Singing had always been a big part of Allan Foster’s life, but it was a 1955 Schenectady Light Opera Company production of “Carousel” that got him hooked on musical theater.
More than a half century and 60 productions later, Foster is still singing and performing with the company, and tonight at 8 will continue his long association with SLOC as it begins a two-weekend run of “Beguiled Again: The Songs of Rodgers and Hart.” It’s a musical revue without much of a story line, but it’s a perfect showcase for a performer like Foster who, while he has done straight drama, feels much more at ease on stage when he knows a song is coming up.
“I enjoy doing straight plays, but I’ve always been more interested in doing musicals,” said Foster, who was a General Electric engineer for 39 years before retiring in 1995.
“There’s something nice about being on stage and knowing the orchestra is going to fire up every 10 minutes or so and give you some music. You don’t have the distraction of a musical break in a straight play, but I enjoy singing so much I’ve always look forward to that part. Quite frequently, a musical becomes nothing more than a bridge from song to song, but that’s always been fine with me.”
Foster was born in Brooklyn but spent much of his young life in England, singing in church and community choirs. It wasn’t until he was at Yale University, where he was one of 14 men selected to sing in the Whiffenpoofs — an a cappella group founded back in 1909 at the school — that he even considered acting as another artistic outlet he might like to try.
“We had a big football weekend at Yale and we would put on a Gilbert and Sullivan show,” remembered Foster. “Anyone who was a tenor had to play a female. So that was when I first acted, and I did really enjoy it. It was a lot of fun.”
It wasn’t until a few years later, however, when he had moved to Schenectady to begin working at GE, that Foster had his epiphanic moment at a SLOC show being staged at the now defunct Erie Theater on State Street.
“I saw the notice in the newspaper. So I went down there to see this show not really expecting too much,” said Foster. “It was probably the first time I had seen a play and I was surprised by how really moved I was by it. I had tears in my eyes. How emotional I was was my first thought. My second thought was, ‘hey, I can sing as well as anyone in the chorus. I might enjoy doing that.’ So I waited for a while and then went to an audition and I got a small part.”
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Foster was in the chorus for SLOC’s 1957 production of “The Merry Widow,” and by 1958 he was already one of the male leads in “Naughty Marietta.” He has performed at other venues, including a recent non-singing performance in “The Crucible” at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, but more often than not you can find him singing away, usually at SLOC.
“Beguiled Again,” according to Foster, is the 60th SLOC production he has either performed in, directed or helped produce.
“I think I hold the unenviable distinction of being the longest-serving person in that group,” Foster said of his 51-year association with SLOC. “I’ve always tried to do at least one thing with them each year, be it on stage or off. I’ve done some directing and I really enjoy it, but it’s very time-consuming and totally absorbing. If I had to choose between directing and performing, I’d take the performing. It’s a lot easier.”
Foster, however, says his highlight at SLOC was directing a production of “Lies & Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin,” in 1989. The show won a state and regional competition for community theaters, and Foster was at the helm when the SLOC production went to Barcelona to compete in an international theater festival.
“That was just an unbelievable experience,” remembered Foster. “We picked up our set and carried it to Spain. So to be able to take a group and participate on the international level was fantastic. What was really exciting was the night of Germany’s reunification, the day they took the Berlin Wall down, we watched an East German theater group perform a play. I’m sure that had to be the last East German play ever performed.”
Memories of war
Being in Europe when the wall came down may be a great memory for Foster, but he also has some personal experience from another great occurrence in 20th century history: World War II.
“We lived on the outskirts of the biggest airstrip in Britain,” said Foster. “I can vividly remembering the bombs dropping; there was a stretch when it happened twice a day; and I can also remember 17 soldiers were killed right in front of the house I lived in.”
Foster’s parents had left the United States to escape the Great Depression and lived for about 10 years near Bristol, England, until they moved back across the Atlantic Ocean to Connecticut when Foster was in high school.
“I was a church or a cathedral soloist, they would call it, all the time I was in England, and I think my parents were looking at singing as a way to improve our lot in life,” said Foster. “We were middle class, at best, and I think they thought that singing would help me socially. We came back to the U.S. because it wasn’t so easy to find work in Britain either, and I think they also wanted to show me off to the grandparents. I’ve been singing in front of people my whole life.”
When Barry Corlew, another SLOC veteran, signed on to direct “Beguiled Again,” his first thought was to make sure Foster was in the cast.
“There’s one number in this show, a heart-wrenching beautiful song, and Allan is the only person I could see doing it,” said Corlew. “He has this great vocal quality. Once he learns a number and knows what he has to do vocally, he’s incredible to listen to. His voice is a show-stopper.”
Foster, who is joined in the cast by Bonnie Williams, Kate Kaufman-Burns, Judi Merriam, Patrick Doyle, Jessica Vadney and Bill Spillane, said the opportunity to sing songs written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was something he couldn’t pass up.
“When you think of all the standards they wrote, it’s quite amazing,” said Foster. “It’s beautiful, very interesting music, and I was quite taken by how clever the lyrics were. They were quite a prolific duo.”
Foster, who says he’s in his “mid 70s,” initially got involved with SLOC because his bosses at GE thought it would look good on his resumé.
“When I first came to town, it was GE’s philosophy that we should participate in the community as much as we could,” said Foster, whose first wife, Marion, died of cancer. Foster and his second wife, Lois, were married four years ago. “They definitely were pushing things like getting involved politically or on the school board. For me it was community theater, and it’s amazing how it became a dominant part of my life. But I loved singing and performing, and the opportunity to create the friendships I’ve made here at SLOC has been wonderful.”
‘Beguiled Again: The Songs of Rodgers and Hart’
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 826 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Jan. 18-19 and 2 p.m. Jan. 20
HOW MUCH: $25, $10 for children under age 13
MORE INFO: (877) 350-7378
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Categories: Life and Arts