MATUNUCK â€“ After he saved Theatre By the Sea twice, once in 1966 from demolition and again in 2007 when he brought the current producing team together and he produced more than 100 plays between 1967 and 1988, the original Matunuck theater performers returned for one last show to remember the man who made them who they are today, Tommy Brent.
In a memorial show, Songs of the Sand: A Broadway concert Celebrating Tommy Brent,many talented actors and actresses hailing from Broadway, New York came back to their roots in Matunuck on July 22, filling the Theatre By the Sea to capacity along with fans who remember those theatrical faces to new fans who are just learning of the theaterâ€™s legacy and tradition.
Rhode Islandâ€™s theatrical man, Tommy Brent passed away in his sleep Thursday, June 2 just before he was going to attend the opening night of the theaterâ€™s performance of Man of La Mancha this summer.
Brent was first introduced to Theatre By The Sea in the late 1940s, when he was involved with a documentary about theaters in New England. A decade later, after learning the theater was slated for demolition, Brent took over the management of the summer theater and made it into a Rhode Island institution.
Throughout his years as producer and even beyond, Brent helped launch the careers of many performers, many of whom would go onto perform in New York.
News of Brentâ€™s death rippled throughout the theatrical community, touching performers who made their debut in the 1960s to young kids just starting out. Tommy Brent was an institution. He would be remembered.
After hearing of his death, Fred Barton, who performed with Theatre By the Sea from 1977 to 1981 and is now a TV composer, musical director and actor helped reach out to many of the theatreâ€™s performers. Barton said emails were sent and soon everyone knew of the memorial to take place this past week.
Although many performers wanted to come back to remember Brent, Barton was able to organize the musical to include some of the theaterâ€™s original performers like Meg Bussert, who starred in the theater in 1971 and Rich Flanders who appeared at the theater from 1970 to 1973.
After performing in Broadway productions like Irene, Somethingâ€™s Afoot, The New Moon and My Fair Lady and teaching at New York University Steinhardt, Bussert returned to the Theatre By The Sea stage Monday night and sang one of the most moving performances of the night.
â€śI teach musical theater history. Weâ€™d be talking about the ancient Greeks. They believed there was three ingredients to storytelling. The first ingredient is the storyteller. The second ingredient is space. The third ingredient is the audience. Without an audience, the storytellers and space are living in perpetual rehearsal. Thatâ€™s purgatory,â€ť Bussert said to the crowded theater before singing. â€ś[Tommy Brent] spent a life pulling these three ingredients together. It was important work and it is important work.â€ť
Flanders, who appeared in the Brent productions of 10 Nights in a Barroom, Sheep on the Runway and The Boyfriend, went out to perform on Broadway in Shenandoah and Double Standards. Monday night Flanders spoke about the paradise that was Theatre By The Sea.
â€śComing from New York, this place was paradise. I looked forward to it every summer. It wasnâ€™t just the beauty of the place. There was a heartfulness of this place that nurtured us all to become better performers,â€ť Flanders said.
Broadway star Sandy Rosenberg brought a few laughs Monday night after she highlighted some of the performances she did as part of the theaterâ€™s junior company in 1976 when she was four years old. Performing in George Washington Slept Here, Hello, Dolly! and Jack and the Bean Stalk, Rosenberg can barely remember her roles except for a few programs she dug up. Yet, despite not being able to remember her roles, Rosenberg credited Brent with giving her the ability to perform in Broadway shows like Mamma Mia and act in national tours like Les Miserables.
â€śIn addition to giving young people a chance on stage, he loved giving Rhode Island kids a chance to see a show,â€ť Rosenberg said.
Standing beside Rosenberg, Martin Van Treuren, who also performed at the theater in 1976, but had much bigger roles seeing that he was 24 years old at the time, also reflected on Brentâ€™s impact on his career. Van Treuren went on to perform Dr. Seussâ€™ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol on Broadway.
â€śTommy Brent did a lot more than make great productions. He gave us an opportunity to learn, to learn theater and to learn about ourselves. He gave us an opportunity to make friendships that would last a lifetime,â€ť Van Treuren said.
After many performers graced the Matunuck stage, showcasing the voices they developed after learning and working with Brent, including Broadway stars like Bradley Jones, Allison Bevan and Anna McKenna, the face that every person met, performer or fan, before walking into the theater, Martha Stamp spoke and brought laughter among the remembering friends.
From 1979 to 1988, Stamp worked at the front booth at the theater, selling tickets and she continues to call herself Brentâ€™s best friend. She spoke of many memories she made working at the theater, including stealing toilet paper from Brentâ€™s secret stash in his office for the usherettes. Sneaking off with the extra rolls, Stamp recalls winding around the corner of his office and finding Brent standing right in front of her, wearing that smirk of his.
â€śAll of us have memories. Maybe for some it is no TV, no cell phones or no transportation, but we were all lucky to be hired by Tommy Brent,â€ť Stamp said.
Stamp recalled how she applied for a job at the theater, but Brent told her she was overqualified so she volunteered. The next day he hired her, however she had gotten a job at the fish co-op. After one day at the fish co-op, she came home smelling like fish so she went back to Brent.
â€śHe rehired me and that was the best that happened to me,â€ť Stamp said.
Before reading letters from Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Senators Susan Sosnowski and Donna Walsh that marked Monday â€śTommy Brent Day,â€ť Stamp asked the audience to remember the legacy of Brent by making a donation to the new Tommy Brent Memorial Fund that will establish an annual arts scholarship at the theater and the underwriting of one internship position. To donate, visit www.theatrebythesea.com.
Before a standing ovation where the performers all joined on stage to sing one last song to the man who started their careers, Brentâ€™s nephew-in-law, Gary Donnelly spoke, thanking everyone who made the memorial show such a riveting one. Growing up in Maryland, Brent left behind seven nieces and nephews and 40 grandchildren with 11 family members able to travel from Washington D.C. and Maryland to attend the show.