A jolt of electricity went through the Boston theater community in the fall of 1998. The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, under its new artistic director Spiro Veloudos, decided to mount Stephen Sondheim’s then-neglected musical “Assassins,” centered on the people who tried, and on four occasions succeeded, in assassinating American presidents. The production was a complete triumph, signaling that there was a company in town that could fill a huge gap in the local landscape.
On Thursday, Veloudos announced his retirement as the Lyric's artistic director, but leaves a lasting legacy as one of the most important figures in Boston theater’s recent history.
Before 1998, local non-commercial theater was dominated by the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater with the very occasional jewel in the rough among the small and midsize theaters, none of them producing quality drama on a regular basis. The Lyric, which formed in 1974, was known for its productions of classic theater, productions that led one highly-placed Boston theater observer to ask, “Why do they do plays that you need Maggie Smith to pull off?”
But Veloudos knew what the Lyric — and the budding Boston acting community — could pull off: provocative contemporary drama, much of it American. He would do that consistently at the Lyric. His departure, then, closes the first chapter of Boston’s emergence as a real theater community, one that is capable of mounting several excellent productions at the same time and that has an acting and directing pool that is deep and diverse.
Much of the thanks for those developments go to Veloudos, who pretty much wrote a job description that would become his legacy. Chatting recently about his decision to leave, he recalled his interview for the job two decades ago. “I wanted to change the repertory. I told the board, ‘Thank you very much but I do not want to be the curator of a museum. I want to be the artistic director of a theater and I want to bring my own agenda. It’s going to be more modern. It’s going to be musical. It would be great to do world premieres, but certainly the second or third production of a play. And I want to do it with local actors.’ ”
It all sounds like a no-brainer now, but it was transformative at the time.
I can’t say that I had high expectations when Veloudos took over the Lyric in 1998. I had become theater critic at the Boston Globe in the mid-‘90s after the death of longtime critic Kevin Kelly and, like Kelly, was appalled at the quality of small and midsize theater in Boston, including two or three productions at Veloudos’ previous theater, the smaller, and smaller-budgeted outdoor Publick Theatre on the banks of the Charles River that he ran for 18 years.
When Veloudos, who grew up in Springfield and attended Emerson, opened his first season at the Lyric with Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” it didn’t seem as if the wheel was being reinvented. But it was. Everything about the production was sure-footed — the cast, the set and, most of all, the direction by Veloudos himself. Though Simon is often dismissed as a lightweight, Veloudos found the emotional soul of the play and everything flowed from there.
Finding those emotional truths became the director’s trademark. As his friend, Rick Lombardo, former artistic director at the New Repertory Theatre, said in 2006 when I profiled Veloudos for the Boston Globe: “That big Greek heart. You always feel that somewhere in his work."
That was even more evident with “Assassins,” his next production. The musical had been deemed too tough for audiences, but Veloudos cut through the ambiguities of the material to find a piece that held American celebrity culture as well as gun culture to account — while also giving full voice to the strangely alluring but difficult score.
It was a tour de force that raised the bar. Veloudos made midsize theater essential to the city’s artistic identity. And he wasn’t alone. A director named Scott Edmiston had come to town and staged a production of Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney” that rivaled the Broadway production of a few years earlier at the Nora Theatre Company. And before long, other midsize companies were doing exemplary work as well — SpeakEasy, New Repertory Theater and the late lamented Sugan.
Edmiston became one of Veloudos' go-to directors. Last season, for example, Veloudos brought another neglected Sondheim masterpiece, “Pacific Overtures,” to the fore while Edmiston sank his teeth into Lillian Hellman’s deliciously Gothic, “The Little Foxes.” It was something of the year of the jackal at the Lyric last year with another talented director, A. Nora Long, taking the reins for “The Wolves.”
With his penchant for high-spirited and thoughtful musicals featuring big casts, the Lyric also became home to a rash of Boston’s best singers, including Leigh Barrett and Aimee Doherty. Veloudos has also been at the forefront of the push toward diversity among local theaters with plays like Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” giving a larger stage in 2014 to director Summer L. Williams of Company One along with actors Brandon G. Green, Lindsey McWhorter and Cheryl Singleton. The same goes for “Chinglish” in 2012 which introduced many Boston theatergoers to the city’s Asian-American acting community.
When Veloudos took over at the Lyric, Edward Albee, persona non grata at the A.R.T. and Huntington, suddenly had a home in Boston. He continued his exploration of the plays of David Mamet that he had begun at the Lyric before he was artistic director. And Sondheim. The Lyric wasn’t the only theater in town doing Sondheim, but he did more of them (10) and he did them better than anyone else in town.
His talent was rewarded with a StageSource Theatre Hero Award in 2003 and the Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence in 2006. (I’m a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association that presents the Norton awards.) Boston Magazine named him Best Artistic Director in 1999.
I nod in agreement as he lists his favorites over the past 20 years: Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” in 2012 “with one of my oldest friends in Boston theater, Will LeBow, and one of my youngest, Omar Robinson”; a majestic production of the sprawling “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” in 2010; a hilarious “Noises Off” in 2004; a lapel-grabbing “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 2002; and the Sondheims.
So it's somewhat appropriate that Sondheim provided the soundtrack for Veloudos’ decision to step down. “There were two songs that kept playing in my head,” said Veloudos. " ‘Next’ from ‘Pacific Overtures’ and ‘Move On’ from ‘Sunday in the Park with George.' "
Veloudos has long been suffering from Type 2 diabetes and an infection led to an amputation of his left leg in December of 2016. “I can’t deny the fact that all the health issues over the last three years added to that thought. Given the fact that three years ago I was not at work for 90 days and then again later that year after ‘Camelot’ opened I ended up in hospital again for a good part of the summer. Last February I fell and my left knee became swollen and I couldn't walk. Suddenly I felt very mortal, the mortality of losing a leg and thankfully coming through that and fairly positively, I started to think about leaving and that was part of the decision.”
He had also begun to dislike the amount of administrative work on his plate and wanted to concentrate on his first love, directing. “I’m at an age, , that I’m not really old — I’m not young — but I don't want to go out to the pasture. I’m looking for new opportunities before I’m too old to do anything about that.”
Matt Chapuran is going to be running the show as executive director, with current associate artistic director Courtney O'Connor stepping up to be artistic director while a search begins for Veloudos' replacement. Veloudos is rooting for O'Connor to get the gig.
As for Velouos’ next chapter, it might not be in Boston, though he hopes to return to the Lyric. “It’s all going to depend on who the next artistic director is. Another person might have a different agenda. We talked about at least one show a year. Hopefully I’ll continue to do things at the Lyric, but I’m excited about doing things elsewhere. I think I’ve done my job in Boston. I have a sister in Virginia and her two kids. It might not be a bad idea to be a little closer to them.”
Hopefully we’ll see Veloudos back here often. He indeed did his job in Boston and Boston theatergoers have much to celebrate, thanks to him.