Even if some of his neighbors don't know what the word means, Ed Sayles has a lot of chutzpah. Now in his 31st season as producing director of Auburn's Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Sayles and the staff have re-invented the Playhouse's four-musical summer season as the first annual Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival. It will mount 29 shows between now and the end of October.
Among the titles in the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's opening season are Broadway warhorses like "My Fair Lady" (July 25-August 15), "Kiss Me, Kate" (through June 20), and "Cabaret" (August 22-September 8); the funny but edgy recent musical "My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding" (July 5-28); an off-Broadway hit in "Nunsense" (October 3-20); a not-especially-successful show that may deserve a second look in "9 to 5: The Musical" (June 27-July 18); and short runs of 20 new shows that no one has ever seen or maybe even heard of, under the umbrella title of "The Pitch" (June 14-August 18).
While nine of the musicals are more-or-less familiar and will almost certainly draw the largest crowds, the 20 in "The Pitch" are probably closest to the festival's heart. In other words, the most popular shows will be helping to pay for new musicals, some more innovative and controversial than others. Performed for three days in 45-minute condensed versions, these new shows have the potential to be the most innovative and exciting part of the festival because they represent what Sayles calls "the next generation of playwrights and composers." Aside from having a chance to revisit a musical you love or maybe see one you missed, audiences for "The Pitch" also have a chance after each performance to talk about the future of the musical in conversations with writers and other members of what Sayles calls the "creative team."
"One of our goals," says Sayles, "is taking what is happening with musical theater all across the country and bring it to a place so people who would never go below 42nd Street can see it." Among the musicals in "The Pitch" are "Salamander Leviathan," in which the loneliest man in the world makes a deal with the devil, trading his soul for a wife and family; "The Life of a Mob Wife—A Mafia Comedy," about the mishaps and misunderstandings in a marriage between a mob boss and his wife; "Dogwood Days," in which the government hires a writer to retell narratives from ex-slaves; and "Off with Her Maidenhead," in which a 16th century nunnery is fined, incorrectly, for being a brothel.
One of Sayles' major challenges is breaking even on an ambitious not-for-profit festival set in a small Finger Lakes city. Auburn has fewer than 30,000 residents but Sayles is quick to point out that, between them, the Rochester and Syracuse areas have close to 1 million people. He believes that a show like "My Fair Lady" will draw well even though it is revived frequently. "We make that kind of decision based on our location," he says. "Nobody here is putting on a big musical but us."
Sayles also knows that Auburn won't provide enough audience members for the lesser-known shows, but they will be in small theaters, and "that's where we hope people from outside the area will come." The range of shows suggests that he wants to draw both bus tours and repeat theatergoers, but also appeal to different kinds of audiences.
"Showcasing new work helps us avoid a trap," Sayles says. "Most theaters believe they should try to appeal to everyone, but that's how you lose your identity. Our core audience loves the big classic musicals, but we're hoping to draw different groups for different kinds of shows."
The decision to mount so many plays in just under six months is possible only because three theaters are already available, making for a set up that is reminiscent on a smaller scale of the Shaw and Stratford festivals in Canada. The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse is currently the largest of the theaters involved with the Musical Theatre Festival, with 501 seats, and it will house six of the shows. The 200-seat Auburn Public Theater is in the center of town, and Theater Mack, with 100 seats, is a newly reconditioned carriage house.
"Every time we're successful," says Sayles, "we start looking for the next thing to do." Among other things, the Playhouse has been working with Cayuga Community College on "the most gorgeous 386-seat theater" that opens in 2013 and will give the Festival a fourth stage.
The Playhouse has come a long way in what started out as a 12-sided building for a merry-go-round. In 1958, a few years after the ride closed down, Sue Riford started doing children's shows there and, in 1972, added musicals to the mix. By 1978, what had taken on the name of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse was doing only musicals because, Riford had noticed, "Every time we do a musical, we sell out." The Playhouse had also signed an agreement with Actor's Equity, the professional actors' union. Currently, MGR uses a minimum of seven Equity actors in each production.
If you have never seen any of the classic musicals on tap this summer, here's a chance to catch up to them, all with professionals in the lead roles. If you like something smaller and slightly off the beaten track (though hardly controversial), you can choose "Nunsense," the first and best of the numerous musicals that make fun of the clergy, or "Fingers and Toes," a Judy-and-Mickey-put-on-a-show kind of show. I'd choose that one because I haven't seen it and I'm a sucker for good tap dancing. I would also try to time it to get to "The Pitch." It wouldn't matter what was playing; it would let me peek into the future and hear how audiences react to it.
Asked to characterize the potential audience for all these shows, Sayles says, "Look at your neighbor. It's whoever comes. These are Upstate New Yorkers, from lawyers to steel workers." But, he adds, "Mainly, we need to keep costs down so regular people can afford to come."