When Fort Lauderdale playwright Tony Finstrom met Florida’s First Lady of Theater Jan McArt three years ago, he felt like he had already “known her forever.” She felt the same camaraderie. It was this initial spark that led to Finstrom’s new musical Glamour Girl! The Jan McArt Story, which will be presented in a staged reading Monday at Lynn University.
“A lot of people think I was born under a palm tree,” says McArt, who has more than earned her First Lady moniker. A staple in Florida theater for more than three decades, her Royal Palm Dinner Theater, which she founded in 1977 as part of her Royal Palm Center Production Company, is the stuff of local history, as are its spin offs — Jan’s Rooftop Cabaret Theatre and the Little Palm Children’s Theatre in Boca Raton.
Now McArt is in charge of theatre development at Lynn University, where she began Jan McArt’s New Play Reading Series to develop new plays and musicals by Florida playwrights. That Finstrom has been given license to tell the life story of McArt is a tribute to the trust she has in the writer. Finstrom met McArt through another play reading series she initially began at Lynn. “A mutual friend said to me, you should give Jan your play Murder on Gin Lane and I did, and that’s how we met.” Murder was included in McArt’s Theatre Arts Guild Play Reading Series at the university in 2011 with the leading lady herself starring in the comedy thriller.
For Glamour Girl, Finstrom says he “sat down” with McArt a “couple of times – about two hours each for the interviews. “She was very open despite that she’s such a private person. I told her, ‘this is probably as close as you’re going to get to a biography’ and she got enthused about the prospects.”
McArt says she had never thought about a play or story that would chronicle her life. “Then Tony approached me about it and then we began to talk and it was as though we were just having a conversation while he was recording the interviews.” She said she hadn’t really heard anything about the play for “about nine months” after the sit-down interviews. But when she found out the play was finished McArt says: “I said to him, ‘Should I read this?’ ” And she did, but in true Jan McArt fashion, rather than her ego and concerns taking precedence over the material, she said she had to put things aside. “There was some intimate stuff in there,” she said. “But I told myself: ‘This is his project. It’s about me, but it isn’t about me in a way. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to interfere with this,’ ” she says.
Then, with the staunchness of a veteran producer, McArt says: “This play reading series is for the playwright.”
The series involves a playwright working with a paid cast and a director for six days, frequently re-writing the script based on the rehearsals. Resident director Wayne Rudisill will direct Glamour Girl. “The whole process is to use the six days that we have for the playwright to really see and hear his play and then ultimately visualize it in a stage area. It’s an opportunity for them to rewrite where they see fit,” says Rudisill.
Finstrom adds: “Actors do have the scripts in hand during rehearsals and during the performance so it’s easy for them to get new pages daily and they can handle the changes easily.”
Rudisill makes it clear, however, that “we don’t sit around on stools and read the play to the audience. We do limited blocking and have maybe a few elevations. What we’re presenting is a work in progress. Technically it’s more of a workshop-type production than it is a staged reading. We’re on the balance bars here so it’s a little dangerous and a lot of fun.”
There are also costumes under the wardrobe supervision of Peter Lovello. “Glamour Girl had to have at least one boa,” says Finstrom.
Forever a man of firsts, Finstrom has the first play in the series to feature a musical score. “Well, you can’t tell Jan’s story without music,” says the playwright. Shari Upbin is part of the creative team for Glamour Girl and is in charge of the musical staging.
Glamour Girl covers McArt’s early career when she appeared in opera, cabaret and musical theater, before she arrived in South Florida, and it features “songs of the time period,” says Finstrom, who adds that the songs are all older tunes that are in the public domain. Musical director Jon Randy Booth, who has a background as a Broadway conductor and conducting orchestras for national touring companies, has been “very helpful as far as the music is concerned,” says Rudisill. “He’s made sure that the words and the music all fit together to form the idea.”
While most people may not equate McArt with opera, she was a leading soprano with San Francisco Opera and NBC Opera and has starred in world premieres in New York. She made her symphony debut with Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops and became a favorite guest performer with symphonies across the country. She made her New York debut in Mother of Us All, conducted by Virgil Thompson. She’s shared the stage with Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and other notable opera stars. Her virtuoso performance in La Boheme led to an invitation from Arturo Toscanini to dine at his home.
“I thought it was more interesting to tell the story of Jan before she came to Florida. I wanted to do Funny Girl rather than Funny Lady,” he quips.
Amy Miller Brennan is playing the part of the young McArt; Michael McKeever plays multiple roles, including Jan’s late brother, Don, and Dan Kelley portrays Richard Rodgers, among other characters. The cast also includes Angie Radosh and Shane R. Tanner. McArt will play her contemporary self. “It really is an all-star cast,” says Finstrom.
And how will McArt feel when the curtain opens and her life becomes an open book? “Actually I don’t know how I feel about it. Tony has written things as he sees it – the highs and lows. That’s what art and drama is. I didn’t put any restrictions on it and we let it all hang out.” She pauses and takes a breath: “I guess I’ll know more on Monday.”
Glamour Girl! The Jan McArt Story by Tony Finstrom will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13in the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center, Lynn University, 3601 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton. Tickets are $10. For reservations, call (561) 237-9000 or go to http://events.Lynn.edu.
The Jan McArt New Play Reading Series continues at the Wold with Desperation, a new comedy by Marj O’Neill-Butler on Feb. 3; Shooting Star: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden and book by Ed Bullins on March 10; and an as yet unnamed new play about parenthood by Christopher Demos-Brown on April 28.