Arts & Leisure

He doesn’t just direct musicals, he composes them, too

DURING A REHEARSAL of Douglas Anderson’s new musical, “Welcome to Paradise,” at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on Monday, Music Director Ronnie Romano shares a laugh with the cast: from left, Jillian Torres, Suzanne Kantorski, Cathy Walsh, Sarah Stone, Nessa Rabin and Mindy Hinsdale Bickford. Anderson’s first musical premieres Aug. 12. INDEPENDENT PHOTO/STEVE JAMES

“People don’t change, you just get to know them better.”

That is the reoccurring line/theme of Douglas Anderson’s first musical production, “Welcome to Paradise,” which will debut this month at the Town Hall Theater.

Anderson founded the Town Hall Theater in 2004 and served as its executive director from its inception until 2018, when he became the theater’s artistic director, a role that granted him more time and flexibility to work on this project, among others.

Anderson had a long career in the theater and entertainment industry before he helped organize the purchase of the space that would become the Town Hall Theater in 1997 and that labor of love demanded he assume an administrative role to oversee the building’s renovation, introduction into the community and growth over the past decade and a half.

DOUG ANDERSON
Independent photo/Steve James

Prior to 1997, Anderson had written and directed many nationally acclaimed plays, taught and researched American theater at Middlebury and Amherst colleges and written for the CBS soap opera “Guiding Light.” Anderson won the Vermont Arts Council’s Arthur Williams Award for a lifetime of service to the arts in 2019, but he stressed his career in the arts has only just begun.

“It’s kind of funny to get a lifetime achievement award when I feel like I haven’t even started,” Anderson said in an interview last week. “I got a lot left in me, I’m not dead!”

THE STORY

“Welcome to Paradise” is based on the true story of a woman Anderson met while on sabbatical in England; her husband suddenly disappeared while working in the Middle East never to be heard from again. The cast is made up of six women, most of whom are older than 50, an aspect Anderson feels is rare in the musical industry these days.

“There are so many women actors who 20 years ago played Marian the librarian or Cinderella and then they kind of aged out of musicals,” he said. “They’re still amazing performers but they don’t have as many roles as they used to because the 22-year-olds are getting them.”

“And I thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a musical for them?”

A REHEARSAL FOR “Welcome to Paradise.”
Independent photo/Steve James

Anderson noted that most musicals like the ones you see on Broadway center around young people following their dreams and the roles for older women actors tend to be in a supportive role. “Welcome to Paradise” seeks to bring a seldom-told story to the masses.

“What does a 30-year marriage look like from the inside?” Anderson asked as an entry point for his musical. “It’s very much about being middle aged, being past all of those youthful dreams and ideals and having certain realities start to creep up.”

Anderson says his musical is very different than the “jazz-hands” musicals of Broadway, and although there are many laughs, this musical is written with the heft of a drama.

“It’s unique in a lot of ways and goes places most musicals don’t go,” he said.

THE PROCESS

Although Anderson has directed about 40 operas and musicals, specifically Stephen Sondheim productions, “Welcome to Paradise” marks the first time he has composed one himself. “I’m a pretty good director of musical theater, I really am. I’m always so confident on opening night,” he said. “But as a composer I’m nervous as can be. I’ve never had this kind of feeling with theater before.”

Although Anderson never received a formal music education, he taught himself how to play the piano and has been writing songs since his high school days, when he and his friends started a traveling children’s musical theater group.

After high school, he would often sit down with one of his friends from that group, the late Patti McKenny, who would write the lyrics to the songs Anderson would play on the piano. It was from these sessions that “Welcome to Paradise” was born.

THE CAST OF ‘Welcome to Paradise’ at Town Hall Theater.
Independent photo/Steve James

Although the idea was formed about 30 years ago, Anderson did not have enough time to finish the musical he and McKenny had started due to his new job as founder and executive director of the Town Hall Theater. “Patti died, tragically, unexpectedly,” Anderson said, “and I took on the Town Hall Theater restoration project. Since then, all I have written are press releases and grant proposals.”

Then when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the theater closed, Anderson was forced out of a job and was finally able to devote all his time to finishing the musical. “That time was among the happiest of my life,” Anderson said. “It reminded me that I’m a writer and a composer. I got back to a lot of stuff I had forgotten I could do and now I want to do more of it.”

Anderson credits the federal and state governments for allowing both he and the theater to continue their work through unemployment stipends and grants.

THE FINISHED PRODUCT

The composition is finished, though with only two weeks left before the musical’s first showing, Anderson stressed that the rehearsals are more like “workshops.”

“Bring your erasers,” said Anderson, who is also the show’s director and set designer, to his team of actors and musicians. “Because I have really good performers, I expect them to give me feedback. I expect the show to go through changes, still, in these next few weeks. It might even change after opening night before the second show.”

Suzanne Kantorski, a retired opera singer, will play the main character Ellie and lead this talented team of actors, many of whom Anderson has worked with in the past. Ronnie Romano, a 2020 Middlebury College graduate, will direct the performance’s seven-piece orchestra with arrangements by Jerry Shedd of Ripton.

Tickets are $20 and can be bought through the Town Hall Theater’s box office. The show will run for two nights, Aug. 12 and 13, at 7:30 p.m., plus a matinee on Sunday, Aug. 14, at 2 p.m.

Although the show will only run for three days in Middlebury, Anderson and his wide-reaching pool of supporters will wait anxiously for his musical to be picked up by theaters around the country.

“I’m hopeful,” he said.

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