Arts & Culture

At 40, Music Theatre of Wichita still going strong

In its first 39 years, Music Theatre of Wichita has entertained 2,753,355 audience members with 1,412 performances of 195 large, home-produced Broadway shows in Century II.

It's created 250 jobs for actors, designers, musicians and technicians every summer, spent 60 to 70 percent of its now $3 million budget on materials for sets, costumes and equipment in the local community, and created an economic impact for local hotels, restaurants and stores worth multiple millions from out-of-town theater-goers.

It's even established a national level of excellence that created a special bond with Disney to award MTWichita first dibs on regional premieres of its stage musicals, from "Beauty and the Beast" in 2004 to "Aida" in 2005 to "High School Musical" with a rare age-appropriate teen cast in 2007 and "The Little Mermaid" this season.

And it's won over the hearts of New York critics Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, and Peter Filichia of TheaterMania.com, who routinely slip into Wichita to catch a performance and then go home and write that the troupe deserves a regional Tony Award.

That's all well and good, says Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director. But that's not what's most important to him as he enters his 24th year in charge — and the theater's 40th summer season — with five shows, four of them local firsts and two regional Midwestern premieres.

"The most lasting impact are the lives we affect, the careers that we nurture," says Bryan, who chooses about 25 college theater majors from national auditions every year to form the resident ensemble. They back up the guest stars from New York and Los Angeles in a rigorous 10-week program that involves rehearsing one show while putting on another every other week.

Among those who got their start here are Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth ("Wicked," "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"), Tony nominee and Olivier winner Karla Burns ("Showboat," her one-woman "High-Hat Hattie") and Nicholas Saverine, who has starred in "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables" on Broadway and in Europe and is known as much in opera circles as Broadway houses.

"These are life-changing opportunities. We are the bridge between the dream of a theater career while studying and actually being prepared to go to New York," says Bryan, who began as a performer himself and who, every few years, occasionally takes to the MTWichita boards for just the right show.

"It's so wonderful we have a place where aspiring performers can be mentored by Broadway professionals to learn the practical ins-and-outs, including when to get an Equity (union) card, how to support yourself between shows and even how to approach your taxes," Bryan says. "We also do the same for young designers and craftsmen. They have a place where they can hone their skills and learn what's expected of them. That's what we are all about."

'It had to be quality'

That's the way it's supposed to be, says Jim Miller, former Friends University assistant professor of voice and opera, who was hired by a group of about 20 civic-minded business leaders back in 1972 to put together the original game plan for a theater troupe to showcase the then-brand-new Century II.

"They insisted that it had to be quality. They had become dissatisfied with other theater that had been brought in because it wasn't up to their standards," says Miller, 69, now a semi-retired financial consultant.

"But we always envisioned an educational component that would provide opportunities for student performers and teachers. We wanted it to be a teaching theater as well as providing quality entertainment for the community," he says.

Miller tells of how the businessmen, headed by such leaders as Floyd Amsden, Gordon Evans and Harry Litwin, demanded he convince them how such a theater would work. Then they passed the hat to see how much budget for a first season they could raise among themselves.

"When the hat got around to Gordon, the total pledges was $95,000. He kicked in another $5,000 to bring it to an even $100,000," Miller says.

Music Theatre of Wichita was incorporated as a not-for-profit venture with Amsden as first president and Miller as first director and general manager. That first budget produced four shows: three concerts (Rodgers & Hammerstein favorites, Disney song and dance and a tribute to Viennese waltzes) plus a full-blown production, "Man of La Mancha," starring Wichita State opera professor George Gibson. About 30,000 people attended the 16 performances and the season came within $190 of breaking even, Miller says.

Backers funded a second year, then a third, then a fourth — but always on a year-to-year basis, Miller says.

"They were just cautious enough, just negative enough that we had to build a solid foundation. By the fifth year, they finally decided that we were going to make it."

A fifth show was added the second year. By the third, concerts had been dropped in favor of full shows, including operettas because of Miller's opera background. A Wednesday night performance was added in 1976 and a Sunday matinee added in 1978, bringing the schedule to seven performances of each show — the one still in use. Under Miller, the budget increased from $100,000 to $300,000.

Making it 'more professional'

After nine seasons, Miller resigned to spend more time with his two young sons during their formative years.

"The theater took a lot of time in the summer — 16 hours a day, every day — that would normally have been spent with family. I didn't want to make that kind of commitment after my second son came along. I knew I couldn't get that time back with them. My wife, Ann Marie, asked if I ever regretted that decision. I never did," says Miller, who left Wichita for a decade to work in his family's auto business. He returned in 1992 as a financial planner and has been a faithful MTWichita audience member ever since.

John Holly, a performer who became familiar with Wichita after playing several shows here with the Ohio-based Kenley Star Theatre, became Miller's assistant in 1974.

"I was newly married with a daughter and I was looking for something more steady," says Holly, who was raised in Hutchinson. "It was a good career opportunity and it was good for my family."

When Miller left in 1979, Holly was named the new producing director and the board approved a budget of $460,000.

"My major contribution is that I made it more professional," says Holly. "Jim had emphasized using local talent, including teachers, so they ended up with rehearsal schedules that went from 9 a.m. to midnight. I was given authority to change that to Equity rules — 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. —because we wanted Equity players. We built a solid reputation for professionalism and quality and what we expected of our actors."

Holly is also proud of making the theater more efficient by instituting a back-to-back nine-day rehearsal schedule and seven-day performance schedule that's still in effect. Actors perform one show while preparing for the next.

"That made it possible to do five shows in 10 weeks. That's probably my greatest success: developing operational efficiency," says Holly, who ended up investing 14 years here. In 1988, he accepted a position with Houston's year-round Theatre Under the Stars and later worked for other theaters in Denver and Washington, D.C., before joining Actors Equity as the Western Region representative based in Los Angeles.

A 'family experience'

Holly, 67, who visits Wichita to catch a show every few years, says he's not surprised that MTWichita is going strong at 40.

"One thing Music Theatre has always been good at is spotting talent," Holly says.

Bryan, whom Holly brought in as a guest performer for "Where's Charley?" and guest director for "Oklahoma!" in 1986, succeeded him in 1988 at Holly's recommendation.

"I thought I might go for one summer to see what it was like. I began officially on April Fool's Day and thought it would make a good story to tell my friends later," says Bryan, who had been a professional performer for 16 years by the time, including on Broadway. Now he's become the longest-running MTWichita chief.

"I didn't realize I had become a Wichitan until I started getting offers from headhunters (from other theaters around the country). I explored what they had to offer, but compared with the freedom that I was given with Music Theatre, they were more limiting despite larger venues and money."

Despite Music Theatre's recognition in national theater circles and the special Disney connection, Bryan says he's proudest of the "family" the troupe fosters, where Broadway professionals and eager students — including high school interns — can mingle freely, learning from one another. Stars get to do roles they might not otherwise be offered to diversify their resumes, and kids get advice about everyday survival in showbiz.

The bond is such, says Bryan, that resident company alumni are constantly running across each other in shows across the country. After 39 years, there are literally hundreds who came up through the local ranks.

Just this season, Bryan says, there were more than 30 in 14 Broadway shows, from "Wicked" to "Jersey Boys" to newer offerings like "Sister Act," "Wonderland," "Scottsboro Boys" and "Catch Me If You Can." There were others in three off-Broadway shows plus one singing with the Metropolitan Opera.

"It's like we're all members of a secret club. We find each other backstage right away," says Kelli O'Hara, who spent two summers here a decade ago and now has three Tony nominations under her belt, the most recent as star of the 2009 revival of "South Pacific."

Danny Stiles, currently on Broadway with "Wonderland," played one of the desperately lovable male strippers in "The Full Monty" here in 2006.

"In any other situation, I would have been terrified," he says. "But MTW made it such a family experience, it made me feel completely safe. I believe my career and life developed into something completely new and beautiful after working at MTW. I changed from a scared, sad actor to someone who understood how unique I was and how theater needed actors like me."

And Justin Robertson, who got his Equity card because of MTWichita — as well as a second career as an artist specializing in Hershfeld-type Broadway caricatures — will be back this summer for his ninth and 10th shows: "The Music Man" and "The Little Mermaid."

"I am a better artist — on stage and at the drawing board — because of my time in Wichita," he says. "What's more, I feel like I am a better person."

For Bryan, that's what makes all the effort worth it.

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