by: Barbara Malinsky/photos by Caryn B. Davis

“The eminent Victorian lady presides over her domain on the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam.  Bedecked in white gingerbread skirts and over one hundred years old, she wears her age well. ”

Connecticut’s noble grande dame was almost destroyed in the mid-twentieth century but a group of dedicated preservationists rescued this damsel in distress.  She was rededicated in 1963 with the opening of a new musical – coincidentally named Oh Lady! Lady!   

She is the Goodspeed Opera House and, though physically diminutive, her presence and scope are widespread. Beyond her intimate, local setting she has become an international icon in fulfilling her mission to present and preserve the American musical.  Approaching Goodspeed by either car or boat, her fanciful façade is sure to impress – but, like a beautifully wrapped present, her gift lies inside.

The structure itself has played a variety of roles. It was built in 1876 by banking and shipping tycoon William Goodspeed to provide a venue for his love of theater.  Although the building initially debuted as a theater, after Goodspeed’s death it served as a militia base during World War I.  Then it became a general store.  Later, as a storage depot for the State of Connecticut Highway Department, the building teetered on the brink of collapse.  Finally, a group of dedicated conservationists prevailed and restored it to its present status.

Michael P. Price has served as Executive Director of the Goodspeed Opera House since 1968.  He explains the Goodspeed’s mandate, “We draw from the past to contribute to the future!  But you can’t draw from the past and present museum pieces.  Shows that were popular at the time of their creation resonated with the population.  What we do is take a look at the projects from the past that are not normally done and rework them so that they will say something to audiences today and entertain audiences of today.   Our job is to take these old shows and revitalize them and put them on the stage for appreciation fifty, sixty or seventy years later.”

Like with every creative venture, a bit of alchemy is involved in the process of selecting the shows.  The creatives – director, music director, and choreographer – take a knowledgeable, long look back into the history of American musical theater, searching for inspiration.  “We go back as far as the late 1800’s and [look] at a period’s most valuable pieces – but we don’t take it out of the box and put it on stage.  That’s not our job!  That’s a high school’s job – they can do Bye Bye Birdie and Grease.”   What is done at Goodspeed is a reinterpretation.

“We may rework the book [story] or change the way a tune is produced.  You can change the tempo and do a lot of things with a song.  We always change the orchestrations because everyone’s ear changes with the times.    We shape the shows around the talent because the talent changes too.  The dances are created anew and so are the music arrangements for the dances. The story, music and dance must come together to create a synthesis that engages the audience,” says Price.

Each performance begins with a vision, a wish, a hope to bring joy.  In 2014 we presented High Button Shoes which originally premiered on Broadway in 1947 and had a noteworthy run of 727 performances.  Set in the era of the Model T Ford, it features music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, and a story by George Abbott and Phil Silvers, with choreography by Jerome Robbins.   According to Price, the show was selected because it was one of their favorites.   “We had done it before – about 30 years ago.  The director (Greg Ganakas) had a keen interest in it and our musical director Michael O’Flaherty wanted to do it; they both had a new take on it.  It’s the wonderful music of Jule Styne.  Linda Goodrich, who had choreographed for us before, said there were magic things she could do and it balanced well with the rest of our season.  It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s alive and exciting!  That’s what we’re all about.”

In addition to revivals, Goodspeed also produces new musicals.  Annie, Man of La Mancha and Shenandoah were born and nurtured there before graduating to Broadway and critical acclaim.  Whether brewing a revival or a new musical, the creative process is the same.  Writers, composers, lyricists and choreographers all brainstorm, spending many long days and nights getting the chemistry just right until the magic recipe is served up on stage.   To complement its main stage, Goodspeed founded the Norma Terris Theater in 1984.   Located in Chester, the 200-seat theater is specifically dedicated to the development of new musicals and intended to support both established and emerging writers.  It is the birthplace of more than 55 musical premieres; All Shook Up, By Jeeves, Princesses, Summer of ’42 and others have gone on to Broadway and Off-Broadway.

Implementing these artistic ambitions are the little known resources of the Goodspeed campus.  Completed productions do not arrive in a neatly packaged box.  They are homegrown – made in Connecticut in every detail.    The immediate area surrounding the theater is really an artistic community.  Throughout East Haddam and Chester, Goodspeed owns and operates 23 buildings including rehearsal studios, scenic, costume and paint shops, the music department, library, gift shop and administrative offices.  Each season Goodspeed employs 300 of Broadway’s finest actors, directors, costumers, and set and lighting designers to complement its full-time resident staff of nearly 100.  Ten houses can accommodate as many as 80 people at a time.

Their Chauncey Stillman Production Facility is one of the largest and best equipped in the country (boasting 33,000 square feet).  Numerous crafters build, weld and paint the scenery and props used in each production.  Each garment worn by actors is designed from scratch and sewn in the costume shop or is selected from the collection’s more than 250,000 pieces. The Scherer Library of Music (one of the largest musical theater libraries in the nation) provides research while the Larry McMillan Rehearsal Studio makes rehearsal space available for actors and dancers.  Together these 400 people create six productions each year that entertain 120,000 patrons.  The Max Showalter Center for Musical Theater Education is at the core of Goodspeed’s educational activities.  The center’s mission is to create a partnership with academic populations at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, as well as with schools throughout the state.

Goodspeed is truly the little theater that could!  With one of the smallest theaters and stages in the country, it has managed to achieve iconic status. Throughout its successful 37-year history, Goodspeed has remained true to its mission of presenting, preserving and ensuring the future of America’s musical history heritage.  For all these accomplishments, it has received two Special Tony Awards – one in 1980 for outstanding contribution to the American musical, and another in 1995 for distinguished achievement in regional theater.

Price lightheartedly called the secret formula for the Goodspeed’s popular programming as “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.”  Putting an informed hand into that grab bag and pulling out a title is only the beginning of a year-long process demanding the dynamic synergy of various disciplines, enormous talent, and a savvy finger on the pulse of the theater-going community.  “It has to entertain, it has to be alive.  When you come to Goodspeed you know what you’re going to get.  You’re going to get a first rate production – singing, dancing and joy! And when you leave the theater you will have accomplished what you came to the theater for – to be entertained, to be transported into another world for a few hours.”

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