San Francisco nonprofit theater group 42nd Steet Moon stays open with help of donations

In a city filled to the brim with theatrical and musical talent, 42nd Street Moon stands alone in opening its curtains to the lesser-known but ever-lovable musicals of the 1920s to the 1970s.

The nonprofit group, founded in 1993 by Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads, is committed to presenting the works of musical masters like George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. The theater, which claims to be the oldest of its type, relies on grants and donations to keep its doors open, but failed to raise a much-needed $125,000 in last year’s donation drive.

“We were $2,000 short,” said Ken Levin, interim managing director of 42nd Street Moon. “However, the goal was substantially more than we’ve ever raised. It does show that there is a great deal of support.”

Had they reached their goal, the donations would have been matched by their board of directors, eliminating the $214,000 deficit the company suffered due to a decrease in ticket sales, grants and individual support. But according to co-founder and artistic director MacKellan, they have been given more time to get to their original goal.

“It’s not unusual for a theater company to carry a deficit,” said MacKellan. “The 2008 financial crash hit us hard and we’re still playing catch-up.”

The show goes on thanks to organizations like the Grants for the Arts San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts Philanthropic Fund, and with the help of passionate fans like Marianne A. Welmers and her husband Copley Crosby. As 17-year subscriber and volunteer at 42nd Street Moon, Welmers has lovingly watched the company grow.

“Over the course of the years, it has gone from what amounts to a minstrel show to something much more elaborate,” said Welmers. “It’s really become increasingly sophisticated over the years, and they are very deserving of support. They put their heart and revenue on that stage.”

Long-time supporters of 42nd Street Moon have seen it evolve from staged concerts without sets and costumes to full-fledged musicals and galas. The company returned to the stage on April 4 with “Sugar,” and will close out their 2011-12 season “Going Places!” with “Zorba,” beginning May 2.

“Sugar,” based on the book by Peter Stone and adapted from the film “Some Like it Hot,” features music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill.

“It’s a very funny show,” said MacKellan. “I saw it when I was a kid and wanted to do it ever since.”

Director Dyan McBride, who is also an actor, singer and teacher in her 18th season with 42nd Street Moon, is excited to direct this show in its 40th anniversary.

“There are a lot of different incarnations of it and Greg MacKellan put together what we thought was a definitive version,” she said. “This cast is so, so good. They’re unworldly good. I can promise you it will be funny.”

Fans of the production will be treated to a few new songs, including a ballad that gives more background to the character of Sugar, and a new duet, making the show “sexier, flirtier and funnier,” according to McBride.

At the beginning of the April 11 showing of  “Sugar,” men and women alike are invited to compete in the “Marilyn Madness Drag Contest” to commemorate one of Marilyn Monroe’s most iconic roles. Audience members will make donations and vote for the winners, who will take home tickets for the upcoming season and the amount of money they raised in donations.

While 42nd Street Moon offers older patrons a chance to see shows they may have seen on Broadway as kids, they also encourage the younger crowd to take advantage of the under-30 ticket discount and to get familiar with the classics that have inspired contemporary musical theater.

“They’re fun shows to begin with and there’s an air of history to them,” said Levin. “We couldn’t have the shows we have today without the predecessors.”

42nd Street Moon promises to continue their lighthearted, fun productions into their 20th anniversary season, made up entirely of comedies. It will kick off later this year with George and Ira Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” With the continued support of donors, the company can go on providing their unique theater experience.

“I can almost guarantee it will be something you haven’t seen anywhere else,” said MacKellan. “The enthusiasm will leap from the stage and capture the audience.”

“Sugar” runs through April 22 and tickets are available for all remaining shows. As with all of their productions, 42nd Street Moon is offering a dinner-and-a-show night April 12, and a post-show discussion with the director and cast following the April 8 and 15 shows.

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