Dreams of musical theater usually go hand-in-glove with the glitz and glamor of Broadway — the bright lights, the larger-than-life Times Square billboards, the big city buzz. But some of Broadway’s most popular and successful shows were born in a less than likely place — a bucolic corner of southeastern Connecticut.
In East Haddam, on the banks of the Connecticut River, sits a grand Victorian building that could easily be mistaken for a 19th century Robber Baron’s mansion. It was built in 1877 by William Goodspeed, a wealthy local banker and merchant, and rather than a stately home he created a theater for local productions (despite its name, none of which had anything to do with opera). Something of an oddity of design, the theater itself was installed on the upper floors, the lower levels housing a riverboat terminal, some offices and a general store. Putting the theater up top allowed for the patrons to be ushered up a grand central staircase, but impressive as the entry was (and still is), the quirky design forced stagehands to maneuver props and scenery up to the stage floor by means of an empty elevator shaft — a tricky maneuver at the very least.
After William Goodspeed died in 1882 the theater was nearly abandoned, and through the first half of the 20th century it was used mostly for storage. Despite years of neglect and disrepair, the theater was renovated and revitalized in the 1960s and has maintained a loyal following ever since, even seeing the world premieres of some major Broadway productions including Man of La Mancha, Shenandoah, and Annie. Now known as Goodspeed Musicals, the old opera house has won a couple of special Tony Awards along the way, for its remarkable achievements in regional theater. And what the old riverfront building lacks in Broadway glitz, it more than makes up for in old-world elegance.
Know Before You Go
Goodspeed Opera House is about 15 miles up the Connecticut River from Old Lyme, between New Haven and New London. The season generally runs from April through November for shows, and there are guided tours of the building on Saturdays from June to October, between 11am and 1pm. Adults are $5, kids 6-12 are $1, and under 6 are free.