Eric Schaeffer and Donna Migliaccio, the co-founders of Signature Theatre, weren’t really dreaming big when it all started a quarter of a century ago.
“We just thought, ‘Let’s hope we make it through another year,’ ” Schaeffer remembers. Moreover, even though he and the theater are nationally renowned today and around 80,000 people attend Signature shows each season, Schaeffer says, “A lot of that feeling never goes away. Which is kind of exciting.”
The Arlington theater is 25 years old now — it’s celebrating this weekend with a giant party — and has seen some major transformations. The biggest challenge, Schaeffer says, came when Signature moved from a renovated auto bumper-plating factory to its current, two-theater location in Shirlington in 2007.
“Our budget for the last year in the garage was $1.9 million,” he says. “And literally overnight our budget went to $5 million. So it was, well, OK, where are you going to find
They found it by sticking to Signature’s artistic vision. “The easiest thing to do [would be] to play it safe,” says Schaeffer, the theater’s artistic director. “And I said, ‘That’s the last thing we should do. We should do the exact opposite.’ ” That meant not only doing more obscure works, but staging world premieres and emphasizing works by new artists.
“Yes, you have a business responsibility,” Schaeffer says. “But artistically you have a responsibility, too.”
Signature’s adventurousness, Schaeffer says, keeps many writers, composers and actors coming back.
“People can take risks at Signature,” he says. “They can fail and it’s OK. A lot of them feel Signature is a home for them, and that makes me really, really happy.”
A Signature History
1989: Eric Schaeffer and Donna Migliaccio begin the first professional theater in Arlington County, performing out of the Gunston Arts Center. The first season’s budget is $28,000; the first play is Sally Nemeth’s “Mill Fire.”
1991-92 season: Signature produces its first musical, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” The company would eventually become nationally renowned for its productions of Sondheim’s works, producing at least one of his musicals per season.
1993-94 season: After a $300,000 renovation, a rat-infested, flooded, roofless old auto bumper-plate factory on Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington becomes the theater’s first home. Today, the building serves as Signature’s scene shop.
1995-96 season: Signature’s “Cabaret” and “Passion,” are reviewed in The New York Times, garnering the theater national attention. Sondheim himself comes to see the production of his “Passion.”
2006-07 season: The new complex in Shirlington, which includes two theaters as well as artistic facilities and office space, opens with Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
2007-08: Signature launches The American Musical Voices Project, the largest musical theater commissioning program in the country. The program not only gives musical theater composers money, but underwrites the workshopping and presenting of their new musicals, some of which get their premieres at Signature.
2009: Signature receives the Tonys’ regional theater award, the second time a D.C.-area theater takes the prize (Arena Stage won it in 1976).
2014: Signature will kick off its 25th-anniversary season with Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” opening Tuesday. The season also includes the world premieres of the musical “Diner,” based on the movie, with book by Barry Levinson and music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow; “Kid Victory,” which has music by John Kander (who also wrote the music for “Cabaret); and “Soon,” a musical about a woman who takes to her couch in the months before all water on Earth is set to evaporate.
Every anniversary deserves a good party, so Signature is throwing itself an open house on Saturday. The theme is “Don’t Even Try to Escape the Show Tunes Because They Will Find You Kick Kick Kick Ball Change Turn Jazz Hands.” OK, it’s not, but it might as well be. Many of the day’s events require free tickets; check the theater’s website for distribution details. Events include:
The Signature Season Highlights Concert (noon, 2:30 and 5 p.m., MAX Theatre): Songs from the 2014-15 season will be featured, including selections from the kickoff show “Sunday in the Park With George,” as well as numbers from “Cabaret” and “Soon,” which will have its world premiere at Signature in March.
The Signature Idol Competition (3:45 p.m., MAX Theatre): Five normal people (well, five normal people who are obsessed with musical theater) are winnowed down to one winner who will perform in the celebration’s finale, the Broadway on the Plaza concert at 8:30 p.m.
Family Cabaret (12:15 and 2:45 p.m., ARK Theatre): Songs for young audiences get the big treatment with Signature talent. We can only imagine the battle for who gets to sing “Let It Go.” (We cannot confirm “Let It Go” is on the slate. Please don’t get your daughter’s hopes up.)
25 Year Sing-Along (4:30 p.m., Shen rehearsal room): Signature regular Stephen Gregory Smith sings an overview of the theater’s past quarter-century of musicals, along with an audience that is in no way as good as Signature regular Stephen Gregory Smith.
Broadway on the Plaza (8:30 p.m., Plaza Stage): It’s outdoors, and it’s spectacular. Big names (from D.C. and Broadway stages), big voices and no big price tag — like everything else, it’s free.
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; Sat., noon-10 p.m., free; 703-820-9771.
Read about past Signature Theatre productions: