Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane University opens its 46th season with the Broadway hit La Cage aux Folles. Over the years, Summer Lyric has focused on providing local audiences with polished productions of classic and popular new musicals. Artistic director B. Michael Howard works with young talent and seasoned veterans to produce three shows in roughly six weeks, giving students a crash course in what it takes to put on a big, glitzy Broadway-style musical.
"We do a different show every two-and-a-half weeks," Howard says. "The cast comes in knowing their roles, and then we have two solid weeks of rehearsal to put it together. It's not much time, but with the amount of talent I have to work with, it's totally possible."
Howard took over the Summer Lyric program from his teacher and mentor Frank Monachino, former chairman of Tulane's music department. Monachino founded the theater in 1969, and Howard, a young actor at the time, was involved in Summer Lyric's first show, a production of Annie Get Your Gun. Howard returned to New Orleans on and off during subsequent summers and landed a faculty position at Tulane in the early 1980s. Since then, he has been a regular contributor and became artistic director in 1997.
"I think Mr. Monachino's vision and mine were the same," Howard says. "We can't compete with Miss Saigon, with helicopters flying, but we've tried to keep our standards extremely professional. I think it's important to the city, the students, and to our audience that we keep up this professional attitude that we have about quality."
La Cage aux Folles stars Bob Edes Jr. as Albin, a flamboyant drag queen who performs as Zaza. Albin is in a committed relationship with the mild-mannered Georges (Kristopher Lloyd Shaw). When Georges' son gets engaged, the young man is reluctant to introduce his fiance and future in-laws to his unconventional family. Albin, hurt and defiant at first, eventually gives in and agrees to remove his wig and makeup and play it straight, as he pretends to be Georges' Uncle Al.
For Howard, it's Albin's willingness to support Georges' son that illustrates the musical's most important themes.
"It's really not about homosexuality, or same-sex marriage, or any of that stuff," Howard says. "It's simply a love story. Everything is for somebody else. It's for the boy, or it's for the relationship or it's for each other. It's about loving each other, and it's about accepting each other for what we are."
This season's schedule draws heavily from Broadway classics with large, splashy song-and-dance numbers from the golden era of American musical theater. La Cage aux Folles features songs from composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, who also scored the hit musical Hello, Dolly! In July, Summer Lyric presents A Little Night Music, the 1973 show with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The season finishes in August with Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 Cole Porter classic about backstage romance and rivalry as a theater company stages Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.
As New York's biggest producers are scaling down their orchestras and relying more on technology for special effects, Howard says Summer Lyric is committed to delivering a polished product that honors Broadway traditions.
"Our orchestra remains 28 to 30 people," Howard says. "It's one of the few places you can still hear a full pit orchestra with a musical, and it's very high quality because of the symphony players who are playing."
The traditional approach has maintained Summer Lyric's appeal to local audiences, Howard says.
"I think the city feels a sense of ownership," he says. "They've been a very, very devoted audience for a long, long time. There are some people who have been members for 46 years. I think it's an outstanding community outreach program, as well as preparing our students for professional careers."