When Paper Mill Playhouse’s production of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t move to Broadway, fans worried they’d never get to see the story live onstage. But Disney never eyed Broadway with this property; instead, they hoped the show would become an in-demand title for regional theatres nationwide (and around the world).
Sitting in the dark of the Ogunquit Playhouse for its 2016 regional premiere, the swinging of the titular bells captivated me, the immensity and power of the sound of that ensemble singing “The Bells of Notre Dame” awed me, the production pushed me to tears. Audiences buzzed, the annual Independent Reviewers of New England Awards honored the production with three IRNE Award nominations. The following summer, the same theatre mounted a massively scaled version of Ahrens and Flaherty’s Ragtime, which just earned 11 IRNE nominations and two wins, and now its 2018 regional premiere production of An American in Paris received 11 of the Playhouse’s 12 IRNE nominations. Something magical is happening in Ogunquit.
The seaside Maine town has housed its theatre since 1933, but over the course of 86 years—particularly in the most recent decade—the Ogunquit Playhouse has emerged at the forefront of the regional theatre scene.
“People might think of us as our storied summerstock past, but, as we have grown and worked with Broadway and West End collaborators, we have now become the largest performing arts organization in Maine and one of the largest in New England and even the nation,” says Executive Artistic Director Bradford Kenney.
Its history has been instrumental in its future. The Ogunquit Playhouse has been around since the birth of the “little theatre movement,” Kenney explains. “Walter Hartwig was a Broadway—but really a Hollywood—showman in the ’20s who came to this town and started a small theatre. He brought the Manhattan Theatre Colony here and then named it for the Ogunquit Playhouse. He was building stand-alone shows with stars of Broadway and Hollywood in a regional setting.”
Like most summerstock theatres, the Playhouse’s early days offered a 10-week summer season. Since Kenney’s tenure began in 2005, they have expanded to a 30-week musicals-only playing season. Markedly ambitious, Kenney emphasizes variety in his seasons (“I want the people that like rock n roll to come into my building, but I also want to sell meat and potatoes, and I want to shake you up a little bit,” he says) and draws in audiences by producing across genres and capitalizing on the natural tranquility of Ogunquit, peppered with BnBs, smalltown shops, intimate restaurants, and the calm of the Atlantic shore.
But the Playhouse has become an attraction in its own right; their season used to wrap with summer tourism, but September is now their busiest month of the year.
The Playhouse has become the reason to visit Ogunquit, rather than a consequence of vacationing there. The consistent artistry—and scale—executed onstage causes audiences to wonder if they’re in a New England beach town or midtown Manhattan. The Playhouse invests in production value, be it Adam Koch’s complex cathedral set built for Hunchback, Tim Mackabee’s massive Ragtime construction, or an investment in renting the sets from the 1992 Broadway revival of Oklahoma! for Ogunquit’s 75th anniversary production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. And they cast the talent to back it up, regularly booking Broadway alum like the iconic Georgia Engel, Tony winners Jefferson Mays and Leslie Uggams, Tony nominee Josh Young, and more.
On top of excellence in established titles, Ogunquit has hosted numerous regional premieres. The theatre became the home of the world premiere of Heartbreak Hotel and regional premieres including Priscilla Queen of the Desert. “There’s a trust that goes with how that product will be treated,” says Kenney, “a trust on their part that we would handle [those shows] well.”
Most recently, Ogunquit has contributed to the creation of new material with a revised production of The Witches of Eastwick, and last summer's world premiere of Grumpy Old Men. The theatre is also developing an adaptation of Mr. Holland’s Opus starring Tony winner B.D. Wong.
Their mounting of Joshua Bergasse’s Smokey Joe’s Café transferred to Off-Broadway’s Stage 42, but Kenney is also interested in the Playhouse supporting work even if the show doesn’t reach the shore. “A lot of [the winter months] is talking to younger writing teams and saying ‘How can we help?’” Kenney explains. “This is our earned income we’re giving back because we want to give back to the industry and these voices.”
The Playhouse is strong because its mission is clear. “It’s a balance of three things: presenting and preserving the great classics of the stage, introducing our audience to great storytelling, and we want to contribute to our industry and to the art form,” Kenney says.
That mission yields a new reality. “[The Playhouse] became a federal landmark only a couple of years ago,” Kenney adds, “not just [because of] the building’s architecture—but because of its impact on the American culture.” In a theatrical landscape where long-running hits continue to fill Broadway real estate, regional houses have gained importance and the Ogunquit Playhouse is on the leading edge.