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Fifty Years Of Great Theater

Several stages to celebrate their golden anniversaries

Hartford Courant Editorial

July 03, 2013

In 1963, professional theaters were sprouting up around the nation, far from the bright neon lights of Broadway. There was some kind of magic in the air, particularly in Connecticut.

Happy 50th anniversary to Hartford Stage and the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Long Wharf and Yale Repertory Theater, both in New Haven, will celebrate their golden anniversaries in the next few years.

What accounted for this theatrical bloom in the '60s was, nationwide, a prosperous middle class, a hunger for culture, civic pride, the leadership of arts-loving President John F. Kennedy and in Hartford, of Jacques Cartier.

200 Years of Plays

Hartford had a theater from 1795 until 1800, when the state legislature banned theaters. There was a 50-year drought, followed by an explosion of touring companies, and then the Parsons Theatre opened in 1896 near Statehouse Square.

This city became a leading tryout town for Broadway. The George M. Cohan standards "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," were first performed here in 1904. But the Parsons was razed in the mid-1930s, and another theater drought began.

In 1963, Mr. Cartier, a disciple of Margo Jones and Tyrone Guthrie, both visionaries in the regional theater movement, saw the thirst in the region and started the Hartford Stage Co. in the rear of a vacant store. He quickly raised a sizable fund from patrons and corporations such as Aetna.

The 1964 inaugural season, featuring "Othello" and other classics, was pronounced "quality theater" by a Courant critic, though he groused that "anyone wishing for something merely adventurously avant-garde will have to wait."

That patience was rewarded over the next five decades with dozens of premieres, including "Water by the Spoonful," winner of the 2012 Pulitzer for drama; many superb productions that went to the Great White Way and on tour; a coveted Regional Theater Tony Award, as well as Obies and New York Critics Circle awards; and world-class talent.

Hartford Stage is one of only five theaters nationwide receiving grants from the Ford Foundation in honor of their 50th anniversaries and in recognition of the critical role the foundation played in those early days.

Other Regionals

The Goodspeed reopened as a theater in 1963 in the magnificent, renovated 1876 Victorian building on the Connecticut River. It has earned two Tonys, one for being an outstanding regional theater and the other for its contributions to American musicals.

It sees itself as the center for the American musical, and rightly so: It's the birthplace of "Annie," "Man of La Mancha" and "Shenandoah." It nurtures budding writers, composers, lyricists and others through residency programs. It is grounded in community, showing K-12 students the world of musical theater through apprenticeships and backstage visits with world-class performers.

Yale Repertory Theatre came a few years later, in 1966. It has trained many great performers including Meryl Streep, Samuel L. Jackson, Glenn Close and Laura Linney. It's sent many productions on to Broadway and they've garnered many Tonys.

Long Wharf Theatre opened in 1965 in a food terminal. It has sent to Broadway such productions as "The Gin Game," which also won a Pulitzer. The Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center in Waterford was founded in 1964 and fosters the development of new plays.

In the 1960s, nearly all new plays that reached a wide audience started on the commercial stage, according to the National endowment for the Arts. Today, the reverse is true: Most successful plays start out in regional theaters. They've grown from a few dozen in 1961 to more than 2,000 today, many of them state-of-the-art facilities that some directors and actors prefer to the musty old stages of New York.

Yes, there were wonderful local theaters before 1963. But magic in the air that year kicked Connecticut into high drama. We are so much the richer for it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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