Wayne Bryan is celebrating the start of his 25th season as head of Music Theatre of Wichita, the city’s premiere theater entity, which produces five musicals a year within 10 very busy weeks.
By the time he finishes with the Kansas and Wichita premiere of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” in August, he will have produced 125 shows, directed 37 and starred in 12.
“I usually try to be hands-on with two of the five shows a season, either directing two or directing one and acting in one,” said Bryan, whose official title is producing artistic director. That means he chooses the shows and is in charge of raising the money to put them on.
Of those he’s directed since arriving in 1988, favorites include premieres like “Honk!” and “Phantom of the Opera” (the acclaimed 1984 Ken Hill original) as well as making full use of the new relationship with the Disney Co. for rare premieres of shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and last summer’s “The Little Mermaid.”
“Of course, I also love to direct the Broadway classics (like “My Fair Lady” in 2008) because they need to be introduced to new audiences every 10 years or so,” Bryan said. “They are the foundation of what we do.”
Among favorite personal performances, Bryan ranks Will Rogers in “Will Rogers Follies,” Bill Snibson in “Me and My Girl” and most recently — and perhaps ultimately — Man in Chair in 2009’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” about a guy who loves theater so much that stage characters spring to life in his tiny apartment while he plays a cast album of a classic show.
“I don’t want to make any announcements, but for my age and type, that seems to be a pretty good (acting) capper,” said Bryan, who turns 65 this year.
But the statistic that Bryan is proudest of is the number of young theater hopefuls he gives a first big break as members of the summer resident company, selected from national auditions. There are 25 to 30 slots a year, depending on the slate of shows. Bryan has provided practical experience to about 600 different performers, as some of them return in subsequent summers.
Among his many successes are Broadway talents Kelli O’Hara, who has been nominated for four Tony Awards, and Kristin Chenoweth, who parlayed a Tony win into a TV career (“Pushing Daisies,” this year’s “GCB”).
Bryan, a California native with a budding Broadway career, came to Wichita as a guest artist for two shows in 1986. Two years later, departing Music Theatre artistic director John Holly recommended to board members that Bryan succeed him. Bryan agreed to come for one summer to see what it would be like. He never left.
What keeps him here is the artistic freedom and community support he doesn’t find in other cities.
“I find it fascinating that Wichita can support musical theater at the Broadway level while mounting its own shows,” Bryan said. “There’s nothing like it in San Francisco or Chicago or Los Angeles these days. The touring shows have taken over their local productions.”
During his tenure, Music Theatre burnished its national — and now international — image by reworking and reviving in 1993 the moribund old musical “Good News” into a slick new show with new libretto and musical arrangements that has enjoyed hundreds of performances in the US and Europe that must acknowledge Music Theatre of Wichita in credits.
In 2001, Music Theatre premiered “Honk!,” a witty musical adaptation of the fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling,” and recorded the first full cast album, replacing a partial British version in stores and on Amazon.
Music Theatre’s 2004 arrangement with the Disney Co. to be among the first to mount their own versions of Disney musicals has given Wichita the edge for Midwestern premieres of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aida,” “High School Musical” and last summer’s “The Little Mermaid.”
So, what’s next?
“We are hoping to do the American premiere of a new British musical in our 2013 season,” Bryan said. “We’re in serious negotiations now, and it looks good for us.”
Meanwhile, there’s the 2012 summer season to get through. Here’s a capsule look at what’s coming for Music Theatre’s 41st season:
•“Fiddler on the Roof” (Wednesday-June 17):
Beloved 1964 Broadway classic is back for its fifth Music Theatre version. (See accompanying story for a full preview.)
•“9 to 5” (June 27-July 1):
Dolly Parton wrote the music and lyrics for this 2009 stage adaptation of the popular 1980 movie comedy about three working women standing up for themselves against a male chauvinist pig of a boss and taking delicious revenge. Songs include “Joy to the Girls,” “Always a Woman” and the rousing title song, “9 to 5.” It’s a Wichita premiere.
•“Honk” (July 11-15):
Back for an encore after its 2001 Midwestern premiere is the witty, pun-filled adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” This family-friendly treat combines a message about inclusiveness with a tuneful score by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Disney’s “Mary Poppins”) that includes “Hold Your Head Up High” and “Different.”
•“Singin’ In the Rain” (July 25-29):
The 1983 stage adaptation of the popular 1952 movie by Betty Comden and Adolph Green about Hollywood in the rip-roaring 1920s as talkies were changing the movie biz brings to life songs as “You Were Meant for Me” and “All I Do is Dream of You.” Last presented here in 2000, it features spectacular dances, slapstick antics and real rain falling indoors on stage.
•“Legally Blonde: The Musical” (Aug. 8-12):
Another Wichita premiere is this 2007 stage adaptation of the 2001 movie comedy about a ditsy sorority fashionista who gets into Harvard Law School to keep up with her snobby boyfriend but discovers she has a brain and a lot more to offer than style and glamour when she gets wrapped up in a notorious murder trial. Songs include “Omigod You Guys,” “Daughters of Delta Nu” and the title tune.