Pictured: The cast of Starlight’s 1951 production DESERT SONG.
Starlight Theatre, known for their summer series featuring national Broadway tours and outdoor concerts, has also been self-producing for most of its 66 seasons. In fact, when Starlight opened its doors in 1951, their entire season was self-produced. For many reasons, however, times have changed the not-for-profit institution, and they’ve moved to producing one or two shows a season in their outdoor space. This year, however, marks a couple of producing firsts for Starlight — a self-produced indoor production of the musical FIRST DATE, and a co-produced national tour of THE LITTLE MERMAID.
For three seasons, Starlight has been transforming their climate-controlled stage into a usable space for the Winter months, curating “Starlight Indoors,” a series focused on modern smaller comedies, musicals, parodies, and other unconventional shows. “When I arrived at Starlight in 2014 and realized how large our climate-controlled stage was, I began asking why we didn’t try to do indoor theater during the winter months,” says President and CEO Rich Baker. “No one could come up with a reason other than we hadn’t tried it before, so I thought we should give it a try. The first Winter (February 2015), we did only one show, 50 SHADES! THE MUSICAL PARODY, and found that people would not only come out in the Winter, but many of them had never been to Starlight before which meant we found a new audience. We are now in the third year of this experiment, and audience volume is growing steadily.”
When asked what motivates Starlight to produce — which, according to Baker holds more risk for the organization since self-productions typically cost more than booking a touring show — his said “our audiences enjoy seeing local actors in these productions. In addition, this is in keeping with Starlight’s desire to support our Kansas City community.”
So for Starlight, the benefits of risky self-producing outweigh the possible loss, as the organization continues to keep the Kansas City community at the forefront of its decision-making.
And the community benefits of self-producing have been plentiful over the last six decades. Beginning in 1951 under the leadership of Manger and Producing Director Richard Berger, Starlight’s first production DESERT SONG was part of a ten-show season that welcomed patrons to Edward Delk’s iconic outdoor stage design. A sloped seating area, light pylons flanking the stage, and a light bridge behind the seating area all created a grand sense of wonder in the almost 8,000 seat theater.
Starlight would continue with a ten-show season throughout the 1950s, producing SHOW BOAT, OKLAHOMA, CARO– USEL, KISS ME KATE, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, WONDERFUL TOWN, and GUYS AND DOLLS, just to name a few.
In 1961, continuing under Berger’s leadership, Starlight produced CALAMITY JANE featuring the incomparable Carol Burnett, and in 1969 DAMN YANKEES featured iconic dancer Cyd Charisse as Lola and an opening night guest appearance by Kansas City Royals owner Ewing Kauffman as the Commissioner of Baseball.
Starlight continued to exclusively produce through the 1960s starting with nine-show seasons and dropping down to eight in 1962. By the time Berger left Starlight in 1971, the organization was losing money and struggling to produce a full season. During the early 1970s Starlight moved away from producing musicals and focused on less costly variety shows, but by 1974 it was evident the Kansas City audience missed the grand musical, so Starlight slowly began to reintroduce the genre, only this time they would book musical tours. By 1976 they were back to a ten-show season that included national tours including Yul Brenner’s iconic turn in THE KING AND I, and in 1977, Carol Channing in the show that defined her career for decades, HELLO, DOLLY.
In 1980 Starlight made the decision to become a “landlord only” organization and dropped all self-producing. The venue hosted the now defunct Kansas City Philharmonic (1981-1983) and continued to bring in touring productions. It wasn’t until 1984 that Starlight — under the expansive leadership of Bob Rolf — returned to producing, this time a four-show season that included THE WIZARD OF OZ, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, CABARET and the Starlight premiere of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.
Through the 80s, 90s and the early part of the 21st-century, Starlight continued to re-evaluate it’s “landlord only” ideals and through successful capital campaigns enhanced the venue, prompting both 42nd STREET (2002) and THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (2003) to launch their national tours on the Starlight stage. Though the organization is no longer self-producing entire seasons, they do continue to expand and grow the performing arts available to the Kansas City community by bringing in numerous national tour musicals a year, big-name concerts, and self-producing at least one show every season.
At the outset of 2017, Starlight can call themselves producer on three productions. The first is the currently running FIRST DATE, which is part of the “Starlight Indoors” series. They’ll follow that with a summer co-production with Pittsburgh CLO of THE LITTLE MERMAID (June 3rd – 11th). According to Baker, the production “began originally as Starlight simply self-producing for our own venue. Then leaders at Pittsburgh CLO inquired if we would like to do it together to help offset the added cost and some of our Independent Presenter Network colleagues asked to join as well. After getting the approval of Disney, this grew into a real tour. Although, this particular opportunity came about somewhat organically, if THE LITTLE MERMAID is a success, this may very well be a model we can use to do similar tours in the future, thereby expanding the Starlight brand [to] reach across the entire country.” Finally, Starlight will produce GREASE to close out the outdoor series September 8th – 14th.
But what does the future of producing hold for Starlight in Kansas City now that they’ve tackled both indoor, outdoor, and a national tour? Well, there probably won’t be a big jump from what we’ve seen this season. However, Baker doesn’t close the door on growing the organization’s self-producing as opportunities present themselves.
“Starlight is committed to self-producing at least one title each year under normal circumstances in order to ensure we are giving back to the Kansas City community that supports us so faithfully,” says Baker. “By employing local actors, dancers and musicians, we send a strong message that Starlight appreciates the continued community support.”