BWW Interview: A Desire To Be the Absolute Best We Can: MSMT Launches Its 2017 Season
"At the end of last summer I told myself that we were not going to try to top the 2016 season. I was going to think of 2017 as a completely separate and unique adventure, but the end result is that we are already topping our previous metrics in terms of ticket sales." The speaker, Curt Dale Clark, Maine State Music Theatre's energetic and charismatic Artistic Director, is reflecting on the sold out 2016 season which garnered the company lavish critical and audience acclaim and made an MSMT ticket one of the hottest items in the region.
"When you sell out that many performances and the shows have that kind of quality," Clark continues, "it is inevitable that you run up against yourself. That can be a dangerous thing because it can sometimes cause negativity or a downward spiral. Instead, we decided that our goal would be to program and produce the best season we could with very little regard as to what had happened in the prior year. Our choices of shows for 2017, which is MSMT"s 59th season, are nowhere near as flashy or sexy as last year's, but people are buying faster than they ever have in the history of MSMT!"
Managing Director Stephanie Dupal adds to this thought: "We already know that we have a record-breaking season in terms of subscriptions sold, and we think there will be the same excitement when single seats go on sale on April 26th. So we are encouraging everybody to buy their seats early before shows sell out."
The 2017 season will run from June 7 - August 26, 2017 on the main stage of the Pickard Theater in Brunswick and also offers a fifth production - a joint endeavor with Portland Stage - which plays until September 10. The shows span a considerable range of styles and eras and represent a carefully balanced repertoire that, Clark believes, "has a little bit for everyone." As Artistic Director, he is currently putting the finishing touches on the casting for those five productions, three concert stagings and two children's shows. He, Dupal, the shows' directors and choreographers have just wrapped up a month of auditions held first locally and then at the SETC Conference and in New York City. Clark says that they have hired interns from each of those auditions while the main stage actors are 95% Equity professionals from New York, as well as one from SETC and a few from Maine, and he is hugely excited about the talent pool MSMT has attracted.
The season opens on June 7(- June 24) with a revival of Always Patsy Cline, one of the most popular shows in MSMT's past history. The two-character songbook of Cline's career will star Christine Mild as Patsy Cline and Charis Leos as Louise - both actresses who have done the roles many times, though never together. "Even though MSMT did this show in 2011, this new production will be completely different and fresh," Clark says. "Marc Robin and I are co-directing/choreographing the production, a co-production with the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, and our take on it is a little bigger than the way it is usually done. We will be using more visual elements than in the past and giving it a size and scope to match the amazing talents of the two stars."
In contrast to the small cast Patsy Cline, the three other productions will be among the largest in MSMT's history. Guys and Dolls (June 28- July 15), directed/choreographed by D.J. Salisbury, with a cast of 34 will fill the second slot from June 28- July 15. Quoting one of his favorite maxims ("If it's not broken, don't fix it!"), Clark says, "Our production will be a classic revival. This is an example of the American musical at its very best and it projects an iconic image of gangsters and flashy women with which America is still associated in some parts of the world. The comedy is unmatched; the Damon Runyan dialogue is unforgettable; the Frank Loesser score is incredible." The third show directed/choreographed by Mark Martino, Grease (July 19- August 5), Clark says "has a universal appeal for every age group, and the rights house is well aware of that. It will be the most expensive show we have ever done in MSMT history in terms of the cost of the rights." But Clark knows the expenditure is well worth it because "Grease is going to be this season's Mamma Mia!" he declares enthusiastically in terms of being a smash, sold out hit. He is also eager to introduce both these shows to a new generation. He thinks classic productions of Guys and Dolls and Grease will resonate with a broad spectrum of audience members just as last year's Fiddler on the Roof did. "I think if we don't add any modernisms or bells and whistles and we tell these shows exactly as they were meant to be, people will understand the genius of their creators."
The last of the four Brunswick productions, Disney's Newsies (August 9-26), directed/choreographed by Marc Robin, is perhaps the least familiar to Midcoast audiences. Clark thinks the recent showing of the Broadway show as a Fathom event has helped, but he is convinced that MSMT's 24 "performances have the opportunity to reach a larger public, and I know once it opens and word gets around, there won't be a single ticket left." Dupal agrees calling it a "high energy, extremely athletic, gymnastic dance show that will be performed here by incredibly gifted actors and dancers."
Then if these four offerings were not enough to keep the company busy this summer, MSMT has programmed two concert stagings and two Theatre for Young Audiences events as well as some other gala performances. Clark will direct and choreograph two performances of the rarely done Tommy (July 31). "I chose Tommy because it, too, is iconic and classic [based on THE WHO'S classic rock album], and it gives us something very unlike anything else this season. I felt it would speak to the intern company and give them a chance to do a show that doesn't come around very often." The intern girls will also perform The Taffettas (August 14), a four-person nostalgic trip through the songs of the 50s directed/choreographed by Raymod Marc Dumont. Clark says that this choice was "in part practical - to showcase the four female interns while the boys are performing in Newsies, and to make it worthwhile for these "amazingly talented young actresses to come up here and work as hard as they do all summer." Moreover, the scheduling has an added benefit: since the intern girls will not be in Newsies, they can perform a pre-show song in local restaurants throughout the run! Clark and Dumont will also preside over the two children's productions, both original musical versions by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark, witH Clark directing/choreographing Sleeping Beauty (June 14) and Dumont directing/choreographing Alice in Wonderland (August 21). New this year will be two sensory friendly rehearsal performances (June 10, August 20) of these children's shows made possible by a grant from the Anna Maria Moggio Foundation.
The summer season in Brunswick will be rounded out by a concert by the Hank Band July 10 and Summer Blast, a gala evening celebrating the 1950s at the Brunswick Gold Course Clubhouse. The latter will feature music of the Flat Tops, as well as hors d'oeuvres and drinks. "It will be a fantastically fun evening," Clark enthuses. "Fifties dress is optional, and if anyone is having trouble finding an outfit, he/she should contact MSMT's costume staff." In addition, MSMT will offer a fourth season of its popular Peek Behind the Curtain panel discussions (June 14, July 5, July 26, August 16) as well as a pre-season Film Fridays series showing the movie versions of Guys and Dolls (May 5), Grease (May 12), and Newsies (May 19) followed by a talk back witH Clark who will compare the screen and stage versions - both of these series at Curtis Memorial Library.
Then following the huge success of MSMT and Portland Stage's 2016 co-production of The Irish and How They Got That Way, both companies have elected to mount a second joint endeavor to extend their seasons. This year's co-production performed at Portland Stage will be The All Night Strut from August 15- September 10. "It's a songbook of the 1930s and 1940s done in vignette style, completely sung ad danced with no dialogue," says Clark, who will play one of the four leads, explains. "This will be my third time doing the piece, and each of the two previous productions [at the Fulton Theatre and Drury Lane Evergreen Park] has been a monster hit. We even won a Chicago After Dark Award for Best Ensemble in 1999. The show has great appeal, so we are encouraging our audience to buy their tickets early and come early in the run. This way if they do want to see it more than once - which is what happened for lots of people with Irish - it won't be totally sold out yet. Last year the run was extended a week and the final two weeks were completely sold-out making Irish the highest grossing show in Portland Stage's history."
As we chat at MSMT's offices I can already feel the mounting excitement and building energy among the entire staff. I ask what the hopes and expectations for 2018 are. Dupal replies, "We want our artists and our patrons to have a great experience. Our goal is to create that moment in September when people say, 'I can't wait until June!'"
Clark again turns reflective: "It's hard once you start chasing your past success. But I am not afraid to chase that past, and I expect us to continue to get better each and every year in each and every aspect of what we do. I am motivated by a desire to be the absolute best that we can possibly be and that takes a huge personal commitment from every single person at MSMT. What we are doing well, we will continue to do, and where we may not be meeting our responsibility as well as we might wish, we will find a way going forward. All this sometimes takes time, but we won't stop until we get it right!"
I cannot help but observe that if critical estimation and overwhelming audience approval are any indicators, MSMT is surely getting it pretty darn right!
Photos courtesy MSMT, Fulton Theatre