Goodspeed Musicals and Cleveland Public Library Home to Rare Collection of Live Musical Recordings

Goodspeed Musicals and Cleveland Public Library Home to Rare Collection of Live Musical Recordings

A rare collection of complete live recordings of classic American musical theater is now available at two major venues: Goodspeed Musicals' Scherer Library of Musical Theatre in East Haddam, Connecticut, and Cleveland Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio.

The collection comprises recordings of more than 100 musicals, operas and operettas mounted between 1954 and 1965 by the late John L. Price Jr., founder and producer of Musicarnival, the tent theater-in-the-round that he operated for 22 years in suburban Cleveland and for seven years in a satellite theater in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The CDs can be heard in listening stations at the Scherer and Cleveland Public libraries. Accompanying them is a 370-page volume of annotations written by Bill Rudman and Rebecca Paller. The book is available electronically here or cpl.org/musicarnival. Physical copies, priced at $35, can be ordered from The Musical Theater Project: 216-860-1518 or Loretta@MusicalTheaterProject.org.

Price was a leader in the American tent-theater movement of the 1950s and 1960s, producing six to eight shows each year in an era when summer-stock productions were widely popular. He assembled casts that combined highly regarded Cleveland professionals with some of New York's finest musical theater artists, including Susan Johnson, Monte Amundsen, Tommy Rall, John Reardon and Mark Dawson.

And in 1955 he engaged the 26-year-old Beverly Sills to star in "Die Fledermaus." She returned to the tent in 1956, taking on back-to-back productions of "Carmen" and "The Merry Widow"; in 1957 for "Tosca"; and in 1958 for one of her signature roles, "The Ballad of Baby Doe."

The Musicarnival pit orchestra was conducted during the early years by Boris Kogan, formerly of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and included members of the Cleveland Orchestra. And the longtime resident director of the theater was Donald Driver, whose later work in New York as author and director included the award-winning musical "Your Own Thing."

Price originally recorded the Musicarnival productions on seven-inch reel-to-reel analog tapes. In 2008 The Musical Theater Project (TMTP), a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the tradition of the art form, was engaged by Cleveland Public Library, which houses Musicarnival's complete archive, to lend its expertise to the recordings. TMTP was charged with supervising the digital transfer and restoration of the fragile tapes from one theatrical season (1958) and supplying annotations that placed each production in both a local and national context.

The results of that pilot project were successful, and in 2012 work began on the audio restoration and documentation of 12 years of Musicarnival history.

TMTP artistic director Bill Rudman, who headed the pilot effort and curated the full initiative, recalled being "thrilled hearing just the first few minutes" of the first musical that TMTP engineer Mark Logies transferred to CD: a revival of "Finian's Rainbow" starring famed Gilbert and Sullivan Savoyard Martyn Green.

"The on-stage sound quality exceeded my expectations for 50-year-old tapes that were recorded essentially as Johnny Price's personal mementos with an eye toward posterity," said Rudman. "And just as important, the tapes capture the delight of as many as 2,000 theatergoers at a time when the American musical was central to our popular culture. There was truly something in the air every night at those summer performances, and the energy passing back and forth across the footlights is palpable.

"We believe that no similar body of recordings exists in this country. For those of us working in musical theater, the Musicarnival collection is a terrific archaeological dig that will be studied for years to come."

The tapes document nearly every show mounted at Price's Cleveland and West Palm Beach theaters. All of the most popular titles by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser and other leading writers of the period are represented, along with musicals that are now rarely if ever performed but worthy of reexamination.

These include Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon," Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's "Bloomer Girl," Cole Porter's "Can-Can" and "Silk Stockings," Harold Rome's "Fanny" and "Wish You Were Here," Jerry Herman's "Milk and Honey," Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "Wildcat" and the world premiere of the first stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's TV musical, "Cinderella," adapted by Don Driver and sanctioned by Rodgers.

Among the operettas (mostly American) in the collection are "Naughty Marietta," "Song of Norway," "The Great Waltz," "The Student Prince," "The Desert Song," "The Merry Widow" and "Die Fledermaus," which feature such artists as Irra Petina, Norman Treigle, William Chapman and Lloyd Thomas Leech in addition to Sills.

"These are all fascinating, full-length audio documents," said Diana Price, the elder daughter of the producer. "They will be savored not only by enthusiasts, but also by students and historians of both musical theater and popular culture.

"My family is proud that our father's contribution to the American musical will be enjoyed at Cleveland Public Library and at Goodspeed, the national theater that celebrates the rich history of this art form. We are delighted that the two libraries partnered on the project." John Price's younger brother, Lt. Col. Robert "Jim" Price of Redlands, California, made the contribution supporting the restoration work.

Cleveland Public Library director Felton Thomas praised Musicarnival as having been "a vibrant part of Cleveland's artistic landscape for 22 years - and this tent theater also achieved national renown. The tapes make it all come back to life. We welcome to the library those who want to investigate and enjoy an extraordinary time capsule."

Amy Dawson, the library's manager of the Literature Department and the Ohio Center for the Book, described the Musicarnival tapes as the "crown jewels" in the theater's archives.

Goodspeed's executive director, Michael Gennaro, who inherited the five-year project from his predecessor, Michael P. Price, has now added the set of Musicarnival recordings to one of the most extensive musical theater research facilities in the United States. Goodspeed's collection boasts more than 70,000 items, providing a singular resource to academics and professionals around the world.

"This audio collection is very exciting for us; the expansiveness is extraordinary," said Gennaro. "In addition, the Musicarnival tapes demonstrate exceedingly high-quality musical theater outside New York City. This theater thrived in America's heartland, and its voice was strong and resonant. Not coincidentally, one of the musicals in the collection is Walter Kerr and Elie Siegmeister's 'Sing Out, Sweet Land.' "

Cleveland Public Library serves four million patrons annually at 28 branches across the city, lending more than 6.5 million items from a collection of more than 10 million. CPL's library services are also available at the Public Administration Library in City Hall; Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled; and the "On the Road to Reading" literacy van. CPL is the home for the Ohio Center for the Book and CLEVNET library cooperation. For more information, visit www.cpl.org.

Dedicated to preserving the rich legacy of the art form, Goodspeed Musicals' Scherer Library of Musical Theatre carefully maintains a comprehensive collection of scores, sheet music, scripts, original cast recordings, programs, photographs and theater memorabilia on the Goodspeed campus in East Haddam, Connecticut. These reference tools are utilized by the musical theater community across the nation in the re-creation and revitalization of period musicals and in the creation and development of new works. For more information, contact Joshua S. Ritter at 860-873-8664, ext. 745 or jritter@goodspeed.org.

The Musical Theater Project, formed in 2000, is a nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to foster a deep understanding of the American musical by creating programs that educate as well as entertain people of all ages. These programs include the nationally syndicated radio program "Footlight Parade"; "On the Aisle," heard on SiriusXM Satellite Radio; "The Song Is You!" concert and cabaret series; the school residency program "Kids Love Musicals!" and the record label Harbinger Records. For more information, call 216-529-9411 or visit www.MusicalTheaterProject.org.

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