the National Theater in Washington D.C. The incident, which saw Fosse collapsing in the arms of his estranged wife and everlasting muse, Gwen Verdon, has gone down in theatrical history. Had Gandy not been on the ball, the incident could have been the story of a lifetime for an up-and-coming regional arts reporter.
Gandy was given the serious task of keeping news of his passing out of the papers for the night, so the news could be shared to those closest to him first. Gandy remembers her and the press agents’ flurried calls to every journalist in town, asking them to hold the story. “Only a few hours earlier, we had been joking about it. At one point, we just cracked up laughing because it was so absurd.” The story was held, the family kept their privacy, and Gandy learned an important life lesson. "Walk faster!"
While Gandy has professed retirement from the theatrical industry many times (even going so far as to join CBS Records in the late 1970s as an associate director for Earth, Wind and Fire; The Jacksons; The Iseley Brothers; and Patti LaBelle), the industry has always found a way to pull her back. This season, she's a producer on the Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious.
But Gandy is again professing an intent to slow down. Her next planned project, a revival of Sarafina!, evaporated after the sudden death of Mbongeni Ngema.
"This probably will be my final final play," says Gandy, referring to Purlie Victorious. The piece, and its message of reclamation and reconciliation, as well as its elevation of victory against insurmountable odds, inspires her. "I think this country, and the way people think, is only gonna be saved morally by bringing people joy. And theatre does that. So I'm counting on the life in the theatre to save mankind."
This episode of My Life in the Theatre was filmed across two days at New York’s Alchemical Studios.