Good Night, Sweet Theatre

Tonight is the opening performance of The Fantasticks at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) in Westport, CT. I’m the music director of the show; I’ll be playing the piano.

It’s another opening of another show—but it’s the last show that will be performed in this rather unusual space. In the fall MTC will be moving to larger quarters a couple of miles away. Larger? How much larger? Well, the new theatre will seat 120. The current one seats: 45.

Kevin Connors and Jim Schilling, who run MTC, have been putting on shows in that space for 25 years. (I’ve music directed eleven of them.) Despite the fact that it’s a black box carved out of the basement of a bank; despite the fact that there are only two rows of seats, and in some of them you have to turn your head sideways to see the stage; and despite the fact that the room is irregularly shaped, so that not all the stage is visible from all the seats, it’s a theatre, a real theatre. It has the feel of a theatre; it’s something that soaks into the walls somehow. It’s a kind of a sacred space. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one into an empty theatre before a rehearsal or show, you can feel the presence of audiences, of performances, of emotions, of stories. Please note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool secular humanist godless atheist liberal skeptic—but I’ll make an exception in the case of empty theatres. Just because I don’t believe in ghosts doesn’t mean they’re not there.

This show actually has a ghost light onstage as part of the preset. (A ghost light is a light bulb in a cage on a stand, placed on an empty stage overnight so that the first person onstage in the morning can find his or her way around.) For me a ghost light makes this sense of presence tangible; it’s the genius loci of a theatre.

I was music director for the first production in that space, in 1987. It was Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The director (who shall remain nameless; it wasn’t Kevin or Jimmy) thought it would be an effective idea to have the cast sing “The Desperate Ones” in complete darkness. I learned to play the song without being able to see the music or the keyboard, and that’s how we performed it. At least until one claustrophobic member of the audience one night complained about the fact that there was no “Exit” sign above the door. The Westport fire department came visiting, and discovered that, in addition to the lack of an “Exit” sign, there were numerous other fire safety violations about the new facility, including the lack of an additional fire exit from the building. Kevin and Jimmy were given a choice: cancel the rest of the run, or pay to have a uniformed firefighter in the lobby for each of the remaining performances. That’s what they chose; and then the subsequent production was postponed while they hired a contractor to construct the new fire exit.

That was the beginning of that space’s life as a theatre; besides Jacques Brel, I was present to add to the memories with revues on the songs of Rodgers & Hart, Sondheim, and Cole Porter (twice!); Yours, Anne, the Anne Frank musical (really); a stripped-down version of Cabaret with eight actors; Kevin’s own Mothers and Sons; Pete ‘n’ Keely; The Story of My Life; and Next to Normal, for which I led the world’s quietest rock band. (The drummer played with brushes most of the time.)

We’re doing 15 performances of The Fantasticks; we’ll be entertaining a maximum of 45 x 15 = 675 people. Those performances will be added to the walls, and then—the theatre will be turned into something else, we don’t know what. Will the ghosts stay on? Who knows? I’ve never been in a former theatre before (that I know of). The new space will have to start accumulating its own in the fall. I hope to be there.

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