Playbill Vault Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Goodspeed Opera House
By Brynn Cox
Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The Playbill Vault takes a look back on the Tony-winning theatre's Broadway legacy.
In 1876, local merchant William H. Goodspeed built the venue to house full-scale productions in East Haddam, CT. But following his death, the venue fell into disuse; for a time, the building stored the state's snow plows.
A group of Connecticut citizens, including Richard Rodgers and Jean Dalrymple, lobbied to save the historic venue and raised money to fund its restoration.
June 18, 1963, marked the venue's rededication to the arts with a staging of the 1918 Broadway musical Oh, Lady, Lady! ("a stylish and delightful production," per the New York Times). Top tickets were $5.50.
The Times event coverage noted a message of support from President John F. Kennedy: "The brilliant restoration of this historic building...warrants congratulations to all who contributed."
In the intervening years, Goodspeed has remained committed to fostering new work in the musical theatre, and 19 of its productions have gone on to Broadway.
Revisit highlights of Goodspeed's most noteworthy contributions to the Broadway theatre here:
Man of La Mancha
Goodspeed's third season brought its first smash success with the premiere of the musical Man of La Mancha.
The production opened its Broadway run on November 22, 1965; the New York Times deemed it "audacious in its conception and tasteful in execution." The musical won five 1966 Tony Awards including Best Musical, beating out Mame and Sweet Charity.
Man of La Mancha enjoyed a six-year run of 2,328 performances and would later return to Broadway in several revivals, including a 1992 production starring Raul Julia and a 2002 revival starring Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Shenandoah premiered at Goodspeed in 1974 to an impassioned review from legendary critic Walter Kerr. "It is such a strange thing to be surprised by emotion," he wrote of his experience viewing the new musical with its "stubborn, rawboned simplicity."
The production made its Broadway bow on January 7, 1975, to mixed notices, but the show became a popular hit. Shenandoah earned six Tony nominations including Best Musical and went on to a 1,050 performance run. It later returned to Broadway in a 1989 revival, in which John Cullum reprised his Tony-winning performance.
In 1975, Goodspeed presented a well-received revival of Very Good Eddie. The little-known Jerome Kern-Guy Bolton collaboration was among the earliest works of the musical theatre genre.
The production's Broadway transfer opened December 21, 1975, to a rave review from Clive Barnes of the New York Times who called it an "absolutely enchanting old musical."
The production earned three nominations at the 1976 Tonys, for director Bill Gile and featured performers Charles Repole and Virginia Seidel.
In 1976, Goodspeed premiered the new musical Annie, inspired by the Depression-era comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." Following revisions from its regional run, the musical opened on Broadway on April 21, 1977, to warm reviews. Critic Clive Barnes called it "an intensely likable musical" with "a rare kind of gutsy charm."
Andrea McArdle and Reid Shelton earned Tony nominations for their performances as Annie and Daddy Warbucks, and Dorothy Loudon won for her portrayal of Miss Hannigan. The production earned seven Tonys, including Best Musical of 1977.
The musical has remained a perennial presence in regional and Broadway theatre. The second Broadway revival is now playing at the Palace Theatre starring Lilla Crawford and Jane Lynch.
In 1989, Goodspeed presented a reimagining of an early Broadway smash: the George Gershwin-Ira Gershwin musical Oh, Kay. The Goodspeed revival re-set the Prohibition-era musical to Jazz Age Harlem and featured an all-black cast.
The Broadway production opened on November 1, 1990, featuring a cast led by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tamara Tunie, and Stanley Wayne Mathis.
The Most Happy Fella
Goodspeed's next hit came just two years later with a revival of Frank Loesser's 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella. The production drew strong praise from the New York Times' Frank Rich, who described it as "a serious rethinking of the musical rather than a museum restoration of it." "This revival," he wrote, "is an acheivement of rare beauty."
The production transferred to Broadway's Booth Theatre to another rave from Rich, who called it "a powerfully acted, sung and staged" revival that "leaves one's heart so full." The Most Happy Fella earned four Tony nominations, including Best Revival, and played 229 performances.
All Shook Up
Goodspeed first produced the Elvis Presley jukebox musical All Shook Up in 2004. The musical later transferred to the Palace Theatre, giving Joe DiPietro his first Broadway credit. (He went on to pen the Tony-winning book of Memphis and the Tony-nominated book of Nice Work If You Can Get It.)
The Broadway cast featured Cheyenne Jackson, Nikki M. James, and Jenn Gambatese and played 213 performances.
In 1980, the Tony administration awarded a special Tony to Goodspeed, citing its dedication to the "preservation of the American musical as well as the development of new works."
Fifteen years later, Goodspeed made history as the first regional theatre to receive two Tonys. The company took home the 1995 Regional Theatre Award.
Click here to explore 50 years of Goodspeed's Broadway contributions, including vintage Playbills and photos, in the Playbill Vault.
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