PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The street outside the Barrington Stage Company’s theater is quiet and gritty. But step inside and you almost feel like you could be in New York. On stage, a group of actors works through a series of songs for tech rehearsal. An enormous illuminated screen glows behind them, slowly alternating colors — blue to red, then back to blue.
A handsome young vocalist named Wilson Bridges stands at a microphone, singing his heart out. From his place behind a desk — stage right — composer and lyricist Bill Finn coaches and tweaks the performer’s delivery. Then they all take a break.
“The juices happen when you’re here,” Finn said. He knows this from personal experience.
Up in the theater’s balcony, the affable musical theater dynamo leaned in and told me the story about the winter of 2004. That’s when he, his co-writers, and Barrington Stage’s artistic director Julie Boyd created “The 25th Putnam Country Spelling Bee.” At that time the theatre company was based in nearby Sheffield.
“It was a miserable, snowy, freezing winter,” Finn recalled, “and I felt like I was in ‘The Shining’ writing. I was going crazy here.”
But the words and music flowed, he said, “and so the show was written here, and we did it here twice. And I felt like I was walking around knowing we had a hit.”
“Spelling Bee” was a big hit, indeed. It took Broadway by storm in 2005.
And while that long winter of writing made Finn believe in the Berkshire’s power to inspire, he admits he didn’t always have much faith in the city of Pittsfield. Just a few months after “Spelling Bee” won at the Tony Awards, Boyd told Finn the Barrington Stage was going to move from Sheffield to Pittsfield. His reaction? Panic.
“No,” he cried, as Finn remembered the moment, “What are you doing?”
Finn was horrified because of Pittsfield’s enduring reputation as a dying town. He had heard about it as a student at Williams College.
“When I was at Williams, GE had just moved out,” Finn said.
“Pittsfield was going through terrible times, and I really just didn’t know anything about the town. And so I thought, ‘Oh God, that’s a tough one.’ And it’s amazing but I think the mayor, Mayor (James) Roberto, has decided to use culture as a way to bring the town back. And it’s working, amazingly. So they were right, I was wrong, and I’m thrilled to be along for the ride.”
Finn comes up to Pittsfield every summer to lead the Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab. It’s an incubator for his rising, young students from New York. Now Finn calls Pittsfield “the epicenter of new musical theater writing,” and said “people want to come here and rehearse.”
Carmen Ruby Floyd, 27, is one of them.
“Bill Finn is the man, he just is,” she said in the Barrington Stage lobby.
She admits that she didn’t knowing much about Pittsfield before arriving this summer, except that it’s often referred to as a “stepping stone to Broadway.”
“What I knew of it is that this is where things are created,” Floyd said. “This is the workshop, the set-up. The ‘Let’s see how this goes, we have a new piece, we want to test it out, we want to see what it can bring.’ And then you take it to the city.”
As in, New York City. Ruby Floyd said that in the musical theater world, the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield has a kind of hush-hush cache.
“I think it’s that wonderful secret,” Floyd said.
Actors say things among themselves like “Have you worked at Barrington? Did you know that’s where ‘this’ came from?” And Floyd thinks that’s great, “because it’s like that little dive restaurant that they’ll walk by, but once you go in and have that fabulous food you’ll always come back. So that’s what I think this place is.”
As for her mentor, Bill Finn, now he has a cute nickname for the city he once rejected.
“Unfortunately, Pittsfield — the ‘pit’ doesn’t help, and so we call it ‘the field,’ ” Finn said.