Good for Goodspeed
Since it opened its doors in 1963 on the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam, Goodspeed Musicals has been a theatrical mecca for Connecticut residents and theatergoers from the Northeast and beyond. Their commitment to nurturing and presenting new musicals, along with carefully thought-out revivals of classic shows—both at the magnificent Opera House and the charming Norma Terris Theatre in neighboring Chester—has earned Goodspeed two special Tony Awards, along with the loyal patronage of subscribers and first-time visitors alike.
Connecticut Voice recently spoke with David B. Byrd, a Connecticut arts veteran who was appointed the theater’s managing director in 2021, about Goodspeed’s mission, its commitment to LGBTQ+ patrons, and its innovative programming, which includes the upcoming world premiere musical Christmas in Connecticut, based on the 1945 film starring Barbara Stanwyck, debuting in November.
CV: What do you think is Goodspeed’s primary role in the CT artistic community?
DB: We see ourselves as a leader of this artistic community by always serving our mission of presenting the highest quality musicals, whether they be revivals—or what I call “revisals”—or whether we are fostering new work and new talent. In addition, part of our role as an artistic leader is to serve all the community; we need to represent a plurality of voices on and off the stage. In every way possible, we want Goodspeed to be as open and affirming a place as it possibly can be. We want it to be a space where everyone can be authentically who they are. That means, for example, we have those conversations about which pronouns people use, which some people don’t understand.
CV: Tell me what Goodspeed specifically does to interact with all members of the local population, as well as any special efforts to attract LBTGQ+ visitors?
DB: It’s also important that our audiences don’t see coming to the theater as a barrier. People need to feel comfortable here; we try to make it clear you don’t need to wear a bowtie to sit in the audience. Seeing younger folks come to into theater, many for the first time, is really great, and we try to encourage that through our programming. And as we navigate through this pandemic, I hope we can do more events for the LGBTQ+ audience, like special nights out.
CV: Can you talk about what decisions go into programming a season?
DB: It is a long, thoughtful process, with the goal of creating a well-rounded season artistically. We work far in advance; we often think two or three seasons ahead, but our plans often shift at the last minute. Sometimes, we take on a musical we really want to revisit, and sometimes a great project comes to us, unsolicited. We have even started commissioning new work—and, believe me, it can take a long time to create a show from the ground up. It’s always about what stories do we want to tell, while needing to serve both our subscribers and the community at large. And it’s also about reminding ourselves that sometimes the biggest risk turns out to be the biggest success. Remember, many years ago, that show about a little red-headed girl (Annie) was just some new show we put on.
CV: Can you talk more about balancing your subscription base with attracting new audiences?
DB: Naturally, a lot of our programming has to do with keeping our subscribers happy. We have patrons who have been around for almost all our 60 years, and they take pride in their long tenure. But we still need to attract new people to grow and diversify. It’s one reason we produced Cabaret, earlier this year; we knew there are people who know the show and would want to see it again, and we knew there would be people coming to Goodspeed for first time because they wanted to see this particular show. In fact, 20 percent of the audiences at Cabaret were newcomers. It would be deadly for us to only cater to one group of people.
CV: Tell me about how Christmas in Connecticut came about and how you think audiences will react to it?
DB: People are already responding to it! The creators had been working on the show and reached out to us, so Donna Lynn Hilton, our artistic director, and I attended a reading in New York City. We found it to be incredibly charming, funny, and a natural fit for our fourth slot this season, which hadn’t been filled. Believe it or not, I didn’t know the film when I went to the reading. However, not long after that, my husband Jeff and I got on a plane to visit some family, and it was available, which was the first time I watched it. I think the show is a great musical comedy and will be a fun and cheery way for everyone to spend the holidays.
Christmas in Connecticut runs from November 18 to December 30 at Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT 06423
—Brian Scott Lipton