Lyn Austin, Producer of Daring 'Music-Theatre' Works, Dead at 78

News   Lyn Austin, Producer of Daring 'Music-Theatre' Works, Dead at 78 The death of Music-Theatre Group (MTG) producing director Lyn Austin Oct. 30 leaves a void in the experimental musical theatre — or "music theatre" — community, her friends and colleagues are saying.
Martin Santangelo, Daniel Hodd and Bruce Turk in the 1996 staging of Juan Darien, at Lincoln Center.
Martin Santangelo, Daniel Hodd and Bruce Turk in the 1996 staging of Juan Darien, at Lincoln Center. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

The death of Music-Theatre Group (MTG) producing director Lyn Austin Oct. 30 leaves a void in the experimental musical theatre — or "music theatre" — community, her friends and colleagues are saying.

Ms. Austin, who was instrumental at the beginning of many artistic careers and took out mortgages on her homes to fund new works, was killed in the early morning hours of Oct. 30 when she was struck by a taxi on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

The president of MTG's board and the group's producer (along with her business partner and companion, Diane Wondisford), Ms. Austin, in the late 1980s, provided crucial support to then unknowns Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal as they went about presenting their original Off-Broadway hit, Juan Darien.

Taymor and Goldenthal contacted Playbill On-Line on Oct. 30 after learning Austin's death. "She was the most uncompromising producer of musical theatre, who never rode the trendy wave and really saw the potential of the artists she chose to work with," Taymor told Playbill On-Line.

"She had this incredible instinct for choosing and trusting the vision of the artists she chose to work with," Goldenthal said. Taymor emphasized that, "The thing about her for us was her incredible intuition. We first spoke about Juan Darien and 10 minutes later she called and said, 'You've got the theatre for a year from now...we'll produce your production.' And this was before we'd done anything, at a time when we weren't known."

"She was seriously uncompromising and didn't care if something was commercial or noncommercial, as long as she believed in you and in the project," Goldenthal said.

Proof of Austin's commitment to her artists is the story that she personally helped finance the first run of Juan Darien. "There was nobody else like her," Taymor said, "she helped finance Juan Darien by taking a personal mortgage on her house."

The New York Times reported that Ms. Austin also took a second mortgage on one of her homes to support Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus. Other artists whose work was produced by Ms. Austin over the years include Anne Bogart, Eve Ensler, Elizabeth Swados, Stanley Silverman, David Del Tredici, Richard Peaslee, Bill Irwin, and more.

After working as a commercial Broadway and Off-Broadway producer or associate producer on such works as Mary Mary, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Oh, Dad, Poor Dad..., The Best Man, Cooper and Brass, Indians, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, Take a Giant Step, In the Summer House and A Far Country, Ms. Austin became executive director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1970 and then founded Music-Theatre Group in 1971.

It is thought that the term "music theatre" began — or at least was popularized in the American arts community — with Ms. Austin and Wondisford's company. In general, the term suggests a broader breaking-away from "musical comedy" and "musical theatre," terms that suggest more commercial and traditional forms, and incorporates other performing and visual arts into the product.

According to an MTG mission statement that appeared in the Juan Darien Playbill when the production was later remounted at Lincoln Center in 1996: "Its productions explore new creative territory linking music, theatre, dance and the visual arts. The Group's mission is to nurture and present the work of emerging and established artists in New York, across the country and at international festivals. "

Among MTG-produced works are The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Hunger Artist, The Mother of Us All, The Club, Nightclub Cantata, Africanus Instructus, Dr. Selavy's Magic Theatre, Diary of an African American, Moby Dick in Venice, Marco Polo, Extraordinary Measures and Poppie Nongena.

The bond between Taymor and Goldenthal with Austin remained strong over the years, and when Lincoln Center presented a financial award to the couple for its production of Juan Darien, they split the money between two groups: "We split it between Theatre for a New Audience and Music-Theatre Group," Taymor said, "because those are the two companies we feel the most love for and the most indebted to."

The Times reported that at the time of Ms. Austin's death, projects on MTG's plate included Swimming With Watermelons, by the creators of The Donkey Show; a new work by Running Man writers Cornelius Eady and Deidre Murray; a tour of Vienna: Lusthaus.

Ms. Austin was born Evelyn Page Austin, Jan. 14, 1922, in Glen Ridge, NJ. Her father was a banker. She graduated Vassar in 1944 and Columbia (with a master's in dramatic arts) in 1948.

— By Murdoch McBride
and Kenneth Jones