Goodspeed Opera House Connecticut’s Cultural Treasures
The Goodspeed Opera House was built in 1876 by William Goodspeed for his shipping and banking business and to provide a venue for his love of theatre. The opera house opened on October 24, 1877, with the comedy Charles II and the farces Box And Cox and Turn Him Out. After Goodspeed’s death, the opera house went from serving as a militia base during World War I to a general store to a storage depot for the State of Connecticut Highway Department. In 1959, Goodspeed Musicals restored the building, and the Goodspeed Opera House was rededicated on June 18, 1963, with the opening of the musical Oh, Lady! Lady!., Connecticut’s Cultural Treasures is a new series of 50 five-minute vignettes that profiles a variety of the state’s most notable cultural resources. Goodspeed Musicals http://www.goodspeed.org/
Goodspeed Musicals, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and advancement of musical theater and the creation of new works, was formed in 1959 to restore the Goodspeed Opera House, located in East Haddam, Connecticut, to its original Victorian appearance. Each year, Goodspeed produces a total of 6 professional musicals. The Goodspeed reopened in 1963 and, under the direction of Michael P. Price since 1968, has sent 19 productions to Broadway. Goodspeed productions have won more than a dozen Tony Awards, while Goodspeed Musicals itself has won two special Tonys, one for outstanding contributions to American Musicals and the other for outstanding achievement by a regional theatre.
A distinctive feature of the view from the Connecticut River, the Goodspeed Opera House is the birthplace of some the world’s most famous musicals, including Annie, Man of La Mancha and Shenandoah. The opera house was originally built by a local merchant and banker, William Goodspeed. Construction began in 1876 and finished in 1877. Despite the name, it was not in fact an opera house, but rather a venue for presenting plays. Its first play,Charles II, opened on October 24, 1877. After William Goodspeed’s death, the opera house fell into disrepair, facing a series of less glamorous uses—from a militia base during World War I to a general store and a Department of Transportation storage facility. The state of Connecticut had condemned the building by the time a group of concerned citizens formed Goodspeed Musicals in 1959 to attempt a restoration. The state of Connecticut agreed to sell the building to the group for one dollar, provided they acquire enough funding to restore and maintain it. The restoration project took nearly four years and the Goodspeed Opera House was rededicated on June 8, 1963. The first performance in the new opera house was Oh, Lady! Lady!.
The building is quite unique for a theater. The theater itself is actually located on the top two floors of the building making for interesting and sometimes difficult scenery and show load-ins. Scenery is loaded-in from the dock area up a vacant elevator shaft that is now outfitted with a winch system to haul the scenery up to the stage level. Much care has to be taken in order to get the scenery up the shaft without scratching or ruining the scenery. One story told around Goodspeed is that while loading in the scenery for Annie’s original pre-Broadway run at Goodspeed is that a strong gust of wind took a large piece of scenery out of the hands of the loaders and blew it into the Connecticut River.
In 1984, Goodspeed Musicals added a second performance venue—the Norma Terris Theatre–in nearby Chester, Connecticut. While the main stage presents a mixture of revivals and new musicals as part of its 3 production season, The Norma Terris also presents three new musicals each season. Several original plays debuted here or at the opera house before going on to Broadway and winning Tony Awards.
In addition to the two theaters, Goodspeed Musicals pursues its mission through the Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre, which offers internships and new writers’ residency programs, as well as the Scherer Library of Musical Theatre, which houses the largest musical theatre research facility in the United States. Goodspeed Musicals has also built state-of-the-art production facilities including scenery shops, costume shops and a large costume storage facility.
Critic fellows from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT., travel to the Goodspeed each summer to practice reviewing full productions.
Tours of many of the Goodspeed facilities can be scheduled in advance for a small fee. Tickets to the opera house or theatre productions should be ordered in advance as most performances in the relatively small theater sell-out quickly.