Toward the end of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, traveling salesman Harold Hill tells Marian Paroo, “For the first time in my life, my foot got caught in the door.” A few weeks ago, 5-Star Theatricals artistic director Patrick Cassidy did what Harold Hill could not manage to do – he left town. Although some in the Conejo Valley theatre community will feel betrayed by his sudden exit, just as the citizens of River City might have, had Hill left them with their instruments in their hands as he boarded the next train, they will get over it. Cassidy had only been at the helm of 5-Star, the premiere theatrical company in Ventura County, for a year-and-a-half, but in these pages a year ago (VC On Stage, October 19, 2018), he was talking as if he was here to stay, busily planning a slate of shows to stage for the next few seasons.
The comparisons to Harold Hill are ironic, since Cassidy himself has portrayed the charismatic flim-flam man on five occasions, four of them opposite his mother, Shirley Jones, who memorably played Marian the Librarian in the legendary 1962 motion picture and then as Mrs. Paroo opposite her son. Like Hill, Cassidy has a true-to-life charisma that makes people like him. A devoted family man, Cassidy doted on his children and loved the small town feel of the Conejo Valley, and when he took over 5-Star, it seemed as if the troubled theater company would finally realize some stability. But it was that devotion to family that eventually convinced Cassidy to make his move: he is already planning a season of shows as the new artistic director for Studio Tenn, a professional regional theater company in Franklin, Tennessee, where Cassidy’s son Jack, named for Cassidy’s late actor father, currently resides.
VC On Stage wrote to Cassidy for an interview but as yet has not received a response, so we called 5-Star Theatricals Executive Director Cindy Murray to get the back story on Cassidy’s sudden departure from the Conejo Valley.
VCOS: Did Patrick’s announcement that he was leaving catch you off guard?
CINDY: Well, I wasn’t ecstatic. It kind of caught me off guard because Patrick’s a native Californian. But he went to see his son Jack to set him up in his apartment in Franklin, Tennessee. This was around the time we were doing West Side Story and he took a week off for vacation. And when he came back, he told me, “Cindy, oh my God, that place is so beautiful.” And he was saying things like that and “I’d like to get out of the hustle and bustle of California.” You know, just talk between friends. My history with Patrick goes way back. I’m the one who presented him to the board of directors when Will North left, so we’ve been really good friends, both with him as well as with Melissa and the family. But then Melissa went back out there with him. Studio Tenn was doing Mamma Mia! and Patrick said, “Oh, I’ll go see their performance, since we’re putting on Mamma Mia! next.” So he went and saw that they were looking for an artistic director and he threw his hat in the ring. When he came back, he told me what he had done and I said, “Patrick. Are you sure you want to do this?” But they just fell in love with it, put their house on the market, and that was that. So was I surprised? Not really. So we knew before Music Man that this was going to happen and I supported him in it. His family and his youngest son are out there and I believe his son Cole will be moving out there. It’s a different way of life, for sure.
VCOS: Knowing him as you do, is he the kind of person who would make an impulsive decision like this to uproot his entire family and go across the country?
CINDY: Well, I don’t think it was an impulse. I think they’ve been talking about downsizing for some time now, and I think that all of us at some point, when you get to a certain age, and you’re thinking about retirement, you realize that you can’t retire in California. I have so many of my friends moving out of California, so I wasn’t really shocked. I think about him and Melissa as my friends, but I was talking to him yesterday and he was all excited: “Cindy! I’m driving down the road and there are eight deer out on the road!” So I think it will be good for them.
VCOS: You know, a year ago, Patrick had just come on board, we did an interview, and he was talking about long range plans and he told me he was rooted in the community, he’d grown up here, his mother is still living here, he’d done the acting thing and was now loving directing 5-Star. And then all of a sudden, everything changed.
CINDY: He and I talked about that. He told me, “I’ve lived here 13 years but I never really connected to the community until I worked for 5-Star.” So it was only then that he began to feel connected. I don’t know if he got that feeling when he went to Franklin. Maybe he thought he could; I’m not really sure. But you know, I haven’t had a lot of people calling and saying, “What happened?!” I sent a letter out to subscribers and had one person call me. It was just a personal decision he made between him and his family and I support that.
VCOS: How are you and the board deciding on moving forward with the company? Will there be another artistic director?
CINDY: We’re going to really think about this and take our time. We have Mamma Mia! to do and our creative team is already in place for that. So we’re going to evaluate our organizational structure and ask ourselves if we really need a “face” for 5-Star? Do we really need an artistic director? We’re all working together to make sure we take the right steps. The bottom line is that we put on great shows, as we did when Lewis (Wilkenfeld) was with us, and we did so with Will and we did so with Patrick. Our heart and soul is still our heart and soul. I’ve been here 15 years myself so I’m like a piece of the furniture (laughs). Lewis is coming back to do the military show, which is something I put in place before Music Man because we knew about Patrick’s departure. The military show, as you know, is very important to us, so I spoke to Lewis and asked him if he would produce it and of course, that’s Lewis’s baby. He was the one who first did that.
VCOS: The financial problems 5-Star had back when it was still Cabrillo Music Theatre are still fresh in the minds of many people. Have things improved in the past few years?
CINDY: I would say things are stable. We’re still a non-profit and we’re always looking for ways to improve our cash flow, but I would say things are the same. But our trajectory is going up, as far as subscriptions go. So that’s what we’re looking at. Subscriptions and single ticket sales.
VCOS: Is the board considering other ideas relating to outreach?
CINDY: No. Our outreach is with our Starlight Kids, our Adopt-a-Bus, and the military show. Those have been our mainstays, so no, we haven’t really focused on that. Patrick did not have any new programs for outreach.
VCOS: I’ve noticed that the Kavli has not had balcony seating available for 5-Star shows.
CINDY: No, we haven’t. We closed the balcony. We want to fill the mezzanine and the orchestra. That’s our goal.
VCOS: Does this make you wonder whether the Kavli is too big for this company anymore?
CINDY: That’s an interesting question. Certainly American Theatre Guild fills it. But I think it’s based on the shows. They were having the same issues we were because the venue is so large, which is why they no longer do two weekends, they’re only here for four days now. So when they come in, they are always full.
VCOS: Have you spoken to Lewis about returning or is that water that’s under the bridge?
CINDY: No, we have not and we’re not exploring that. You know, Lewis and I are also very good friends so I’ve asked him to help produce Mamma Mia! While I know a lot about it, I can’t do development and the other things that I do as well as produce a show. Lewis is part of that heart and soul that I’ve been talking about. So he’s going to come in and produce it. The creative work has already been done and one of the actors is already in place so he’ll help us work out the rest of it.
VCOS: What happens next?
CINDY: We’re going to meet at our end-of-the-year annual meeting and go through everything. But for now, we’re not going to make any quick decisions. I’m sorry that this isn’t a very exciting story.
VCOS: Well, the show must go on, as they say, and I hope everything works out for 5-Star. You’ve got great support here and I’m sure the community will be behind you.
CINDY: Thanks. Me too.
For more on Studio Tenn’s hiring of Patrick Cassidy, see this link: https://williamsonsource.com/studio-tenn-announces-patrick-cassidy-new-artistic-director/