Long before Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland decided to “put on a show,” musicals pulled in audiences eager to let all that singing and dancing lift their spirits. Local theater directors say musicals are still strong crowd-pleasers, which is why some theater companies include one or two in every season’s lineup and one local company has built its name around them.
“Musicals are one of our highest arts,” says Michael Howard, artistic director of Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane University. Through the marriage of lyric and score, musicals convey deep messages about life, love and redemption, he says. Summer Lyric Theatre kicks off its 41st season June 19-22 with “Pal Joey” by Rodgers and Hart. July will bring “L’il Abner,” and “Oklahoma!” follows in August.
Summer Lyric Theatre was launched by a Tulane professor to provide a summer theater program. Today, Tulane provides the venue – Dixon Hall – and some support, and several Summer Lyric employees also work for the university. Ticket sales, donations and grants go to fund the cost of each season’s three musical productions.
Those costs are considerable and constantly rising, Howard says. The rights to put on a musical can range from $8,000 to $10,000 per run, compared with as little as $65 a night for a nonmusical. Each production includes a full orchestra of professional musicians. Costumes, lumber for sets and salaries are other big-ticket items. Including crew and actors, Summer Lyric Theatre hires about 100 people each season.
Many are locals who have been working elsewhere and want to return to their roots. “New Orleans pulls them home,” Howard says. He feels fortunate to have a deep pool of talent from which to choose. Casts also include grads and students from Tulane and other universities.
Selecting each season’s offerings is akin to drawing up a menu. “I try for variety,” Howard says. He usually includes at least one comedy and mixes the periods. He always stages one show Summer Lyric has never done before.
Occasionally, a choice misses the mark. “Sweeney Todd,” with its bloodletting, caused a few people to walk out, Howard says. But most of the time, the shows sell out. Summer Lyric Theatre has built a loyal following that includes children and grandchildren of those who attended early productions. “They feel a sense of ownership,” he says.
A Draw in Jeff Parish Musicals are the most popular offerings with his audiences, says Dennis Assaf, artistic director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. JPAS productions take place at the East Jefferson High School auditorium and two venues on the West Bank, the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre and Teatro Wego!, a dinner theater. (The society’s long-awaited permanent home, a $26.5 million, 1,050-seat theatre at LaSalle Park, is scheduled to open in 2010.)
“My personal favorites are the great classics from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” Assaf says. He also likes rock ’n’ roll and tries to include a show with a rock score in every season. The steep royalties and the cost of music rental are offset by the large number of people who find the shows appealing. “Ruthless, the Musical” was a recent hit at Westwego Performing Arts Center, for instance.
The lineup slated for JPAS’s upcoming season features both well-known and lesser known shows, including:
• “All Shook Up,” based on Elvis Presley’s music
• “Nunsense,” a comedic take on Catholic education
• “Forbidden Broadway,” a satire of popular Broadway shows
• “Return to Forbidden Planet,” a campy musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and featuring songs from the 1950s and ’60s
• “Scandalous,” a musical version of the life of D.H. Lawrence
• “Mahalia,” based on the life of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and
• “Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical,” aimed at aging baby boomers.
Also on JPAS’s schedule are “Madama Butterfly” and “Andrea Chenier,” an opera based on the life of a French poet who became a victim of the French Revolution.
Packing Them In “Musicals put people in seats,” says Sonny Borey, artistic director of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. This past season, every Le Petit production was a musical, concluding with “Cabaret” running June 6-29.
Le Petit’s next season will open with “Rent,” a Tony-winning rock musical about artists in New York City’s East Village. Next comes “All Shook Up,” which takes place in 1955 and features many of Presley’s biggest hits. The season ends with “The Producers,” the Broadway hit that includes dancing Nazis.
Even the New Orleans Opera Association joined the bandwagon this year, ending its season with “West Side Story,” the timeless musical based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Opera spokeswoman Janet Wilson says the selection was popular, drawing the season’s largest audience. The show was chosen in part to help fill a void in the community left by the closure of the Saenger Theatre.
West Side Story” was a marked departure for the Opera, Wilson says, although past offerings include “The Merry Widow,” an operetta. The coming season includes four grand operas. The first two will take place at Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium, while the final two are slated for the renovated Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, which closed after Hurricane Katrina.
A special feature of this year’s season is a Jan. 17 gala starring tenor Placido Domingo, who will perform on a stage named in his honor. Domingo headlined a benefit concert held in the wake of the hurricane. Other performers are still being signed for the concert. You do not have to be a season ticket-holder to buy tickets for the concert, but subscribers will get first choice, Wilson says. •