Fifty years ago, a group of 14 local residents met at the Beacon Club to discuss the possibility of establishing a local theater company that would specialize in presenting high-quality musical theater productions.
Headed by local businessman and philanthropist John Kirkpatrick, the group included Thelma Gaylord, Bea Handel, Luther T. Dulaney, Jack Durland, Dow Gumerson, Breene Kerr, Charles Bennett, Hardin Masters, Don Watters, J. Robert Wooten, Mary Ruth Ferguson, Dora Lee Gardner and James A. Bermingham Jr.
Once funding for the new project was in place, Lyric Theatre presented its first season in the summer of 1963, a lineup that included “Oklahoma!,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Brigadoon.” For the next 40 years, Lyric staged its productions at Oklahoma City University. The company relocated to the Civic Center Music Hall in 2002.
This summer, Lyric Theatre is preparing to kick off its 50th anniversary season with a lineup that includes a mix of old and new productions, two of which have significant ties to Oklahoma. The season opens with “Tarzan,” followed by “The King and I,” “The Will Rogers Follies” and “Big River.”
During the past half century, Lyric has enjoyed many artistic successes, including capacity houses for “Evita” (1986), “Chicago” (2003) and “Oklahoma!” with Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara (2007). Paula Stover, Lyric's executive director, said that every production of “The Sound of Music,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Grease” have also been enormously popular with audiences.
Lyric Theatre has presented 125 productions in its history, 57 of which have received multiple stagings. The most frequently presented shows have been “The Sound of Music” and “The Music Man” with six productions each, followed by “Fiddler on the Roof” with five. Nine other musicals have received four productions each during Lyric's 50 years.
Lyric's 50th anniversary season begins June 25-29 with the company's debut production of “Tarzan.” Lyric is only the third theater that Disney has allowed to produce the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale.
“After the Broadway production, a national tour was announced but it never happened,” said Lyric's artistic director Michael Baron. “The Disney people are coming to see what we do with it in hopes that they can tour it at some point.”
After an absence of 30 years, Rodgers and Hammerstein's “The King and I” returns to the Lyric stage July 9-13. Based on the true story of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her time instructing children in the king's palace in Thailand, “The King and I” is one of the musical theater's most opulent classics.
“Our production of ‘The King and I' is a nod to the classic musicals Lyric has produced in the past,” Baron said. “It's the type of show Lyric can do extremely well. We've cast 21 Asian-American children and the director is also Asian-American. It's a big production with a cast of 50.”
Scheduled July 23-27 is “The Will Rogers Follies,” a musical that chronicles the life of Oklahoma's favorite son. This Tony Award-winning musical is making its first appearance on the Lyric stage since 2002. It was the company's first production after the move to the Civic Center Music Hall.
“We thought it would be nice to honor a local hero during our anniversary season,” Baron said. “We've also planned to feature a different guest star in the role of Wiley Post at each performance.”
“Big River,” a tale based on Mark Twain's “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” also has an Oklahoma connection: Composer/lyricist Roger Miller grew up in Erick. The lively musical was a surprise hit when it opened on Broadway in 1985. “Big River” closes the season Aug. 6-10.
“We have four big shows this summer but each is big in a different way,” Baron said. “And with this kind of variety, it's safe to say that Lyric has something for everyone. To show the breadth of professional theater is exciting and the diversity of our programming has kept us fresh and alive for 50 years.”