UT celebrates the 50th anniversary of 'The Fantasticks'

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UT celebrates the 50th anniversary of 'The Fantasticks'

Lyn Koenning is convinced she has the best job in the world.

"I love piano and I get to play piano," she said. "I love to teach and I get to teach. And I've been involved in musical theater since I was 8 years old, directing my little brother in productions of 'The King and I.'\u2009"

It's easy to see how her current job, faculty member in the department of theater and dance at the University of Texas, where she teaches courses in musical performance and history, would be the perfect fit.

Koenning's latest project is big. She's the musical director of UT's new production of "The Fantasticks," the longest-running musical in off-Broadway history. The musical, written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (both UT alumni) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

To commemorate the occasion, the department is producing the show as well as holding a weekend symposium dedicated to honoring the department's alumni in the performing arts. The conference includes a Q&A with Jones and Schmidt as well as faculty-hosted panels on topics such as the impact of producing new work.

"The Fantasticks" is a romantic musical parable with classic themes of love and deception. It's light on spectacle and heavy on illusion.

"The charm of the piece," Koenning said, "is it's designed to be simple and small in terms of scenery."

Over a cup of coffee at the UT Club, the charming and polished Koenning talked about what she and director Rod Caspers are planning for their version of the iconic musical.

"We're bringing a freshness to it while remaining true to their original intent," Koenning said.

To inspire ideas for their production, Koenning, Caspers and choreographer Natasha Davidson all went to see a 50th anniversary production of the show in New York in May (which Jones starred in for a two-week run).

UT's production will feature undergraduate performers with one alumni cast in the role of El Gallo. Koenning, who has a master's degree in piano pedagogy, will be accompanying the performance along with a harpist.

Asked whether she would be nervous knowing that Jones and Schmidt would be attending the show, Koenning said, "It's wonderful! It's exciting. It does bring an interesting texture to the opening weekend."

Since she's already met Jones and played piano for Schmidt, she doesn't expect to have any extra nerves on opening night. "In addition to doing their work, we've become friends and that's been delightful." She paused. "Maybe it will make the students nervous, but we're trying to talk them through it."

As to why she thinks the musical has stayed popular for so many years, Koenning said, "Tom Jones said the real message of 'The Fantasticks,' (and it's from a song lyric in the show) is 'without a hurt, the heart is hollow.' We all have to go through some trials to be able to appreciate the good, and that's a timeless message."

Koenning might even get to do more of what she loves in the coming years, as the department begins to integrate more musical theater into its existing acting program. In the spring, she'll be the musical director for "The Threepenny Opera."

Even as a young girl growing up in Midland, Koenning noticed there were signs that she was destined to combine music and teaching.

"I was the drum major of my high school band for two years," she said. "It's fun for me to look back and think that something like that equipped me for something I'm doing now." She laughed. "Even as a 16-year-old I was bossing around hundreds of people on the field!"

‘The Fantasticks'

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Sunday Oct. 20-22, 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 24

Where: B. Iden Payne Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St., UT campus

Cost: $15-$20

Information: 477-6060, www.texas performingarts.org

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