Bethlehem Press

Tuesday, June 2, 2020
CONTRIBUTED PHOTOCharles Richter, co-founder, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre Copyright - KENNETH EK CONTRIBUTED PHOTOCharles Richter, co-founder, Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre Copyright - KENNETH EK
PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINMuhlenberg College’s Baker Center for the Arts, left, and Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, right, where Muhllenberg Summer Music Theatre is presented. Copyright - KENNETH EK PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEINMuhlenberg College’s Baker Center for the Arts, left, and Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, right, where Muhllenberg Summer Music Theatre is presented. Copyright - KENNETH EK

Coronavirus closings: Muhlenberg College cancels summer theater

Friday, March 27, 2020 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

Charles Richter won’t be around this summer to celebrate his 40th anniversary as cofounder of Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre.

That’s because there will be no Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre (MSMT) this summer.

“I pulled the plug on Tuesday [March 17] because I think now people are beginning to realize that this [Coronavirus pandemic] is a long haul,” said Richter, MSMT Artistic Director.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 16 order for nonessential businesses in the Commonwealth to close and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit social gatherings to no more than 10 persons for 15 days as of March 16 were implemented to mitigate community spread (transmission) of the Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Sports arenas, concert venues, movie theaters, shopping malls, state stores and more closed. Restaurants can offer take-out only.

Persons are urged to keep their distance from one another, known as social distancing, and avoid crowds.

“I think we’re just at the beginning of this crisis,” said Richter.

“Our activity [MSMT] requires putting together large crowds of people,” continued Richter in a March 19 phone interview with The Press. “I just don’t think that even this summer, the idea of putting theater productions together with large audiences is going to be possible.”

MSMT attracts more than 11,000 and employs more than 150 artists, technicians and administrators each summer on Muhlenberg College’s West End Allentown campus.

A March 19 press release from Scott Snyder, Marketing Manager, Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre & Dance, which produces MSMT, announced the 40th season is postponed until summer 2021.

The summer 2020 season, June 11 - July 26, was to be: “Legally Blonde,” the world premiere of “The Legend of New York,” and a new all-ages circus musical, “The Comedy of Wizards.”

“This would have been the 40th season,” Snyder said in a March 18 phone interview with The Press, noting, “And then there’s that mathematical thing where the 40th season would’ve been the 39th anniversary.”

Next summer, the 40th season and 40th anniversary will align. “All of the 40th season celebrations will be postponed until next year,” Snyder said. That includes an alumni cabaret and late-night show-tune karaoke.

The final three productions in Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre & Dance mainstage series were also canceled: “The Bacchae,” March 26 - 29; Fringe Festival, April 4, 5, 17 - 19, and Dance Emerge 2020, April 23 - 25. The Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance Department plans to resume public performances in the fall.

Continued Richter concerning the MSMT season, “This is the time of the year when we’re doing all of our advance preparations.

“And the fact that we’re not there [on campus, as of March 14] would have made planning very difficult,” said Richter, a professor of theater at Muhlenberg, who, as with Snyder and other college employees, is working from home.

Muhlenberg students left campus March 14. Richter is doing online teaching. “The students have been very receptive. Attendance has been excellent,” said Richter.

Auditions were held for the MSMT 2020 season, but casting was not finalized.

“It’s much easier for us to cancel the season now before all of the actors, technicians and backstage crew had committed to us for the summer and before we had spent a lot of money to develop and get ready for the season,” said Snyder.

“We’ve notified everyone who auditioned or applied for a position,” continued Snyder. “We’ve notified the students and faculty in theater and dance.”

Work on costumes, sets and lighting for the MSMT 2020 season was underway. “It had begun. Our designers were already working,” Snyder said.

“We have a lot of professionals from New York who work on the shows,” said Richter. “I didn’t feel I had the right to tie them up only to tell to tell them we weren’t doing it [the 2020 MSMT season].”

Richter was to direct “The Legend of New York” with music by Joshua Salzman, Muhlenberg, Class of 2002, and book and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham. “We had developmental readings,” said Richter.

The musical, set in New York City during the 1977 blackout, has a disco-funk score. “It’s a project that we were very excited about and we’re very heartbroken that we can’t do it at this time,” said Richter.

MSMT commissioned “The Comedy of Wizards” by Christopher Scheer, libretto, and Toby Singer, music.

No decision has been made about the lineup for the 2021 season. Richter hopes to include some or all of the shows selected for 2020, but that depends on whether they are available, and on what else might open up.

Ticket-holders for the 2020 MSMT season will be contacted individually by box office staff.

Said Richter, “This has been an extremely devastating experience for the entire arts community.

“Broadway is dark. There are thousands of theater artists who are out of work all across the country.

“This was a segment of the population that’s very hard-hit, instantly.

“I have all kinds of friends who, as they say, are in the business, who are out of work overnight. No income,” said Richter.

“It’s a crucial time for the arts community in general,” Snyder said. “All times are lean times for the arts community. This time, it’s skin and bones.

“I hope that people who value and appreciate the arts will keep their favorite organizations and museums in mind and help if they can. I would love to see people who were planning to buy a ticket, donate the cost of the ticket to the organization,” said Snyder.

Lehigh Valley region cancellations includes productions by Bucks County Playhouse, Civic Theatre of Allentown, Crowded Kitchen Players, DeSales University Act 1, Global Impactors Group, Lehigh University Theatre Department, Pennsylvania Playhouse, Pines Dinner Theatre, Selkie Theatre, Star of the Day Productions and Touchstone Theatre.

Gov. Wolf ordered schools in Pennsylvania closed March 16-27. On March 23, Wolf extended school closings until April 6, with students to return April 9. High school musical performances entered in the Freddy Awards, presented annually at the State Theatre, were canceled or postponed.

“When we talk about the economic impact of the arts on the Lehigh Valley, the flip side of that is the economic impact when the arts go dark, as well,” Snyder said.

“The Lehigh Valley’s arts community is resilient and dedicated. I’m hopeful and optimistic that a few months down the road we’ll bounce back as strong as ever,” said Snyder.

Said Richter, “It’s a new world. We’ve not visited here before. Hopefully, we will not visit here again.”