WEST HARTFORD — Tom Sullivan has overseen countless children’s shows, bringing in high-quality backstage production, and experienced staff to teach the young performers their routines and songs.
But, he says the most important part of any show is ensuring the children make memories.
“It’s not Broadway and it doesn’t need to be to have fun,” he said.
This week he kicked off his 50th year directing children’s musical theater with the start of West Hartford Children’s Summer Musical Theater program.
“My hope is that it’s as successful as all of the others,” Sullivan said. “I tell the parents we’re creating happy memories.”
Sullivan got his start in musical theater when he was a teacher in Greenwich and helped with a youth drama camp.
“It was so terrible and so dull because there was no music,” he said. “I thought, ‘I could do this.’”
So he started directing a musical, something he continued when he moved to West Hartford. He took over the summer musical theater camp for the schools and brought it to Leisure Services when the schools stopped offering it.
“I love doing it,” Sullivan said.
He said the campers are also enthusiastic about the shows and many have Broadway dreams.
“All of the children want to be there and they love doing it,” he said.
The group has performed a variety of shows, including “Aladdin,” “Annie” and “The Music Man.”
This year’s selection is “Free to Be ... You and Me.”
It includes a variety of skits, dances and songs, more than following a traditional musical format. It lasts about an hour and 20 minutes, not counting the intermission.
Sullivan said the show has a positive message and he’s done it a few times.
“It gets rid of stereotypes — that’s the theme of this show,” he said.
This show is connected to one of his best memories as a director, too.
He participated in a teacher exchange one year that allowed him to lead a musical at a Hawaiian school. He selected this show and the students performed it several times, including on a stage set up at a mall where a television producer saw them and decided to film it for a local Hawaiian channel.
Sullivan said he selected it for this year because he needed a versatile format with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
“I had to choose a show that would work no matter what,” Sullivan said, adding he wasn’t sure how many children would sign up due to COVID-19.
Only six registered at first, but that has crept up to 19, still less than the usual 30. Children can still sign up through Leisure Services.
The camp lasts four weeks and meets Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
He said the camp is following all of the state requirements and guidelines for COVID and it’s held at Bristol Middle School, one of the newest schools.
“I don’t want any child to end up sick because of that, or any adult, but it seems like the likelihood of that is getting smaller and smaller,” he said.
Sullivan is trying to have the show outside at Elizabeth Park so people can spread out, but might have it at the middle school if weather looks bad.
He said he hopes former campers come to the performances so he can see them and reflect oh the past 50 years. But he said the milestone is not as important as the current campers experience.
“It’s not a big deal about this being my 50th,” Sullivan said. “It’s about the kids. It’s their show.”
People can find out more about the camp and performances through West Hartford’s leisure services.