Theater requires transformation. Just as Erik converts from creepy, underground stalker to crestfallen, understanding admirer in The Phantom of the Opera, it is onstage metamorphosis that keeps curtains rising.
On Friday, July 16, when Musical Theater Southwest (MTS) opens a full-fledged performance of Thoroughly Modern Millie, it won’t just be Kansas-cum-big-city girl Millie whose story of change will captivate the audience. MTS itself will raise the curtain on Act 1 of a new incarnation.
At approximately 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25, staff of Musical Theatre Southwest packed up for the day. Sometime in the next hour, fire engulfed the theater’s warehouse and office space, burning the entire history of the more than 50-year-old institution. MTS president William Stafford says more than 100,000 pieces of costuming and MTS’ complete video and DVD archive were among the losses.
“It was everything we’ve ever accumulated,” Stafford says.
According to MTS board member Rick Huff, the Albuquerque Fire Department (AFD) was notified sometime around 4:15 p.m. that a fire was spotted outside the building. The blaze “could have been set or could have been a firework,” he says, adding that news reports initially speculated the cause could have been a welder. “There was nothing like that on the day it happened,” Huff says.
As of press time, AFD has confirmed that arson is the leading contender in the ongoing investigation.
Despite the tragedy, within a day and a half of the fire, the theater company already had donations of costuming, rehearsal space and a new warehouse on Linn NE, approximately 1,000 feet from its previous location.
“As we were standing on the sidewalk on Domingo Road leading up to the theater, which was blazing, we were crying on one side of the street,” board member Rick Huff says, “and by the time we walked across the flowing water coming from the pumper trucks over to the north side of Domingo, we had already made up our minds to build back.”
Fire engulfed the theater’s warehouse and office space, burning the entire history of the more than 50-year-old institution.
Before the fire had been fully snuffed out by Albuquerque firefighters, board members congregated at the African American Performing Arts Center to decide how the organization was to proceed. At that meeting the group decided to go ahead with the upcoming performances as planned.
“When you have problems handed to you, you take it as a tool,” Huff says. “You create something with the circumstances.”
One way MTS plans to move forward is to involve the public in its future. “The thing we want to stress is that this is a community theater,” Huff says. “We want community help building it back so they feel they have a stock in experiencing the shows.”
Support has already been wide, coming from Albuquerque and beyond. When the Alibi spoke to Huff on Wednesday, May 26, he’d just returned from collecting a contribution of clothing from anonymous out-of-towners who happened to be in Albuquerque cleaning out the apartment of a recently deceased relative. They saw the news on television and decided to donate some vintage clothes on the spot.
A few notable alumni of the theater have also been contacted, including native son Neil Patrick Harris, who Huff says is enthusiastic about helping. Harris, whose acting credentials include the Harold and Kumar films and TV’s “How I Met Your Mother,” got his start onstage in Albuquerque and has been successful in theater. This August he’ll direct Rent at the Hollywood Bowl.
It’s unclear at this point in what way he plans to help but his brother, Brian Harris, told KRQE news Neil wants to get involved.
Help is on the way from locals, too. Albuquerque Theater Guild Secretary Linda López McAlister says ATG plans to allow MTS access to its costume and prop-sharing system, and it will also help the theater plug performances through ATG’s website, Facebook pages and brochures. ATG has also posted information on its Facebook page about how to donate to MTS, and it’s sent out notices about an already-scheduled fundraiser for MTS, slated for Thursday, June 17. “Eat Dinner for MTS” takes place at the Sweet Tomatoes restaurant at 4901 San Mateo NE. Diners simply eat from 5 to 8 p.m. and 20 percent of sales go to the group.
Stafford says it will take at least a year for the theater company to get back to where it was before the fire. But the outpouring of help from the community is allowing the group to stage its season as planned.
MTS has insurance that will cover some the losses, but the invaluable past held in the theater’s archive cannot be retrieved. The organization is asking anyone who has photographs, playbills or other archival information to contact Laura Nuzum (email@example.com) so the company can reassemble its physical history. In addition to performances, MTS’ business has consisted largely of renting out costumes, props and set pieces to other groups, income that will only be regained if the organization can rebuild its inventory.
Huff says, “we have every confidence people will see a full-fledged performance” of Thoroughly Modern Millie, saying they’ve been offered costumes from several organizations that have put on the show in the last few years. Millie opens at the African American Performance Center on Friday, July 16. Millie’s story is one of determination and luck. With a little bit of both, MTS is already up and running, despite a setback of theatrical proportions.
Donations of money, costumes or props can be sent to Musical Theatre Southwest, PO Box 81052, Albuquerque, N.M. 87198.