Nothing Less Than Magical
Veterans of the Zilker Summer Musical recall enchantment on the hillside
By Robert Faires, Fri., July 4, 2008
When it's summer in Austin, you can count on at least two things: It'll be hotter than Beelzebub's armpit, and there will be a musical you can see for free in Zilker Park. The latter qualifies as a sure bet by virtue of the fact that a summer musical has been produced on the Zilker Hillside stage for five decades running. The tradition was launched in 1959 when theatrical options in Austin were much more limited than they are today – basically a handful of college productions, community productions at Austin Civic Theatre (what's now Zach Theatre), and the occasional touring show. So the city's Recreation Department, then headed by the legendary Beverly Sheffield, decided to produce a musical comedy on the stage established by Sheffield in Zilker 20 years earlier. It would be a gift from the city, a show that every person in town could enjoy at no charge.
Although the city stopped sponsoring the Zilker Summer Musical in 1986, the annual production had come to mean so much to so many people that a band of Summer Musical veterans, led by then-City Supervisor of Performing Arts Bil Pfuderer, determined to preserve the tradition through a nonprofit organization. As Jan Seward recalls: "Bil drew his family of actors together, and the Friends of the Summer Musical was born. No professional fundraisers, just us actors, singers, and dancers working together to keep the project alive. How often does the cast of a show work to raise money to produce the show?"
That the Friends of the Summer Musical – now Zilker Theatre Productions – have managed to keep this institution going for more than 20 years now testifies to the deep place it has in the hearts of the people who have been part of it, as well as the thousands upon thousands of locals who flock to the hillside every summer. Last week saw the opening of the Zilker Summer Musical's 50th production, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and this week sees more than 50 Summer Musical alumni gather on the stage of Dell Hall at the Long Center for a special benefit concert in which they trace the tradition's history through song. (See "Sentimental 'Journey,'" below, for more.) In honor of this Austin mainstay reaching the half-century mark (making it the longest-running "pay what you wish" outdoor theatrical production in the U.S.), here is a bouquet of memories from a few of the many Austinites who know the Zilker Summer Musical from the inside.
In my third year as special activities director for the Parks & Recreation Department, my dear friend Gene Traylor wanted to direct and design A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1968) for the Zilker Hillside Musical. I was stunned when he asked me to play Pseudolus. I argued that I was tall and thin, had never done a musical leading role, and admired Zero Mostel too much to take the part. He insisted that my farcical talent was needed, and my ego swayed. I was still administering the show, dutywise, but took to the role with great zest.
Dear colleague Stanley Woodmansee signed on as musical director of the community orchestra and guided me in singing this demanding part. [But when] I sang "Free" one evening, an insect was inhaled and clung to my uvula for what seemed an eternity, causing me to "la-la-cough-la-spit-hack-la" for one lyrical line before I was able to proceed with firm resolve.
On another night, there was the moment before Miles Gloriosus enters to claim his bride, who is really sidekick slave Hysterium [in feminine disguise]. The bit was for Hysterium to don the blond wig, lie on the bier, and await the pleasures of Miles. Our shows were in August in full Texas heat and Austin humidity. Mucho sweat. The wig slid off as he reclined. I quickly sat him up and replaced the wig. More sweat. Down went Hysterium a second time, and off came the wig. The orchestra was vamping Miles' entrance while convulsed in laughter, and the 3,000-plus playgoers knew this was not planned. Agonized sweat. With minimal dialogue, I raised my good friend Steve DePue a third time. His ad-lib to me was, "Pseudolus, I told you this disguise wouldn't work." To which I recalled an earlier line in the show, turned to the primed audience and orchestra, and pined, "What we need is more mare's sweat!" The show stopped as we were awarded a thunderous, raucous ovation.
It was after that show that I was asked to take the direction of Zach Scott, which led to the move from East Fifth Street into my design of the Kleberg theatre building, with land secured by my years with PARD and the vision of Beverly Sheffield for community theatre in Austin.
The most outstanding characteristics of the Summer Musical are the conditions under which one works. In the Seventies, the dressing rooms were dirt-floored, ground-level areas and were unisex. Just a bunch of hanging costumes and picnic tables set up with make-up mirrors. One would think that would be pretty interesting – boys and girls changing clothes together! – but no one seemed to care much. Costume changes were quick and, as the sun went down, in the shadows. Flesh-colored leotards under costumes helped a whole lot!
Long rehearsal periods (April through June) built a strong cast. There was never as much fun as at rehearsals, especially dance rehearsals – the epitome of adults at play. If one was totally exhausted from the months of rehearsing and the nightly in-the-park-till-midnight rehearsals for two weeks prior to opening, one generally prayed for rain during the run of the show. A night off. Go home and do laundry. Get some sleep, for once! But, noooo, on rain-out nights the cast went to someone's house and partied! Like we hadn't seen each other in a while! Then there were the nights the skies opened up during the show – cast, crew, and audience scattered. Ah, an early night.
Sounds during the show provided comic relief at times, annoyances at others. The train that whistled through at about 10pm, sometimes drowning out the singers. Children crying, playing, talking. Wind played havoc with set-pieces, hanging lights, and the beautiful trees canopying the stage. And there was the occasional dog who wandered across the stage, apparently enjoying the attention.
And, of course, the heat. Hot, sticky bodies. Wet-with-sweat costumes. Director's notes included "don't forget your deodorant." After dance numbers, the sweat would just pour off one's nose. Make-up pretty well melted off soon after one's entrance.
Despite all this, the Summer Musical was just the best. At dusk, seeing the audience progress into darkness. Dancing under the stars, clouds, and moon. Huge audiences (they seemed huge to us) just loving the shows. There's nothing like the standing ovation of a hillside full of people. It's just a "wow."
I was 19 when I designed costumes for my first Zilker show, The Most Happy Fella (1982). Knowing my inexperience on such a big stage, our director/producer, the late Bil Pfuderer – a designer himself – offered some strong advice: "Paint in Very Bold Strokes. Not only are many people far away from the stage, they are also eating fried chicken and trying to keep their toddler from wandering down the hill." He specified that each musical number should have a distinctive look and color palette. "In Happy Fella, 'Sposalizio' is red, green, and white and very Italian. 'Fresno Beauties' is in earth tones and floral prints for the harvest. And 'Big D' is all gold and white sequins with lots of fringe." As a foolish youth, I dared to question his logic: "Wait a minute. What are a bunch of people in gold and white sequins and fringe suddenly doing in a rural field in Napa Valley in 1946?" Bil just sighed at my naivete. "It's the Big Hit Song, and it's about Texas, so people will wake up and cheer. They won't care where the sequins and fringe came from." Ever since then, I've realized that the Zilker Hillside is a special, even magical place when it comes to costume design. Characters find their soul mates because they're wearing the same color, the girl with the biggest eyelashes gets the boy, and there is always, always a place for a few sequins and some fringe.
In How to Succeed Without Really Trying (1983), there was a scene that took place in front of three elevators, during which the elevators would keep opening and people would go in and come out. Then, at the end of the scene, all three elevators opened together, and everyone inside them sang "Been a Long Day." During the run of the show, Bil Pfuderer had the cast start a competition to see which elevator could outdo the others with crazy poses and extra costume pieces or whatever. Joe York, who was in the production, knew that Bil hated the musical Evita, so for the last performance, Joe got a long strapless white evening gown, a blond wig, and a cigarette-girl-type box on which he set some microphones. Well, that night when the three elevators opened together, there was Joe in the center elevator dressed as Evita, standing in her famous pose, arms up, and in the two side elevators, everyone else was kneeling and facing "her" with lighted candles in their hands. The audience roared, and the cast could hardly contain themselves. I guess Joe won!!!
My relationship with the Zilker Summer Musicals began when I played Marie in Fiorello! (1981). I had no idea it would begin a six-year chapter in my life full of amazing experiences. Auditions usually happened in late spring each year, and then rehearsals would ensue. The shows in the park were always professional and polished productions and always such great fun. Each night felt like home to me. The hillside was a place I got to play and feel fabulous and enjoy being a part of something that brought summer magic to Austin – and even with hundreds of people covering the hillside, we could be intimate. It was hard work but incredibly fun, and everyone usually hung out after rehearsals and performances. Group therapy of the highest order, we shared our summers. There was always a sense of melancholy once the show finished its run. We all went back to our lives.
My time with the summer musicals was the early Bil Pfuderer era. Whether it was Bil cracking the whip one moment then having us laughing hysterically the next or Joe York dressed as Evita in the elevator in How to Succeed or Judy Thompson-Price putting fire in our feet or sneaking over the fence to take a late-night dip in Barton Springs after the show was over or just lots of good-natured hijinks backstage, it was the best of times.
Imagine: It is just after dusk on Aug. 6, 1988, and it's still 95 degrees. You're standing under the stars wearing four layers of clothing, including a canvas corset and a full-length gown made of upholstery fabric. Many of the hairs from your waist-length wig are stuck to the sweat under your chin, along with a few gnats and mosquitoes. More than 4,000 people of every age, ethnicity, and economic and social status, as far as the eye can see, are looking at you – but you're surrounded by 30 of what have become your closest friends with 20-foot castle walls at your back. The sound of trumpets and strings fill the air – and you're in Camelot (literally and figuratively). It is ecstasy.
The finest directors, designers, and performers converged on the Zilker Hillside Stage; the stars aligned; and real magic happened. It was the summer that a homeless woman wrote of her experience at our performance on the back of a small paper bag and left it at the doorstep of a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken store (the production sponsor). It had been an opportunity for her to be a part of the community again as an equal, to sit with her family among other happy families, for her two small children to escape their difficult existence for just a while and to dream that a better future was possible. Within the bag, she had included a $1 donation with her thanks. We all cried. I still cry every time I remember holding that used bag with the heartfelt words that so eloquently summed up the special essence of the Zilker Summer Musical – the power of theatre, why I am now appearing in my 13th Zilker show, and why this unique Austin tradition must continue for another 50 years!
My earliest memory of the Zilker Summer Musical was as a 9-year-old boy watching Peter Pan (1971). I remember being wowed by the flying, especially when the actors flew out of the Darling house to Neverland. I must have seen the show twice, because I remember the first time being amazed as Peter flew through the large window into the house, but the next time I saw the show, Peter flew through the window with a cast on his arm or leg.
I was cast in the ensemble of Guys and Dolls (1985) and had been rehearsing for about a month when I went camping with friends near Weatherford, Texas, and accidentally fell off a drip tank for a gas well. The fall crushed three vertebrae and made me lose about an inch in height. After several days in a Fort Worth hospital, I was put into a cross-shaped brace to keep my back straight and brought back to Austin. When I was started to walk more, one of my roommates, who was also in the ensemble, began taking me to rehearsals. After several nights, I convinced Bil Pfuderer and Judy Thompson-Price to let me back in the show. I had to promise that I'd wear my back brace (which gave me amazing posture in the dance numbers). In trying to help me out, Bil didn't have me move any scenery. Instead he had me wear a huge bass drum and carry the other Save-a-Soul Mission Band members' instruments while they moved the scenery. I think moving sets would have been easier on my back!
In that show, I had to wear heavy wool Save-a-Soul Mission coat and pants while being underdressed in a polyester gambler's suit. All our "wing-tipped shoes" were made from jazz or character shoes with different colors of felt glued on them. I don't think I've ever been so hot performing at Zilker – except perhaps the night in Little Me (1994) when I performed "Be a Performer" (again underdressed in two costumes) with a fever of over 100 degrees.
I was co-producing Guys and Dolls (1997), and as one of the ways to raise money, I had the cast come out after the show to "greet the audience" with buckets to catch any last-minute donations. Opening night, I think a dollar wound up being donated, but what did happen was the kids came up to see the cast. Quickly the buckets went by the wayside, but the tradition of the cast coming out afterward continues to this day. At first I told the cast they were required to come out, but that also quickly became unnecessary. To see all the kids who came up either to meet the actors or to get their autographs was magical. But it also was gratifying to see that these kids wanted to meet and get the autographs of all the cast members, not just "the stars." The first-time chorus members always seemed surprised and really touched by the kids' warmth, and me getting to watch that was very satisfying.
There is a kind of magic on the Zilker stage that can't be duplicated on any other stage in Austin. I experienced this during the summer of 2005 while playing the title role in Annie Get Your Gun (2005). Two weeks into the run, during a poorly landed cartwheel, I heard (and felt) a "crunch" in my right foot. I finished the scene, limped to the dressing room, and iced down my foot. Then I gritted my teeth and finished the performance. Later that week, I had an X-ray that showed I had broken a bone in the ball of my foot.
I am a firm believer in the old adage "the show must go on," so dropping out of the show was never an option, and besides that, this was a dream role for me and one I had waited many years to play. So, for the rest of the run, I would wait in the wings, with my swollen right foot smashed into my 3-inch-high character shoes, feeling like I was standing on a shard of glass. But, as if by magic, the moment I walked onto that stage, the pain would completely disappear! Now, it hurt like the dickens once I exited the stage, but for that time under the lights, it never bothered me.
I really do think there is magic on that stage. Oh sure, it's miserably hot; there are bugs (both the flying and crawling varieties), feral cats, an occasional snake or raccoon, and some "sketchy" park people; the Porta-Potty is horrendous; and the men's dressing room is always cooler than the women's. But standing under the stars downstage center, singing an Irvin Berlin classic in front of an audience so large that your peripheral vision can't make out where the crowd ends, is nothing less than magical.
Disney's Beauty and the Beast runs through Aug. 9, Thursdays-Sundays, 8:30pm, at the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater in Zilker Park. For more information, visit www.zilker.org/showinfo.html.
I'd be surprised if there's anyone who has actually been to all 50 of the Zilker Summer Musicals produced to date, but anyone who's in town this weekend has the chance to enjoy all 50 in a single afternoon. That's because Zilker Theatre Productions is presenting a golden anniversary tribute concert that will take audiences on a tour of Summer Musicals Past through songs, dance numbers, and video from past productions. KEYE-TV's Ron Oliveira serves as master of ceremonies for this rare event, which features more than 50 performers from past and present productions. Proceeds benefit – what else? – the Zilker Summer Musical. A Journey Through 50 Years of Zilker Summer Musicals takes place Sunday, July 6, 3pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. Tickets are $25 general admission and $50 for box seats. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.zilker.org/50th.html. – R.F.