Broadway Buzz: Joe Garry gives the inside scoop on Playhouse Square productions

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From “A Little Night Music” to “Zorba The Greek,” Joe Garry’s encyclopedic knowledge of The Great White Way is one Cleveland audiences have come to treasure.

For almost two decades, the retired Cleveland State University (CSU) theater studies professor has taken the stage before each production in Playhouse Square’s Broadway Series season to present a half-hour lecture to theater lovers who come early to hear him speak in the Upper Allen Theatre.

Each of Garry’s Broadway Buzz talks is filled with engaging, behind-the-scenes tidbits and insights that complement the action that will soon take place on stage.

Daniel HahnDaniel HahnDaniel Hahn, Playhouse Square’s vice president of education, estimates that more than 36,000 patrons attend the free Broadway Buzz talks each season. They’ve become so popular that many of them are archived by Ideastream Public Media and on YouTube.

“Weeks and weeks before every show, Joe begins his meticulous process of research for Broadway Buzz,” Hahn says. “He listens to past and present soundtrack recordings, reads any book written about it and combs pages of research material. Joe never uses notes or reads from a script. There’s only a little clock facing him at the foot of the stage so he can perfectly time his talks to the minute every time.”

It’s a process the teacher never tires of.

“I’m delighted to do this,” Garry says. “It’s truly a passion of mine. My goal is to tell the story of each production in as engaging a way as I can; not so the audience knows my point of view, but so they’re open to finding their own points of view about it.”

Of all the shows Garry has seen and discussed here and abroad, there’s one he reveres above the rest: “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

The revue of songs made famous by the Belgian troubadour, and directed by Garry, made its State Theatre premiere on a makeshift stage on April 18, 1973.

Reduced to ruin in the late 1960s, the State, Palace, Ohio, and Allen Theatres had become eyesores slated for demolition. Garry’s innovative interpretation of that successful show changed the fate of the theaters. It silenced the death knell that seemed inevitable for the venues and popularized the movement to restore their grandeur.

Back in 1972, Garry was teaching at CSU, having recently created the university’s theater studies program. His impressive direction of “Jacques Brel” at Berea Summer Theater and Cleveland State caught the attention of Ray Shepardson, a Cleveland Public Schools employee who was captivated by the vacant Playhouse Square theaters and was determined to revitalize them.

Shepardson caught the last performance of “Jacques Brel” at CSU and approached Garry with the suggestion of moving the production to the decaying State Theatre lobby.

Broadway Buzz in Upper Allen TheatreBroadway Buzz in Upper Allen Theatre“I thought the idea was madness and that Raymond was crazy,” Garry recalls. “But he was the pied piper of dreams. We’d walk through the theaters together, and he’d say, ‘I see great stars being on this stage. What do you see?’ And I’d say, ‘I see young faces in the audience.’”

Garry, cast, and crew transformed the neglected State lobby into an intimate 360-seat cabaret to spotlight the musical’s brilliance.

Everyone associated with the show was confident it would attract a full house during the scheduled three-week run. But they couldn’t imagine the faithful legion of 100,000 patrons the production would repeatedly draw—eager to support the vision of giving the historic structures a second chance.

When “Jacques Brel” closed on June 25, 1975, after 522 performances, it had broken records as the longest-running Ohio show to that date.

This spring, a plaque was unveiled in the KeyBank State Theatre lobby to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that monumental production, which was responsible for giving Playhouse Square the new lease on life it enjoys today.

“There are so many reasons why Joe Garry is the ideal host for Broadway Buzz,” Hahn reflects. “First, we have the man who directed the show that saved Playhouse Square telling you about the show you’re about to see at Playhouse Square. And, since he’s a former theater professor, Joe knows how to teach in educational and engaging ways.

“Since he’s spent a lifetime in the industry,” Hahn continues, “Joe is also able to color his remarks with personal anecdotes and recollections that give the Broadway Buzz experience a special touch unlike anyone else can.”

Clearly, Garry’s ardor for one of the world’s largest theater districts has not cooled.

“Every time I walk through it, my eyes fill with tears because I remember what it wasn’t, he says. “The debris, the destruction, the time where no one could see any hope or acceptance for the space. And now here it is. We are incomparable. With the blending of public television, the Idea Center, and real estate in the area, there’s nothing like Playhouse Square in the world.

“The phoenix has risen from the ashes,” he adds, “and Playhouse Square is the Emerald City.”

Garry’s latest Broadway Buzz talks on “Girl from North Country" are now underway, running through Sunday, Nov. 19. Next, Garry will talk about “Mrs. Doubtfire” from Tuesday, Jan. 9 through Sunday, Jan. 28. Talks take place in the Upper Allen, accessible through the Allen Theatre lobby. This season’s Broadway Buzz schedule runs through Aug. 10, 2024. Admission is free.

Linda Feagler
Linda Feagler

About the Author: Linda Feagler

Northeast Ohio native Linda Feagler never tires of indulging her passion for arts and culture Her favorite pastimes include attending Broadway musicals at Playhouse Square, visiting one-of-a-kind bookshops that include Loganberry Books in Cleveland Heights and The Learned Owl in Hudson, and spending the day with Impressionists at The Cleveland Museum of Art.