DC Theatre Scene readers who have enjoyed shows at Signature Theatre in Shirlington will wish this slender volume was thicker. At 123 pages of large type, it only skims the surface of the story of Signature Theatre — but what is here is fascinating.
Eric Schaeffer has put down in simple language the story of the adventure that started on that fateful night in (can you believe it?) 1988, when he and Donna Migliaccio (then known as Donna Lillard) went out for a few beers at Calvert Grill on Mount Vernon Avenue. He’d been working with The Arlington Players and she was involved with the Fairlington Players, two community theatre groups in Northern Virginia. They agreed that what was needed was a professional theater and they decided to start one themselves.
He relates how the arts-friendly policies of Arlington County’s Cultural Affairs Division played a seminal role in the effort to get the new company on its feet, and the importance of the school library turned into a county owned and operated theatre at the Gunston Arts Center which gave the company its first venue.
The chronology of the growth of the company from tenant at Gunston’s Theatre Two, to the creation of a black box theater of its own in a dilapidated former chrome plating shop on South Four Mile Run Drive that came to be known affectionately as “The Garage,” and finally into its current two-house home is sketched with interesting side-stories. He reveals his disappointment over the acoustics in the two new theatres and the reason for the problem. It seems that, after spending a million dollars to design acoustically satisfying spaces, someone (he doesn’t say who) changed the paint that was to cover all the steel in the catwalks and rigging for the theaters from the simple black paint that was intended to a special sound-absorbing spray-on sound-proofing. He says “I am hoping one day to win the lottery so I can just rip all the crappy soundproofing out.”
Schaeffer relates the course of events that led to the company’s reputation as a musical theatre company specializing in the works of Stephen Sondheim. Their first musical was Sweeney Todd and it was an immediate immense hit, selling out completely and sweeping the Helen Hayes Awards with five wins including Outstanding Resident Musical and individual awards for Lou Stancari (set), Pedro Porro (actor), Donna Lillard (Migliaccio) (actress) and Schaeffer (director).
The next season, probably on the strength of the success of Sweeney, they beat out all the competition for the rights to mount the first production of Sondheim’s Assassins following its New York premiere. That production won them their second-in-a-row Outstanding Resident Musical Helen Hayes Award and made it practically impossible not to do another Sondheim the next year — and each year thereafter. That, of course, is how we came to be able to enjoy Signature’s Company, Into the Woods (twice), Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Gypsy, Putting It Together, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along, Side by Side by Sondheim, a second Assassins, two more Sweeney Todds and something called A Stephen Sondheim Evening.
There are (all-too-brief) entries covering his and his theater’s involvement with the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb, but I wish there had been more and that he’d also dealt with the development of a relationship with mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh which resulted in Signature presenting the American premiere of Dempsey and Rowe’s The Fix, and ultimately, Schaeffer’s direction of the world premiere of their The Witches of Eastwick in London and then the American premiere of that show here at Signature.
There must be a thousand stories of the backstage adventures as the company mounted its twenty seasons which, by my count, seems to add up to 113 shows of which 60 were musicals and 29 were world premieres. Quite a track record!
Schaeffer details the thrill of Signature winning the 2009 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre and gives us glimpses of what it was like for him and Signature’s Managing Director Maggie Boland to participate in the ceremonies surrounding the award in New York while the “Signature Family” partied at the Capitol City Brewing Company in Shirlington.
He also gives us a fairly detailed account of the development of Signature’s first Broadway transfer, Glory Days, which, after a thoroughly successful engagement at Signature, crashed and burned when it reached the Circle in the Square Theatre in the basement of the Gershwin Theatre where Wicked was and still is holding forth to full houses.
He doesn’t provide anything like that detail for some of the other world premieres that long time Signature devotees would love to learn about. Nothing on Matt Conner’s musical with lyrics by Edgar Allan Poe, Nevermore. Nary a word about Norman Allen’s Nijinsky’s Last Dance which won Signature its first Helen Hayes Award for the Outstanding (non-musical) Play in 1999, or Allen’s involvement with the Signature in the Schools program that earned the Washington Post Award in the year before.
How about Paris Barclay’s One Red Flower, Chad Beguelin and Matt Sklar’s The Rhythm Club or Michael Lazar and Richard Oberacker’s The Gospel According to Fishman? (We’ll forgive him the lack of mention of Three Nights in Tehran or Available Light with its floor full of feathers.)
There are people in the Signature story about whom we’d love to know more. How did the company get so lucky as to have the talents of scenic designer Lou Stancari? The same could be asked about Eric Grims (sets) David Maddox (music and sound) Tony Angelini (sound). How did the long-time partnership with music director Jon Kalbfleisch come about? When did some of the long-time cast regulars join the family? People such as Stephen Cupo, Sherri L. Edelen, Aleasha Gamble, Will Gartshore, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Simmons, Stephen Gregory Smith, Jenna Sokolowski and Lauren Williams.
Perhaps we can prevail on Schaeffer to go back to his keyboard and write us Volume II.