by Keith Loria — When Center Stage’s production of In The Heights opens at Shelton Intermediate School on July 29, it will mark the 40th anniversary of productions for the husband-and-wife team of Gary and Francesca Scarpa, who serve as the Shelton theater’s artistic director and executive director, respectively.
The couple met at Southern Connecticut State College in the summer of 1973 when they were ensemble players in the world premiere of the play, She Haunts Me, which was based on the movie and TV show, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. She had just completed her freshman year at Southern and he was a rising senior.
“It started as a summer romance. There was a lot of ballroom dancing in the show and we were dance partners,” Gary said. “It was my first time in a play. I had grown up singing and in high school was something of a rock ’n’ roll musician, but this was the first time I ever auditioned for something and appeared on stage in this regard.”
Fran, meanwhile, was something of a theater veteran. Her father, Maestro Francesco Riggio, was a well-known opera conductor in New Haven, and her mother was a prominent voice teacher. She had basically grown up surrounded by the theater world.
“Truth is, had I not met her, I don’t feel like I would be doing this today 40 years later,” Gary said. “It was a natural thing though, having fallen in love with and marrying someone from a theatrical family, whose parents had done this their entire life.”
The two first joined forces on The Music Man at Shelton High School in 1976, when Gary, who was teaching at the time, convinced his then-fiancée to help him direct the student production—even though neither had ever directed a show before.
Fran still remembers her initial response to his directing proposal — “What are you, nuts?”
“He said, ‘You’ve been in shows, you can do it,’ but being in one and directing one is a totally different thing,” Fran said. “We did it together and fortunately, had a lot of friends from college who were knowledgeable and helped. That’s my husband — leap in with both feet and don’t worry about anything because it’s all going to be OK. He’s always willing to take a chance and try something new.”
That philosophy has led Fran to repeat the “What are you, nuts?” mantra more times than she can remember throughout their life together.
When Gary turned 30, he sadly realized that being a teacher was not going to cut it to provide the life he wanted for his wife and two small daughters at the time, so he took a job in sales. It didn’t take long for the absence of teaching and directing to sink in.
“I was in school sales, so it was quiet in the summer, and I decided it would be a good time to start a theater group,” he said. “We went to City Hall and told the Mayor (whose daughter had been in a couple of plays at Shelton) about our idea, and the former Huntington School was vacant, and he let us use the gym.”
That was the genesis of Youth CONNection, a summer theater group for high school and college students, which is now in its 33rd year.
“We did a production of West Side Story, in the extreme heat, but it was a great time and well received,” Fran said. “The next year we had a little money so we jumped to Shelton High School.”
In 2005, the Youth CONNection became part of a full-time Center Stage theater, also founded by the Scarpas. Each summer, those in the program kick off the new Center Stage season, which consists of five full-scale productions, cabaret events and a full slate of theatre education.
“Fran really runs the business end and I am more of the director,” Gary said. “When I direct a show, what happens is the last week I have her come in and give her final notes. I tell the cast ‘I have done my thing and now Fran will come in and fix things that I may not have noticed. You need to understand that Fran has as much say as what happens on the stage as I do, even though she may not have been working on the show from Day One.’”
From the very beginning, the collaboration has worked because of the trust the two share in each other.
“What’s fortunate about our relationship is that in theater, and in life, we have the same vision,” Fran said. “Even though he is really good about making sure we have equal power, the buck stops with Gary. I trust him and he trusts me. We support each other. Together we are a very strong team and able to see different things in a scene but the vision is clear on what the whole picture needs to be.”
The Scarpas also rely on a great group around them, and throughout their 40 years have had a solid team helping them on props, lighting, set construction, and all things theater-related.
One of those team members is their daughter, Gina, who works at Center Stage and is co-directing In the Heights with her father. It’s a musical that both Gary and Fran feel is perfect for both today’s and yesteryear’s generation.
“It’s just an awesome musical. For me, I really love classic, American musical theater, and what I love about In The Heights is that it has taken that form and stayed true to the form, but also turned it on its end. It takes rap and salsa and other rhythms not traditionally in American theater and makes it something new and exciting.”
Of course, In the Heights was the first Broadway effort of Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, and as evidenced by that show’s recent 11 Tony wins, his popularity has never been greater.
“He is amazing. An interpreter of words that is beyond brilliant,” Gary said. “His form of rap seems to be more like beat poetry or old school rap. He has a rhythm and life that is unique to him. When people hear that, you can’t help but me moved. The show has classic writings of ballads and up-tunes, a great storyline and beautiful songs that honor family and home. It’s a musical with a very big heart. It’s all the ingredients that we love in a show.”
The fact that the show also represents 40 years collaborating together also has special meaning for the Scarpas and they plan on commemorating the occasion the same way they have celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and other momentous moments in their life — partying with their cast.
“Our life has been celebrated and measured by shows,” Fran said. “We don’t have time to do anything else, but that’s how we like it. Celebrating with those who mean the most to us.”
Center Stage Theatre presents In the Heights at Shelton Intermediate School, 675 Constitution Boulevard North, at 8 p.m. on July 29, July 30, Aug. 5, and Aug. 6, as well as 2 p.m. on Aug. 6. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and may be purchased by calling the Center Stage box office at 203-225-6079 or by visiting www.centerstageshelton.org.