Michael Howard discovered musical theater by accident. He was playing piano for the musical theater program at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), and another student cast in an opera kept missing rehearsals. "He was always tardy, and I was playing piano," Howard recalls. "And one day the director just had enough. He said, 'Michael, can you sing this role?' And I said, 'I don't know.' But I was a very good musician, so I jumped up onstage and I was in my first opera, and that's where I got the bug."
Howard, now artistic director of the Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre, will receive the Big Easy Entertainment Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre on Monday, April 19. Summer Lyric Theatre was the brainchild of the late Frank Monachino, who plucked 21-year-old Howard out of USM to assist in its first show 37 years ago. In and out of productions for the next 12 years, Howard, at Monachino's urging, took a teaching post at Tulane. He fell in love with both the school and the city, and took over as artistic director of Summer Lyric Theatre in 1997.
"It was just a perfect fit for me, and here I got to do opera, musical theater, conduct and teach," Howard says. "A lot of universities won't let you do that."
Each year, Howard faces the daunting task of putting on three shows in nine weeks, with two weeks of rehearsal and one week of shows before it's time to move on to the next production. Despite the short run-up time, Summer Lyric Theatre, under Howard's direction, plays to over-capacity crowds. Summer Lyric receives the use of Dixon Hall from Tulane, but is otherwise financially independent and relies on ticket sales to keep going.
Those who work with Howard credit him for the theater's success. "He has impeccable artistic vision, and what really sets him apart is he has the ability to take that vision and put it exactly how he sees it on the stage," says Summer Lyric managing director Abbe Garfinkel. "That's very rare. Many people can have vision, but not actualize it, and he can."
Howard devotes himself to staging the full musical theater experience. Summer Lyric is one of the few theaters in America that still employs a full orchestra playing a full, original score -- a practice that was largely abandoned because of cost cuts on Broadway long ago. Howard is also devoted to the New Orleans community, from which he draws a wealth of talent in the form of actors, musicians, designers and craftspeople.
Howard also strives to support young artists trying to make their way in the acting world. Though he has the pick of the town for acting talent, he almost always goes through a rigorous audition process, in case "there's going to be a Julie Andrews walk in the door," he says.
"He's a hands-on director," says actress and longtime friend Linda Mintz. "He will work with his performers individually, give them special time. Everyone who ever works with Michael becomes very close to him because he's not only extremely talented, but he's a very supportive friend. His students are devoted to him, and people who work with him in shows are devoted to him. I know a lot of people in New Orleans feel the same way."
Howard's popularity and support in New Orleans were apparent last September, when Anthony Cummings, the dean of Tulane's music department, suddenly dismissed Howard as artistic director and replaced him with Metropolitan Opera tenor Anthony Laciura. Howard was reinstated after tremendous public outcry, and Cummings subsequently resigned his position as dean.
"Throughout your life, you cannot stay in this business with everybody loving you," said Howard, speaking publicly about the controversy for the first time. "You'd love that, but it's just not possible . It was hurtful, it was painful. It was settled, I think, largely due to the fact that the people in New Orleans stood up (for me), and I'm humbled by that." For now, Howard will continue as artistic director and is already forming a plan of attack for this summer's schedule, which includes Camelot and Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado. When asked about his approach to directing, Howard emphasizes his wish to make a real impact on an audience: "In any theater -- it doesn't matter if it's musical theater or straight theater, Shakespeare, Rogers and Hammerstein -- usually if it's a great piece of work, somebody's life is changed in that process, either in the story or in the audience."
- Donn Young
- Michael Howard has a unique ability to put his artistic vision on the stage, say his colleagues.