Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Community Theatre - Part One

It's hard for me to believe, but it was thirty years ago tonight that I auditioned for The Music Man, a summer production of St. Bernard's Studio Theater in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. It was the first time I tried out for a community rather than a school group. I only knew one person involved in the company, Jack Lynch, who was a freshman at Marquette High School when I was a senior; it was a chance meeting with him a couple of weeks after graduation that sparked my interest.

That audition led to a three-year, four-production commitment to a great group of people, under the leadership of director/choreographer Rozeann Campbell. (The next year, 1978, I was in both The Fantasticks and The Boy Friend, and in 1979 -- my last summer in Milwaukee -- I was in Fiddler on the Roof.)

St. Bernard's Studio Theater was a true community theater: Productions were mounted in a parish school gymnasium (with no air conditioning in July and August!). The casting process was open to all ages, from small children to grandparents. There were no barriers to participation; there was always a role on stage or a job backstage for anyone who wanted to join in. A mission statement printed in the program said:

The purpose of the Studio Theater is to provide an educational and cultural summer activity for the children, young people, and adults of St. Bernard's, Wauwatosa, and the surrounding communities. There are approximately 100-125 people in the cast and crews.
It didn't seem relevant at the time, but 1977 marked the twentieth anniversary of the original Broadway production of The Music Man, which means this year it is 50 years since Robert Preston debuted as Harold Hill, Barbara Cook created Marian Paroo, and Meredith Willson gave us perhaps the most popular tune ever played by high-school marching bands, "Seventy-Six Trombones." While The Music Man is a well-crafted, entertaining musical play (one of the few with book, music, and lyrics by the same person), isn't it incredible to note that it beat out West Side Story for the Tony Award for best musical that season?

My involvement in the play was deep enough that I borrowed from the Milwaukee Public Library a copy of Meredith Willson's second autobiographical book, "But He Doesn't Know the Territory", which vividly tells the story of the making of The Music Man. (Revealing, for instance, that Danny Kaye, Jackie Gleason, and others were first considered for the lead role, before it went to B-movie actor Robert Preston, who went on to win the first of his two Tony Awards -- out of three nominations -- for best actor in a musical.)

That summer of The Music Man -- like the two summers that followed -- was the sort that lends itself to lavish, largely inexpressible flights of nostalgia. Believe me when I say the memories are pleasant and irreplaceable.

Fortunately, I have a short (about 3 minute) record of that production of The Music Man. It was originally a silent, Super-8 millimeter film that I transferred to Hi-8 video and VHS a few years ago, and to DVD and WMV more recently. (The multiple iterations explain the degraded quality of the recording.) Take a look:

Finally, let me state for the record: I did not drop Lisa Bender that night, late in the run, during the "Footbridge Ballet." She fell; it was an accident.

Update: I have posted still photographs from that 1977 production of The Music Man in the second part of this ongoing series of articles about community theatre.

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