Richard Corley says the Madison Repertory Theatre's new production of Carousel is a creative watershed for the company. It's the Rep's first summer production in several years, and that's important. But the company's artistic director also thinks that by tackling what is often deemed Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest work, the Rep is staking its claim to a key portion of the local theater marketplace.
"This certainly fills a niche," Corley says. "I think there's an opening here to present professionally the great American musical. And I think it needs to be done, because I believe these plays are - along with jazz - our contribution to world culture. So I'm hoping that on a consistent basis we can do work from that canon."
Carousel is a tragicomic tale of fated love about an out-of-work carousel barker who turns to crime when his wife becomes pregnant. He gets caught, takes his life to avoid prison, but has a chance to return to earth for one day to make amends.
Corley concedes that mounting this ambitious production wouldn't have been possible during the years the Rep was waiting for its permanent home in Overture to be completed. During that time, the company's balance sheet suffered and so did attendance. It got to the point where the Rep could only afford to produce plays with small casts.
But over the past year and a half that's changed. The Rep's residency in the Overture Playhouse has seen big gains in attendance and the return to larger, more complex shows, including a production of Our Town that had one of the largest casts of Corley's tenure.
The increase in audiences also meant that the Rep's financials have also turned around, Corley notes. "We are growing. We're in a surplus this year, and we're predicting a sizable surplus next year. The theater is in a very healthy place."
That health should be apparent at Carousel. Including the live band, the onstage talent numbers just under 30 bodies, with locals joining theater professionals from both New York and Chicago. "It's a major undertaking," says Corley.
Since the Playhouse has just 300 seats, audiences will be nearly cheek to jowl with all those players. Better still, none of the actors will be miked, so musical fans will get a rare opportunity to hear the pure human voice in full song.
Corley says that the same anonymous donor who provided funding for Carousel is also helping to underwrite another summer musical for 2008. "We're already thinking about what to do next year," he says brightly.