Tunes with a view: Goodspeed presents outdoor concerts
East Haddam — The lush lawn on the shore of the gently flowing Connecticut River was dotted with clusters of people, some picnicking contentedly, others sitting in lawn chairs and chatting among themselves.
As the sun slowly lowered to the horizon, a group of young musicians took to the stage set up just outside the iconic Goodspeed Opera House. Each carried an instrument — a guitar for one, a fiddle for another — and began playing musical-theater classics but giving them a decidedly different spin. This was Broadway by way of bluegrass.
And so it went for a little under an hour and a quarter, as The Playbillies gave a rousing show before a socially distanced audience on the Goodspeed lawn Thursday night.
The Playbillies did their inimitable versions of songs from an array of musicals, from “Hamilton” to “My Fair Lady,” and they even served up a medley of tunes from Disney shows. They threw in some COVID-19-era jokes, like how “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” should now be “Maskmaker, Maskmaker.”
With a nod to Goodspeed, they ended their set with numbers from two celebrated musicals that got their start at the opera house: “Tomorrow” from “Annie” and “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.” They noted that in this strange and difficult time, these songs offer messages of hope and perseverance.
The musicians said they were thrilled to be performing live in front of an audience for the first time in months. The concertgoers seemed just as happy.
Many in the crowd were already fans of Goodspeed Musicals, which had to cancel its 2020 slate of musicals — three at the Opera House and three at its Terris Theatre in Chester — because of coronavirus concerns.
Anne Calanquin of Niantic has been a longtime Goodspeed subscriber.
“Theater and movies and concerts have been my priority,” she said. She and her late husband, Leon, “used to go to between 55 and 60 plays and concerts a year. Goodspeed is one of my dearest enjoyments.”
Calanquin hasn’t been able to go to any plays or concerts since March, of course, and has missed it a great deal. She was excited to hear that Goodspeed was going to present some concerts and called for tickets right away.
Dwight Merriam of Simsbury likewise has been a Goodspeed patron for decades — at least 30 years.
“We want to continue to support the theater. ... It’s a great community service they’re providing by giving us all an opportunity to get out safely (to an event),” he said, adding that it’s appealing to see the concert “especially on the river — it’s so beautiful.”
David Rau, who lives in Chester, is a Goodspeed regular but had an additional reason for attending Thursday. He is director of education and outreach at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, which, like Goodspeed, is learning how to operate during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going through the same thing — how do we do this, how do we do that?" he said. He was interested in seeing the concert and, with Goodspeed's impressive setup, he said he also "wanted to see it in action; maybe there are some professional things I can glean from here we can use at the museum."
The intermission-less “Goodspeed by the River” concerts run through Sept. 6, beginning at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, and tickets are $25.
In this COVID-19 era, Goodspeed has had to arrange seating differently. When people buy tickets, they select a certain seating area for their group. If there are four people or fewer in a party, the area is 4 by 6 feet. If there are five or six people in a group, the area will be 6 by 8 feet. Each area is at least 15 feet from any others.
Other coronavirus regulations: Everyone has to wear a mask, except when in his or her seating area, and people are asked to stay 6 feet from workers and other concertgoers. The theater gives each group a 15-minute arrival window during which they can enter into the event, in an effort to avoid having folks crowded into a line waiting to get in.
The maximum number of audience members allowed is 146.
All about The Playbillies
Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, one of The Playbillies’ founders, had been scheduled to develop his musical “Johnny & the Devil’s Box” at Goodspeed’s Terris Theatre in Chester this spring.
He had told Goodspeed folks about The Playbillies, and the band seemed a good fit when the idea for this concert series arose.
The Playbillies formed when three of its members — Matt Cusack, Mike Rosengarten and Waterbury-Tieman — were part of the onstage band for Roundabout Theatre Company's 2016 production of "The Robber Bridegroom." On weekends, between matinees and nighttime performances, they began filming YouTube videos of them performing their bluegrass versions of Broadway songs. The Playbillies were born, with their friend Sam Sherwood filling out the group.
The band members each have a rich resume in the worlds of music and theater. Rosengarten was associate music director on Broadway for "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical." Sherwood has, as an actor, played Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and John Lennon in various productions. Cusack has been on Broadway in "One Man, Two Guvnors" and "Bandstand."
Waterbury-Tieman isn't performing with the band at Goodspeed; like so many artists who have had to rearrange their lives since March, he and his wife have moved for work, settling in Nashville, and he would have had to quarantine for two weeks in Connecticut before taking to the stage here. Taking his place is Andrew Crowe, who was in "Amazing Grace" at Goodspeed's Terris Theatre and in the national tours of "Sweeney Todd" and "Cabaret."
Goodspeed Musicals Producer Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton said she thinks The Playbillies “are absolutely perfect for this particular event because they do bluegrass covers of show tunes, which is what drove them in their creation. For Goodspeed to present an outdoor concert that doesn't reflect musical theater in some way would feel not authentic. ... For (The Playbillies’) product to be on the lawn felt really authentic to us.”
Bringing back an audience
The idea for these outdoor concerts grew out of a variety of scenarios the people at Goodspeed have talked about since they had to cancel or postpone all of the 2020 musicals.
“We furloughed or laid off so many people and eliminated so many contracts ... We just really wanted to try to get back to work in some small way, trying to if not have some black at the end of the year to offset some of the bleeding that’s been happening,” Hilton said. “This is a massive campus ... Even when you send everybody home and lock the doors, you're still spending money. We can't turn the power off at the opera house.”
Goodspeed owns 60 buildings in East Haddam and Chester, which include everything from housing for actors to rehearsal studios.
While these concerts are a way to start generating some revenue, Hilton notes that they are also an important opportunity for Goodspeed to get a sense of how comfortable an audience is going to be returning to a live event — and who that audience is. That will help the theater figure out what to program between now and whenever the world gets back to normal.
While the assumption has tended to be that younger people would be more comfortable coming back to the theater, the surveys that Goodspeed has done indicate that’s not the case.
“We learned that younger people weren't really any more likely, more comfortable than older people (to return) — not really, not in a dramatic way,” Hilton said.
Others in the industry are finding the same thing, she noted.
“The longer this goes on, the more concerned we become about sustaining a relationship with our audience,” Hilton said. “We don’t want people to grow accustomed to us not being there.”
She said these concerts remind the public that, “even if we have to move outside on the lawn, nobody knows musical theater or presents musical theater or produces musical theater better than Goodspeed. And even if it is bluegrass musicians playing show tunes, we know our audience, and we can deliver, honestly, no matter what the challenges.”
If you go
What: “Goodspeed by the River” concerts
Who: The Playbillies
When: Now through Sept. 6; show starts at 6 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays
Tickets: $25; only available by calling the box office
Weather cancellations: If the concert is canceled because of weather, ticket-buyers will be emailed around 3 p.m. the day of the show, and info will be posted on the Goodspeed website and Facebook page. Tickets will be refunded.
Contact: (860) 873-8668
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