From Madison to ‘Hadestown’ with Erik Schroeder

Former Madisonian attached to Tony-nominated show
From Madison to ‘Hadestown’ with Erik Schroeder
"Hadestown" photo by Patrick Page and Amber Gray. Schroeder photo by Oriana Fowler.
Patrick Page and Amber Gray in

Erik Schroeder has been helping raise money for theatrical productions for three decades, which may seem unlikely, since he’s just 38-years-old.

The 1999 Madison West High School graduate is a co-producer of “Hadestown” the musical that opened on Broadway in New York City in April and recently received the most nominations — 14 — for the 2019 Tony Awards, which will be presented June 9.

But let’s travel back 30 years. “One of my earliest memories,” Schroeder was saying last week, “is sitting on the floor of our living room, licking stamps and affixing them to a fundraising letter for American Players Theatre. I was probably 7.”

Erik is the son of Dean and Carol “Orange” Schroeder, proprietors of Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, one of Madison’s most enduring retail success stories.

His parents’ support of the arts got Erik in the New York Times when he was 5. Orange was co-chair of the successful 1986 effort to rescue the nascent American Players from financial ruin.

“And 5-year-old Erik Schroeder,” the Times noted, “is practicing to become one of the twins, both named Dromio, in ‘A Comedy of Errors.'”

He didn’t get the part, Erik recalls, when I reached him in Chicago, where since July 2017 he’s been managing director of The House Theatre.

From On Stage to Back Stage

His real interest in performing, Schroeder said, came when he sang with the Madison Children’s Choir and then auditioned and landed a role in a local production of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

It was in part the school’s choirs that led Schroeder to enroll at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and take classes there in music theory. By his third semester, he was restless and thinking his future might reside to the side of the footlights and away from the performers.

“I ended up getting a multidisciplinary education,” Schroeder says. “My major was interdisciplinary fine arts with a management studies minor. Essentially I created an arts administration major.”

He has never regretted the decision, and said the energy, enthusiasm and collaborative spirit of live theater is present no matter one’s role. The people drawn to it see to that.

“If you are going to work in an office,” Schroeder says, “you may as well have interesting people to interact with and compelling, engaging art to support with that work.”

He continues, “If you’re going to raise money for something or sell tickets to something, you can do that for art that you care about and art that you’re interested in. You don’t have to be the one performing that art. It’s very fulfilling to be even behind the scenes. Theater is collaborative. Every single person involved is vitally necessary.”

Filling a Supporting Role

From 2008 to 2015, Schroeder worked as marketing director for The Lookingglass Theatre Co. in Chicago. He was dating an actress, Nina O’Keefe, who in March 2011 was starring in “Heddatron” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Garage Theatre.

Schroeder attended a Sunday performance. It was his birthday, and after the curtain the cast called him on stage to sing “Happy Birthday” — or so Nina thought. Instead, Erik pulled out a ring — his great-grandmother’s sister’s ring — and proposed. Nina said yes. And Chicago media picked up on it.

Schroeder’s been a fan of The House Theatre of Chicago, his current fulltime home, since the company burst on the scene in the early 2000s with the debut of “Death and Harry Houdini,” starring real-life magician Dennis Watkins as Houdini.

But in between Lookingglass and House Theatre, Schroeder was in New York. He spent March 2016 to June 2017 on a management fellowship with the Manhattan Theatre Club. For part of that time, he also did a 14-week program with the Commercial Theatre Institute. Both provided a rare opportunity to learn about producing on Broadway from the inside out.

On To Broadway

The final, transformative moment of his time in New York came when he went to see a musical then playing Off-Broadway.

“It just ignited something in me,” Schroeder says. “It reminded me of all the incredible theater I had seen in Chicago. In its own way, it’s very Chicago: gritty, an immersive, ensemble story.”

The show was “Hadestown.”

“I got in touch with the producers,” Schroeder says. “I said, ‘Look, I’m moving back to Chicago. But I saw your show and I want to be involved somehow.’ So after a couple of phone calls and a couple of dinners, they agreed to let me participate in the production.”

There are about 30 co-producers on “Hadestown,” Schroeder says. “I had to connect investors with the production,” he noted of his role, “and raise a certain amount of dollars. Once the fundraising was done, I became an advocate for the production.”

They took it from Off-Broadway to Canada for restaging with an eye on Broadway. A successful run in London followed, and earlier this year “Hadestown” opened to highly positive reviews on Broadway. The cascade of Tony nominations followed.

Schroeder is thrilled.

“It’s so gratifying,” he says, “to have a large audience, including industry members, discover what I feel like I discovered three years ago. It’s an incredible production and I’m very fortunate to be part of it.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.