Harvey Weinstein would love to talk about Finding Neverland, the new musical that marks his first venture into full-scale Broadway producing. But first he has some image work to do. “The press perpetuates a myth,” says Weinstein, the independent-movie kingpin known as much for his volatile temperament as for films such as Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting and The English Patient. “The mistaken idea of what I do is that I’m a cigar-smoking mogul. I’ve never smoked a cigar in my life.”
No cigar, but close. Walking through his offices in downtown Manhattan, Weinstein has the defiantly rumpled look–a scruffy stubble of beard, a white dress shirt that looks as if it’s never been tucked in–of a man who doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules. As the founder (with his brother Bob) of Miramax Films and later (after separating from Disney, which bought Miramax in 1993) the Weinstein Co., he’s known as a passionate, hands-on producer, an aggressive marketer of his wares–and a man you don’t want to cross. Controversy seems to dog him: police are investigating an Italian model’s claim that Weinstein groped her in his offices on March 27. (Weinstein denies it, and no charges have been filed.)
The bumpy road to Broadway of Finding Neverland, based on Miramax’s 2004 movie about writer J.M. Barrie and the making of Peter Pan, has only fed his combative reputation. After the show was first staged in Britain in 2012, Weinstein scrapped the whole thing, replaced the creative team and started over. When the revamped show opened last spring in Cambridge, Mass., he hit the roof after some New York critics came to review it prematurely (and tepidly) and New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel pronounced it “dead in the water.” Weinstein challenged him to see a performance and have the audience polled: when 96% said they “loved” the show, Riedel was dunked in ice water.
Weinstein raised more eyebrows when he replaced the show’s out-of-town star, Jeremy Jordan (of Broadway’s Newsies), with Matthew Morrison (of television’s Glee). Morrison had done an earlier workshop version of the show and, Weinstein says, always had first dibs on playing Barrie. He also found a new actor to play the semivillainous theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, replacing Broadway vet Michael McGrath (Spamalot) with TV star (and 2010 Tony nominee for La Cage Aux Folles) Kelsey Grammer. The main cast is rounded out by British actress Laura Michelle Kelly (Mary Poppins), who plays Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the widow whose children inspired Barrie to write Peter Pan.
Then, a couple months ago, unhappy with the show’s advance publicity, Weinstein had another blowup that prompted the outside publicist he had hired to quit. “Life,” he told Weinstein in a resignation letter, “is simply too short.” Now Weinstein is trying hard to play nice. He agrees to talk to TIME only if he is joined by the show’s Tony-winning director, Diane Paulus, whom he spends much of the hour praising. The people he fired are all talented folks, he says, whom he’d love to work with again. (Rob Ashford, director of the aborted British version, is helming a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire for him.) And he professes nothing but humility in the face of the sheer herculean task of mounting a Broadway show. “I am in awe of how hard these people work,” he says. “It makes me kiss the ground on a movie set and really appreciate how easy it is in comparison to this.”
As a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., Weinstein had no interest in musicals. When he went to see The Sound of Music, he ran out of the theater and spent the rest of the day watching Goldfinger. He was won over when he saw a revival of two Hollywood classics, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. And he fell in love with Chicago, the Bob Fosse musical that he later turned into an Oscar-winning movie. “In Bob Fosse I saw a kindred spirit,” he says. “Cynical, political. I never thought you could make a musical like that. So mean-spirited. I loved it.”
Weinstein has been dabbling in theater for years, but primarily as a passive investor. He pumped some money into The Producers and sat back while Mel Brooks did all the work. “I told Mel Brooks I agreed with everything he said. He said I was one of the most brilliant producers he ever worked with.” When he saw a campy musical in London with recycled Abba songs and told his overlords at Disney he wanted to invest in it, they scoffed: ” ‘You don’t know anything about theater,’ they said. ‘Dentists invest in theater. Go ahead, you’ll lose all your money.’ That was Mamma Mia!”
He decided to make a musical of Finding Neverland because it was his daughters’ favorite of all his films. “At this point in my life I’m interested in what my family wants me to do,” says Weinstein (who, at 63, has four daughters and a 2-year-old son from two marriages). Paulus, who directed recent Broadway revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin, came on board when Weinstein sent her three songs written for the show by Gary Barlow, front man of the British pop band Take That. She took a show that Weinstein felt was “too classical” and gave it pop verve, including a bravura pirate-ship production number to close out the first act.
“If I have a role, it’s working with [new book writer] James Graham and getting the narrative right,” says Weinstein. He also gave Paulus a little film education, sending her Jackie Chan movies and Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus to spark choreographic ideas. The relationship seems to be working, both at the box office (the show took in a reported $1 million in its first week of previews) and on the personal front. “What’s great about Harvey is that he comes from the old-school model of a creative producer,” says Paulus. “When I direct a show, I’m craving that kind of feedback.”
In the clubby Broadway world, there’s still a lot of suspicion of this big-talking, bigfooting outsider. Many were put off when Weinstein managed to get a number from Finding Neverland into last year’s Tony Awards telecast. Others fret about his reputation for aggressive Oscar campaigns, like the one that helped Shakespeare in Love upset Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1999. “He knows how to play the award game,” says one Broadway insider. “If Neverland gets nominations, a lot of producers are very concerned about what he might pull.”
But he has defenders as well. “A lot of outsiders come to the table because they have money,” says Barry Weissler, the Broadway vet who is one of Weinstein’s co-producers on Neverland. “He’s not some moneyman from New Jersey who thinks he can produce a Broadway show. Those people fall by the wayside.”
Not Weinstein. At his pre-Oscar party, he showed several numbers from another musical he’s developing, Around the World in 80 Days. He also wants to make a musical of the Italian film Cinema Paradiso. And he helped reconceive the new New York Spring Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall–the splashy family show ginned up as a counterpart to the theater’s ever popular Christmas show.
But Broadway, he insists, won’t be more than a part-time gig. “I’m not gonna be Florenz Ziegfeld or David Merrick,” says Weinstein. “I’m just gonna make a show here and a show there.” He’s even prepared for the possibility that his Peter Pan musical, after four years of work and the full Weinstein treatment, won’t fly. “I’ve learned over the years how to fall on my sword,” he says. And, when necessary, to wield one.
This appears in the April 13, 2015 issue of TIME.