Ivory coasters: Music director Mark
Goodman (right) leads the orchestra, including keyboardist Zach Klein
(left), for Merry-Go-Round’s Les Miserables, which continues through
July 18. ALL PHOTOS MICHAEL DAVIS
Each year the company that bills itself
as “Broadway in the Finger Lakes,” draws bigger and bigger crowds.
During one opening night an angry patron grumbled to this reviewer that
two precious seats had been allotted to the out-of-town Syracuse New Times. “I’ve
got friends visiting from Virginia,” he growled, “and even though I’ve
given this company $1,000 I can’t get them through the door!”
Somebody’s doing something right at the
Merry-Go-Round, and he’s Syracuse-born Ed Sayles, the producing
director who always tosses a long-stemmed carnation into the crowd.
“Broadway” at MGR means professional
theater as the company now operates under a COST (Council of Stock
Theaters) with Actors’ Equity Association. Local talent is encouraged
to apply, but most lead roles now are taken by nationally ranked
professionals, often with Broadway credits, and the many supporting
roles are filled by more than 3,000 applicants from leading university
“Broadway” at MGR also means fully
staged and costumed musicals. Dominated by blockbusters, the season
kicked off with the new Elvis Presley musical All Shook Up and continues with Les Miserables, Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Little Shop of Horrors.
And to end the season with a smaller, savory item, MGR will produce the
new comedy by Jim Stowell, Jessica Zuehlke and Drew Jansen, Church Basement Ladies.
Behind the scenes: Hair pieces and
mutton chops await performers of Les Miserables.
The first incarnation of MGR was the
Auburn Children’s Theatre or ACT, founded by Susan Riford in September
1958. Programs for young people preceded the big summer shows and still
comprise a large portion of the company’s budget of $3.2 million, the
third largest (after Rochester’s Geva Theatre and Syracuse Stage) in
upstate New York. More than 52,000 people paid to see MGR’s summer
shows in 2007, of whom 6,000 were season subscribers. The Youth Theatre
Program was fully professionalized in 1974 and this year offered 50
performances a week in 65 school districts, reaching as many as 125,000
students. Along the way the founding ACT was refashioned as Auburn
Civic Theatre. By 1985 the summer musicals were established box-office
and artistic successes, and so the entire enterprise officially became
known as Merry-Go-Round Playhouse.
Theater in the Round
One look at the circular facility in
Emerson Park at the north end of Owasco Lake tells you how the company
came by its name. Built during the Depression, the theater was indeed a
carousel or merry-go-round, still in operation within living memory.
The site of the park has been an entertainment venue under different
names since the 1880s, and was at one time an amusement park with a
figure-8 roller coaster and a miniature steam-driven train. Changing
fortunes and economies had pretty much bypassed the site by 1972 when
the then-Auburn Civic Theatre took over the vacant, decrepit building
and, with thousands of hours of volunteer labor, turned it into
something resembling a theater. In 2004 it was remodeled, enlarged and
renamed the Preston H. Thomas Theatre, after a young, former MGR
employee killed in an auto accident. Up from 350 seats, it now has 501,
or two more than the Geva or Syracuse Stage.
No theater, on stage or backstage, is
without reversals. The first eight years that Auburn Civic Theatre
tried to bring summer stock players up from New York City to Emerson
Park did not go well. By the time Sayles was invited to examine the
enterprise in 1980, collapse looked imminent. He recalls his first
impression: “The theater was bankrupt, the playhouse was a fire trap,
and the office was a dump. It was love at first sight!” He hoped to
turn the place around in two or three years and he’d be back to the
wider world. A steep learning curve lay ahead because at that time he
had seen only one production of a musical in his life, West Side Story.
A returning native, Sayles had grown up
on the West Side of Syracuse and attended Christian Brothers Academy,
class of 1970. After a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Cortland, Sayles
moved to Ohio for a master’s at Bowling Green State University south of
Toledo. Within a few years he was working in Dayton with the First
Street Theatre, dedicated to works of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and
Sayles’ favorite, Peter Weiss’ Persecution and Assassination of
Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton
Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, usually known as Marat/Sade.
In Dayton Sayles founded a youth theater company called Fantasy
Express, developing innovative ideas he would carry with him to Auburn.
Edgy, even avant-garde, theater might
seem like a peculiar apprenticeship for running a company known for
glossy, broad-market commercial productions. One visible connection is
that Sayles treats popular plays, even All Shook Up or Forever Plaid,
as works of art just as worthy of scrupulous attention as a play by
Edward Albee or David Mamet. In conversation over hits (mostly) and
misses (few) from recent seasons, he speaks first about the way
audiences reacted to the music or performances in a show rather than
what it did at the box office. On Always. . . Patsy Cline, he’s
more impressed that audiences were moved to tears than that his company
was the fourth to produce it in country music-loving Central New York.
A rare box-office disappointment was last summer’s Miss Saigon,
complete with helicopter. No other regional company would attempt to
produce it, but audiences did not sustain a four-week run, one more
than usual. “Not enough people wanted to see a prostitute blow her
brains out at the end,” he shrugs.
In the early years at MGR Sayles
produced shows that sounded like First Street Theatre, such as John M.
Gray and Eric Preston’s mordant anti-war musical Billy Bishop Goes to War (1984) and two runs of Shel Silverstein’s expressionist The Crate
(1985 and 1987), which Sayles would like to produce a third time. For a
while in 1992 and 1993 it looked as though MGR was about to expand
year-round with niche market shows to appear in a 100-seat theater in
the converted Stevens department store on the Dill Street side of the
State Street Mall. Despite a $4,000 feasibility study, that venture
came to naught, but the impulse behind it is still discernible.
Observing the staying power of the
American musical on the MGR boards for 27 years has taught Sayles other
lessons on the unique appeal of what can and cannot be done on the live
stage. “It may be,” he muses, “that the non-musical really finds a
better venue on television and in the movies.”
In person Sayles still retains the upper
bohemian informality of the scruffy little theater, even as he presides
over 35 yearlong employees, a number that swells to 110 in the summer
months. In his battered, maroon Mazda he tools between the three MGR
properties: the Preston H. Thomas Theatre; the green warehouse-like
workshop across the road for building sets; and the executive offices
above the stone, gothic Westminster Presbyterian Church on William
Street in downtown Auburn. Ever youthful in a baseball cap, which he
wears at lunch, Sayles has a relaxed executive style that would make
the Ben & Jerry’s people look like martinets.
Yet there is no aspect of the entire
operation that he’s not keeping track of. He knows every one of the 65
pins on the map of New York that mark a district where the Youth
Theatre Program will appear. Meeting with set designer Michael Hottois,
he examines paint colors on the set and the angles of the nails. Two
upstairs chapels at Westminster serve as rehearsal halls where he can
observe the dancers and singers, separately.
The relative value of doing hundreds of
different shows is constantly on his mind, their aesthetic worth as
well as the demands of producing them. What does he think about
reviving Leonard Bernstein’s little-seen Wonderful Town, a
current attraction at the Shaw Festival of Ontario, Canada’s
Niagara-on-the-Lake? “Nah,” he mutters. “Wouldn’t touch it.”
Ever-sensitive to changes in the economy, he must also know which truck
in the fleet used to move scenery gets the best gas mileage.
Perhaps the greatest demand on Sayles’ time, and where he really exercises quality
control, is in selecting the entire cast for each summer show. It calls
for at least three months of his labor. Unlike other companies with
generally smaller casts, MGR does not employ a casting agency; Alan
Filderman is the most popular with other companies.
Sayles’ task was easier up until 1993 when MGR ran as a repertory, where an actor hired as one of the fey dancers in, say, A Chorus Line, might appear a few weeks later as a macho Washington Senator in Damn Yankees or a Shark in West Side Story.
While comics or singers might have the range to appear in roles in two
or three successive productions, they have to be right for the roles
before them. The King of Siam’s courtiers look Asian. Fanny Brice’s
fellow vaudevillians sound Jewish.
Wilson as Jean Valjean in a candid moment.
And not just performers. Each production
might call for a completely different artistic staff, especially a
director and choreographer. Some trusted regulars, however, like music
director Corrine Aquilina, costumer Laura Simcox, scenic designer
Michael Hottois, and lighting designers Robert Frame and Solomon
Weisbard, can be on hand much of the season.
Choosing the others is hard work.
Merry-Go-Round now has the advantage of being widely known in the
profession for its high standards and perceived as a good place to
spend the summer. All the same, the hiring cycle has to begin with a
roster of how much talent is needed, followed by national announcements
to Equity in New York City and dozens of universities. From the pool of
Equity players, there are usually 600 submissions, with resumes and
photographs. From the college students, slated for supporting roles and
the chorus, there are 3,000 applicants.
Characteristically frugal with his own
finances, Sayles leaves Auburn at 6:30 a.m., saving the expense of a
Manhattan hotel, and drives to the auditions. In a rigorous day he
might see about 180 performers.
No Place Like Home
Except for the late Thommie Walsh, the Auburn-born star of the original A Chorus Line,
MGR has not yet dealt with recognized stars, although such an
undertaking might lie in the future. Then again, given the current
status of the New York theater vis-a-vis Hollywood, there is some
question what a stage star might be. Soprano Kristin Carbone, who
played Marion the Librarian in The Music Man in July 2006, had appeared in top Broadway musical revivals before she came to Auburn, and joined the ensemble of Mary Poppins as soon as she returned to Gotham. Also that summer, Erik Hayden in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story had extensive credits in touring companies. Both were audience sensations and won Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards the following year.
For all his work running the company as
a producer, Sayles still directs at least two shows each summer. In
2007 they were back-to-back productions of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Thoroughly Modern Millie. The season opener, the megamusical Miss Saigon,
went to New York City-based Brett Smock, a crackerjack choreographer
known for his fearless embrace of risk, who has helmed some of MGR’s
most adventuresome productions. Paul David Bryant brought his own
authority to the Fats Waller revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’.
The chestnut Peter Pan and the area premiere of Millie were a study in contrasts. As many patrons brought their children and grandchildren to Peter Pan,
expecting an affirmation of the familiar, Sayles could still introduce
some fresh approaches. His Captain Hook/Mr. Darling, played by James
Van Treuren, cast aside the cliched vamping villainy and replaced it
with a lighter, laid-back touch.
Millie, on the other hand, had
been only a marginal hit in New York City and was not a show audiences
had been dying to see. Further, it embraces so many diverse lines of
action, like Chinese novelty songs, a love story, comments on the
rigors of office work and quotations from Victor Herbert: It feels like
a vaudeville with all the acts running simultaneously. To pull all
these together Sayles needed his executive powers managing a $3.2
million operation as much as his unfailing aesthetic sense. The many
dance numbers required the services of Jen Turey, who borrowed plenty
from motifs from the 1920s modern dance company Denishawn. Anyone who
saw the Broadway production and then the MGR version knows that the
Turey arrangements were superior.
After nearly 28 years on the job, Sayles
has become one of the best-known people in Auburn, at once an artist
and also a family man. His wife Kathleen, “Kiki,” is a “civilian” who
works as a hospital administrator in Syracuse. Of his three children,
the youngest, Sarah, is still at home. The eldest, Austin, is now a
casting director at Fox Broadcasting, and the middle daughter, Celeste,
recently completed a B.F.A. in theater at Ithaca College. Only Celeste
has appeared on the MGR floorboards, most recently in a supporting role
in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story; as a child she took on the Margaret O’Brien part in Meet Me in St. Louis (1993).
In the words of Tom Woods, who edits the online Central New York Theatre News & Reviews, “Ed
Sayles is a community treasure.” A good way of measuring the depth of
his integration into this community is to note how long it takes him to
get from his parked car to a diner on East Genesee Street in downtown
Auburn. He can barely walk 20 feet without being greeted by smiling
businessmen, matrons or aspiring performers. Trying to get down his
tuna salad and Chardonnay, he faces interruptions at 10- and 15-minute
intervals. Beautiful women invariably greet Sayles with an embrace.
marketing associate Hilary Ford takes guests into a tour of the costume
Sayles’ social skills are not just
decorative. The lengthy list of local contributors at the back of the
MGR program testify to the company’s financial health. A good reason
for his signature toss of the carnation to the audience is in part
necessary because it takes him so long to thank the generous corporate
sponsors. The custom began haphazardly in the early years of his
tenure, when a charity used to sell carnations before the show as a
fund-raiser. Sayles’ thrust can reach more than 15 rows. It’s now such
an expected gesture that a long-stemmed carnation appears on the MGR
The sweetness of box-office success and
community embrace is hardly the end of the story. Sayles is a believer
in the adage that you cannot stay where you are, even when successful.
The two options are shrinkage and decay, or growth and renewal. The
remodeling of the old carousel in 2004 has proven a good investment,
bread upon the waters.
Now what Sayles, state Sen. Michael
Nozzolio and Angela Daddabbo of the Auburn Public Theatre (unrelated to
MGR) really want is a musical theater festival as “destination
theater.” Like Canada’s Shaw and Stratford festivals, it would draw
from hundreds of miles around, with visitors staying from one to three
days. The festival would run from spring to fall at a sequence of
venues in Auburn, including MGR, Daddabbo’s small Public Theatre and a
remodeled Schine Theater with 1,000 seats. Smaller sites in town would
allow Sayles to experiment with edgy or brand-new shows. In all, Auburn
would have more than 2,000 seats as opposed to the 1,511 of
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, which annually draws more than
As a Rust Belt town in the Northeast,
Auburn suffers from some of the same image problems that plague other
upstate burgs, made worse by the nickname “Prison City.” But Stratford,
Ontario, in the early 1950s was a failed railroad town that would make
contemporary Auburn look like a beauty spot. And then there’s the other
half of MGR’s motto, not just Broadway, but “in the Finger Lakes.” The
increased cost of gasoline means that the tens of millions of people
living within 150 miles of the Finger Lakes should be preferring the
nearby to the interstate long hauls like Branson or Yellowstone.
Time for Ed Sayles to keep a good stock of long-stemmed carnations.
Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s summer schedule continues with Les Miserables (July 9-12, 14-18); the regional premiere of The Producers (July 23-26, 28-31; Aug. 1, 2, 4-9, 11-15); the Roger Corman black-comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors (Aug. 20-23, 25-30; Sept. 1-6); and the new musical comedy Church Basement Ladies (Sept. 10-13, 16-21, 23-27). Performances
are Mondays through Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.
There are also 2 p.m. matinees July 8, 9, 15, 16, 25, 26, 29, 30; Aug.
5, 6, 11-13, 22, 23, 26, 27 and Sept. 3, 4, 12, 13, 17, 21, 23-25, 27.
Adult tickets are $32 to $38; seniors, $29 to $35; under 18, $24 to
$30. Don’t forget the $2 parking fee at Emerson Park, located on Route
38A, Auburn. For information, call 255-1785 or (800) 457-8897, or visit