Eight hours until the curtain goes up on The Music Man. In the still-dark theater, you can just make out the outlines of Jim Noone’s beautiful, painterly set. Marian and Harold and the rest of the cast are resting quietly at home, gathering their energy. In the pavilion behind the opera house, tables are being set for a “hometown picnic.” Cast and crew scribble opening night cards to colleagues who have become like family in these short weeks. The rituals of opening night never change—and never dull.
In Baton Rouge, LA, another summer ritual is gathering steam. Since before I was born, my grandparents have been bringing their progeny to the summer musical at Baton Rouge Little Theater. Tomorrow they will distribute 33 tickets to South Pacific to four generations of music lovers—for that is what everyone will certainly be by the end of the evening, including three-year-old Scotty, who’s attending for the first time.
My mom guesses I was three or four when I attended my first BRLT summer musical, so it’s possible my first show was the 1976 production of The Music Man. The only thing that really made an impression on me was the amazing Technicolor piano being played by the guy in black down front. You see, until then, my musical experiences all had a piano at the center of them: Aunts Julie and Pat harmonizing Christmas carols, Uncle Spike playing “Piano Man,” Aunt Cathy dazzling me with a vaguely exotic-sounding cross-hand piece. That first night at Little Theater, I had a good view of the conductor’s back, but couldn’t see into the pit at all. Given my limited frame of reference, when I saw this guy flinging his hands this way and that, I just assumed he was playing a special piano with all kinds of interesting colors not available on home models.
At some point I figured out what was really happening in the pit. And eventually I learned to play that exotic-sounding cross-hand piece. Before too long, like my aunts, I got a job playing piano in church. (I was astonished: “You mean people get paid for this??”) I studied music in college… took an internship at Glimmerglass… and the rest, as they say, is history.* Most of my opera colleagues have a story like this, a story of a childhood experience that hooked them on the power of song and storytelling.
The Glimmerglass Festival’s new series of classic American musicals brings everything full-circle for me—in a supersized kind of way. To see these incredible shows in productions by some of the leading theater artists of our day, with knockout casts, accompanied by the instrument-of-many-colors that is the Glimmerglass Orchestra, is a treat indeed. When I look around the theater and see all the wide-eyed kids taking it in, my heart cracks open, remembering the excitement I felt every summer as the house went dark—and still feel today.
Happy opening, everyone…and thanks, Granny and Grandpa.
*Note to concerned parents: Taking your children to a musical does not necessarily doom them to a life in the theater. Plenty of my cousins have gone on to pursue “normal” careers. (Too bad for them…)