Woman Around Town: Arena Stage’s Molly Smith—
Showcasing American Musicals and Plays

When The Music Man won the 1957 Tony Award, it beat out another musical heavyweight, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The two productions opened on Broadway within three months of each other and presented very different versions of America in the 1950s. Each has gone on to occupy a spot on the list of best loved American musicals. “I think [The Music Man] is an almost perfect musical,” said Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage. “It was written by one man (Meredith Wilson), which is shocking. He wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics, and he wrote the book. I can’t tell you how rare that is.”

Smith is directing Arena’s new production of The Music Man, starring Burke Moses as Harold HIll, and Kate Baldwin as Marian. Performances in Arena’s Fichandler Theater begin on May 11 and will run through July 22. Word of mouth has been so positive that May’s performances are already sold out. In other words: buy your tickets now.

For Smith, The Music Man is another step on her journey to bring American plays and musicals to Arena Stage. Since she became the theater’s artistic director in 1998, she has staged iconic American musicals including Oklahoma!, Sophisticated Ladies, Cabaret, Camelot, The Light in the Piazza, Damn Yankees, and South Pacific. American plays that have been presented include works by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and John Steinbeck, as well as festivals celebrating the works of Edward Albee and Eugene O’ Neill. Smith also has a passion for discovering new talent. She founded Arena’s downstairs series where more than 60 plays have been read and workshopped. In 2009, Next to Normal and 33 Variations moved to Broadway after being nurtured at Arena.

Smith’s idea to focus Arena on American voices came about during conversations with the search committee. When Arena was founded in 1950 by Zelda Fichandler, Thomas Fichandler, and Edward Mangum it was virtually the only theater in Washington. The Kennedy Center wouldn’t be built until 1971. “Zelda had a wonderful repertoire of Eastern European work, international work, as well as American work,” Smith said. Douglas C. Wager took over with the 1990-1991 season, and made some changes, adding more musicals. “When I spoke to the search committee, they said that they felt that now there were 70 theaters in D.C., what made Arena Stage distinct?” said Smith. “So I talked to them about how it would either need to be international work, because this is an international city, or focus on American work, because we’re the crossroads of America as the nation’s capital.”

Smith had one of those “ah-ha!” moments during a break from meeting with the search committee. Visiting a book store, everything that fell off a shelf into her hands was by an American author. “I thought it would be perfect to focus on American work in a really neat way,” she said.

When Smith was first approached about the job at Arena, she was 3,755 miles away from Washington, in Juneau, Alaska, where she was the founding artistic director at the Perseverance Theatre and served in that position for 19 years. But she was no stranger to Washington. She graduated from Catholic University and studied theater as a graduate student at American University. “My first thought was this is a theater with a glittering history and to have the opportunity to step into that particular river was profound,” she said. “I was very excited about coming back to DC.”

More than distance separates Juneau from Washington. “Juneau is a city of 30,000, and there are no roads in or out,” she said. “It’s quite isolated; you fly in or you take a boat in. In Washington, D.C., our production of Oklahoma! reached 100,000 people, more than three times the population of Juneau.” Working with artists in the rehearsal halls, however, was “completely transferrable.”

For more than 35 years, in both Alaska and Washington, Smith has sought to discover and develop new talent. “I’m a great believer in the modern theater and in supporting living writers,” she said. She praised Arena’s staff for its efforts to scout new works. “It’s exciting to go and uncover emerging artists as well as mid-career artists and artists that are completely mature.” she said. “I like the full range of artistic expression as far as what one artist goes through in a life.”

Smith also is a great believer in first, second, and third productions of new work. “Oftentimes the production that is done in its first outing, is not everything that the writer wants because the first time in front of an audience is a real trial by fire,” she said. “So much is learned that first time. By the third production, you have the play or musical that was meant to be.” According to Smith, Next to Normal, was a “classic case” of a play that needed time to develop. Next to Normal went on to win the Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

Washington audiences provide a good testing ground for new productions. “I think the Washington, D.C. audience is the smartest in the country,” said Smith. “Artists who come in from other places or theater companies are always shocked at how smart D.C. audiences are, that they really listen intently, they get nuances in language, and I’d say that they are very open to different kinds of theater.”

A diverse audience is important to Smith and she has worked hard to achieve that goal. Early on in her new job, she took time to visit many of the city’s African American Baptist churches. “I noticed that the ushers were standing outside the church, shaking hands with people on the way in, welcoming them,” she said. “We made that change with our usher corps so that people are welcomed in.Theaters tend to be scary places if people have not been to them before. It can be daunting for a new audience. So I think it’s really important to welcome our audience.”

She has worked hard to open Arena up to young people, too. “We’ll do a project like Elephant Room in one season along with something like Music Man geared for families,” she said. Often the first production a person sees as a child is a musical. “That hooks them and brands them for a lifetime of theater going,” Smith said. “That’s part of the reason why the gold standard musical is really important to me.”

Certainly The Music Man falls into that golden category. “Because [Meredith Wilson] used rhythm in such a sophisticated way, he was able to do things on stage that no one else had ever done before. He starts the musical with “Rock Island” which is all through sound—the sound of a train. How innovative he was in what he was doing! And because of his use of rhythm, alliteration, the sound of things, he really ended up creating something that’s a masterpiece.”

Casting was important. Kate Baldwin had played Nellie Forbush in Arena’s South Pacific, and Smith knew that she wanted Kate to play Marian. “She’s one of the most emotionally intelligent actors that I know,” Smith said. “She’s special in the role.” To play con artist Harold HIll, Smith tapped Burke Moses, the original Gaston in Broadway’s Beauty and the Beast. “He’s the quintessential Music Man,” she said. “You’re never sure where the role stops and Burke begins.” Together, Baldwin and Moses have a chemistry that is too often rare on stage.

Besides the two leads, The Music Man boasts a strong supporting cast including five children selected from 120 who answered Arena’s open call. “They are absolutely delightful,” she said.

While many musicals, including several on Broadway, have cut back on live orchestras, The Music Man, like most of the musicals staged in Fichlander, will have anywhere from 12 to 15 musicians. “This is a musical that demands a big sound; it does,” she said. “ It needs to fill and permeate the house., beause it’s really about how music transforms people into being artists. I don’t think we’d want to do it with just a piano. We’d be in trouble with `76 Trombones.’”

What will the D.C. audience take away from The Music Man? “Harold Hill, the music man, he’s the quintessential salesman and con man,” Smith said. “He sells through people’s imagination, because what he has to sell are really ideas. And, because the musical is about an outsider that comes in and transforms a community, I think we know of this. It’s the classic political character, in many ways, and Washington understands that very well.”

Each summer, Smith manages to spend some down time in Alaska. She has a cabin in Haines, about 90 miles from Juneau, close to a river rich with salmon that attracts grizzly bears. “When I came to Arena, someone told me, `if you don’t feed yourself, you can’t feed others,’” she said. “I think it’s really true, because as artistic director, it’s really about supporting the artists and the theater company. And occasionally doing my own work in the theater as well. So the well can get a little bit dry. To rejuvenate, I have always found that nature is my place for ideas. To be in the middle of the wilderness.”

For tickets to The Music Man, go to the Arena Stage website.

Top Photo: Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, actress Kate Baldwin and composer Sheldon Harnick at the Golden Gala at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater on Monday, March 26, 2012. Photo by Eli Turner Studios.

Molly’s headshot by Suzanne Blue Star Boy

The Music Man Production Photo by Scott Suchman

About Charlene Giannetti (825 Articles)
<p>Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 12 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including “The Roller-Coaster Years,” “Cliques,” and “Boy Crazy.” She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, “The Plantations of Virginia,” written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.</p>