June 29, 1931 - The downpour was torrential, the thunder explosive, and audience enthusiastic when the curtain rose on a bold new adventure in American theatre - Westport Country Playhouse.
The Early Years - From Leather Works to Greasepaint
By the 1930s, Lawrence Langner and his wife, Armina Marshall, had already achieved remarkable success as theater producers. The Theatre Guild, which they co-founded, had become perhaps the most prolific and influential producer on Broadway and the leading producer of touring productions throughout the country.
Residents of Weston, Connecticut, the Langners were anxious to have a place away from the spotlight of New York City in which to establish a resident acting company and experiment with new plays and reinterpretations of classics. In the winter of 1930 they purchased a red barn in an old apple orchard on what was then the fringes of Westport, a country town in Connecticut already popular with Broadway's theatrical community.
Cleon Throckmorton, a well-respected Broadway set designer who had also designed the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, was engaged to transform the former 1835 cow barn and subsequent tannery, called the Kemper Leather Works, into a theater. Langner wanted both to preserve a rural atmosphere and to use red and gold bunting such as he had seen in a toy Victorian theater in his youth.
Reflecting some years later, the Langners noted, "Westport Country Playhouse was never intended to be operated solely as a local 'summer' theatre, but always set the larger theatre of America as the ultimate goal of its productions."
So that productions built for Westport Country Playhouse could easily transfer to larger Broadway theaters, the stage was built to match the specifications of Broadway's Times Square Theatre on 42nd Street. The wisdom of this was proven immediately when the opening production, the 19th century melodrama The Streets of New York with Dorothy Gish and Rollo Peters in the leading roles, transferred to Broadway's 48th Street Theatre.
Several other plays made the move to Broadway during the Playhouse's first two seasons, however none achieved the success of The Streets of New York
. The Langners abandoned the idea of a repertory company and turned to plays that allowed some of the greatest theater stars of the day to shine in challenging roles.
Indeed the leading actors of the era performed on the Westport Country Playhouse stage in subsequent years: Ruth Gordon, Bert Lahr, Ina Claire, Dennis King, Laurette Taylor, Eva LeGallienne, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Van Heflin, Jose Ferrer, and many more.
Many newcomers who would later make their marks on Broadway and in Hollywood had early career successes at the Playhouse during the Langners' years of leadership. A decade before becoming a bona fide star in Mister Roberts, Henry Fonda made his Playhouse debut in The Virginian. Twenty-two-year-old Julie Harris, who had previously worked for the Langners as a witch in Macbeth on Broadway, made her Playhouse debut in Sundown Beach only 14 months before The Member of the Wedding made her a Broadway star. Nineteen-year-old Patricia Neal was seen by Lillian Hellman in The Devil Takes a Whittler and months later made her Broadway debut in the great playwright's classic Another Part of the Forest.
Another newcomer to the stage was, in fact, already a theater legend as a playwright. Thornton Wilder applied for and received his Actors' Equity Association membership card in order to portray the Stage Manager in his own hit play, Our Town, at the Playhouse in 1946. Two years later he returned to play the leading role of Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.
Oklahoma - OK!
The great American musical Oklahoma! has never been performed on the Westport Country Playhouse stage, yet the Playhouse played a critical role in its genesis. In 1940, a production of Lynn Riggs' play Green Grow the Lilacs incorporated turn-of-the-century folk songs and a scene with a square dance. Theatre Guild producer Theresa Helburn suggested to the Langners that it would make a good musical. The three invited the renowned composer Richard Rodgers, who lived not far from Westport, to see a performance. Three years later the Guild was producing Oklahoma! on Broadway, based on Green Grow the Lilacs. Another beneficiary of Richard Rodgers' attendance that summer night in 1940 was the choreographer of the square dance, a young actor named Gene Kelly. Only a few months later Rodgers cast him in the starring role in Pal Joey and a legendary musical career was born.
Several years later Westport Country Playhouse played a similar role in another musical classic. In 1952, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who had achieved great success with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, were struggling to create a musical from Shaw's Pygmalion. Years later Lerner wrote, "The Guild, which ran the Westport Playhouse in Connecticut, decided it would help all of us if we could see Pygmalion again on the stage and included a production of it during the summer season. It was a joy to see again." Four years later My Fair Lady became a smash hit on Broadway.
In the 1940s John C. Wilson, whom Noel Coward described as "a man with his head in the clouds and his feet planted squarely in the box office" joined the Langners in the Playhouse management. Wilson's protégé, Martin Manulis, soon became the Managing Director and instituted the apprentice system, a training program for young aspiring theater professionals that continues to this day. Many past Westport Country Playhouse apprentices have gone on to great success in theater and other ventures, including composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, screenwriter Frank Perry, television host Sally Jessy Raphael, composer Mary Rodgers, actor Carey Elwes, and actress Tammy Grimes, who "graduated" from the apprentice program and became the $20 a week hostess at the restaurant adjacent to the Playhouse the next summer.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, except for four seasons during WWII when gasoline rationing prevented audiences from getting to the theater and there were no productions, the Playhouse continued to produce acclaimed productions of plays featuring major stars. Notable successes included the world premieres of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, starring Shirley Booth, and Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, both of which transferred to Broadway.
In a 1999 interview with Pat Grandjean of Connecticut magazine, Philip Langner, who had also joined his parents in the management of the Playhouse, recalled some of the highlights and challenges of producing summer theater during that period:
Whenever a summer thunderstorm rolled in, the dialogue onstage became inaudible. "At times, you'd have to suspend the show for 10 minutes while the rain subsided," recalls Philip Langner. "Often, the electricity would go off. Then we'd use headlights we had stored in the rafters, running them off a car battery. Once we drove a bunch of cars up to the windows and shined their headlights into the auditorium."
Tallulah Bankhead recreated her stage success in Her Cardboard Lover at the Playhouse in 1941:
"She was totally crazy, mind-bogglingly so," recalls Philip Langner. During Lover's run she was surrogate mom to a lion cub she had spirited away from a circus troupe in Nevada. Known to use Lawrence and Armina's bedroom at Langnerlane Farm as its den, Bankhead's constant companion also shared all of his mistress's curtain calls.
Tyrone Power was about to open in Liliom, directed by Lee Strasberg, at the Playhouse in 1941 when Darryl Zanuck, the powerful head of 20th Century Fox, demanded that he return to Hollywood promptly to re-shoot scenes from A Yank in the RAF, his upcoming film with Betty Grable:
"Tyrone wanted to stay," says Philip Langner. "In those days movie companies had great power. They owned the actors. So he couldn't refuse to go to Hollywood without getting into big trouble." But Lawrence Langner found a trump card to play. The theater's formidable Bridgeport-based attorney Kenneth Bradley invoked a 300-year-old Connecticut Blue Law under which one could keep a man from leaving the state if he tried to do so before fulfilling a contract. A local sheriff came to the Playhouse to confront a delighted Power, who was forced to phone Fox to explain his new dilemma."
The McKenzie Years
In 1959 the Langners turned over operation of Westport Country Playhouse to other producers, among them James B. McKenzie. He held the title of Executive Producer for many of his 41 years with the Playhouse, and retired in 2000.
During his rich and varied theatrical career, McKenzie was at the helm of over 2000 productions, 419 of them at the Westport Country Playhouse. In addition to Westport, he was producer at 10 other regional theaters, including the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and, in his native Wisconsin, the Peninsula Players. He also produced over 60 national and international tours, and four Broadway plays, receiving a Tony Award for And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little.
In the 1960s, McKenzie became the originator of a new business called star packages, rehearsing 10 complete plays in New York every June, and sending them to 10 different summer theaters, playing a week in each. More than 52 summer theaters, including Westport, shared the nationwide circuit.
In 1985, the Playhouse's future was threatened by the possibility of a shopping center taking over the property. McKenzie led 27 ardent theater supporters in a successful drive to purchase the Playhouse and its land, thus insuring its future.
Throughout the McKenzie decades Westport Country Playhouse continued to present new works, recent Broadway successes, classics, and some of the country's top actors. Such plays as Leonard Gershe's Butterflies Are Free, the musical King of Hearts, Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular, and An Almost Perfect Person with Colleen Dewhurst transferred to Broadway soon after their Playhouse premieres.
Some of the stars of this period included Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Geraldine Page, Van Johnson, Charles Durning, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Sandy Dennis, Eileen Heckart, Robert Morse, and Stiller and Meara. Many newcomers made early appearances at the Playhouse during this period, perhaps the most celebrated discovery being a gawky teenager who earned her Equity card and received a standing ovation on opening night for her performance as The Girl in The Fantasticks. Her name was Liza Minnelli.
In recognition of his theatrical producing endeavors, McKenzie received the Conservator of American Arts Award, the Connecticut Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Contribution to Theatre in 1993, a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Town of Westport in 1998, and an honor dear to his heart, the St. Mary Alumni Achievement Award.
Looking back on his career that spanned over half a century, McKenzie said, "The theatre is always dying, and the theatre is always renewing itself. The theatre is always disastrous, and the theatre is always wonderful..."
Enter Joanne Woodward
It's the year 2000 and the beloved Westport Country Playhouse is falling apart. After seven decades of productions that comprise a who's who of stage artists and a living textbook of 20th century American theater, Westport Country Playhouse is still a nearly 200-year-old converted country barn, suffering from the consequences of age. It is in a serious state of disrepair.
Enter Joanne Woodward, the acclaimed actress and director, and long-time resident of Westport. It was the Playhouse's artistic legacy and the challenge of its revitalization that drew her interest. As Artistic Director, Woodward joined a team including Associate Artistic Director Anne Keefe, Executive Director Alison Harris, Board President Elisabeth Morten, and a dedicated board and staff, to insure the future of Westport Country Playhouse, both physically and artistically, for generations to come. Renovating the old barn became a priority, along with re-establishing the Playhouse as a significant artistic force and a good neighbor to all in its community.
During Ms. Woodward's tenure at the Playhouse through 2005, new plays were explored and America's leading actors Gene Wilder, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh, Paul Newman, Jane Curtin, and many others returned to their stage roots to challenge themselves in exciting roles. A new generation of directors, including Darko Tresnjak, Doug Hughes, Tazewell Thompson, and James Naughton, explored new works and tackled classics with imagination. And, in 2002, Westport Country Playhouse had its name in lights on Broadway again when Thornton Wilder's Our Town transferred to the Booth Theatre for a record-breaking run.
In January 2000, a campaign to revitalize and renovate the Playhouse began. Supporters who had purchased the property in 1985 donated their shares back to Westport Country Playhouse, allowing the project to go forward. Tax deductible contributions, bolstered by a generous $5 million grant from the State of Connecticut, were made to start the 18-month renovation in the fall of 2003. Westport Country Playhouse closed prior to renovation much as it began, with a new musical version of the play that started it all on that rainy summer night in 1931, The Streets of New York. As the Playhouse brought down the curtain on one era, it did so with a firm position in American theater history and a visionary eye focused resolutely on the future.
The land acquisition and building renovation cost $22 million and an additional $7.5 million dollars was allocated to cover start-up costs - specifically, artistic enrichment, an education program and organizational capability. The remaining $1 million dollars was set aside as an artistic reserve to support the transition from a summer theater to a year-round theater.
For its artistic excellence, the Playhouse received a 2005 Governor's Arts Award and a 2000 Connecticut Treasure recognition from the State. It was also designated as an Official Project of Save America's Treasures by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is entered on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places.
For two seasons, from 2006 through 2007, Tazewell Thompson served as the fourth artistic director in the Playhouse's long history. In his first season he directed On The Verge in a co-production with Arena Stage; the world premiere of the musical revue Jam & Spice: The Music of Kurt Weill; his own multi-award-winning play Constant Star; and his song-filled adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
On January 1, 2008 Joanne Woodward and Anne Keefe returned as interim co-artistic directors for one year while a search took place for a new artistic director. The shepherd for the Playhouse's future was found when Mark Lamos took the helm of a fall production of Of Mice and Men, from which Paul Newman withdrew as the previously announced director because of his health.
In early 2009, Mark Lamos was named artistic director, with Michael Ross as managing director.
Mark Lamos directed for Westport Country Playhouse The Breath of Life, That Championship Season and Of Mice and Men. In New York, he directed The Rivals, Big Bill, Seascape, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure (Lortel Award), all for Lincoln Center Theater; The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm, The Deep Blue Sea, Our Country's Good (Tony Award nomination). Off Broadway, his work includes The End of the Day (Playwrights Horizons), Thief River (Signature Theatre Company), Love's Fire (Public Theater, Acting Company), As You Like It (Public Theater, Central Park), Indian Blood and Buffalo Gal (Primary Stages). Lamos was artistic director, Hartford Stage, receiving the 1988 Tony Award for theater's body of work. Other theater: The Kennedy Center, Washington's Ford's Theatre, Canada's Stratford Festival, Guthrie, A.C.T., Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, San Diego's Old Globe, Moscow's Pushkin Theatre (first American to direct in former Soviet Union). Opera: I Lombardi, Wozzeck, (both televised for Great Performances), The Great Gatsby (world premiere) and Adriana Lecouvreur at the Metropolitan Opera; many production for New York City Opera, including televised productions of Paul Bunyan, Tosca, Central Park and Madama Butterfly (Emmy Award). Glimmerglass Opera, Gothenberg's Stora Teatern, L'Opera du Montreal, Chicago Lyric, San Francisco Opera, and opera companies of Santa Fe, St. Louis, Washington, Dallas, Seattle. Lamos began his career in the theater as an actor on and off-Broadway and in regional theater. He made his film debut in Longtime Companion. He was awarded the Connecticut Medal for the Arts as well as honorary doctorates from Connecticut College, University of Hartford and Trinity College. He held the Meadows Chair at SMU, was a visiting adjunct professor at the University of Michigan for five years and has taught at the Yale School of Drama, where he was made a Beinecke Fellow. He is an Associate Artist of Yale Repertory Theatre.
Michael Ross served since 2002 as managing director of Center Stage in Baltimore, the award-winning State Theater of Maryland, where he managed a $7.5 million dollar budget and oversaw operations, finances, audience development, ancillary programming, strategic planning and fundraising. He completed the theater's $6.8 million initiative to increase its endowment and developed highly successful community engagement, accessibility and young audience programs. Previously, Ross was managing director of Long Wharf Theatre (1997-2002), where he was on the producing team for the commercial transfer of the Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit. He was general manager, and business and box office manager at Hartford Stage (1986-1996). Ross served as program officer/project director at National Arts Stabilization, and worked with Baltimore Opera Company and Alley Theater, Houston. Ross has consulted in fundraising, board development and strategic planning for theaters nationwide, including Kansas City Repertory Theatre, SITI Company, Wilma Theater, Trinity Repertory Company and Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. He has been a panelist for programs hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts, Theatre Communications Group and New England Foundation for the Arts, among others, and was an adjunct professor in Yale University School of Drama Theater Management Program. Ross is currently a member of the board of directors of Theatre Communications Group and National Women's Hall of Fame.
In his own words, Mark Lamos' vision at the helm of Westport Country Playhouse is as follows:
"Though the Westport Country Playhouse has a legacy of 81 seasons of theater, its history over eight decades, far from being steady and unchanging, reflects the evolution of the American theater. Founded in 1931 as a try-out and summer stock house, it was originally part of a circuit of such theaters around New England. The tradition of the time was to put stars from stage and screen into mostly light and entertaining comedies, while occasionally providing an opportunity for those actors to do something a bit more challenging. In those days many stars toured as a matter of course, and many plays both with and without stars toured the country.
"But by the late 1960s the regional theater movement had taken hold, and theaters of enormous quality began springing up in communities large and small throughout the United States—from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago and Hartford, New Haven and Stamford, Connecticut. In the wake of this development, and in the face of matters both fiscal and geographical, the summer stock tradition went into a slow decline. Theater was being produced locally, and most cities no longer relied on a touring circuit to draw an audience. The raison d'être of the Playhouse had to change.
"I like to think that despite our long and illustrious history, the Playhouse was re-born only a few short years ago when the current building opened. Local residents Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, along with a band of committed Westport community arts lovers and dedicated philanthropists, set out to save the Playhouse, and wound up virtually rebuilding it from the ground up. What had been a leaky, vermin-infested, unweatherized—albeit beloved—converted barn became a state-of-the art theater as fine as any in America. The new building opened in 2005, and that could be said to be the beginning of the Playhouse as it exists today.
"It's the 82nd season of theater in Westport on this site, but the 8th season in this newly refurbished professional non-profit regional theater. There is a renewed commitment to the greatest variety of entertainment, including the lighter fare of yesteryear, but with a widescope of powerful dramas; tuneful, love-besotted musicals; and some of the most striking plays of our time, all impeccably produced to the highest standards for you, our patrons. I'm also recommitting to the development and production of new plays, a continuation of a vital tradition at the Playhouse, and one that will ensure we are an important part of a bright future for American playwriting."
Following a multi-million dollar renovation completed in 2005, the Playhouse became a state-of-the-art producing theater, preserving its original charm and character. The Playhouse creates five live theater experiences, produced at the highest level, from April through November. Its vital mix of works---dramatic, comedic, occasionally exploratory and unusual---expands the audience’s sense of what theater can be. The depth and scope of its productions display the foremost theatrical literature from the past---recent as well as distant---in addition to musicals and premieres of new plays. During the summer, the Playhouse is home to the Woodward Internship Program, renowned for the training of aspiring theater professionals. Winter at the Playhouse, from November through March, offers events outside of the main season---Family Festivities presentations, Script in Hand play readings and a Holiday Festival. In addition, businesses and organizations are encouraged to rent the handsome facility for their meetings, receptions and fundraisers.
Today, Westport Country Playhouse, a not-for-profit theater, serves as a cultural nexus for patrons, artists and students and is a treasured resource for the State of Connecticut. There are no boundaries to the creative thinking for future seasons or the kinds of audiences and excitement for theater that Westport Country Playhouse can build.