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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Killacky: Lyric Theatre Company at 40

Karen Pike

Forty years ago, when the Flynn was still a movie house, a group of music theater folks approached the then owner of the theatre, Merrill Jarvis. These entrepreneurs knew the Flynn was built in 1930 as both a film and vaudeville palace and they wanted to put on a show. Backstage, behind the movie screen, there were inches of dust on the stage equipment that had not been used for decades.

The Jarvis family approved, so volunteers fixed the rigging, restored lights, and scrubbed the stage to produce Lyric Theatre’s first musical, “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in 1974. But, even with the house cleaning, backstage conditions were abysmal.

There weren’t any bathrooms or dressing rooms - imagine changing in the boiler room and running outside to a port-a-potty in full costume. And musicians had to crawl through a trap door to get to the orchestra pit.

The original production budget was $15,000 and tickets were priced at two, three, and four dollars. The company lost money, but these pioneers persevered, and mounted a second show, “Gypsy,” that was a financial success. Other Broadway classics followed: “Pajama Game,” “My Fair Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Oklahoma,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

In 1980, Lyric made a down payment to buy the Flynn from the Jarvis family, and its board spearheaded the first fundraisers to establish it as a performing arts venue. Quickly, however, the group realized its focus was on producing musicals and not raising money to buy, renovate, and run a theater, so a separate organization to manage the Flynn was created.

A beautiful partnership was born. There would be no Flynn without Lyric and Lyric has a perfect home in the art deco splendor of the Flynn.

To date, Lyric has produced 83 musicals. It's an extraordinary history, and such a gift to the community. This Friday, April 4, the company opens “Les Misérables” and presents nine performances over the next two weekends.

The production budget tops $200,000 with state-of-the-art stage projections and the show features 55 actors and 22 musicians. There are more than 200 volunteers working behind the scenes. The 22-person costume team is making 177 costumes, historically accurate with buttons galore and not one anachronistic zipper!

In previous centuries, amateur musicians were deemed loftier than those paid to play. I am reminded of this as Lyric takes over the house. I encounter many artists in my job running the Flynn, but I am never happier than when the Lyric team commandeers the stage.

It is thrilling how they come together to make inspired theater. Friends and neighbors transform before our eyes into theatrical artists performing high quality work. There is much to celebrate in Lyric Theatre’s fortieth anniversary.

John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
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