BRUNSWICK — The grass still damp below their feet, an all-ages crowd finally let themselves loose after a half hour of heavy rain, singing and dancing on the Brunswick Mall to Broadway standards performed live.

Maine State Music Theatre’s Diamond Jubilee Aug. 13 was a celebration 60 years in the making, and a way for the professional, nonprofit theater company to show its gratitude to the community for its support over the decades.

“It was a great celebration of Broadway, but more importantly, it was a celebration of the hard work MSMT has put in over the last 60 years,” said Jane Overton, a seasonal Midcoast resident who has seen about 20 performances at Maine State.

More than a dozen performers — including interns who had to rush to the Pickard Theater following their final group number for that evening’s production of “Singin’ in the Rain” — sung numbers from shows such as “Guys and Dolls,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Les Miserables.”

“Nowhere else in the country could young people be seen in lead roles,” said Caleb James Grochalski, a musical theater student at Syracuse University, speaking to the audience.

Birdie Newman Katz, who started with Maine State 20 years ago, credited the company’s current artistic director, Curt Dale Clark, for delving into the community like no other director before.

“The community is literally seeing Broadway stars in all these shows,” Newman Katz said. “The quality is so, so good.”

Clark and the company has spent the summer celebrating and reflecting on six decades of performances and productions in front of more than a million people. He said it’s been a roller coaster of emotions as returning performers come back to visit and take part in several celebrations in Brunswick.

SIX DECADES OF THEATER
Maine State Music Theatre was founded as the Brunswick Summer Playhouse by Victoria Crandall, a former concert pianist. The Cleveland native and Eastern School of Music graduate worked as a rehearsal pianist, working with performers such as Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante, according to her 1990 obituary by the Associated Press.

Crandall would stage 186 productions over 30 years reaching a total audience of 1.5 million.

In 1967 the company changed its name to Brunswick Music Theatre.

Since the 1970s, the organization has operated as a nonprofit, having expanded its mission to educate young people in the theater arts. Marketing and Communications Director Carol Marquis attributed the theater’s success in more recent years to running the organization as a tight ship. “We clearly are a nonprofit — that’s how we run our business, but we think of it in the mindset of a for-profit business,” Marquis said. “We want to succeed, and the status quo isn’t good enough for us.”

Marking its 30th anniversary in 1988, then-Gov. John McKernan presented an award to Crandall marking the occasion. In that year, the company’s name changed again to Maine State Music Theatre.

Things would change again in 2013 when Clark, then-consulting artistic director, had the “consultant” part of his title cut while Stephanie Dupal, a Lisbon native, was named managing director by the theater’s board.

Clark is often the voice of Maine State, and that voice is very passionate about musical theater and its place in the Midcoast.

“I can’t imagine this place without MSMT,” he said with authority.

As tastes in theater have evolved over the past 60 years, so too has Maine State Music Theatre.

“In the early days of Vicki Crandall’s Brunswick Summer Playhouse — and indeed the very first production, ‘Song Of Norway’ — Operettas still sufficed as options for the summer season,” Clark said in an email to The Times Record earlier this year. “Sadly, operettas are all but dead for venues like MSMT where budgets have ballooned past the point that operettas can produce enough ticket sales to meet the sales goals.

“In addition, today’s audiences are used to fully realized sets and costumes as well as full scale musical theatre orchestras — all of that is very expensive,” Clark continued. “Finally, our full company of actors, technicians, administrators and musicians is more than three times the size it was under Vicki.”

With that growth comes a crunch for space for the myriad people who work on stage and behind the scenes who come to the Brunswick area from across the United States every summer to be part of Maine State Music Theatre.

As a result, the theater has left a physical mark on the downtown, having purchased and renovated buildings such as its offices and workshops on Elm Street across from Hannaford, as well as summer housing on Cedar Street for performers.

Last year, Maine State purchased a Noble Street house that had been vacant for six years and had fallen into disrepair. An intensive renovation will mean members of Maine State’s technical staff will have a place to live during the season — right across from Pickard Theater.

The MSMT connection to Bowdoin College and the Brunswick community has been strong for six decades, and Clark sees nothing that could keep that from continuing.

Matthew Orlando, Bowdoin College’s senior vice president for finance and administration and treasurer, offered congratulations to MSMT on its milestone and said the college is happy to be a small part of the MSMT history.

“As a member of the Brunswick and greater Midcoast communities and as an institution whose mission includes the teaching of the humanities and performing arts, we’re delighted that Pickard Theater has served as a destination for the tens of thousands of patrons who flock to town from near and far for the wonderful performances staged year after year by the Maine State Music Theater,” Orlando said in an email.

LOOKING AHEAD
Now that the season is wrapping up, Clark and his team will begin shaping how the company will look in the next several decades.

Clark said one of his biggest challenges for the next few years is finding a secondary stage for the company — the theater’s main stage is the Pickard Theater at Bowdoin College. However, the tourist market is strong and Maine State tickets are in high enough demand to warrant expanded programming.

“We’re basically sold out all summer, and we need something to do performances in the shoulder season, smaller shows different than the ones we do (at Pickard Theater),” Clark said. “A 250-seat space would be great.”

In addition to its Main Stage productions at Pickard, there were a number of performances during Maine State’s 60th season ranging from a performance of “Cinderella” for young audiences to its Monday performance series. 

The theater company had 9,455 subscribers this season, Clark said, and the company will perform in front of more than 65,000 people this year, so getting people to spend money to see a show isn’t a problem. But getting money to support the theater outside of its regular season can be a challenge.

MSMT does a select number of performances each year and sells a finite number of tickets, and Clark said without a second space to raise additional revenue, the only way to expand the company is to beg for money.

“We need to find ways to earn what we need so I don’t have to mess with constant begging,” Clark said. “In an area like this, it’s hard.”

Despite the challenges Maine State faces, Clark said he has no doubt the company will be around for another 60 years.

“It’s too important to this community,” he said.

Maine State Music Theatre’s 60th season caps off in September with another partnership with Portland Stage in a production of the musical comedy “Nunsense” in Portland. Visit msmt.org for more information.

Times Record Executive Editor John Swinconeck contributed to this story.

[email protected]