Founded in 1931, Westport Country Playhouse is celebrating its 90th anniversary year in 2021.
In what was the outskirts of Westport during the early 1800s, the building that would become Westport Country Playhouse was built as a tannery, manufacturing hatters’ leathers. In 1880, it was converted to a steam-powered cider mill. In the 1920s, it stood as an abandoned barn.
In the winter of 1931, Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall, successful theatrical producers with Broadway’s Theatre Guild, wanted to start their own theater near their home in Weston. They came upon the old barn and knew at once that it was what they were looking for. Originally the Playhouse was called Woodland Theatre, but on the very day of the opening, June 29, 1931, Langner changed the name to Country Playhouse. Langner and his wife ran the Playhouse first as a Broadway try-out house, then as a summer theater, bringing to Westport some of the most celebrated names in entertainment of the era.
In 1959, the Langners turned over operation to James B. McKenzie, who held the title of executive producer for most of his 41 seasons with the Playhouse. In the 1960s, McKenzie became the originator of a new business called star packages, rehearsing 10 plays in New York every June, and sending them to 10 different summer theaters. Westport Country Playhouse became an established stop on the New England straw-hat circuit of summer stock theaters through the end of the 20th century.
Acclaimed actress and director, and long-time Westport resident Joanne Woodward took the helm as artistic director in 2000, along with Anne Keefe, associate artistic director. A campaign began to renovate the Playhouse and support the transition from summer stock to a year-round theater. After an 18-month, multi-million dollar renovation, the Playhouse reopened in 2005 — our 75th anniversary season. Tazewell Thompson was artistic director from 2006–7.
Mark Lamos is currently in his 13th season as Playhouse artistic director. During his tenure, the Playhouse was named “Theater Company of the Year” by The Wall Street Journal. Lamos’ artistic choices speak to the world today, embrace the theater’s communities, and explore new ways of bringing theatrical excitement to life.
Among the over 800 productions staged at the Playhouse, some have made the leap from Westport to theatrical history. In 1940, after seeing a performance of the play Green Grow the Lilacs at the Playhouse, Richard Rodgers was inspired to turn it into Oklahoma! with Oscar Hammerstein II. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe saw Pygmalion at the Playhouse in 1952, sparking them to transform it into the musical My Fair Lady.
In 1949, the world premiere of Come Back, Little Sheba, starring Shirley Booth, transferred from the Playhouse to Broadway, earning Booth a Tony Award. Another transfer in 1969, Butterflies Are Free with Blythe Danner and Keir Dullea, garnered a Tony for Danner. A revival of Our Town with Paul Newman in 2002 went from a sold-out run at the Playhouse to Broadway and was filmed for Showtime and PBS.