Mac-Haydn Theatre celebrates 50 years of musicals

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When writer Linda MacNish and actor Lynne Haydn met at N.Y.C.'s Barbizon Hotel for Women, little did they imagine their friendship and creative collaboration would bring 50 years of smiles to upstate musical theater lovers, and launch countless actors on professional careers.

This year, the Mac-Haydn Theatre they founded in Chatham, N.Y., celebrates 50 seasons of all-musicals summer stock. Now playing is "Damn Yankees," a high-energy baseball-themed classic that promises, once again, that "whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."

Audiences sits up close on four sides of the compact low stage, wooden rafters dripping with lights and six-piece band tucked away in its booth. Under John Saunders' direction, the ensemble fills the stage with song and dance tightly choreographed by Bryan Knowlton.

In 1969, MacNish and Haydn wanted to create summer work for their theatrical friends. They set up shop in a cow barn at county fairgrounds near MacNish's country home and staged an ambitious season of 8 plays in 8 weeks. The theater moved a short distance to its current air-conditioned location in 1978, a former factory refitted with 350 plush seats donated by local Crandell movie theater.

MacNish passed away in 2002, and Haydn continued alone. A decade later she entrusted her beloved theater to artistic director Saunders, company actor since 2000, knowing his leadership and passion would keep music playing and spotlights shining for years to come. Saunders was happy to relocate from N.Y.C.; "I love it up here," he said.

Company manager and associate producer Monica Wemitt — she performed the title role in "Hello, Dolly!" last year and will play Miss Hannigan in "Annie" this season — grew up across the street from Mac-Haydn, and began performing there in 1973. She went on to a successful theatrical career, touring internationally with Liza Minelli and stepping in for Carol Channing on Broadway. But she never forgot her small town roots, returning to Mac-Haydn year after year.

It's one of the few remaining true summer stock theaters, Wemitt explained, with seven shows each season and a new musical every two weeks. The earlier format of eight weekly shows "was rough," she recalled. "They had all the leads covered [by professionals], and whoever wandered in off the street, locally, could be in the show."

Nowadays, a core company of trained young actors aged 18 to 26 supports the principal performers, who are cast for each show. Nathan Lane is the most famous alum. The "kids" are very focused, and not just in it for glory or money, Wemitt said. "They want the credits and to do the work."

They must be able to sing, dance and act well, Saunders added — there's nowhere to hide on a small stage. They live together in company housing and help out backstage. And they need a solid foundation of skills to handle 17 weeks of non-stop singing and dancing, with long hours rehearsing and sometimes three shows a day followed by post-show coffeehouse cabarets Fridays and Saturdays.

There's no shortage of takers. This year's New York City auditions attracted 1,000, and they also recruit at colleges and locally. With 50 to 60 performers, a professional crew and dozens of community volunteers each summer, the 110-member company becomes a family, said Saunders, one that area business owners eagerly look forward to arriving.

Saunders prides the Mac-Haydn on appealing to audiences of all ages and encouraging new generations of theatergoers. After decades presenting only musical standards such as "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," since taking over Saunders has introduced newer titles including this season's much-requested "Mamma Mia!"

"The contemporary shows act as a bridge to the classics," he said — they attract baby boomers and younger audiences who return time and again to enjoy the shared, live experience. "On any night you can see [from] a 9 year old to an 85 year old."

This summer, the popular three-production children's theater series on Friday and Saturday mornings will premiere "Wendy's Shadow," a new musical by company music director David Maglione set in Neverland.

Once the season ends each fall, as well-wrought Mac-Haydn costumes travel across the U.S. and to countries like Israel and Denmark, Saunders and Wemitt begin their journey toward next summer. "There truly is something magical about this place," Wemitt said.

Mac-Hadyn shows no signs of slowing down.

"Summer theater is such a tradition," said Saunders. "It's unpretentious and so much fun."

Postscript: At 79 years of age, founder Lynne Haydn passed away just days before opening night. A video tribute and post-opening gala party provided a fitting send-off to her 50 seasons of summer smiles.


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