Music Theater Heritage: A 20th Anniversary Reinvention

Performers in the Ruby Room at Music Theater Heritage, from left: Ron Lackey, Courtney Germany, Misha Roberts, Nate McClendon, Ayana Tribitt, Kadesh Flow, Douglass Walker and Darrell Mayberry. (photo by Jim Barcus)

The new season includes musical theater classics, re-envisioned with creative departures from the norm.

With a revised name and expanded focus, the Kansas City theater celebrates its 20th anniversary with a full slate of productions and a new Ruby Room performance space

A good story is worth repeating: The company now known as Music Theater Heritage began life 20 years ago with a live radio show broadcast from a Belger Cartage loading dock in downtown Kansas City.

Envisioned as a way to promote founder George Harter’s long-running radio show, “A Night on the Town,” the nonprofit theater company has grown and established itself as a place to enjoy the music of classic Broadway shows. For several years, shows were staged as concerts that included theatrical elements, but which weren’t quite full productions. MTH has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic through persistence and innovation and has now prepared a season to mark two decades of existence.

“You know, it’s unlike any other year for several reasons,” said Tim Scott, the company’s executive artistic director. “First, it’s our 20th anniversary. But, of course, you’re also trying to plan for the unexpected because of the coronavirus.”

Like any proud artistic director, Scott is not above indulging in some justified bragging. In a press release late last year, he ticked off the company’s success in fighting through the pandemic. Let the record show: MTH was the first professional theater to produce a live show in 2021 with its rooftop production of “Music of the Night.” Since April of last year, MTH has produced 14 live productions and served nearly 500 students through education initiatives; in 2021, nearly 40,000 theatergoers saw shows at Crown Center; and the company began the year with three employees but now has close to 30.

In addition to staging a few shows on the Crown Center roof, the company also pivoted to concerts performed for video and made available to audiences virtually. Scott, who shot and edited the performances, delivered high-quality revues that would not have looked out of place on public television.

In all, the company chalked up 14 live productions in 2021.

“We did ‘Hair’ and ‘Camelot’ through the Delta variant,” Scott said. “With ‘Hair,’ half the singers were in masks.”

The new season includes musical theater classics, re-envisioned with creative departures from the norm.

Tim Scott, executive artistic director, Music Theater Heritage (photo by Sophia Napoli)

The Season:

“STEVIE: signed, sealed, delivered” is scheduled to run March 24 through April 10. The production celebrates the music of Stevie Wonder and will be staged in collaboration with 2 Proud 2 Beg, bandleader Ron Lackey’s Motown ensemble.

“Song & Dance,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rarely produced two-act musical, will run May 12-29. Half the show is told in song, the other in dance. The arrangements call for a rock band and a cellist. Webber wrote the dance portion of the show for his brother, cellist Julian Webber. This will be a regional premiere.

“Titanic,” June 16-July 3. The Broadway production of this show, with lyrics and music by Maury Yeston and an accompanying book about the musical by Peter Stone, was a massive physical production with a huge cast and a full orchestra. The MTH version by necessity takes a different route with a twist: The music will be performed by a small ensemble on instruments musicians played on the doomed Titanic — a string quartet and a grand piano.

“Cabaret,” Aug. 11-28. The Kander and Ebb classic about decadent Berlin and the rise of Nazism before World War II will be staged with cabaret tables and stools arranged closer to the stage than the regular audience seating. “Those seated in that area will get a slightly more immersive experience than those seated in the theater seats,” Scott said.

“Man of La Mancha,” Oct. 6-23. This 1965 musical by composer Mitch Leigh, playwright Dale Wasserman and lyricist Joe Darion, is adapted from the classic 17th-century novel “Don Quixote.” Scott said the show would be produced in collaboration with the Kansas City-based Ensemble Ibérica, which performs music from Spain and Portugal. The idea, Scott said, was to adapt the score in a way that gives it a bit more of an authentic Spanish feel.

“A Spectacular Christmas Show,’’ an original revue and an annual tradition at MTH, Dec. 8-23.

“Titanic” and “Cabaret” will be performed in the Grand Theatre (formerly the American Heartland Theatre). The other productions will be in the traditional MTH space on the third floor of Crown Center.

In addition, MTH will offer what they are billing as the Ruby Room series in a revamped performance space just off the main lobby. The shows are focused on artists who have made an important contribution to American culture, including Sonny & Cher and other pop singers from the 1960s: jazz artists Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Louis Prima; Nina Simone, Sam Cook and Otis Redding; the Beatles; beat-generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as well as bebop and cool jazz artists; and songwriters Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.

Although a casual observer might not notice, the theater company’s name is in its third incarnation. What began life as Musical Theater Heritage became simply MTH. Now “musical” has been replaced with simply “music” — Music Theater Heritage. It’s a small change but infers a broader definition of music.

From Radio Roots to Live Performances

George Harter said he formed Musical Theater Heritage mainly to fund his radio show, which originally ran for several years on KXTR and later on Kansas Public Radio. The show was eventually carried on a number of stations across the country. He said he and tenor Nathan Granner approached funders about underwriting the show.

“I formed MTH solely to fund the radio show,” Harter said. “As I went around looking for funding, the local grantors weren’t particularly interested in funding something that was going out of town. So Nathan and I decided we needed a local mission and started a (live) series.”

At the Belger, the group performed a series of shows — “Carousel” (which marked Tim Scott’s first appearance in an MTH show), “On the Town,” “Brigadoon,” “Guys and Dolls” and “The Fantasticks,” among others. Eventually, Belger needed the loading dock space to prepare its Belger Arts Center, so Harter began looking for other venues.

Before long, MTH was performing live shows at what was then called the Off Center Theater (a former movie multiplex) on the third floor of Crown Center. Eventually, Harter said, MTH became the most frequent user of the space, which led Crown Center to offer them a deal as the full-time tenant.

“They gave us an outstanding deal on rent,” Harter said. Many of the concert productions were directed by Sarah Crawford, and some of those were particularly memorable — an effective all-female staging of “1776” and a committed performance of “Big River,” the show based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Chad Gerlt joined the team early on. He had returned from Los Angeles, where he moved with the idea of becoming a voice-over artist. “I wanted to do cartoons and video games,” he said. But he got by as a singing waiter at a Macaroni Grill in
Thousand Oaks.

“I missed my family and I wanted to buy a house,” Gerlt said. “I never could have bought a house in L.A.”

Gerlt retired from MTH a few months ago to pursue a career in real estate. But he was proud to be part of the team that grew the audience and made MTH a success. Now and then Gerlt performed on stage.

“COVID obviously changed a lot of things,” Gerlt said. “It didn’t kill us, and I promise you it won’t kill us. But it changed the dynamic down there.”

The radio show was retired in 2015. The rise of online streaming services — Spotify, et. al — made all the music Harter had broadcast through the years instantly available. A few stations around the country continued broadcasting reruns of the show.

These days Harter directs his energies to the theater trips he organizes for fans and groups to go to New York and take in Broadway shows.

But the theater’s original mission, he said, was a direct outgrowth of the radio show.

“It was about appreciation of American musical theater,” he said. “People realized that rock-and-roll and jazz were unique American art forms, but nobody was thinking of the American songbook and musical theater as an original American art form.”

For more information about the Music Theater Heritage season, visit www.mthkc.org.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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  2. It was SUCH a good time setting up MTH.One of my knacks is assessing a project like a commission. Taking in all the details and then my mind comes up with some fantastic idea. The work to make it happen takes a lot longer of course. I’d taken George to an Italian restaurant in NYC that did opera 3 nights a week. I made this thing called Night of Song in Kansas City and licensed the idea to Lyric Opera of Kansas City. George and I worked together to grow Night of Song and then asked me to be his Artistic Director as he wanted to make a live theater organization.

    We had FANTASTIC talent in KC who weren’t getting hired; some more mature folks with rich voices, who were getting overlooked in the market. With little funding to do slam-bang Broadway hits, I came upon the idea to translate George’s Radio show into a Live radio broadcast.

    Indeed, we DID do a number of productions as live broadcasts on KXTR. There was more vision than we could keep up with. We were supposed to have an audio wing too, that would have recorded all of our performers and performances, allowing George to play fresh new Broadway hits (sung by Kansas City stars) onto his internationally syndicated show. How killer would that have been, to have our artists lighting up the dials, and honestly to make their way to NY, with a larger calling card than just a suitcase!? Regrets.

    The choice to leave was huge for me. I was spending half of my time trying to keep my singing career going, and half my time heading MTH and making not enough money at either. I figured the better investment was the singing. I brought in a new Artistic Director Amy Coady and gracefully bowed out.

    It’s been a blast to see the company grow into what it is today and I am so proud of the work George, Chad, Tim and the rest of the dedicated producers on staff did there. I’m happy to see that the funding is there for the organization to literally put on it’s big-boy pants (aka costumes) and high-kick into the next 20.

    I’ve really liked the way Tim handled the social and regular marketing of MTH and I truly wish him the best. MTH is still “My Little Girl” and I hope “her” life is well parented and nurtured like it should be.

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