Regional Theater at its Best: Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in East Haddam, Connecticut. Christmas in Connecticut, the 1945 film starring Barbara Stanwick has just been adapted as a stage musical and is about to make its world premiere at the town’s cultural touchstone, the Goodspeed Opera House. This debut production comes on the heels of another world exclusive at the landmarked theatre, Anne Of Green Gables. The musical version of the beloved children’s classic put down stakes for several weeks here this past summer, garnering more than favorable reviews. 

Musical productions have been housed in the Goodspeed Opera House since 1877, when William Goodspeed, financier and shipping merchant, opened a docking facility on the first floor and established an opera house on the two floors above. Eventually, the  building’s primary business ran out of steam, and in the decades following  World War I, the opera house fell on hard times. It was eventually taken over by the state of Connecticut, and in time, a deal was brokered to surrender the property to a not-for-profit theatre company, to be leased for one dollar a year. In 1963, after four years of renovation, the Opera House was rededicated. For nearly 60 years, the imposing, white-washed, Victorian playhouse on the banks of the Connecticut River has presented hundreds of musicals. It was re-branded several years ago as Goodspeed Musicals, because in point of fact, the Goodspeed Opera House never produced a single opera.

East Haddam has seen the Opera House grow, not in stature, but in its level of ambition. In 2012, Goodspeed Musicals invested 3.5 million dollars to construct 17 buildings with 110 beds in order to attract and  accommodate out-of-town cast and crew members necessary to work on its high caliber productions. That construction continues to pay economic dividends for the theatre and the town itself.

As a producing entity, Goodspeed’s stated mission is three-pronged: the preservation and advancement of musicals, along with the creation of new works. It’s not unusual to see a rollicking revival (could there be any other kind?) of 42nd Street, sandwiched in between a pair of world premieres. This type of programming is standard fare at the 398 seat theater, which boasts a 9,000 member subscriber base; the subscribers have a median baby-boomer age of 60+, along with their share of disposable time and income. Donna Lynn Hilton has been with Goodspeed for over 30 years, the last two as artistic director, and has an astute read on her patrons. “I know that our audiences love high quality musical theatre entertainment. I know that they love comedy, I  know that they love dance. I share those passions with our audience, but I have also been at Goodspeed a long time. I have watched as our audience evolved into an audience that was a little more willing to lean into the work and be challenged a little bit more, not all the time, and not with product that does not uplift.”

So, with that in mind, Donna Lynn is pleased as punch to be presenting Christmas in Connecticut as this season’s finale. Long before the musical property landed in her lap, she and her husband would habitually screen the screwball comedy film each and every Christmas season. The title had never been in heavy rotation, unlike other holiday classics like Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, or the more recent, A Christmas Story. In point of fact, it was gathering dust in the Warner Bros. vault. But now, the idea of bringing the work from screen to stage is a reality. It is more than fair to say that the ball got rolling with Patrick Pacheco, a New York book writer, screenwriter, and author, who at the suggestion of a friend (who incidentally had seen the movie ten times), gave it a look. The viewing elicited a response in him, one that often presents itself in these situations. “I think the question that anybody asks when they are considering a property to adapt into a musical is ‘does it sing’? Is there any reason, because of the story and the characters, for the characters to sing. The answer seemed to say ‘yes,’ because the stakes were very high.”

Before getting too involved, Patrick, as is his habit, ran the idea passed close friend, mentor, and guru, Peter Schneider. Schneider, under the auspices of Disney Theatricals, co-produced the Lion King on Broadway, which continues to roar after 25 years! With Peter’s nod of approval, Patrick secured the rights to the film from Warner Bros., and in short order, a team was assembled to shepherd the production. Pacheco and co-writer, Erik Forrest Jackson are handling the book of the musical, while Amanda Yesnowitz is charged with lyrics, and Jason Howland (recently credited with the music for Broadway’s Paradise Square) will score the musical.

Christmas in Connecticut, the post WWII comedy, centers around Liz Lane, a food writer and newspaper columnist. In her column “Diary of a Housewife,” she passes herself off as a suburban wife and mother with a flair for having the perfect recipe, as well as a remedy, for every occasion. In reality, she’s a single gal living in Manhattan, relying on an elderly friend to feed her recipes and advice. The ruse begins to unravel when the newspaper that employs her grants a returning GI’s wish to spend Christmas at her bucolic home. Hijinks and mayhem spin the comedy, but Goodspeed’s Ms. Hilton is happy to say that at its core, a property produced over 75 years ago, can still charm and educate audiences. “The writers have been really wise about how they have opened up the piece, created characters that might more appropriately reflect the world today. They’ve also really powered into the character of Liz Lane, a woman ahead of her time, and all of that energy that drove the original film.” The writing team has also placed the musical in 1943 instead of 1945, in an attempt to make the conflict real and bring the effects of  the war home. 

Audiences that would like to see the original film, and gain insight into the direction of the new musical, can enjoy a free event that will feature a screening of the film version of Christmas in Connecticut, followed by a discussion with the creative team behind the new musical stage adaptation. The Garde Arts Center in neighboring New London is hosting the movie and discussion on November 9th at 7:30pm. Reservations are required. 

Christmas in Connecticut opens at the Goodspeed on November 18th and runs through December 30th. If your holiday plans don’t find you in the Nutmeg state, there’s a brand new slate of musicals just ahead in the 2023 season. Here’s what’s in store: Gypsy, atop almost every theatre- goer’s favorite musical list, Summer Stock, (based on the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly film), Dreamgirls, and the recent rock musical The 12, under the direction of John Doyle.

When it comes to pre-theatre dining, it’s “location, location, location,” and you can’t get much closer than Gelston House. The restaurant and inn established in 1853, just a stone’s throw to the opera house, overlooks the Connecticut River. If your table is positioned just right, you can see the lobby lights flickering, signaling the curtain’s about to go up. 

By Tom Farkas

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