It has grown from a grand night for singing to grand afternoons and nights for singing on an increasingly grand scale.
This weekend, University of Kentucky Opera Theatre opens its 20th annual It's a Grand Night for Singing concert of show tunes and pop songs. That first year featured a cast of 16 and a budget of $25,000. The 2012 show will boast 75 performers plus a substantial creative and technical crew, and a budget of $150,000.
"I never would have believed that we would have gotten to this point," said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre and founder of Grand Night. "I thought it was a really great idea and a great opportunity, but great ideas and great opportunities don't always pan out, but I am very pleased and excited to be in an environment that allow us to try, that allows us to create and allows us to take chances."
The initial idea behind Grand Night was to give UK voice students, who primarily concentrate on opera and classical music during the school year, a chance to try their hands at show tunes and make themselves more marketable when they get out into the working world.
And with two decades to look back on, McCorvey says he can see that it has paid off.
Two Grand Night veterans, Andrea Jones-Sojola and Phumzile Sojola, are on Broadway in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and will be part of a Tony Awards broadcast Sunday night. They also have been part of the shows Three Mo Tenors and Three Mo Divas, which require versatile performers who can sing in a variety of styles.
Another Grand Night veteran, Reshma Shetty, is part of the core cast of the USA Network drama Royal Pains and previously starred in the national tour of the Broadway show Bombay Dreams.
McCorvey names other singers with careers and productions overseas and on cruise lines who clearly benefitted from a diversity of experience, and behind-the-scenes personnel who have gone on to professional careers.
"We have more singers in the U.S. Soldiers Chorus than any other university in the country," McCorvey said. "One reason is they're diverse. When they go out on tour, they have to be able to do everything."
The second idea behind the show was creating a town-and-gown experience, bringing in talented people from the community to work with the students.
In fact, asked about some of the most successful numbers in Grand Night history, McCorvey replies, "Anything featuring Whit Whitaker." Whitaker is a singer who graduated from the UK voice program the year before Grand Night launched but has performed in the show as part of the community contingent.
Over the years, the show has welcomed some notables to the cast, including state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, former WKYT meteorologist Marina Jurica, and Kathryn Todd, daughter of former UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. Some local singers have emerged as stars of the show, including Jennifer Parr and the sister duo of Janet Corum and Linda Carey.
The show itself has changed, McCorvey says. For many years, it would be themed, such as an evening of music by Rodgers and Hammerstein or movie music. Now, themes are more internal, McCorvey says. In recent years, the show has opened its programming to pop music that was not necessarily part of any show.
"That has really broadened the appeal," he says. "Every show, there is something for everyone."
And every show, the production wants to present more songs than it can present.
McCorvey says, "I have already opened a file of songs for the 21st edition."