Written By Barbara Pash
When the rousing show “The Music Man” debuts this month, no one will be happier than Susan Thornton. As director of the show, the annual production of September Song Musical Theatre, she has been working with the 76-person cast since last spring. When Harold Hill and his band come marching on stage, Thornton can finally relax.
Thornton has extensive theatrical experience, but “The Music Man” is her directorial debut with the company. “It’s been a challenge because of the size of the cast,” said the Westminster resident and member of the September Song board. “But a joy. The actors are committed and talented.”
September Song Musical Theatre, a non-profit amateur company, dates to 1974. It was the brainchild of two Carroll County public schools’ educators: Arnie Hayes, a teacher, and “Doc” Kersey, superintendent of music, who wanted to bring live theater to the county.
“You have to be flexible,” said Joan Eichhorn, who has been involved with September Song almost from the start; the last 11 years as producer. A retired teacher, she is a former Finksburg resident who now lives in Owings Mills.
Over the company’s 40-year history, Eichhorn has seen the group refocus from community theater to Broadway musicals, segue from a live orchestra to professionally produced tapes and perform at different locations until it found its current home at Winters Mill.
The company name, September Song, is a tribute to its founding, the start of the school year, even though the company’s annual performance is held in August. “September is not a good month for us to perform in a high school,” she said.
Eichhorn operates with an average annual budget of $25,000. A member of the Community Foundation of Carroll County, the company receives grants from the Carroll County Arts Council. The production staff of 15 receives stipends; the rest of the crew, including actors, are volunteers.
“Any money we make goes into the next show,” said Eichhorn of expenses like royalties, sets and costumes. Permission from the New York company that owns the rights to “The Music Man” cost $3,600, for example. The orchestral-quality music tapes to the shows are a separate negotiation and cost extra.
But Eichhorn knows what Carroll County audiences like, no doubt one of the reasons September Song Musical Theatre often sells out every performance.
“Family-friendly and well-known, with children and lots of music,” said Eichhorn of past hits like “Annie,” “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific.”
The company itself is well known in Carroll County and beyond. Eichhorn sends out fliers and emails for auditions for upcoming shows to interested people and past performers in the local area, Baltimore metro, Howard County and Pennsylvania.
“They’re a mix of housewives, businessmen, accountants, you name it. They all love theater,” she said.
At the auditions for “The Music Man,” Thornton thought she might find enough qualified performers for a cast of 50. Instead, well over 100 people showed up. Thornton held three days of auditions, giving everyone a chance to perform, and ended up with a cast of 76.
Applicants ranged from those with theater backgrounds to those who just like to attend shows. “I was blown away,” said Thornton. “Some of the actors are so talented, they’re Broadway quality.”
Keith Field, a Mount Airy resident, plays Harold Hill, the con man who appears in an Iowa town posing as a boys’ band organizer and selling band uniforms and instruments. “I figured I was too old for the part,” said Field, 54, married and a father, a quality control manager at a biopharmaceutical company, who has been involved in community theater since high school.
The Meredith Wilson musical is Field’s second experience with September Song. He appeared in “Annie,” although not as the lead. “We had a big theater and we pulled in big crowds,” said Field, whose wife and two children also got roles in “The Music Man,” as townspeople.
Casey Golden plays Marian Paroo, the librarian. She remembers attending September Song with her family. Her first show the “The Wizard of Oz.” Said Golden, a married Mount Airy resident and piano/voice teacher, “It was so exciting, so much fun.”
When Golden attended the audition, she hardly envisioned landing the female lead. “I thought I might be in the ensemble,” she said. “I’m very excited and very honored.”
Thornton credits the success of September Song Musical Theatre to Eichhorn, whom she calls “the heart and soul” of the company. “She is dedicated to bringing quality theater to Carroll County,” said Thornton.
Eichhorn couldn’t be happier. “The company has a spirit of camaraderie. We bring that to the community,” she said. “There’s a magic to it.”