Story last updated at 10/14/2009 - 1:37 pm
"The Mikado" will be the debut stage performance in Juneau's new Thunder Mountain High School Theater opening on Friday, Nov. 6. It is a multi-resource production put together by Juneau Lyric Opera Company in collaboration with Thunder Mountain, Director Hal Ryder of The Cornish College of the Arts and the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. This is the first in a four-part series tracing the history of how this unique cooperative endeavor came to fruition.
"I Wanna Be A Producer" - that's the clever song and dance number that Matthew Broderick performed in Mel Brook's Broadway hit musical. But just what does a producer actually do besides hosting three martini lunches and cavorting with showgirls a la Brooks' zany characters in that play?
Two years ago when Juneau Lyric Opera asked me if I would produce a musical here in Juneau, I had no clue just what the job might entail. So I did the dumbest possible thing. I said "Yes."
At first I didn't think it would be all that big a deal. JLO had already selected the show to be performed - Gilbert & Sullivan's famous "The Mikado." Written in 1885 and set in the fictional town of Titipu, Japan, this brilliant satire has become one of the most frequently performed musicals of all time. Setting the play in an exotic locale far away from his native Britain allowed author Gilbert the freedom to lampoon British social and political traditions. Gilbert's clever barbs remain equally apropos to our society today, while songwriter Sullivan's catchy tunes such as "A Wandering Minstrel I" and "Three Little Maids from School" have become timeless classics. So I had a great show to work with and almost two years to put it all together. Just how hard could this be?
I had so much to learn.
My quest started with a meeting with Alan Davis, a long time JLO board member who has produced many shows over the years.
"So what am I responsible for?" I asked.
I thought I detected an evil glint in Alan's eye as he answered: "Everything. Finding the director, the theater, auditioning a cast, tracking down musicians, building a set, lights, props, sound, costumes, makeup, promotion, programs, and cleaning up if a four-year-old barfs in the lobby. You are responsible for it all. And you have to find all the people to help you do it. My suggestion is that you start by finding a theater and a director. That will be tough enough."
Little did I know then how prescient Alan's words were. Just finding a venue for the show proved to be a real challenge. Juneau Douglas High School has a large well-equipped theater but it is always booked up many months in advance for school and community events. There simply were no workable dates available in the spring of 2009, our projected time frame. But as I expanded my search I found no viable alternatives. The other options were either too small, or had little or no lighting, or no sound systems, or no dressing rooms - all things you had to have for a major musical production.
Just when I thought we were flat out of luck, I learned that Thunder Mountain High School (TMHS) - which was at that point just a construction site - was supposed to have a brand new state of the art 400-seat theater when it opened in September 2008. It seemed like the perfect place to debut our show the following spring.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Opening our show in the new school offered some really unique collaborative options. Wouldn't it be great if we could involve TMHS students in many aspects of the show, working with the arts departments in the new high school as they learned how to use their new facility? JLO has a longstanding commitment to providing musical opportunities for young people in our community and this seemed to be too good a chance to pass up.
So in December 2007 I set up a meeting with Patti Bippus who had been hired as the first principal at TMHS a year before it was scheduled to open. In her previous job Patti was principal of the Denver High School of the Arts. She has a lifelong commitment to supporting arts programs in our public schools and I could not have asked for a more enthusiastic supporter. In just a few meetings we sketched out the outlines of a cooperative program in which JLO would bring in a teaching director to offer professional dramatic arts training to TMHS students while also providing technical staff to help show other students how to run a production in the new theater.
The more Patti and I talked about the idea, the more excited we both became. Now all I had to do was (1) find a professional director who was also an experienced teacher; (2) sign up some great technical folks who could not only run our show but also give instruction on stage management and theater operation; and (3) audition a cast that included both JLO singers and high school students.
Oh, and one more thing too.
We had to find the money to pay for all these great ideas.
Next week: We find a great director, get some helpful grants, steal a set from Seattle and assemble a super cast - then find out that the theater would not be completed in time for our show!
Juneau Lyric Opera's production of "The Mikado" will be performed on November 6, 7, 8 and 13, 14, 15 at the new Thunder Mountain High School Theater. Tickets may be purchased at Hearthside Books or online at www.juneauopera.org.
John Clough is the producer of Juneau Lyric Opera's "The Mikado"