Since 1980, Picnic with the Pops has offered a late-summer evening of music, food and partying under the stars. The event has taken place over two nights; pick your night, decorate your table and bring on the food.
But this year, the event directors decided to experiment and change things each night.
Friday night will be movie night, with a screening of the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” and the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra playing the original score live.
Saturday night will be completely different, with stage and film star Matthew Morrison of Fox’s musical comedy “Glee” fame performing with the Philharmonic.
“That structure was a bit of an experiment this year, and we don’t mean to experiment on our audience, but what we wanted to try was, ‘Will this work, will this appeal to people in a different way?” said Rob Morris, who is in his second year as chairman of Picnic with the Pops.
The idea of the change-up came from Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell, who said that orchestras in Red Rocks in Colorado and the Mann Center in Philadelphia, where he has guest-conducted, present different shows on consecutive nights, and he proposed trying it in Lexington.
“If we want to grow the event, we have to grow the variety of what’s offered at the event,” Terrell said. “There are so many wonderful shows we can do, it’s really hard to zero that down to just one.”
Attendance at Picnic with the Pops has remained steady, Morris said. But the commission that produces the event wants to see growth, particularly from younger patrons.
“We wanted to try something a little different and see if we could help more people find Picnic with the Pops appealing,” he said.
In both shows, the presenters were looking for cross-generational appeal. “The Wizard of Oz” is a timeless classic that has been embraced by every generation since its release, and it has been helped back into the spotlight with “Wicked,” the Broadway musical based on the Oz story. But many viewers have seen in only on TV, and “the score can kind of fall into the background,” Terrell said.
Terrell needed little prompting to praise Herbert Stothart’s Oscar-winning score, calling it “the best film score ever. I’m just in awe of how the music drives the story, a lot. When it’s live and that energy is on the stage, the translation of that is far more spectacular.”
Terrell has conducted other live film scores in Lexington — including a Picnic with the Pops featuring Warner Bros. cartoons — and with the Oscar-winning classic “Casablanca.”
But the orchestra with a live performer has usually been the event’s calling card, and Morrison comes Saturday night with as much name recognition as any recent Picnic visitor, having starred in “Glee” and the CBS drama “The Good Wife,” and having played author J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland” on Broadway.
The table tickets are a bit more expensive for Morrison, but Saturday night was leading ticket sales — as it traditionally does — Morris said.
Two shows also means a big change for the Philharmonic, which more than doubled its rehearsal schedule for the weekend, Terrell said.
In addition to the changes on stage, Morris said there are other changes, including the branding of the event by Bullhorn Creative, and there might beeven more tweaks. Citing the expense of putting up the stage in the meadow, Morris mused about the possibility of a multi-weekend event.
For now, he hopes to see a lot of first-timers coming out Friday or Saturday — or both.
“We tell people to come up with what they make of it, sort of a choose your own adventure,” Morris says. “Do you want great food? Great music? A great party? You make it what you want.”
Terrell is interested in seeing how one of the new experiments is reflected in a Picnic tradition.
“I can’t wait to see what kind of table decorations people come up with for ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
If you go
Picnic with the Pops
Friday: Oz with Orchestra, a screening of “The Wizard of Oz,” with the Lexington Philharmonic playing the original film score.
Saturday: Stage and screen star Matthew Morrison of “Glee,” “The Good Wife,” “Finding Neverland on Broadway” and more.
When: Gates open at 6 p.m.; performances start at 8:30 p.m.
Where: Keene Meadow at Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Road
Tickets: Tables for eight, $200-$300 Friday, $250-$400 Saturday; general admission, $15 in advance, $20 at the gate (cash only at the gate), free for children 12 and younger.