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There’s Lots of History in Those Old Walls

The Westport Country Playhouse opened its 2002 season with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a story of the everyday lives of people living in small town America in the early 20th century.

The story reminded us what’s good about the simple life, about community, something everyone yearned for as an antidote to 9/11, which had occurred only seven months earlier. The feeling was reinforced by a largely local cast starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager.

Anne Keefe, then, as now, the Playhouse’s Associate Artist, offered a bit of backstory during a recent talk she and Company Manager Bruce Miller gave to Y’s Men.

Artistic Director Joanne Woodward and Director James Naughton chose the play. Mr. Newman, who had not acted on a stage in 32 years, wanted to play the Stage Manager. Ms. Woodward had her doubts.

Ms. Keefe said Ms. Woodward mused “Paul as Stage Manager? I don’t know, you’re old, there are lots of lines, it’s a huge undertaking.” He asked for two hours, and disappeared into his office. When he returned he had memorized half of the first long stage manager’s speech. “I think he can do it.” 

The production sold out, went to Broadway and enjoyed a nine week run — completely recouping the Playhouse’s investment.

Ms. Keefe has been a part of the Playhouse since 1977, Mr. Miller since 1999. Together they offered some history.

The Westport area became a summer artists’ colony in the 1920s, as many New Yorkers headed out when their un-air conditioned  theaters closed. Among them were theater owner Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall.

He sought to replicate his New York theater so he could try out plays and bring the successes to the city. In 1930 he found a 95 year old barn in an apple orchard on the Post Road. He bought it, added a stage similar to his New York theater’s and installed 700 pew seats.

Streets of New York, starring Dorothy Gish opened the Westport Country Playhouse in 1931. The play was a hit and went on to become one in New York. 

Since its beginning the Playhouse has mounted 812 productions, including 60 world premieres and 97 musicals. 42 shows traveled to New York, a “pretty good percentage,” Baker noted.

The Playhouse has often been a part of theater history. In 1940 they presented Green Grow the Lilacs. Many thought it a good story for a musical. Richard Rogers, who lived in Fairfield, saw it opening night, agreed, and along with Oscar Hammerstein II created Oklahoma around it.

In 1941 Tyrone Power, then the “Crown Prince of Hollywood,” returned to his roots in summer stock, starring in Liliom, the play that became the basis of Carousel. He was under contract to 20th Century Fox. Darryl Zanuck, its Vice President of Production, would not let him out. Power’s summer was saved when a Playhouse attorney found an old blue law that required a person under contract in Connecticut to remain here until the contract is fulfilled. Zanuck caved.

In 1970, while  George Gobel starred in Woody Allen’s Play it Again Sam, a family of raccoons found their way into the building. The actors took to feeding them popcorn. Gobel went them one better, dipping his into his scotch before feeding the mother and her three babies. One evening the family gave the audience a little something extra, making their way on stage and heading directly for Mr. Gobel.

Ms. Keefe remembered Executive Producer Jim McKenzie warmly. He came in 1959 and produced 419 plays during his 41 years in charge. McKenzie also saved the Playhouse from becoming a shopping center, when, in 1985 he put together a group of 27 ardent supporters who raised $1.2 million to keep it as it was.

By the end of the last century the old barn was showing its age. But it had “not only found its way into all of our hearts, (it) also has more history than almost any other playhouse of its kind on the continent.” 

The only option was to rehabilitate and modernize. Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman took the lead in raising $30 million, starting with a one night gala performance of Love Letters.

The renovations included a roomier, modern lobby and replacing the pews with theater seating. While capacity was lowered, 727 to 585, the former 128 obstructed view seats were eliminated.

But before construction began, in 2003, the old house was closed with a book end performance of Streets of New York. The show went on the road until the new house was ready, in May, 2005.

Artistic Director Michael Lamos and Managing Director Michael Barker lead the planning for each season. They are building in greater diversity — “more women, a comedy, a musical, something educational to bring in students, new plays.”

The Playhouse is also building a year round program. One popular offering is Script in Hand, which Ms. Woodward, as Artistic Director, started because she got more out of hearing a script read rather than reading it silently. For ten years the Playhouse has offered these readings for live audiences.

What my children enjoyed as summer Friday matinees for young theater goers have been moved to Sundays, six times a year. The hope is that grandparents will introduce their grandchildren to live theater. 

Our speakers commented that In The Heights was the “biggest musical we’ve ever done,” and the most costly. Typical musical’s cost about twice what a straight play does. Heights had a large cast and a large orchestra, and cost even more.

Both were unabashed in talking about funding. The Westport Country Playhouse is a 501(c)(3). Tickets cover only 46 percent of the budget, and wine costs $8, so donations are important and welcomed. “We have our hands out at all times.”

We were reminded that Kelli O’Hara will lead a gala fundraiser on September 14.

Photo by Sal Mollica


Roy Fuchs