It’s Kismet: A Love for Broadway, and Bringing it Home to Santa Barbara

By Sara Miller McCune   |   July 1, 2021

Growing up in New York during the 1950s turned me into a lover of Broadway theatre — especially musicals. By the age of 18 I’d been fortunate enough to see wonderful productions of West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and close to a hundred other musicals, dramas, and comedies.

Kismet was performed at Lincoln Center in 1965

I next fell in love with live ballet performance and saw the first performances brought to New York (in the early 1960s) by producer Sol Hurok of the Leningrad Kirov Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet. I had by then also seen many wonderful performances staged by the great choreographer George Balanchine who had founded and co-presided over the New York City Ballet. I still remember seeing my first ballet — which starred Maria Tallchief dancing the lead role in Stravinsky’s Firebird (before she retired in 1966).

My very favorite musical turned out to be Kismet, which opened on Broadway in 1953 and won a Tony award in 1954 for Best Musical. It played in the London’s West End in 1955, at the Lincoln Center in 1965, and was performed by the New York City Opera in 1985. The MGM movie made of Kismet in 1955 was in some ways also wonderful — especially the music and dances! But I also felt the movie version was a bit “over the top.”

Kismet’s main theme is the entwinement of love and faith — to some extent that faith will determine with whom you fall in love. It is also a story that reminds me in many ways of the tales of the Arabian Nights and other places from far away and long ago. There are two pairs of lovers — young and mature. The sense of destiny is never far from us, but there are also themes of the differences between those who are poor and those who are extremely wealthy. Kismet is both complex and extraordinarily simple.

For most of the last decade I have had a burning desire to see Kismet once again live and on stage. Its musical themes were derived from the great Russian composer Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Over the decades, the music and the words often played themselves in my head and seemed as if they were calling out to me with a special message. I missed the songs and the splendor — the music and the magic! I missed the cheerful witty songs, the dynamic action and dance, as well as the sheer splendor of the music and the magic on the stage!

So, a few years ago I decided that I would bring Broadway to Santa Barbara with a live and beautifully staged production of this wonderful show with the leading roles played by Broadway talent, and with the music provided by Santa Barbara Symphony (which has become better and better over the last 30 years) and newly choreographed dances performed by our very own, and much beloved, State Street Ballet, which celebrated its 25th anniversary shortly before the COVID pandemic put live performances out of our lives in early 2020.

I discussed this idea with a friend of mine, Broadway producer Ken Davenport (who has won two Tony Awards) and he agreed to sign on as executive producer. Ken encouraged me to recruit Broadway director Lonny Price who has worked with some of my favorite Broadway musical stars, including Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, Patti LuPone, Emma Thompson, and Glenn Close

Lonny and I had dinner at the Russian Tea Room in New York a year and a half ago and he was just as excited as I was. But we agreed that some of the dialog would need to be updated — as the script was more than 60 years old, and many things have changed during those decades. At that dinner we decided to go ahead and plan to have this production launched to celebrate my 80th birthday in February 2021.

This milestone birthday was both wonderful and surreal for me. For one thing, I truly believed for most of the last two decades that I would be incredibly lucky to celebrate even a 75th birthday. My father’s family was riddled with cancer. Both my dad and his father died of this disease, two of his three brothers had serious bouts of cancer toward the end of their lives, and I had survived two serious cancer surgeries starting two years after being widowed and then moving to Santa Barbara in 1992. But I kept my mind focused on what I could do each year — work, philanthropy (both requiring a lot of travel), staying in touch with close friends and family members. Taking things a year at a time for the most part.

When I finally passed my 75th birthday and celebrated my company’s 50th anniversary with events in Santa Barbara, New York, London, and New Delhi, I realized that I should perhaps visualize what I had for so long considered an “impossible dream” (thinking of yet another favorite musical — Man of La Mancha and its central character Don Quixote as envisioned by Miguel Cervantes).

I knew that of all my favorite musicals, Kismet was both wonderful and yet rarely performed — but I wanted to share its beautiful melodies and witty lyrics, its colorful and splendid costumes, its amazing opportunities for active and beautiful dances. And I believed that our own symphony and ballet companies could showcase their amazing strengths to us — especially if they could have the advantage of input from a great director and the five leading roles played by strong, experienced Broadway talent.

When COVID came along, I self-isolated early (fearing the outcome, especially with personal concerns relating to my age and upper-respiratory issues). I believed that this was going to be a protracted period with many people negatively affected throughout our community, our nation, and the world. What followed was far worse than I had originally expected!

As the founder of an educational publishing company with slightly more than 1,400 employees throughout the world (with our largest cohorts in the U.S., U.K., and India) I have been amazed by what we were able to do for and with our employees and a terrific management team. At the same time, I was horrified by the numbers of people who were seriously ill, hospitalized, and the death rates that kept climbing — and still are in various places, including India. 

It also seems that the poorest people everywhere were getting the worse end of the stick: Often doing the toughest and most necessary jobs while not receiving the care, protective equipment needed, and still all too often not being paid even as they were obviously in harm’s way. Where was the social justice that we all need in times of crisis?

Of course, our plans for Kismet had to be rescheduled. But by then, all our lives were being rescheduled – so that was a given. I decided to celebrate my birthday in a longer, but mostly more muted way. I have scarcely been away from my home except (in recent months) for medical appointments. Like over 95% of our employees, I am working from home. 

My 80th birthday is being celebrated during the entire year of 2021, rather than just February. And we moved our production forward to October 21-24 of this year at the Granada Theatre as a treat for myself, my friends, and my community — as we emerge (somewhat shell-shocked) from the pandemic and begin to create the “new normal” of whatever changes will follow with work, education, and how we live our lives in a post-COVID period.


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