In 1974, the Lyric Theatre Company performed its debut show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on the stage of the Flynn Theatre, as it was then called. In those days, the building was an underused and deteriorating movie house, with a crumbling basement and no septic system. "But even though it was in wrack and ruin it was still this gorgeous, big theater," remembers Syndi Zook, Lyric's executive director. "We thought, Someone should be using this for live theater."
Lyric brought in portable restrooms to compensate for the lack of bathrooms, and parked trailers outside to use as dressing rooms. The company may have been roughing it, but they were also laying the groundwork for the emergence of two Burlington theater powerhouses.
"When we first started Lyric Theatre Company, there were not that many alternatives for entertainment in the community," says Zook. "We've always had really great audiences. People have always clamored to see big Broadway shows."
Over the years, Lyric has delivered 85 such productions, including The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, Peter Pan and Hairspray. The company is capping its 40th anniversary season with its largest show to date: Les Misérables, which will be performed over two weekends on the Flynn MainStage beginning on Friday, April 4. Meanwhile, Lyric is nearing its goal of buying itself a permanent home for rehearsals and administration.
At rehearsal last week, dozens of actors ran to and fro across a makeshift stage in Lyric's rented space in South Burlington. The production is clearly a family affair: The youngest of the actors is 10, the oldest 58. Onstage, actors were singing, dancing and practicing their faux fighting. More activity was taking place offstage, as parents, kids and couples chatted, caught up on work or watched the rehearsal.
"It's a really great experience, just seeing a show come together," said Amelia Mason, 11, cast in the role of young Cosette. She was on break from rehearsing her scenes and sat with her mom, Rebecca Raskin, a member of the ensemble. The pair first encountered Lyric Theatre in 2008, when Raskin took her daughters to see Beauty and the Beast. "I was just so excited that such good community theater was taking place right here," Raskin said.
Getting the licensing for Les Misérables is a major coup for Lyric, according to the show's artistic director, Kelly Kendall. "Lyric has wanted to do Les Mis for 10 years," she said. "But the rights had not been available to community theater organizations until very recently."
Kendall strode back and forth across a tabletop during rehearsal and cheered loudly when her cast hit the right notes in the show's ambitious score. She called the Lyric experience "a labor of love."
Video courtesy of Lyric Theatre Company
"We learn from each other, and we feel like we're making something beautiful, and it's not about us — it's about this thing we're making," she said. "And especially for this production, because there's something about Les Misérables that's like a train. You can kind of give it the right structure and foundation and teach everybody, and then — it's its own thing."
"We don't run for two weekends unless we're confident we can sell out those seats," added her husband, Steve Kendall, the show's producer and a self-described "Lyric brat." His parents worked on Lyric shows in the 1970s and brought him to the set.
"But this is an epic show," Kendall went on. "It's an epic show for an epic company."
It's never easy to sell out a nine-show run in Vermont. And it's especially daunting to try to sell nine shows at the Flynn's 1,411-seat MainStage, the largest venue in the state. Yet Lyric has been staging its musicals at the Flynn since the company's inception. Eighty-two of its 85 shows have happened on that stage, though the company rehearses, choreographs and designs its sets and costumes in rented spaces across Chittenden County in the months leading up to the performance.
"We're tied at the hip!" says Andrea Rogers about Lyric. Rogers was hired as project director for the Flynn Theatre for the Performing Arts at its launch in 1980. (In 2000, the nonprofit's name was changed to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.) In 1983, she became the executive director, a position she held until 2010.
Back when the boiler room was caving in and the Flynn was largely unused, Lyric Theatre Company was the first to employ it as a performance space. "They did give birth to the Flynn in that sense," Rogers notes in a phone conversation.
Eight friends cooked up the concept of Lyric Theatre in the living room of Howard Delano in 1974. It was, according to company lore, "a cold winter night" when they decided to form a community theater company with a simple goal: to "bring high-level theater to the area that volunteers can participate in," according to Zook.
Founding members of Lyric approached the then-owner of the Flynn, local movie-theater magnate Merrill Jarvis, and asked to use the space for their newly conceived company. (By the time How to Succeed was performed, the number of participants had jumped from eight to more than 100.) Jarvis gave them the go-ahead, and Lyric began performing twice-yearly musicals in the space.
Conditions at the Flynn weren't ideal. "You had to walk down to the lower levels on planks across the mud," Kelly Kendall recalled at the Les Mis rehearsal last week. She first performed with Lyric as a high school junior in 1979. "It was so exciting," she said. "It was so incredibly thrilling."
"It was really remarkable," notes Rogers, "that Lyric, all those years from the early '70s to the 1980s, still put on two wonderful shows [per year] with full casts."
In 1980, Lyric spearheaded a fundraising campaign to buy the Flynn, initially sharing its board of directors with a new nonprofit formed to manage the venue. Over time, however, the Flynn developed its own board and purchased the building. The goal was never for Lyric to own the theater, both Rogers and Zook say.
"It takes millions of dollars a year to keep up that building," Zook notes. "It's a treasure. And that's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to make shows."
Over the years, Rogers and her staff and board implemented a restoration of the art-deco theater, added spaces and brought in state-of-the-art improvements. Lyric continued to hold its biannual musicals on the Flynn MainStage and adapted to the changes.
"Of course, as the Flynn has with each capital campaign, improved its' conditions and brought in bigger-name acts, Lyric has had to grow and improve our product," Zook says. "The audiences have become more sophisticated. They want a good show, they want a pretty show and they want a professional-looking show."
The company stepped up its game backstage as well as onstage. Lyric's volunteers, who run lights and sound during productions, have kept up with those technologies as they advance. Zook says Lyric attracts more highly skilled costume, prop and set designers than many community theaters, because those volunteers leap at the rare opportunity to outfit a space like the Flynn's.
Many of Lyric's hundreds of volunteers never step onstage. They are painters, builders, light technicians, dramaturges and seamstresses. The company also welcomes volunteers without such skills to join up and learn them, apprentice style, from current members.
"There's a lot of institutional history," Zook says. "I always say, 'Lyric Theatre is one of the best jobs-training programs you can have' ... We are constantly having this amazing transfer of knowledge between older people and younger people."
One of the most experienced volunteers is Connie Kite, 78. On a recent afternoon in the props workshop in a warehouse space in Williston, Kite was at work on a stunningly real-looking platter of food. When Zook arrived with a reporter, Kite excitedly showed off her newest prop acquisition. It was a stack of antique record books from an Addison County courthouse, circa 1870 — roughly the right period for Les Mis. Kite said she wants the actors to hold the most authentic props possible; after the show, she'll donate the books to a local historical society.
Kite has been working in Lyric's props studio for more than 30 years. "When I first came here, I knew nothing," she said. "Now I'm teaching everyone else. I was cutting paper leaves out when I got here; that was my level of skill."
Along with designers and technicians, Lyric has birthed several Broadway stars. Some of the company's alumni have gone on to perform in shows such as Mamma Mia! and Legally Blonde.
Lyric's most recent alum-turned-Broadway-starlet is Liana Hunt, who picked up the leading role of Katherine Plumber in Disney's Newsies last year.
"Lyric is pretty much where it all began for me, in my journey in musical theater," says Hunt, 26, in a phone call from New York. "It all started there."
The Morrisville native first encountered Lyric at age 10, when she auditioned for Annie. "I remember sitting in the audition with, like, hundreds of kids from all over Vermont," she recalls. "I was cast in that, as an understudy for Annie and as one of the orphans. It was the biggest deal ever for me at the time. It changed my life."
Hunt went on to play a newsboy in Lyric's Gypsy and Sandy in Grease. She got her MFA from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, graduating from a musical theater program whose notable alumni include Anne Hathaway, Kristen Bell and Lady Gaga.
Hunt's ties with Lyric also followed her to the city.
"My best friend from Vermont was in all three [Lyric] productions with me, and we ended up rooming together in college," she says. "So that was another thing: Not only did I get a pretty amazing theatrical experience, I also met some of my closest friends. It's like all the theater people in Vermont found each other through Lyric and bonded."
If Les Mis is Lyric's biggest production, "big" might also be the best adjective to describe the company itself. Lyric's ranks of volunteers have swelled to more than 400, making it the largest community theater company in New England and the second largest in the country. Its production budgets have grown from $15,000, for How to Succeed, to more than $100,000 per show in recent years. (The budget for Les Mis is over $200,000.) The cast of a Lyric musical generally numbers several dozen actors and singers.
How does a volunteer community theater group create such large-scale productions, year after year, without falling into a deep financial hole? If you ask the staff, they'll say Lyric survives on good planning and staying within budget, relying entirely on volunteers, donations and ticket sales.
Of course, none of those elements would suffice if Lyric couldn't deliver the goods. But it can, and does.
"They're an amazing organization, the scale and capacity of it," Rogers says. "Part of it was that they had a great stage and they've risen to it, but they've been great from the beginning. They always brought their talent from all over the region to put on that stage."
Ticket sales — which add up quickly at 20 bucks or more a head, given the Flynn's capacious house — cover 70 percent of Lyric's $450,000 annual operating budget, according to Zook. Donations add another 20 percent, and the remaining 10 percent comes from grants.
Zook adds that the company has seen an upswing in prospective volunteers over the past decade — Lyric has had to turn away dozens of willing participants.
In fact, the organization has grown so much that it's making a concerted effort to buy a home of its own for offices, storage and rehearsal space. Lyric is in the midst of a major capital campaign to finance the $1.4 million purchase of the building it currently rents in South Burlington.
The staff hopes to make the purchase by October 2014, just before Lyric's November performance of The Producers. With $737,000 raised, they're more than halfway there.
Meanwhile, Kendall and her legion of actors will move into the Flynn this week to make the most of their last few days before the curtain rises on Les Mis.
"Because so many people know the show, I've been pushing [the Lyric actors] to be really genuine and authentic," Kendall said at the rehearsal. "The music is so powerful that it's easy to tip into melodrama. And I don't think we will. I think people are genuinely owning it."