Dusting off the musicals

The Goodspeed Opera House revives classic musicals and jump-starts new ones.

It's been called the mecca of musical theater, and it's one of the few places in the United States that's devoted to America's popular theater form.

Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House is at the forefront of reviving classic musicals and providing a showcase for new ones.

Fifteen new shows first produced by the Goodspeed have gone on to Broadway, including "Man of La Mancha," "Annie," and "Shenandoah." The old theater has come a long way since the late 1800s when local residents dubbed the Goodspeed Opera House "Goodspeed's Folly."

Irving Welzer, a co-producer of the current Broadway production of "Annie Get Your Gun," says that Goodspeed is an integral part of the theater business. "Musical comedy writers need someplace to get started on shows, and Goodspeed is one of the very few places that's in the business to produce their work," Mr. Welzer says. "Without places like Goodspeed, there wouldn't be any future at all for the new Broadway musical."

There are, in fact, two Goodspeed theaters. The Goodspeed's 400-seat main stage in East Haddam, Conn., is where most of its revivals are done, including "Man of La Mancha," now playing through July 7; "George M!" (July 7-Oct. 7); and Cole Porter's "Red, Hot and Blue!" (Oct. 13-Dec. 31).

Goodspeed's 250-seat Norma Terris Theatre, across the Connecticut River from East Haddam in Chester, Conn. (and appropriately called "Goodspeed-at-Chester"), is where most of the company's new musicals are launched. This season's shows include "Dorian" (opening May 11), based on the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, and "Summer of '42," a musical based on the Oscar-nominated movie starring Jennifer O'Neill. It's slated to premire Aug. 10.

And now, with the aid of a recent $2-million grant from the state of Connecticut, the Goodspeed is embarking on an ambitious program to build an additional 650-seat musical theater in East Haddam.

"We hope it will be in walking distance of our original theater," says Michael Price, artistic director of the Goodspeed since 1968. "We want to make Goodspeed a destination where you can see two or three shows on a weekend. If there's anything we'd like to pattern ourselves after, it's the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake [in Ontario, Canada]," where spectators have a choice of three theaters.

Over the next four to five years, Mr. Price says, he hopes to have all three theaters going at once. Goodspeed is planning to help open a 50,000-square-foot shopping area of galleries, specialty shops, and restaurants also within walking distance of the two East Haddam theaters.

"Our hope is people will come to see three musicals and shop to their hearts' content," Price says. "There are plenty of places to stay in the area and just south of us on Long Island Sound."

Among regional theaters, there seem to be few, if any, that can match the Goodspeed in its devotion to musicals.

"I've never come across another place that's quite the mecca of musical theater that Goodspeed is," Ted Pappas, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, told Stage Directions magazine last December.

Goodspeed artistic director Price says that the new American musical, despite being relatively rare on Broadway these days, is alive and well. He talks about how Goodspeed chooses shows, including experimental works.

"We're doing 'La Mancha' because it's the 35th anniversary since we first produced it at Goodspeed," Price says. "That's like [singing] 'Happy Birthday' to your own child, which we're very pleased with. And Gerald Gutierrez takes a very 'Spanish' look at it. He's such a magnificent director. I think we're heading in the right direction.

"But mostly, we pick the shows because we like them," Price explains. "And in the case of 'George M!' it was a gift to our audience. The audiences - we really call them 'the fans in the stands' - [are] with us through the things we want to do and try out because we love them."

Goodspeed's devotion to new musicals is made clear as well by its calendar - with three new musicals on it each year. "As a regional company, we're the only one that's doing the quantity of new musicals we do every year," Price says. "Some companies do one. And most do none. We have a commitment to do at least three."

Ellis Nassour, an associate editor of Show Business, a trade publication that covers theater and other performing arts, gives Goodspeed high marks for taking a chance on shows that wouldn't be done anywhere else.

"Goodspeed-at-Chester is a wonderful showcase for writers and other musical theater talent," Mr. Nassour says. Where else can you get a full-fledged production in front of a great audience?"

Price says the Goodspeed is pulled in two directions: to move into new unchartered waters, like the innovative "Marie Christine," currently on Broadway starring Audra McDonald, and to build upon the past as well. "We're pushed along by certain members of the press to try new, experimental shows," Price says.

Other talents like Michael John LaChiusa (who wrote the music and lyrics to "The Wild Party," now at Broadway's Virginia Theatre) and the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim are continuing to find new ways to approach more traditional material.

The musical is a product of our times and it's thriving, Price says. But he points out that the economics are different today than in Broadway's heyday. Production costs are much higher, making experimentation more challenging.

But these shows are necessary to attract a younger audience. "There's a big difference in our audiences," Price said. "The crossover [between our two theaters] is only about 15 percent, which is surprising. There's a younger, more adventurous audience at the Chester theater. And they're there to experience the roll of the dice, watch us get up to bat."

Price observes the American musical has its peaks and valleys.

"You put shows up, and you take your chances," he says. "It's alive. People are creating new things. You have stuff in the pipeline, and there doesn't seem to be much, and then there are years when it all comes out and there's a lot of good stuff."

Goodspeed receives about 150 scripts a year, and of those, only a handful are produced, Price says. "There are more coulda', woulda', shoulda's in our life than you can shake a stick at! We do good ones, and we do bad ones. We have hits, runs, and errors."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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