Ken Gargaro gears up for his next act

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Not so fast with the goodbyes, Ken Gargaro says. He has just reached the end of one act, with another waiting in the wings.

The founder first of Gargaro Productions and then Pittsburgh Musical Theater, a haven and launching pad for local students and professionals, is stepping down from his leadership role and handing the reins to longtime PMT manager Colleen Petrucci.

He'll study in Italy for a while and visit former students in New York City for a few months, but he has no plans to stop what he has been doing for the past 40 years: teaching and creating musical theater experiences in Pittsburgh.

The shift in power becomes official Sept. 30, when the revitalized PMT building on Main Street in the West End is dedicated and Mr. Gargaro goes on sabbatical from his job at Robert Morris University. In search of a retirement plan after running his own theater since 1990, he took his doctorate in theater arts (from the University of Pittsburgh) and a master's in music education (from Duquesne University) to the Moon campus in 2002 as a professor and coordinator of the university's Colonial Theatre.

While he remains at RMU, he said the time was right to let go of his own company because, first, he feels comfortable that his successor understands the economics of running a company and the mission he has honed and refined over a quarter century.

Stated simply, Pittsburgh Musical Theater is all about combining education with performance.

"I credit the charter of the Pittsburgh Playhouse with that idea," Mr. Gargaro said. "I discovered it when I first started working at the Playhouse in '82. The original mission was 'the Playhouse school of the theater.' It was a place where education and performance, professionals and community could hang out together. I decided that was a really good Pittsburgh philosophy."

Second, he leaves the company in a sound state and will remain connected as a member of the board, with the occasional teaching and directing assignment.

"We are coming off what will be the best year we've had in nearly a decade, the school is flourishing, the building is bought and being renovated -- it's a good time to make an exit," he said on May 2, minutes before he walked over to the Byham Theater for the announcement of PMT's 2014-15 season, the first chosen by someone other than Ken Gargaro.

"I'd rather be making an exit at a time of prosperity," he said. "Was it hard? Hell, yeah. It's like sending your kid to college or your daughter to the altar. Do I have any second thoughts? Hell, no. Ironically, after going through all the emotions, I feel free to develop more artistically than I ever have before."

Seated at a small table at the Starbucks across the street from Heinz Hall, he had a neat pile of books next to him, with Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success" on the top.

His future pursuits will include that trip to Florence "to work on Renaissance art and compositional techniques as applied to the stage," he said.

"And I'm going to New York City for a month," he added. "I want to reconnect with all the professionals and students that I've nurtured over the years. I have been feeling disconnected, and I want to focus on becoming a better teacher and less of an entrepreneur -- and [Robert Morris is] very much interested in me furthering contacts in New York."

Where it began

Growing up, Mr. Gargaro was a frequent visitor to the West End that PMT now calls home. The Stowe native would arrive via streetcar, because the neighborhood contained the nearest library.

He was heading toward a career as a musician and music educator when he heard the call of the impossible dream.

"The very first time I discovered musical theater was right across the street," he said, pointing toward Heinz Hall and noting it was the Loew's Penn at the time. "It was the first national tour of 'Man of La Mancha' in 1968. I saw Richard Kiley and I was blown away. My girlfriend at the time dragged me, and I was like, 'I want to do this.' "

He became the chorus leader at Plum High School and directed his first musical there while also performing in a show for the first time, as Benny Southstreet in White Barn Theater's "Guys and Dolls."

"I got bitten by the theater bug," and that was that.

After a stint teaching at a small liberal arts college in Maryland, he returned to Pittsburgh and was hired by the Playhouse in 1982. He became a director and producer there before starting his own company in 1990.

A beautiful friendship

The musical "Little Shop of Horrors" holds several happy memories for Mr. Gargaro, including how he got Pittsburgh's first production of the show.

"I went to New York and knocked on the door of whoever was handling the rights. He said I had to meet with [Oscar, Tony and Grammy winner] Alan Menken ... and that's how I did it. I met with Alan Menken. I was this young kid and he looked at me like, 'What are we doing here?' I put a cassette tape in of my last show, and he listened for like five seconds and said, 'Oh yeah, do it.' "

Mr. Gargaro cast actor/educator/philanthropist Richard Rauh as Mushnik in the musical, and they became friends. Starting a conservatory together came a while later.

"Having a school was a necessity for the company. In 1995, we just came up with a strategy on the back of a napkin, and Richard has been a regular donator ever since," Mr. Gargaro said.

Alumni who have passed through the Rauh Conservatory include Broadway actors Leigh Ann Larkin ("A Little Night Music," "Gypsy") and Paul McGill ("Bullets Over Broadway"), and Rema Webb, currently playing multiple roles in the Tony-nominated "Violet," has her own school, the On Broadway Performing Arts Training Program. Her staff includes two fellow PMT alumni.

And for my next act ...

Now that he doesn't have to worry so much about "putting butts in seats," the self-described "educator at heart" has been going through a bucket list of things he'd like to try.

"Like applying Stanislavski methodology to singers, because I knew he did that later in his career," Mr. Gargaro said. "I'd be able to apply it because I'm still teaching. I don't ever intend to retire from teaching."

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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