In an era when many regional and summer stock theaters have lost the support of patrons, cut back on the number of productions or quietly closed their doors due to financial constraints, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma remains a thriving operation that will celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer.
In the summer of 1963, Lyric tested the waters with a season of three classic musicals. Positive audience response allowed the theater to achieve a momentum that has since taken it through four decades.
“During the first several years, the concern was building audiences,” said Paula Stover, Lyric's executive director. “Our next milestone happened when we started bringing in different directors and choreographers for every show.
“From there, the next big decision we faced was whether to move from Oklahoma City University to the Civic Center Music Hall. We conducted a survey to see if our patrons would follow us downtown and the result came out to be fifty-fifty. We decided the move would be in our best interest for the long term growth of the theater.”
While Lyric Theatre remained a summer-only theater that produced musicals along with a few operettas, there was always a desire to expand programming so that shows could be staged year round. That became a reality in December 2007 when Lyric renovated the former Plaza Theatre at 1725 NW 16.
Today, the 278-seat theater, known as Lyric at the Plaza, boasts a fall and spring season that typically includes four productions. The Plaza season features a mix of smaller musicals, comedies, dramas and musical revues.
“Nationally, we're no longer looked as just a summer stock theater,” said Michael Baron, Lyric's artistic director. “The addition of the Plaza has allowed us to present programming that is accessible to different types of audiences. It's also a place where we can develop new material. Next season, we're doing a world premiere musical at the Plaza.”
The mini stock market crash that happened Oct. 13, 1989, and the 2008 economic downturn prompted Lyric to find ways of trimming its budget.
“We've struggled like any arts organization but we've been fortunate to have a strong board that cared about what we do and when we did run into trouble, they stepped up to the plate and helped us move on,” Stover said.
Baron added that having a healthy endowment has also helped Lyric through some difficult times.
“It's nice knowing we can fix a roof, pave a parking lot or keep the floors in our rehearsal hall pristine thanks to our endowment,” Baron explained. “I also have to give credit to Paula who has kept us sane and focused through both good and bad times.”
When planning Lyric's upcoming 50th anniversary season, Stover and artistic director Michael Baron decided to chronicle the theater's impressive history by assembling a video that featured comments from actors, staff and crew members.
“When our anniversary season was announced, we started hearing from people who said they were in the cast of some of the early shows or had been patrons for many years,” Stover said. “We ran across a lot of people that we didn't really know.
“We were able to interview many of those people and we ended up with a nice video that gives an accurate history of the theater. From that, we made shorter videos that we can use for education, development and our audiences.”
Between the matinee and evening productions of “The Will Rogers Follies” on July 27, former Lyric actors, staff members and crew are invited to have a group photo taken on the set of the Civic Center stage.
As Lyric looks forward to its next half century, Baron is optimistic about the theater's future, both from an economic and an artistic standpoint.
“One thing I want to do in the future is to keep better contact with our alumni and bring them back to Lyric,” Baron said. “Many have gone on to become national stars. For the Plaza, I want to keep doing new works along with productions that are better suited to a smaller venue.
“With every show we do, I think it's important to involve both the national and the Oklahoma community. We have a high level of talent available to us and we try to make sure every production looks and sounds as good as it can.”