In 1959 the Austin Parks and Recreation Department started a summer musical program at Zilker Hillside Theatre with a free production of “Seventeen.”
Every summer since for 60 consecutive years, Austin residents have come to the Hillside to enjoy a free musical. But through those six decades, producing the show has not always been easy.
In 1987 the parks and rec department stopped funding the musical, and a nonprofit organization originally known as Friends of the Summer Musical – now called Zilker Theatre Productions – was born to support the show. In 2009, after another economic downturn, the buckets passed around the Hillside during the summer did not fill up as quickly as they usually did, and the funding from the Cultural Arts Fund through the city’s hotel occupancy tax dipped.
But this is musical theater: The show must go on—and supporters did whatever they had to do to make sure that the free summer musical came back every summer to the Hillside.
“It’s always free to see—never free to produce, but always free to see,” said Kate Hix, Zilker Theatre Productions executive director. “And they just make it work.”
This year, as ZTP celebrates its 60th birthday, the organization is in a much more stable place than it was in 1987 or 2009. ZTP is now 80 percent funded by donations from individuals, grants or businesses, with the remaining 20 percent coming from the Cultural Arts Fund. Last year ZTP hired J. Robert Moore as its artistic director, and the nonprofit organization hopes to expand with more shows year-round and educational program additions in the future.
Moore directed “The Wizard of Oz” last summer and returns as director for this year’s production of “All Shook Up,” the twist on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” featuring songs from Elvis Presley in a call-back to the 1950s era in which the summer musical began.
“I think people are going to stand up and want to start dancing in their seats. We’re trying to build that into the show as our 60th anniversary celebration so that it feels like we are really truly having a party on the Hillside. Every night should feel like a ZTP birthday party in my opinion,” Moore said.
The cast at each show features a broad mix of actors with various experience levels, from ZTP regulars and experienced cast members to students and pre-professionals. Past cast members include former University of Texas student J. Quinton Johnson, who went on to join the cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton” in 2017 as James Madison and Hercules Mulligan.
“We have people from all across the spectrum. There’s a lot of talent in Austin, and there are a lot of wonderful people that come together to put on this show every year,” Moore said.
“All Shook Up” opens July 6 and runs Thursdays through Sundays at 8:15 p.m. until Aug. 18. Admission on the Hillside is free.
Zilker Theatre Productions
2206 William Barton Drive, Austin
July 6- Aug. 18; Thu.-Sun. 8:15 p.m.