Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide



entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark

Tuesday, 25 November '97 --- Jon Kimbell at North Shore Music Theatre

"Next season is a pivotal one for the North Shore Music Theatre," their Executive Producer explained. "It's the end of a ten-year plan our General Manager Jim Polese and I put together, and most of our goals have been met. Now we're drawing up new plans for the next five or ten years down the road."

Kimbell is near the end of his fifteenth year with the company. And what sort of things had he seen accomplished in those last ten planned years?

"Well, for one thing the average age of our audience has gotten progressively younger. The average is about the mid-50s today, which may sound old, but when I started it was late sixties --- and audience numbers were dropping off as well. But our subscriptions are high and healthy, and more and more of our 18,000 seatsare regular subscription holders. Four hundred thousand people came to our theatre this season, and about 110,000 were under eighteen."

Who comes? "People within a 30-mile radius of the thetare, though not so many from Boston. The Route 128-Route 95 area. People are willing to come if they can drive less than an hour to get here; anything beyond that is a stretch."

The theatre picks up a lot of subscribers when children come to events in North Shore's Theatre for Young Audiences programs, and their parents come back for grown-up productions. "And we're seeinig a healthy sprinkling of dating couples coming because this is a good evening of entertainment."

While the audience is growing, and growing younger, the staple list of great musicals is looking more and more like period-pieces less and less relevant to our times. "When I was growing up in the 1960's," Kimbell explains, "very little of the theater from 1910 was on my must-see list. With exceptions like 'Show Boat' or 'Oklahoma' that speak to all ages, the classics of the '40s and '50s are time-bound. Add to that the fact that Broadway revivals of the best old shows tour. That means the rights are not available when we want to mount our own production." And since 1989 North Shore has done all their shows on-site."

More and more Kimbell, and James K. Polese who will become its new chairman next year, are turning toward the National Alliance for Musical Theatre for new musicals. The 80 organizations are committed to developing new shows, from cold-readings and workshops to full productions. North Shore tries to do one full-production new work every year --- there are three in the running right now with a choice to be announced shortly. The Alliance is also facillitating co-production deals that will have an entire show staged in Texas transfer to a theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, and vice-versa.

"And the more I get around to see other shows," Kimbell notes, "the better the networking. If we're thinking of doing a show, I can call people who have done it before and ask advice about directors, designers, actors, singers who might be what we're looking for. It's taken time, but we've learned to trust one another with good information that helps everyone."

For the coming season, Kimbell points out that they concentrated on "firsts" --- shows that broke new ground or allowed talent from other fields to come into the business. "For instance, though Stephen Sondheim had worked on Broadway it was "A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum" that first showed his talent as a composer. It was also the beginning of his collaboration with Harold Prince. Kimbell, who has such detail at his fingertips, is embarrassed to admit he doesn't know whether Prince directed or merely produced the show originally. "I'll have to check that out today."

" 'Annie' brought new blood into the industry --- the composer was writing for television, the man who wrote the book was an essayist. And the same with 'Kismet': George Forrest and Richare Wright were film writers whose 'Song of Norway' was a kind of concert-with-a-plot. George Abbott needed a new show for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and asked them to do 'Kismet' which went on to open in New York in the middle of a newspaper strike. It was the first big show to sell tickets using television advertising and became a staple for light-opera companies everywhere."

" 'Hair' was a first in so many ways. The first psychedelic trip on Broadway, the 'Rent' of its day, the first rock musical, and the first time in years that music from a Broadway show was also popular on radio stations everywhere. For our production we're going to use a new, tighter book that James Rado did for the recent revival in London, and we're thinking of surrounding our theatre with a kind of multi-media time-capsule to sketch the background of the show. A large percentage of our audience these days didn't live through the Viet Nam protests of the '60s like I did.

"And our last 'first' will be the first production of another new musical. We always have high hopes, but you never really know what you've got until you put it up in front of live audiences and take a look."

One secret of Kimbell's success at the North Shore Music Theatre is his willingness to take the risks to bring something new into being. Another is that he and his staff treats the talent that comes to work there as artists who are eager to come back there to work.

Kimbell himself started out, after a time at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, as an actor, then became first Business Manager and then Artistic Director for The Theaer by The Sea in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, before moving to NSMT in '83. He doesn't miss acting, though. "I loved rehearsals, but I didn't like performing much." These days he has gone beyond those three weeks of rehearsal that director and cast get before opening; he's already thinking ahead to the season after next, and working on longer-range plans and goals for the next ten years at the North Shore Music Theatre.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide