Friday, April 24, 2009

Moving Forward, Looking Back: A Reflection on the Growth of 42nd Street Moon

The revamping of the 42nd Street Moon blog this spring provides a good opportunity to reflect on the birth of the company, a labor of love and a triumphant addition to local arts by co-founders Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads.

Greg had spent much of his career performing, producing and directing in New York and LA. He’d created a six CD series of rare show music featuring name Broadway stars including Judy Kaye, Rebecca Luker, and Patricia Morison. He relocated to San Francisco in 1992, where he was acquainted with director Rick Simas and voice teacher Edward Sayegh. The close friends of Stephanie introduced her to Greg as she was eager to meet the man who was producing the very music from shows she had such a great love for.

Over dinner, Stephanie and Greg discussed their mutual passion for unknown or forgotten musicals from the 1920s through 1960s. They mourned the demise of the New Amsterdam Theatre Company, which had presented staged-concert versions of these shows in New York.

The year before the acclaimed Encores! series began, the two decided to collaborate and create their own company to present pared-down concert productions of shows that would rarely, if ever, be seen anywhere else.

“Musicals were a main form of entertainment for Americans before TV,” Stephanie says. “There were so many shows by songwriters like the Gershwins that were never seen by contemporary audiences. After toying with the idea of creating a revue of such material, we decided to do what we really wanted to do – concert musicals – to whatever extent we could.”

Greg adds, “When we started, we didn't really realize we were starting a theatre company. We just had a passion for these shows and wanted to present them.”

Greg, who began a lifetime love of musicals as a child, learned about the “Golden Age” of musical theatre and composers like Porter, Kern, Rodgers & Hart, and the Gershwins as a teenager. That was the genesis of 42nd Street Moon for him, Greg recalls. “As I got older and became a professional performer and later producer and director, I wanted to help bring those songs to a contemporary audience in a way that would make them as urgent and fresh as they had been when they were new. It was important to me because I felt that a major part of America’s cultural legacy had fallen by the wayside to some extent.” He started with a cabaret show, which led to a staged concert of Cole Porter’s Jubilee at LA’s Westwood Playhouse, CDs, and finally San Francisco and Stephanie.

A long-time performer in theatre, concerts, cabarets, and cruise ships, Stephanie had previously created a two-woman show with Golden Age Broadway music. The singer and actor was well-connected with local San Francisco actors, directors, and theater companies. This was a good combination with Greg’s ties to major licensing agencies, the Cole Porter Trust, and Jerome Kern’s daughter Betty, who facilitated their access to some of her father’s earliest works.

Seeking a name for their new venture, Greg and Stephanie wanted something that symbolized the era of musical theatre they were focusing on. “42nd Street Moon” had been the nickname for the lights over 42nd Street (the main musical theatre thoroughfare in the 1920s), and it became the name of the new company.

The two hit the ground running. They opened their first production three-show series, including Jubilee, One Touch of Venus, and Oh, Lady! Lady!!, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in the summer of 1993. Positive advance press and reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle led to a week of sold out shows for all three of Moon’s first productions.

The great opening didn’t ensure easy growth, however. Greg and Stephanie, who are now Artistic Director and Producing Director, respectively, made their own copies and called publishing houses themselves between rehearsals. Funding was an ongoing concern. An endless number of tasks had to be completed, and they called on archivists, a theater critic, and community members to join the company’s advisory board and offer advice on successfully running the organization.

Rehearsal and performance space has been another ongoing issue for the company. After a few years, the company outgrew the tiny space at NCTC, and moved performances to the Eureka Theatre. This former movie theater is where audiences can now see most Moon shows, including the upcoming Wildcat. The current offices and rehearsal studio, "MoonSpace," was a lucky find by Moon’s Board President, J. Pattterson McBaine. Formerly the Church of Christ, it is now lovingly referred to by Moonies as “The Church of Cole Porter.”

Today, Greg and Stephanie collaborate on season planning, creative staff hiring, casting, and special events. They say they are constantly looking for ways to keep the company fresh and improve the product by speaking with audience members, their board members, and artistic colleagues locally and nationally.

“We've really revamped how we do things, tried to shake up our thinking about what we do, how we accomplish it and what we feel is important,” Greg says. “I think that’s crucial when you have a long-time artistic tenure with a company. Moon 2009 doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the Moon of 1993, which is how it should be. The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is our passion for musical theater. Stephanie and I are hooked for life, and hopefully our audiences are as well.”

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