For many who want to move to scenic Northwest Montana, sacrifices must be made. Often, it involves leaving a well-paying career in the city for a simpler life in the valley.
That was the conundrum facing Luke Walrath and Betsi Morrison in the early-2000s when they first considered leaving their successful careers on Broadway. Morrison, a Whitefish native, had met Walrath in New York City in the 1990s and both had played major roles in a series of Broadway shows. But after a trip to Montana, Walrath couldn’t stop thinking about Big Sky Country.
“I just couldn’t get Montana out of my mind, so I asked Betsi, ‘what if we just left the city and moved west,’” Walrath recalled.
Betsi was skeptical, knowing it would be nearly impossible to maintain a career on the East Coast while living in the West.
“What would we do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Walrath said. “I just know I want to go back.”
Walrath and Morrison found a way to maintain their East Coast connections while living the good life in Whitefish when they started Alpine Theatre Project in 2004. Since then, the husband-and-wife team has helped bring some of the biggest names on Broadway to Northwest Montana.
Morrison is familiar with the stage and had her first performance when she was just 3 years old in 1971 at the old Viking Lodge in Whitefish. She later attended the University of Montana to study theater in the 1980s. After college, she headed for New York City hoping to make it big on Broadway. Within a few months, she was performing at a local showcase and caught the eye of a talent agent. In 1994 she scored her first role on Broadway and within a few years she had earned parts in the “Sound of Music,” “South Pacific” and the Royal National Theatre’s critically acclaimed revival of “Carousel.”
“It was total luck,” Morrison said of her early success.
At the same time, Walrath, a native of Milwaukee, had also moved to New York and earned roles on “42nd Street,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the “Sound of Music.”
Morrison met Walrath in 1999 and later invited him to her home state during a break between shows. Walrath said he instantly fell in love with Montana, especially after a hike to Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park. Upon returning to New York, Walrath said he approached Morrison with the idea of going back in 2002. The couple decided to spend a summer at Morrison’s parents’ cabin on Whitefish Lake.
Upon their arrival, Morrison and Walrath became involved with the Whitefish Theatre Company and over the next year helped put on two shows. Meanwhile, the couple came up with the concept of the Alpine Theatre Project to bring Broadway performers to Montana.
“It was the perfect opportunity to bring our friends west and show off Montana,” Morrison said.
Today, Morrison serves as producing artistic director and Walrath is director of marketing and development. Noted actor David Ackroyd also serves as artistic development director. Morrison and Walrath frequently act in or produce the shows they put on every summer. In the past, the company has put on “Shrek the Musical,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Chicago.” This year’s playbill includes “The Full Monty,” “Rock of Ages” and “Man of LaMancha.”
Every winter, Morrison spends three days in New York hosting auditions for the summer performances. This year, there were 1,000 applicants for seven spots. What makes picking singers and actors especially challenging is that they have to be the right fit for three different shows.
During the first few years, ATP would finish one show before starting the next, but in recent years it has moved to a schedule where all three summer shows play at once. Walrath said the change provides visitors who may only be in Whitefish for a few days more options. However, he said putting on three shows at once is tough. Actors have to remember pages of lines and an endless amount of lyrics.
“(Despite the challenge) we find that actors are really excited about putting on three shows at once, it’s the decathlon of theater,” Walrath said.
Walrath and Morrison said their background in musical theater has a big influence on the shows they choose to produce; “musical theater is what we do and it’s what we do best,” Walrath said.
Not only has ATP brought some notable names to Montana – including Robert Goulet, John Lithgow and Henry Winkler – it has also had a major impact on the local art scene, Walrath said.
“Some of the musicians that we’ve brought to Whitefish end up falling in love with the area and moving here,” Walrath said. “And then they make their own contributions to our local music scene.”
For more information, visit www.atpwhitefish.org.