It’s one of my favorite lines. Luisa says it in the Fantasticks. Whether I fully realized it or not, it was how I lived my life; but it only just recently came to me again—when Corn Stock Theatre produced The Who’s Tommy as part of our regular summer season. At the time the play selection committee decided on that particular production, we knew it would be a controversial choice. We were pushing the envelope of what the typical Corn Stock audience viewed as Corn Stock fare. But trust me, the choice wasn’t a frivolous one. It was a choice made deliberately and after careful review of our recent history.
In 2003, Corn Stock produced the rock musical Jesus Christ, Superstar. It was a runaway hit. We were sold out every night and easily held over for an extra performance. What was particularly encouraging about this show was the number of new audience members it engendered—people who’d lived in the Peoria area their entire life and never thought of coming to Corn Stock because it was something their grandparents or parents did. A rock musical was something familiar, something they understood. They enjoyed Jesus Christ, Superstar when they were teenagers and were eager to enjoy the nostalgia again.
Emboldened by our success with Superstar, we decided to produce Smokey Joe’s Café in 2004. A musical review of the works of Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, this production allowed our audiences to relive the pop hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was captivating to watch today’s teenagers groove on stage to the tunes their parents danced to when they were young. Again, we had a runaway hit on our hands—sold out houses and a sold out holdover.
We’d developed a formula: of the three musicals we produced each year, two would be traditional, big, “book” musicals—Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, etc. The third would be different, something to appeal to the “younger” crowd—55 and younger. We needed to go after the baby-boomers, those people (like myself) who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. So, Tommy was a natural choice, a natural evolution from Jesus Christ, Superstar and Smokey Joe’s Café. Here we had a relatively new musical developed from a concept album—a rock opera written in 1969. We had rock ‘n roll nostalgia combined with a gritty story line.
Tommy wasn’t a runaway hit. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t a failure either. We had appreciative audiences—not as large as what we’re used to, but no one can be sure how much the miserable weather contributed to this situation. What we did have was a dramatically divided audience: they either loved it or hated it. The general comment I heard most often from those who hated it was, “I can see this kind of stuff on TV or at the movies; I expect different from Corn Stock. I expect to enjoy myself.”
I expect people to enjoy themselves at Corn Stock, too. But I guess my definition of enjoyment is different. Sure, everyone can enjoy Oklahoma and My Fair Lady, but is that really what a community theatre should do exclusively? Not according to the mission statement written by our founders: “The purpose of this organization shall be to study, teach, and promote theater in all phases, to provide a practical yet experimental environment for the creative artist and technician, to create and present productions of quality in a professional manner which will offer a challenge to the talents and skills available, and to entertain and enlighten the viewer through the use of the dramatic arts.”
What Corn Stock did with Tommy—and what I hope we’ll continue to do on a regular basis—is challenge our audience to diverge from the “normal”—to do something different for a change. I hope we continue to push that envelope. I hope everyone in Peoria continues to push it, from Corn Stock’s Tommy to Eastlight’s Metropolis to Illinois Ballet’s Carmina Burana, for variety is the spice of life to everyone in the arts. To quote another of my favorite theatrical lines: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Auntie Mame had it right. Don’t starve to death. Step right up to banquet table and taste that new and exciting food. What’s the worst that could happen? You might like it. AA!