SAN DIEGO — By the time maestro Milton Greene assumed the musical reins at Starlight three years ago, he had already carved out an extensive musical career. Greene had even made his mark on Broadway as music director and vocal arranger for several shows, including "Fiddler on the Roof."
But nothing in his past prepared Greene for his tenure with the San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn.
"I never studied airplane conducting," he quipped in a quiet moment before a recent performance. "But at Starlight, I have to be very aware of the intrusion from planes" approaching Lindbergh Field. It isn't unusual for Greene to stop the action 30 times or more during a single performance. "At first it drove me crazy. Now I don't mind it any more, and we actually have fun with it. I tell the actors, 'When you have a line, don't stop until you finish the sentence.' And the orchestra is excellent. They can stop on a dime," he boasted, "and then pick up again without any problem."
Greene is gearing up for "Evita," the fifth and final Starlight show of the season, which opens Thursday.
"It's one of the most challenging shows to conduct," he said. "Most of the music written for the theater has simple rhythms, like 'Oklahoma!' (Starlight's recent offering). 'Evita' is more complex--and never stops. We're playing for 2 1/2 hours straight, so it doesn't let you rest. And the tempo changes constantly. We're not used to that. Symphonic conductors are, but that's not the way it usually is in musical theater. 'Evita' is a challenge to the singers and the musicians."
Normally, Greene goes back to coaching vocal students after a busy summer with Starlight. But this year, when Starlight's season ends in late September, Greene will prepare for a new challenge--one that could lead him back to Broadway.
"I was asked to be the musical director for a brand-new musical, based on the movie, 'The Graduate,' " Greene said. "The musical is all done now. In fact, I have the score already." Bob Merrill, whose credits include "Carnival" and "Funny Girl," adapted the book and wrote the words and music.
"It's the first time he's done a whole show by himself, and it turned out very well," Greene said. "I wouldn't have accepted it if it wasn't good. It's not one of those scores where you can't come out singing. The songs are wonderful.
"The only thing about the show that worries me is whether people will react to the story the way they did when the movie first came out. Our morals have gone downhill. (Audiences) may be blase about it." The plot concerns an affair between a young college graduate and a designing older woman.
"I know that it has a good book--that it's well-written. But I don't know how people will respond to it," he said.
"We need a good Mrs. Robinson. That's very important."
Dan Siretta, director-choreographer of this musical version of "The Graduate," worked with Greene in 1960, when Siretta was a dancer in the Broadway production of "Fiorello." And the two have been fast friends ever since. As soon as Siretta signed on with the show, he asked Greene to come aboard as musical director.
Rehearsals for "The Graduate" were set to begin by October, which was perfect timing for Greene. But there was a disagreement over who to cast as Mrs. Robinson.
"We were going to use Shirley Jones . . . ," said Greene, "but the producers disagreed with the choice. They said they didn't want a Ralph's sales lady." Jones has been acting as TV spokeswoman for the supermarket chain in recent commercials.
Greene said they also will have to raise more money.
Despite these obstacles, Greene is gambling on the success of "The Graduate"--and eager to begin work.
However, his overall assessment of musical theater on Broadway is decidedly bleak.
"Bad. In one word, it's bad," he reiterated. "I think the future will be good, but what has been produced hasn't been very good--and the costs of producing a musical have skyrocketed, so producers are afraid to take a chance. 'The Graduate' will probably cost at least $4 million, and it would have cost only $600,000 a couple of years ago.
"The future will see more corporate support. Conglomerates like IBM and CBS, and the big record companies are already backing Broadway shows. And the La Jolla Playhouse has received support from AT&T. That's where it has to come from. Private investors can't afford it any more," said Greene, "but there's a lot of potential support from major corporations."
If Merrill and his backers manage to get the show on the road this fall, it could keep Greene away from Starlight for an indefinite period. But Greene has no intention of abandoning the troupe.
"I certainly want to return to Starlight. The orchestra has come a long way in the last few years--and the Wards (artistic directors of Starlight) have been very supportive of my taking time to do the show. I'm counting on coming back."