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Zilker Theatre Productions Celebrates 65 Years of Entertaining the Austin Community with “Legally Blonde the Musical”

Put on your pink, pack a picnic, and head to the Hillside Theater in Zilker Park to catch performances from July 12 through August 17

The cast in rehearsal for "Legally Blonde, the Musical" (photo by Grace Dupuy)
The cast in rehearsal for "Legally Blonde, the Musical" (photo by Grace Dupuy)

This summer, Zilker Theatre Productions celebrates its 65th anniversary with a free production of Legally Blonde the Musical from July 12 through August 17. Join the fun on the hillside and help support a community institution that’s been an incubator for young performers for more than six decades. 

Audience waiting for the big summer musical at the Zilker Hillside Theatre.
Audience waiting for the big summer musical at the Zilker Hillside Theatre. (photo by Heidi Okla)

The Making of a Summer Musical

Theatergoers can expect to see the humor and empowering journey of the ambitious Elle Woods from the original movie, plus some special updates to bring the story into 2024. 

“It’s such a timely story about this woman who shows how smart she is and that she’s not to be judged based on her looks, or what she likes to wear, or what color she likes,” says Production Stage Manager Amy Oxley. 

The many scene changes that need to come to life on an outdoor stage, the “really creative” set design, and the fast-paced, energetic songs  — and hyper-pink lighting — are just a few highlights for the audience. 

Amy Oxley leads the cast in rehearsal for "Legally Blonde, the Musical" (photo by Grace Dupuy)
Amy Oxley leads the cast in rehearsal for “Legally Blonde, the Musical” (photo by Grace Dupuy)

The 27 actors in this show – many of them high school students, and some who’ve been with Zilker Theatre Productions (ZTP) for two decades – started rehearsing about six weeks before opening night. They began with music week to learn the songs, and moved onto choreography week before beginning blocking rehearsal. Finally, about two weeks before opening night, the team moved rehearsals to the Hillside Theater in Zilker Park so that they could acclimate to the stage — and the oppressive heat.

“We have our tips and tricks,” says Oxley regarding Austin’s brutal summer temperatures. “We bring frozen fruit, and we have a little freezer in the back that’s always stocked with popsicles. It’s weird how quickly your body gets used to the heat. When the sun goes down, it’s really not too bad at all. You get a nice little breeze.”

Oxley, who won the B. Iden Payne Award for stage management for ZTP’s production of Matilda the Musical last summer, previously worked as a professional stage manager at the Lyric Theater Oklahoma, then went on tour on land and by sea with an illusionist, and had a career-high stint working at Wicked on Broadway.

“The people at ZTP are just amazing,” says Oxley. “The production quality is so top tier. It really reminds me of working back in New York on professional, Broadway-style shows.”

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Amy Oxley, ZTP Stage Manager (photo by Grace Dupuy)

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David Ponton, ZTP Executive Director (photo by Grace Dupuy)

Cast in rehearsal for "Legally Blonde, the Musical" (photo by Grace Dupuy)
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Cast in rehearsal for “Legally Blonde, the Musical” (photo by Grace Dupuy)

Zillker theater production rehearsal. (Photo by Grace Dupuy)
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Zilker theater production rehearsal. (Photo by Grace Dupuy)

The Magic of Free Community Theater

David Ponton, the Executive Director of ZTP, was once one of the young proteges sweating it out onstage.

“I did my first summer musical in 2003, and I’ve been involved in some capacity every year since,” explains Ponton. He was an actor in the musical Crazy For You that summer, and 21 summers later, he’s still dedicated to ZTP. “You get bit by the bug, and you just keep coming back. A lot of folks are working in 100-plus degree heat. There are bugs, animals, and everything that goes along with that, but for those of us who enjoy it, there’s nothing else like it anywhere.”

And the number one thing that makes ZTP special? It’s always free. 

“It’s accessible to the entire community,” says Ponton. “Everybody comes together, they sit next to each other, they laugh together, they cry together, and they have this amazing shared experience. It draws everybody together in a really beautiful way that only theater can.”

"Annie Get Your Gun", a past Zilker Theatre Productions musical (photo courtesy of ZTP)
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“Annie Get Your Gun”, a past Zilker Theatre Productions summer musical (photo courtesy of ZTP)

"Fiorello", a 1980s Zilker Theatre Productions performance (photo courtesy of ZTP)
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“Fiorello”, a 1980s Zilker Theatre Productions performance (photo courtesy of ZTP)

Production of "Seventeen" in 1959 in Zilker Park (photo courtesy of the Austin History Center)
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Production of “Seventeen” in 1959 in Zilker Park (photo courtesy of the Austin History Center)

"Matilda the Musical", a past Zilker Theatre Productions musical (photo by Taylor Smith)
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“Matilda the Musical”, a past Zilker Theatre Productions summer show (photo by Taylor Smith)

"Newsies", a past Zilker Theatre Productions musical (photo by Taylor Smith)
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“Newsies”, a past Zilker Theatre Productions musical (photo by Taylor Smith)

"All Shook Up", a past Zilker Theatre Productions musical (photo courtesy of ZTP)
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“All Shook Up”, a past Zilker Theatre Productions musical (photo courtesy of ZTP)

Historical Marker to commemorate the Zilker Summer Musical (photo by Taylor Smith)
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Historical Marker to commemorate the Zilker Summer Musical (photo by Taylor Smith)

The Long, Lyrical History of ZTP

The original Hillside Theater stage was built in 1938, and the first production, a musical called Seventeen, hit the stage with a cast full of high school actors in 1959. Approximately 400 people saw the show. Today, about 45,000 people come to see the outdoor theater production over its six-week run.

ZTP was originally funded by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, but budget cuts starting in the 80s threatened the survival of the theatre. That’s when the Friends of the Summer Musical organization formed, which evolved into the nonprofit Zilker Theatre Productions. Their fundraising, as well as corporate sponsorships, private donations, city grants, and the generosity of audiences who drop money into a passed bucket at each show, are what keep the summer shows alive and singing today.

“For so many of the people that come see Zilker shows, the Zilker production is the one theatre performance they see a year, and that’s because it’s free,” says Oxley. “That’s super powerful to me. It’s amazing to be a part of that history here in Austin.”

Past shows have included Oklahoma! in 1965, Fiddler on the Roof in 1977, Into the Woods in 2002, and Hairspray in 2015. ZTP alumni have gone on to have careers in the theatre industry, with some becoming Broadway stars, including J. Quinton Johnson, who made his Broadway debut in Hamilton as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.

“Zilker has always been a training ground for young talent,” say’s Ponton. “It’s part of everything we do.” ZTP also hosts free arts education programming, such as helping young actors prepare for their first auditions.

"Matilda the Musical", a past Zilker Theatre Productions summer show (photo by Taylor Smith)
“Matilda the Musical”, a past Zilker Theatre Productions summer show included many young performers (photo by Taylor Smith)

Pro Tips for Outdoor Theatergoers

Don’t let the heat deter you from seeing Legally Blonde the Musical in all its fuchsia glory. Ponton shared his pro tips for staying comfortable while seeing a summer show. “Show up early to get a spot. Hop in Barton Springs. Pack a picnic. Bring your friends, and get ready to have a great night under the Texas stars.”

Legally Blonde the Musical runs from July 12 through August 17 at the Beverly Sheffield Hillside Theater in Zilker Park with shows at 8:15 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. Learn more at zilker.org.

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