On a cool April evening in 1996, a professional production of the musical Lady In the Dark lit up a darkened theater and thrilled audiences for the first time since the show’s 1941 run. That 1941 production starred Gertrude Lawrence, introduced Danny Kaye to the entertainment world, and ran for 2½ years in three different New York theaters. After that it was promptly forgotten, except in Broadway history books and the reminiscences of old actors…
That 1996 production had a cast of 25, an orchestra of 13, and a full-scale technical staff to bring the show back to life. Not on Broadway. Not in the West End. But in Arlington, Virginia. The newly-founded American Century Theater had produced the first musical in its short history, and it played to sellout houses for five weeks. After one of the performances, a patron who had seen the original run came up to the production staff and said gently, “Thank you. I’d almost forgotten.”
That simple statement epitomizes what the American Century Theater set out to do – ensure that glorious, or obscure, or idiosyncratic American musicals (as well as non-musical plays) were not “almost forgotten”, but were given new and exciting productions to inspire a new generation of audiences. Now, twenty years and eighteen musicals later, TACT is closing its doors this July, and presenting its final musical show, American Century’s Broadway Hit Parade.
“It’s been a wonderful run,” said TACT Artistic Director Jack Marshall. “We have polished up old gems, discovered new ones, and delighted new audiences. Along the way, everyone in TACT enjoyed the gratifying – if sometimes arduous – task of re-creating the past.”
Some of the musicals were well known but seldom performed, like Jerry Hermann’s Dear World, Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus, and the Rodgers and Hart classic Babes in Arms (which one Broadway writer described as “the finest set of nightclub songs ever written, performed by a wholly underage cast”). Some had been almost entirely forgotten, like archy & mehitabel (based on the works of journalist and poet Don Marquis) and Marathon ’33 (written by June Havoc, the “Baby June” younger sister of Gypsy Rose Lee). Some re-imagined outdated musicals, like I Do! I Do! played with a cast of two men and two women and featuring straight and gay marriages. TACT proved that every one of them was well worth resuscitating.
TACT audiences will never forget the 1999 production of the Federal Theatre Project’s The Cradle Will Rock. On the show’s original opening night in 1937, labor difficulties closed the theater, so the cast and audience marched uptown to another vacant theater and performed the show from the audience seats. TACT re-created this scene by locking itself out of its own theater, and then (to the audience’s bemused puzzlement) broke in through a window and performed the show without sets and with costume pieces borrowed from the audience. The show earned Helen Hayes nominations as Best Musical and (for director Marshall) Best Director of a Musical.
TACT also originated revues on American historical themes. If Only In My Dreams re-created the heartbreaking and hopeful world of Christmases on the home front during World War II. An American Century Christmas looked at the same holiday across the past 100 years, starting with the editorial affirmation “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and running through O. Henry, Gene Autry, a Menotti opera, the Chipmunks, and the Grinch, before finishing up with Charlie Brown.
Some of the most satisfying ventures in TACT’s repertoire looked at famous Americans, particularly those connected with the theater. Danny & Sylvia, perhaps TACT’s most successful production (it played off Broadway, in London, and elsewhere around the world) explored Danny Kaye and his tempestuous relationship with his wife and songwriter, Sylvia Kane. One Night With Fanny Brice presented anew the classic comedienne of stage and radio, whose career just missed immortality because television and movies were only beginning to come into their own when she died.
American Century’s Broadway Hit Parade
March 19 – 22, 2015
American Century Theater
at Gunston II
2700 S. Lang Street
Tickets: $32 – $40
Thursday thru Sunday
Details and Tickets or call 703-998-4555
My own personal favorite was Call Me Mister. With the permission of Josh Rome, son of composer Harold Rome, we discovered the show’s handwritten scores and scripts in the library of the Yale School of Music and presented a show that had run over three years after World War II – a show unseen in any theater for over sixty years.” Hellzapoppin’ was a similar rescue of a show only fragmentarily remembered – Olsen and Johnson’s combination of slapstick and farce that for many years was the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
All these and more come back to the TACT stage one more time, in a one-weekend staged reading and singing of some of the best these shows had to offer as American Century’s Broadway Hit Parade, compiled and scripted by Artistic Director and Founder Jack Marshall, and directed by Jacqueline Manger. [Tom Fuller is Musical Director.] In many cases, TACT has assembled members of its original casts and other veterans of its theatrical roster of veteran performers. The memorable evening will also contain a surprise or two, even for the organization’s most loyal followers. TACT’s legacy will continue to ensure that none of these moments from the American musical stage become “almost forgotten.”
Guest writer Tom Fuller is Musical Director for American Century Theater