The Dallas Summer Musicals marks its 75th anniversary this month. It’s doing it in style with the hit musical An American in Paris on Broadway, which the DSM co-produced. Its new season has opened with another hit, Cinderella. Summer Musicals president Michael Jenkins tells Jerome Weeks why they’re on Broadway and how things weren’t always so rosy.
- Cinderella continues at the Music Hall at Fair Park through June 21st.
Michael, welcome to the KERA Newsroom.
Well, thank you for having me.
For the 75th anniversary of the Summer Musicals, it looks like you’re doing something of a victory lap.
Sometimes you get lucky, you know?
But it wasn’t like this, all these hit shows going on, when you started running the musicals, was it?
No, not at all. When I came back to the Music Hall in 1994, there were no shows. Union contracts had expired. It was very difficult and I actually had to trade some shows to other cities to get the shows just to build a season — it kinda like football draft, actually. So that was happening all the time, and I didn’t want that ever to be a condition. So bottom line, now I work quite a bit in advance. In fact, I’ve almost finished season 2017 and about a third of the way through 2018.
You’ve invested in Broadway shows yourself, famously getting your start by saving up money from mowing lawns to invest in a little show called My Fair Lady. But the Dallas Summer Musicals itself has become a major co-producer of Broadway musicals. What led to that? Because Broadway is a big, risky ballgame. More than two-thirds of the shows never turn a profit.
Well, the reason, back in the earlier days on Broadway in New York, they wouldn’t be able to tour out to what they considered the hinterlands for two or three years. One show I remember wouldn’t tour for nearly five years. By then, the bloom is off. So by investing in these shows, we’re able to pull the product quicker to Dallas. And now, An American in Paris is our 135th Broadway show.
Six years ago, when the Winspear Opera House opened, people worried we didn’t have enough of an audience for two touring series. But it seemed to me the audience would grow, the question was whether there’d be enough touring shows.
That’s true. The problem in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there are too many theater seats. That’s a fact. And y’know, the opera and the ballet playing at the Winspear cannot produce the revenues to support the operation, so a consultant told them they should do Broadway shows. So where I have tended to take our company more into the family shows, and the shows that we used to have for the Contemporary Broadway Series at the Majestic — but are not always so family-friendly — have basically moved to the Winspear.
At the Summer Musicals, you’ve done a great deal to expand and create educational programs like Stage Right or your high school musical theater awards. Does that impulse come from your own experiences with theater as a child?
I think so. I remember the very first musical I ever saw was a show called Rio Rita at the Bandshell [at Fair Park], and I thought it was spectacular. Of course, I would. [The musical about an American captain pursuing the Mexican bandit ‘The Kinkajou’ across the border was originally produced on Broadway in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld — of Ziegfeld Follies fame. It was made into a 1929 film and then, believe it or not, an Abbott and Costello Nazi-chasing version in 1942. Some measure of its quality: It has never been revived on Broadway.] And then my mother wanted me to have a train ride — because she thought trains were going out of business — so we took the train, she took me to St. Louis, we went to the Muny Opera there, which is the oldest summer theater in the country. And what was on the stage? Rio Rita. I knew almost all of it by heart, so I was shocked.
With the Summer Musicals turning 75, the inevitable question is, what do you hope for the future?
Well, we hope to have another 75, that’s for sure. For theater itself, I think the technology of scenery-making will change dramatically over the next 10 years with big, LED-lighted sets, which started with Dreamgirls, and projections. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White premiered them in London, where people would walk in place but the street scene would move, giving the illusion that they were actually walking down street. Well, that worked fine until they went upstairs. Some people in the first three rows became nauseated — in fact, passed out.
Well, that was the first, but that technology has been perfected brilliantly. And we’ll be seeing a lot more of that kind of thing. [An American in Paris has already been acclaimed for its projections: Bob Crowley won a Tony Award for the set design, which includes significant video projections by 59 Productions, the company that worked on War Horse.]
As for the DSM, it’s become a part of the cultural fabric of the city. And there’s some very exciting things in the near future for Fair Park, things being discussed even this month and implemented. The city put a huge effort in the Central Business District, Uptown, Victory Park, Arts District — and now realize that with all these areas going, the focus needs to be back on Fair Park.
Well, Michael, congratulations.