31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1985 World Premiere of THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre set the American regional theatre world abuzz with its world premiere of a musical version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Director Cliff Fannin Baker received many telephone calls from his colleagues who were surprised that the Brecht estate had given its authorization for a musicalization to a small professional theatre in Little Rock.

The songs were written by Arkansas native Michael Rice using as a libretto the Eric Bentley translation of the original Brecht work. Rice also served as music director, leading a seven member orchestra as it played the nineteen songs he wrote.

As director, Baker used many Brechtian techniques to stay true to the story. These included music, neon signs, and non-traditional costuming for some of the characters.  Speaking of costumes, Little Rock fashion designer Connie Fails designed the clothing for the production.

Others on the creative team included Michael R. Smith (a set that was described as “dazzling, trashily opulent”) and Kathy Gray.

The title character was played by Vivian Morrison (now Vivian Norman). Other leading roles were played by Mark Johnson, Terry Sneed, Dianne Tack, and Mychael McMillan (in drag).  Playing a trio of gods were Ronald J. Aulgur, Scott Edmonds, and Candyce Hinkle. Others in the cast included Jean Lind, Ruth Shepherd, Kathryn Pryor, Judy Trice, Carol Ann Connor (now McAdams), Ginny Pace, and Jeff Bailey.

The production took place at the Arkansas Arts Center Theatre instead of the Rep’s facility on 11th Street.  With a cast of twenty and extensive set changes, the production needed more space than the Rep’s home could accommodate.

The Good Woman of Setzuan opened on June 13 and ran through June 22.

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Pulitzers play Little Rock – SOUTH PACIFIC at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in 1981

MDP SoPaIn the summer of 1981, the touring production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was causing controversy by bleeping out “whore” in its radio ads in the Little Rock market.  At the same time, a formerly controversial musical was settling in for a seven week run in the Arkansas capital city at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse.

When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had originally collaborated with Joshua Logan on South Pacific, the team attracted some complaints for the preachiness of the story as it tackled racism.  It was the look at these social issues which probably prompted the Pulitzer committee to make South Pacific only the second musical to win the prize.  (It was also the first Drama Pulitzer recipient to be based on another Pulitzer recipient – in this case James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.)

With a leading character from Little Rock, South Pacific was caught up in anti-Arkansas backlash during and after the Central High integration crisis.  A production on Long Island received boos when the character of Nellie announced she was from Little Rock.  The original national tour had a hard time booking spots in the south due to the themes.  Shifts in attitudes about race and miscegenation had rendered South Pacific a period piece by 1981 – and a non-threatening summer fare for Murry’s.

Directed by Jack Payne, the cast included Mary Winston Smith, Greg Carter, Bruce Rainey, Leslie Hall (now Basham), Dianne Tack, Chip Huddleston, and Beth Buffalo.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.