Steven Jones, photographed Sept. 6, 2010.

Risk Taker

Lyric Stage's Steven Jones takes musical theater to new depths.

published Monday, October 25, 2010

If you ask a dozen musical theater composers about the role of their music in any given show, at least 10 of them, if not all, will say that the music is a character unto itself. In reality, that depends on the work. Not many serious musical-goers put that much stock in the music composed for, say, a fluffy show adapted from a recent, candy-coated movie that made beaucoup box office bucks.

But there are a lot of works out there, both old and new, for which the music really is that integral.

Stephen Cole, who wrote the book and lyrics for The Night of the Hunter, to the music of the late Claibe Richardson, knows that this show’s music is essential to the viewing experience. “Because it’s a thriller and it’s so emotional, it needs to scare the audience the way Sweeney [Todd] scares an audience,” he says, “and the orchestra is an essential character. It’s going to change the way an audience feels.”

Steven Jones, the founding producer of Lyric Stage, agreed. So much so that he’s taking the big risk of staging Hunter with a 24-piece orchestra, which is a rarity for any musical production nowadays, much less with a newer, untested show.

This move make makes sense for Lyric, which is currently in its 19th season. The group was founded on a mission to develop and preserve one of America’s greatest art forms. For much of its history, Lyric has introduced audiences to new musicals, many of which have had regional or world premieres at Lyric’s home at the Irving Arts Center—including Cole’s After the Fair (based on the Thomas Hardy novel), which was Lyric’s first major world premiere, in 1997; and his well-received premiere The Road to Qatar in 2009.

Although there have been a few warhorse titles along the way (The Sound and Music and Gypsy appeared in Lyric’s first decade), Jones hasn’t been interested in these titles because he lacked the money to do them, as he says, “the right way.” For him, that means with full orchestras.

That changed in 2007, when Lyric received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to revive Rodgers and Hammerstein’s landmark Carousel with a full orchestra, and with restored orchestrations. That production was glorious, and paved the way for similar revivals of West Side Story, The King and I, Funny Girl, Bye Bye Birdie and, most recently, a stunning My Fair Lady with a 38-piece orchestra, which is more instruments than the original Broadway production had. (There were 38 on the original cast recording, though, and Lyric’s master orchestrator/conductor Jay Dias, found a way to get additional strings in a live production.)

Thanks to a benefactor who is funding the orchestras for these revivals (an Irving resident who wishes to remain anonymous), Jones is now shifting his focus to the preservation part of Lyric’s mission, rather than the development.

“I shied away from big-title shows for the first 14 years of the theater’s existence because we couldn’t afford to do them,” he says. “We could do the new work well, we didn’t need a full orchestra; and the lesser-known pieces that people weren’t coming in with preconceived notions of what they were going to see. … A lot of theaters around the country, they’ll do My Fair Lady, and it’ll have big sets and nice costumes, and they’ll rehearse it in a week, and it’s thrown together. The artistic integrity is not there. Now we’re able to do the best production possible of these classics.”

This new venture has raised the company’s profile around the country, including with the famed Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation, which is so enamored of Lyric’s work that it grants them access to orchestrations and trunk material that haven’t been viewed by hardly anyone else.

That doesn’t mean Lyric is shying away from its development goal, though. With The Night of the Hunter, Jones is out to prove that a newer title with a rich score deserves the same treatment as the classics.

The musical, which is based on Davis Grubb’s best-selling 1954 Southern gothic novel about a man, “Preacher,” who’ll do anything to find money stolen by his prison cellmate, has had a few productions around the country, including a Lyric-produced workshop at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Lyric’s production features Broadway star Davis Gaines in the lead role, which was played by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 film. Local star Julie Johnson plays Willa, the Shelley Winters role.

Claibe Richardson, like most composers, wrote the show on a piano. But because he came from a bygone era of musical composers inspired by Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers—Cole notes that Richardson often said he was the last musical composer who was not influenced by Sondheim—he had the idea for the full orchestra in his head.

But with newer musicals, that never happens. Theaters can’t afford orchestras with 20-plus pieces, and probably not even more than five. Also, if there’s going to be any talk of moving to Broadway, a large orchestra isn’t financially sound.

The thought of the big orchestra is always in the back of a composer’s mind, though. “You don’t sit down and think ‘I don’t want a big orchestra’,” Cole says.

When Hunter was recorded for a reduced, 60-minute version, there were 24 pieces in the studio. Now, he’ll get to hear that live, with a full staging, thanks to Lyric Stage, which manages these revivals for about one-sixth the price tag that the Dallas Theater Center recently spent on its ballyhooed “revisal” of the Superman musical.

“Nobody in the country does what Steven’s doing on this kind of scale,” Cole says. “For him, it’s not about economics. He wants to show this stuff off in a way that hasn’t been showed off, and it’s thrilling for me.”

It should be for North Texas audiences, too.

This story originally appeared in the October issue of TheaterJones media partner Arts+Culture Magazine, which is on stands throughout town now. Thanks For Reading

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Risk Taker
Lyric Stage's Steven Jones takes musical theater to new depths.
by Mark Lowry

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