Looking Back On Six Decades of Kentucky’s Iconic Play

Writer  /  Shannon Siders

“The Stephen Foster Story” has been a staple of Kentucky history since 1959, and the beloved production has a lot to celebrate as they enter their 61st season.

In December 2017, the state shut down the performance facility, J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre, due to safety concerns. The amphitheater, located within Bardstown’s My Old Kentucky Home State Park, was in dire need of upgrades to be considered up to code.

“A lot has happened over the last 36 months,” says Marketing Director Billy Bass.

There was a major uproar upon initial announcement of the closing, from local residents as well as people around the world who had been impacted by the show in some way. In response, the Nelson County Fiscal Court took over the lease of the property from the state, allowing the organization to perform repair work before the 2018 season.

“We were told we could do the 60th season, with one caveat — we had to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it before the 2019 performance season,” Bass says.

With the help of Bardstown’s mayor and judge-executive, as well as countless community members, over $1M was raised in less than a year to help complete the project. As of March 2019, the project was in its final stages.

Audience members will find the seating and top of house areas look largely the same, but the entire stage was demolished to make way for new construction. The concrete of the original stage has been replaced, and the houses on stage were torn down and reconstructed with metal, in hopes they will last longer than the previous wood structures.

Although the project has been overwhelming at times, “The Stephen Foster Story” staff, cast and crew, are thrilled to be carrying on the tradition.

“The outpouring of support we received from fans, cast, former cast, crew, the community in Bardstown in Kentucky and beyond is overwhelming,” Bass says. “We want to celebrate that and say thank you by putting on the best productions we can this summer.”

“The Stephen Foster Story,” one of the oldest and longest-running outdoor shows in America, follows the life of America’s first great composer Stephen Collins Foster in the mid-19th century. The performance features more than 50 of Foster’s greatest compositions, including “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The performance looks a little different from year to year, but the story remains the same. This year’s production will feature new actors in the lead roles of Stephen Foster and Jane McDowell.

“It’s intriguing to see how different actors portray these iconic roles,” Bass says. “If you haven’t seen the show in the last few years, come back and see it. It’s really rare to find a show that’s been running for 61 years. We still have the same breathtaking costumes and song and dance numbers, but one of my favorite things about watching the show over the years is it does change.”

Bass has also seen first-hand the impact of the show around the globe. He joined “The Stephen Foster Story” in 2009 as his first performing job and had the chance to travel to Japan as part of the cast in 2013.

“One of the really cool things about Stephen Foster’s music is it is celebrated all over the world,” Bass says. “In Japan, they use his music to teach English to young kids.”

The cast members performed an abridged version of “The Stephen Foster Story” at the base of Mount Fuji that ended with “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“At least 75 percent of the audience was singing along with us at the end,” Bass says. “Music really is the universal language.”

“The Stephen Foster Story” is performed on select nights from June 8 through August 10. A special celebration will be held on Independence Day to celebrate Foster’s birth on that day in 1826. The celebration includes pre-show contests like hula-hooping and watermelon eating. Cupcakes are passed out to attendees at intermission, and the night is capped off with a fireworks show.

“The July 4 show is one of our favorite events,” Bass says. “Stephen Foster only lived until the age of 37, but even to this day, people know him as much as they know some of the most popular music on the radio.”

In addition to “The Stephen Foster Story,” the amphitheater also hosts a Broadway-style show each summer, and this year marks the return of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber hit musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” The show was last performed at the amphitheater in 2009, which was the first year at the helm for current Managing Artistic Director Johnny Warren.

“Bringing back the show is a cool way for things to come back around from when Warren first took over 10 years ago,” Bass says. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is one of his favorite productions, and helps us celebrate the decade he has spent directing.”

The amphitheater also hosts a summer concert series, and this year’s highlights include tributes to boy bands (Boy Band Review, July 29) and Bon Jovi (The Music of Bon Jovi, September 6), as well as country music chart-toppers Parmalee, featuring Lebanon, Kentucky, native and American Idol alum Layla Spring (July 15).

For more information on “The Stephen Foster Story,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and the summer concert series, or to buy tickets, visit stephenfoster.com or call 800-626-1563.

In the meantime, “The Stephen Foster Story” is excited to be back and better than ever. Bass, for one, is looking forward to the energy and excitement the performance season brings.

“In the off-season there are just three of us in the office, and it explodes into this force of 100 other people here between the cast, crew, ushers, box office and concessions,” he says. “It’s crazy how it goes from being so quiet to a crazy explosion of art and music.”

Bass and his colleagues are excited to have the opportunity to continue the tradition of “The Stephen Foster Story” for many more seasons to come.

“One of my favorite experiences every year is talking to parents and grandparents who saw the show years ago and are now bringing their kids and grandkids,” Bass says. “It’s fun to see the generational consistency. In preserving history, we have become history.”

For more information, visit stephenfoster.com.