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New Amsterdam's Comeback : A Musical Theater Company Revives Itself

January 29, 1988|MICHAEL KUCHWARA | Associated Press

NEW YORK — One year after the death of its founder and the cancellation of its last season, the New Amsterdam Theater Company flourishes again, brightening Broadway with revivals of three musicals from the 1920s and '30s.

It's a classic show-business comeback story for an organization dedicated to preserving the American musical theater. But for a while, the company's future was in doubt.

"New Amsterdam almost closed," says Marjorie Hassenfelt, the group's current executive director. Her persistence, audience loyalty and some important financial contributions brought the company back from the brink and to Broadway's Academy Theater, formerly the historic Apollo Theater.

The troupe, which presents loving concert reproductions of old shows, was the inspiration and life work of Bill Tynes, a Californian who came East to be an actor and ended up a producer of musical comedy.

Tynes and some friends formed the New Amsterdam in 1981. On the slenderest of budgets, the company presented concert versions of venerable and sometimes such forgotten musicals as Victor Herbert's "Sweethearts," "I Married an Angel" by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter's "Jubilee" and "One Touch of Venus" by Kurt Weill.

Staging was minimal. So were sets and costumes. Performers worked with script in hand for each of the show's three performances. But Tynes carefully researched each show, trying to use original orchestrations when possible and a large orchestra.

The group gradually built a reputation among theater buffs as one of the few outlets in New York where audiences could hear vintage musicals with as complete a score as possible. The number of subscribers expanded, growing from an initial subscriber list of 250 to more than 1,500.

In January, 1986, the 30-year-old Tynes died. The company nearly went under.

"The problem was that Bill was New Amsterdam," said Hassenfelt, the organization's only permanent, paid staff member. "When he got so ill and finally passed away, people really thought that the company was finished."

But before his death, Tynes had brought Hassenfelt, a stage manager for Broadway and off-Broadway shows, into the New Amsterdam family.

"Bill and I worked together, side by side, for two years before he died," she said. "I think I understand very well what this company was founded to d. Billy was bringing these old shows back to life. By reconstructing them, he was making them available for other people to perform as well."

As Tynes got sicker, it became difficult for the company to operate. Its 1986 season, costing an estimated $200,000, was curtailed, with the dropping of "Revenge With Music," a long-forgotten '30s musical written by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.

"In December, 1986, I went to the board and recommended that the next season be canceled because I didn't think we were prepared artistically to achieve what we had done in the past," Hassenfelt said.

The company was kept alive by contributions from such board members as Dina Merrill and Richard C. Norton, as well as a grant from the Lamb's Foundation and partial funding from the New York State Council on the Arts.

The money enabled New Amsterdam to hold a benefit performance last May at Lincoln Center "to remind subscribers that we were still alive," Hassenfelt said. The performers included a dozen or so young musical comedy performers, as well as such seasoned veterans as Kitty Carlisle Hart, Roderick Cook and Karen Morrow.

During the summer, Hassenfelt sent letters to subscribers, letting them know what had happened. She also began planning for the 1988 season and a five-performance schedule for each of its three shows.

In January, the troupe presented "Sally," a fluffy Jerome Kern variation of the Cinderella story that's best known for the song "Look for the Silver Lining."

The group plans "I'd Rather Be Right," a 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical about President Franklin Roosevelt, for its March slot. It will finish out the season in May with "Oh, Kay!," a 1926 Gershwin musical that had audiences humming "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Do Do Do" and "Maybe."

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