"I really enjoy the spot we’re in here, the center of the state. There are lots of opportunities to enjoy oneself — fine restaurants, parks and museums. We want to be the Stratford of American musical theater.”
Just as Stratford is synonymous with the works of Shakespeare, the Goodspeed Opera House has made East Haddam a go-to destination for American musicals since 1959. Michael Price, the Goodspeed’s executive director for 43 seasons, says his theater’s subscriber base includes “700 households from Manhattan.” Folks within walking distance of Broadway are driving out to the boonies of Connecticut for their musical-theater fix.
The Goodspeed also gets major support from the estates and foundations of some of the major names in musical-theater history. Last year, even though a major Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was being readied, Jo Loesser (widow of the show’s composer Frank Loesser) let the Goodspeed go ahead with their own production. Such legendary composers as Jerry Herman, Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber have used the Goodspeed for fresh reconsiderations of some of their lesser-known works.
The Goodspeed Opera House provides a unique new perspective on any show, simply because of its gorgeous, ornate building. When you sip cocktails at intermission, you can gaze from the back balcony out at the moonlit Connecticut River. The 398-seat auditorium and the 29-by-20-foot stage area — tiny by modern musical-theater standards — brings an intimacy to the performances that you miss when Goodspeed shows catch on and get produced on Broadway or on tour.
Take Showboat, coming to the theater July 1-Sept. 11. The 1926 Kern/Hammerstein show is atmospherically ideal for the Goodspeed’s riverside location. It also has a cast that originally numbered in the dozens, not to mention a showboat. That’s the sort of challenge the Goodspeed enjoys — they put a train onstage in On the Twentieth Century, and didn’t stint on potential spouses in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The distinction of Showboat at the Goodspeed, Michael Price says, “will be in how Rob Ruggiero” — the director who honed his skills at presenting grand provocative theater pieces in small spaces at Hartford’s off-Broadwayish TheaterWorks — “will take the majestic size of it and place it on our stage. Our relationship with the Hammerstein estate allows us to do substantial changes.”
The Goodspeed’s 2011 season kicked off — and we mean kicked, with tap heels — in mid-April with another reconditioned blast from the 1920s, My One and Only. The show, which runs through June 25, may seem older than it is, since the score consists of 15 Gershwin songs from the 1920s. Five of those tunes are from the 1927 hit Funny Face, but scripts for musicals were a lot looser in those days, so in the early 1980s Peter Stone (who later plumbed the same theater era for The Will Rogers Follies) and Timothy S. Mayer (a Harvard whiz-kid fresh from a dazzling adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage at the Boston Shakespeare Company) concocted a whole new plot that incorporated such 1920s athletic crazes as swimming across the English Channel and flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Goodspeed tried a Gershwin rewrite themselves once, with They All Laughed in 2001. My One and Only had a troubled history — its original director, Peter Sellars, was replaced by the show’s star, Tommy Tune, late in its out-of-town tryouts, and was considered too far gone to fix in time for its Broadway opening. But the hardy songs and snappy book won the day, and My One and Only ran for nearly 800 performances in New York and for years on tour. It’s ripe for Goodspeed reinterpretation.
The main season at the Goodspeed Opera House concludes Sept. 23-Nov. 27 with another nostalgic, fairly recent yet rarely revived musical, the mystery/comedy City With Angels by Larry (M*A*S*H) Gelbart, David (The Woman in White) Zippel and Cy (Sweet Charity) Coleman. Written in the late 1980s, City of Angels largely takes place in a shadowy film-noir 1940s, and “is a little out of what our audiences are used to,” Price says.
Having covered the 20th century handily at its main opera house outpost, Goodspeed Musicals uses its Norma Terris Theater a few miles away in Chester to explore the future.
Cutman — a hard-hitting new show with an eclectic modern pop/hip-hop score — is the first of three new musicals scheduled for the Norma Terris this season. Jabbing and feinting from May 12 through June 5, it’s the work of writer/director Jared Michael Coseglia, choreographer Lisa Stevens, composer/lyricist Drew Brody and co-writer Cory Grant, a Broadway actor who played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys and who will star in Cutman as a Jewish boxer whose shot at a title fight runs afoul of a religious holiday.
“It’s not happy-go-lucky entertainment,” Price explains. “It’s a thoughtful piece, a complicated piece, about ambition, faith and relationships.” When Cutman was first presented to him as a staged reading, Price says, “I stood up at the end and said ‘We’ll do that!’” Such displays of producerly confidence — “one of the few prerogatives left in my life,” Price smiles — are what the Goodspeed’s known for.
“We have decided that in Chester, we do what’s challenging to us, what’s interesting to us.”
The second Norma Terris show of the season, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, is a contemporary coming-of-age tale. Its Aug. 4-28 slot on the schedule is well-timed for young audiences in the same frame of mind as its college-bound teen heroine. A third Norma Terris show, slated for November, has yet to be announced, but Price says it’s been narrowed down to “one of three projects which we’re pushing towards completion. We hope to announce it in July.”
“We don’t want to produce something just to fill a slot,” Michael Price decrees. Spoken like an urban planner of East Haddam, the Stratford of American musical theater.
For the Goodspeed's complete summer schedule, visit goodspeed.org or call (860) 873-8668.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun