Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1994

Something old, something new, something borrowed or a re-do.   That’s the projected formula for success for the new San Diego Music Theatre. Managing director Gregory Allen Hirsch plans for an annual three-play season at the Civic Theatre: one classic musical, one modern musical and one dramatically-revised old musical or a foreign import.

Starting this month, Hirsch and company make good on their promise. First, the modern musical: “A Little Night Music” (October 21-30), in its first professional San Diego production.   Wry, witty and waltz-time, the music and lyrics were written in 1973 by Stephen Sondheim with book by Hugh Wheeler.    The show tackles sex, love, age and social position, and includes Sondheim’s best-known, most easily-sung melody, “Send in the Clowns.” Production headliners are Joan Diener (the original Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha” and wife of Albert Marre, director of that original and these three new productions) and Jon Cypher (aka Chief Daniels on “Hill Street Blues” and the original Carrasco in “Man of La Mancha”).

This year’s classic offering is “South Pacific” (November 18-27), the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein Pulitzer Prize winner, based on James Michener’s stories of World War II sailors and ‘dames.’   It stars veteran singer-actor Jack Jones and Bonnie Franklin, of TV’s “One Day at a Time.”

After a six-month hiatus that allows the San Diego Opera to do its thing at the Civic, San Diego Music Theatre completes its first season with a retooling of the 1954 Harold Rome/S.N. Behrman/Joshua Logan hit,   “Fanny”, whose source was a French film trilogy by Marcel Pagnol.

According to Hirsch, artistic director Marre has “dramatically changed the script,” a heavily-plotted tale with an intensely emotional score. He’s even included some additional Harold Rome songs. The Broadway edition featured former Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza. The new version sports the vocally-robust Richard Kiley, the original Man of La Mancha.

The through-line seems to be “La Mancha”, and that’s even true for the managing partners. When Hirsch first saw the show in Minneapolis in 1965, he was 18 years old.   “I was in awe,” he said.   ” I’d never seen anything as clever, stunning or brilliant in my life. I said, ‘I would love just to shake hands with the people involved in that.'”

Seven years later, he was stage manager for director Albert Marre, and the two have worked together, on and off, ever since.   “It’s the fulfillment of some kind of destiny,” Hirsch marvels. “These people are now my friends. It just evolved in my career.”

Hirsch’s career began when he opened a theater just after graduating high school.    “I was a young, impetuous, crazy, stupid nineteen year old,” he explains.   He started with $200 and a low-budget melodrama. Six years later, he sold out his 200 seats with plays by Tennessee Williams and Oscar Wilde, and paid actors and staff from box office receipts. All the while, he refused to take donations (“No old fart with money was gonna tell us what to do”).

Ultimately, Hirsch moved to New York, where he spent thirteen years as a stage manager and lighting designer.   Then he became production manager for the Tulsa Opera, the Dallas Opera and in 1987, the San Diego Opera. He still designs lighting, but he missed “the ability to create jobs for people and people for jobs.”       

So Hirsch is back in administration.   He’s more willing to accept contributions now.   He needs to raise about a quarter-million dollars “to make ends meet” (the season budget is around $2 1/2 million), but he still plans to get most of his money from ticket sales.   “The competition is high,” he admits.  

The competition used to be a lot higher.   There was Starlight Musical Theatre, with its summer at the Bowl and an indoor Broadway season. There was the Pasadena-based TCA (Theatre Corp. of America), which was exporting shows to the Spreckels Theatre and to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. Suddenly, with the near-demise of Starlight (which did manage to cobble together a three-show collaborative summer season), and the end of the Poway-Pasadena and Spreckels link (TCA scaled back dramatically), San Diego Music Theatre is sitting pretty, in a much less crowded playing field.

The company is shooting for high quality, big names and good value. At $600 thousand dollars per production, the quality should be high. Some of the advertised “stars” are no longer A-list names, but all remain professionally active. And the ticket prices are very reasonable: the subscription rate ranges from $30.00 to $120 for three shows.

This venture may be yet another way to keep San Diego’s star on the national theatrical map. Hirsch plans to tour “South Pacific”, and “Fanny” “has potential to go to Broadway, but a tour is also possible… San Diego is a terrific place,” he says.   “We can mount a $600 thousand Broadway-caliber show here that would cost $6 million in New York… But a tour would bring out of town money into San Diego to help support us and keep ticket prices down. That’s the greatest goal we can achieve.”

©1994 Patté Productions Inc.