Adrienne Arsht Gives Kennedy Center $5 Million for Musical Theater

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

The role of Washington as a hotbed for musical theater advanced solidly Thursday when the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced it had received a $5 million gift for that express purpose.

The center received the gift, which will be doled out over the next 10 years, from the Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Fund. Arsht, a Miami philanthropist and businesswoman, is treasurer of the center's board of trustees.

The gift is inextricably bound up in her own personal history, said Arsht, the former chairman of a Florida bank; in 2008, she gave $30 million to Miami's largest performing arts center, a complex that now bears her name. "I was raised on musical theater," said Arsht, 67, who grew up in Delaware. "As a child I knew all the songs from 'Oklahoma!,' especially 'Pore Jud Is Daid,' and my dad would lay on the floor and pretend to be dead. For years we had to skip that song. But musicals were my era, our standard."

Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's president, is also a product of the golden age of American musical theater and often discusses how his first Broadway experience, "The Music Man," with its signature tune, "Seventy-Six Trombones," sealed his interest in the arts. "The gift allows us to plan, gives us a base to build and fundraise," said Kaiser.

It's no secret that musicals are extremely expensive to mount, thanks to large casts, live orchestras, complicated costumes -- think "My Fair Lady," "Cats" and "Les Misérables." And then there are the elaborate stage pieces (think rowboat and giant chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera").

Even with notoriously budget-busting ticket prices, musical theater audiences are loyal. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that 17 percent of all adults went to at least one musical play during 2008. (And those were professional productions, by the way, not nights of "Grease" at the local high school.)

Of late, Washington's theater companies have plunged into the genre with gusto. Arena Stage is mounting three well-known musicals this season: "The Fantasticks," "The Light in the Piazza" and "Sophisticated Ladies." Signature Theatre, long a musical theater powerhouse, has reinventions of "Show Boat" and "Sweeney Todd" planned, as well as the world premiere of "Sycamore Trees," a new musical by Ricky Ian Gordon. Studio Theatre is offering two Washington premieres this season, "Adding Machine: A Musical," and "Passing Strange." Alexandria's MetroStage regularly devotes much of its season to musicals.

"There is a significant shift," said Joy Zinoman, Studio's founding artistic director. "Nine percent of our productions are musicals. I'm a little shocked at that because doing a musical for us is more of an undertaking. But musicals are more popular fare than contemporary or new work." The company's productions of "Grey Gardens," "Caroline, or Change" and "Jerry Springer: The Opera," did very well, according to Zinoman.

"I think the interest in musicals is totally growing," said Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of Signature Theatre. "More people are doing them, and people in Washington are doing them better. A musical is a different animal, and the theater people are becoming more knowledgeable and the productions are better."

The most ambitious embrace of musical theater in the region has been at Signature, where musicals have been the artistic bread and butter. To further their commitment, the theater launched the American Musical Voices Project, in 2006, supported by a $1 million grant from the Shen Family Foundation. The grants are given to composers for new work and individual awards for artists who advance new musical theater. "We have nine musicals in development and have given $535,000 to writers so far," said Schaeffer. "Sycamore Trees" is one of the Shen projects.

This interest in musical theater has been rewarded.

"Ragtime," a new staging of the Tony Award-winning play, sold out its run earlier this year at the Kennedy Center. It opens next month on Broadway.

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