NEW YORK — Lots of people have a passion for musical theater. Jack Viertel has made his passion into a project.
For years, he has been excavating the history of the art form, digging up forgotten treasures that can be recreated for modern audiences.
Now, after 20 years at the helm of the Encores! program at City Center, Viertel is stepping down.
Next season — “Mack and Mabel,” “Love Life” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” — will be his last as the program’s artistic director, City Center announced Tuesday. He will continue to advise as a consulting producer, but will turn over control of the program to someone else.
He said he will continue to keep his other job, as a senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters, and he is planning to write a second book. (He started his career as a theater critic and says he feels drawn back to writing.)
“Twenty years is a good run,” Viertel said. “I came to the artistic directorship with a very specific bucket list of shows that I was fascinated by, and actually that bucket is empty.”
Viertel, who is 70, also said he believes it is time for new leadership of the Encores! program.
“We’re in a moment where the American musical, and particularly the classic American musical, is being reconsidered in so many ways because of its gender politics, its racial politics and all of its attitudes about life in America,” he said. “I completely endorse the idea that that rethinking should be done, but I don’t think I’m the best person to do it.”
It is hard to overstate the value of Encores! for theater aficionados. The program has become a sort of living archive — three times a year, it presents a seven-performance concert production of a historic Broadway musical that, in most cases, is so rooted in another time that it is unlikely ever to have a commercial revival.
Some Encores! productions have nonetheless transferred to Broadway — during Viertel’s tenure those have included “After Midnight,” “Gypsy,” “The Apple Tree” and “Finian’s Rainbow.”
“His encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater has helped us uncover shows that haven’t been seen for years,” said Arlene Shuler, City Center’s chief executive.
The program, which was founded in 1994 with Viertel on the advisory committee, has always placed an emphasis on centrality of scores. It hires large orchestras — usually about 30 musicians, a size that few Broadway shows can afford these days — to provide a lush instrumental sound that attempts to replicate the original.
“The mission has always been to hear musicals that have superior scores, played as they were originally played, with their original orchestrations — or as close as we can get — and with choruses that can sing the original vocal arrangements,” Viertel said. “We have big casts, big orchestras, and, relative to Broadway, very minimal production values.”
Viertel, who has overseen 60 productions with an estimated audience of 850,000, declined to single out a favorite show, but cited productions of “Follies,” “The Most Happy Fella,” “It’s a Bird ... It’s a Plane ... It’s Superman” and “Juno” as among his “thrilling moments.”
Among the most successful productions, he said, was “1776.”
He said his most pleasant surprise was “The New Moon,” an operetta by Sigmund Romberg. When Rob Fisher, the program’s music director, suggested an operetta, “I said I hate operettas,” Viertel said. “Then I realized I had never heard one.”
He wouldn’t name duds, but acknowledged, “There were disappointments along the way, in some cases because the shows themselves didn’t contain as much great stuff as I had hoped or thought, and in some cases because we somehow misunderstood what they could be.”
He noted that, unlike Broadway shows, Encores! productions have no preview period, so they can’t be revised once audiences start coming.
Over the years, Viertel said, much has changed. Whereas actors originally performed in tuxedos and cocktail gowns holding scores in their hands, they are now generally off book and often in costume. Choreography has become a much bigger element of the productions. And audiences’ sense of history has changed.
“The loyal subscribers that we began with have begun to dwindle because of age and infirmity and moving to Florida,” he said. “For the younger audience, what has changed is their knowledge of the really early shows — it would be harder to do a show from 1925 now. It’s funny how history becomes ancient history as time goes along — I think this audience thinks of those shows the way I think of Gilbert & Sullivan.”
Viertel’s final show, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” will also be the newest Encores! has ever done — just 18 years after it appeared on Broadway.
He said there are a few shows he still dreams of working on as a consultant — he cited the little-known musicals “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” from 1962, “High Spirits,” from 1964, and “The Human Comedy,” from 1984. And he said an inability to get permission from rights holders had prevented productions of a few others he would have liked to have done, including “Oliver!” and “City of Angels.”
As for the future of presenting historical musicals in an era when the politics of entertainment is constantly up for debate, Viertel called that “an exciting challenge.”
He noted that Encores! has periodically excised “egregiously uncomfortable” lines from scripts. “There are shows that have sexual innuendo, wife-beating jokes and racial attitudes that we simply wouldn’t tolerate today, and we don’t feel bad about eliminating that,” he said. “That stuff should be eliminated. Whether the entire premise of a show is unacceptable is a good question, and will be asked.”
“I don’t think one should throw away one’s heritage — one should figure out what to do about one’s heritage, but one shouldn’t throw it away,” he said. “Exploring how to treat something from an earlier era in this era is actually a really good and healthy thing to be doing.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.