Westport Playhouse Takes National Stage

Andrew Wilk could have lived many places.

One reason he chose to move here in 2006 was the Westport Country Playhouse.

The beautiful theater — and the part it plays in our town’s artistic heritage — appealed to the arts and entertainment executive, who helped found the National Geographic Channel, then worked for Sony. (The great school system, and proximity to water, were other draws.)

The 90-year-old Westport Country Playhouse.

Wilk went on to earn 5 Emmys for his work as executive producer of PBS’ “Live at Lincoln Center.”

But the 4-hour-a-day commute got to be a bit much. When a man died on a Metro-North train near Wilk, he took it as an omen. He quit his Lincoln Center gig, while maintaining his ties with PBS (and his extensive Rolodex).

During morning coffee conversations with Westport friends, the Playhouse often came up. They noted how underutilized it was — and wondered how, besides dramas and musicals, its historic stage could be used for other forms of art.

Early in the pandemic, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe asked Wilk for entertainment ideas. Always thinking outside the box, Wilk wondered: Why not move Lincoln Center’s “Stars in Concert” here?

“Stars on Stage” was born.

Andrew Wilk and one of his Emmys, in his Lincoln Center office.

Playhouse managing director Michael Barker was on board. They donated the  theater itself, plus staff and crew support

But talent does not come cheap. Wilk worked his Rolodex to find available and willing entertainers — and generous donors.

He landed Gavin Creel (Tony Winner in “Hello, Dolly!”; “The Book of Mormon”), , Brandon Victor Dixon (Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” Emmy nominee in “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and Shoanan Bean (Billboard artist; “Wicked,” “Waitress”).

Led by Bud and Roz Seigel, Westport donors came through too.

Wilk was determined to do this right. In early September, a control truck rolled into the Playhouse parking lot. A New York production crew with 8 cameras — including an 18-foot jib and a Steadicam — and first-class sound equipment went to work.

It was not easy. COVID made the daily rehearsal and production ritual with the stars, their bands and the entire technical and production staff arduous.

Everyone had to test 72 hours, then 48 hours and finally 24 hours before contact with anyone in the show could be made.

Wilk had to hire a COVID compliance officer to check everyone in, take everyone’s temperature, and send an online questionnaire every morning at 6. There was on-site testing too, if needed.

Performer had to rehearse in masks, up till the final performance. Everyone wore lanyards, showing where they were allowed to be (stage and wings only; audience and lobby only, etc.)

Those were the same procedures mandated for every television and movie set in the country, by theatrical unions.

Finally they filmed 2 shows a night, for 3 days. The intimate setting worked wonderfully. Creel, Bean and Dixon performed show-stoppers, classic and contemporary songs, and told stories.

Audience members were thrilled. For many, it was the first live, in-person entertainment since the pandemic began.

Yet Wilk’s work had just begun. He spent the last 3 months editing, and finalizing contracts with PBS.

Today, the network announces the shows. “Stars on Stage From Westport Country Playhouse” premieres on 3 consecutive Fridays — January 7, 14 and 21, 9 p.m.) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video app.

PBS calls itself “America’s largest stage.” Now — thanks to a collaboration with a much smaller, but more historic — stage, audiences across the country can enjoy a theater we sometimes take too much for granted.

6 responses to “Westport Playhouse Takes National Stage

  1. Holy crap! Hats off, and thanks to Andrew for this incredible effort to bring us more of theater’s world.

  2. Holy cow, and I agree!

  3. Agreed: Fantastic news. We are so fortunate to have the Westport Country Playhouse and the talents of Andrew Wilk.

  4. Thank you Andrew for investing your talents in Westport. We are so lucky. This is exactly what our great little Town needs to get back on track post pandemic.

  5. I was lucky enough to attend two of the three nights and they were honestly spectacular and not only because it was the first shows I had been to in 18 months. The quality of the talent and the production was world class. Thank you Andrew and team. Also, thanks to the entire team at the Playhouse that also put the shows on despite night 2 coinciding with the huge storm which caused all sorts of flooding. The show went on!

  6. Thanks for writing about these shows, and hats off to Andrew for a truly spectacular job. I was lucky enough to see Shoshanna Bean perform, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life (I may have cried a bit from sheer joy). My parents said Gavin and Brandon were just as spectacular, and as Clark said, major props to everyone involved because that storm was NO JOKE! It’s going to be must-watch TV.

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