If you haven’t seen Viva! El Paso in the last few years, get ready for something new: Today’s musical is not your grandmother’s show.
With a script from Tony Award-winning El Paso playwright Marty Martin, the creativity of artistic director Keith Townsend and the support of El Paso Community Foundation, this El Paso iconic tradition is hitting its stride.
Each year since the debut of the new script in 2016, the show has made both major and subtle improvements – and hits the right balance of music, dance and storytelling.
The 42nd season opens Friday, June 14, at the 1,500-seat McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater – one of the region’s most beautiful spaces. The show runs Fridays and Saturdays through July 27.
“When someone comes in to visit El Paso in the summer, you know that they are going to go to Viva! El Paso,” said Kathrin Berg, vice president of the El Paso Community Foundation, which produces the show with El Paso Live.
“Again and again, after the show, we hear tourists saying they were amazed at all the history and stories,” said Townsend, who taught theater at El Paso Community College for many years and now teaches at Burges High School. “And El Pasoans say, ‘Wow! I had not realized all that happened right here.’”
The city’s musical
The show features singers with big voices, big dance numbers, live music, colorful costumes, comedy, drama and plenty of romance.
It’s an all-El Paso cast of over 50 actors, singers and dancers, many of whom have been part of the show’s family for years. Berg points out that now there are children and even grandchildren of original performers in the show.
Many El Pasoans have Viva! in their background, including Holly Fields, the longtime marketing director of El Paso Live, who was a dancer.
“I think returning cast members enjoy the spontaneity of performing in an outdoor show,” Townsend said, “especially in such a beautiful venue like McKelligon Canyon, with the Franklin Mountains as the backdrop.”
The music is true to the borderland. El Paso singer and songwriter Jim Ward contributes new material each year, bringing the show up to date with a trio of songs for an additional scene called “El Paso: 70s, 80s, 90s and Beyond.” El Paso musician Cody Ritchey and his band are on stage during the Wild West scenes, and local mariachis appear in the scenes spotlighting Mexico.
From fiction to fact
The original Viva!, launched by the show’s longtime director and founder Hector Serrano in 1978, spun together fictionalized stories that illustrated the meeting of cultures.
Townsend and scriptwriter Martin took a different approach. They replaced what might have been with what really happened.
“Every single story is based on truth,” Townsend said. “We kept the spirit of Viva! and worked in real-life stories.”
Some of the stories and people will be familiar, such as the late UTEP coach Don Haskins’ winning basketball teams.
Other vignettes will feel like discoveries, such as the unlikely close friendship in the 1930s of the Schwartz family, Jewish owners of the famous Popular Store, and the Kasin family, Muslim businessmen with a photography studio and other business interests.
Viva! El Paso fits in the outdoor historical pageant tradition, which proved especially popular in the South some 50-plus years ago.
However, Townsend said that the show is more than a history lesson: it’s a celebration of multiculturalism that spans four centuries and four cultures.
The show begins with the Native American culture, keeping many of the popular dances from Serrano’s choreography. The narrative continues with the introduction of conquistadors from Spain, the Mexican culture and the Wild West influence.
“We don’t look at race or creed here in El Paso,” Townsend said. “We live side by side and celebrate our cultures.”