It was always there, just waiting to be unleashed.
Music was like air for Dougg Lutz — essential, everywhere and a source of life and energy. Back in his childhood days in South Jersey, Lutz was already taking serious piano lessons by age five.
“My dad was very musical — he played drums — and I had excellent musical training at the Merchantville (N.J.) Conservatory throughout my childhood and teen years, “ notes Lutz, who now is a resident of Gilbertsville.
The local man loved his years at what is now Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (formerly Philadelphia Music Academy).
But like many who have to trade in passion for practicality, Dougg Lutz realized that music was not necessarily the safest route to a livelihood. So he put his musical life on hold as real life took over.
“I had an early run as an assistant manager of a ladies apparel store in New Jersey and then my wife, Renee Dobson and I moved to Ohio where she was getting a master’s degree.”
The couple would remain in Ohio for about nine years, until they migrated back to the east coast, where Dobson was offered a position at St. Joseph’s University where she still is on staff in the theater department.
Life changed for Lutz, too, as he went back to the journey he’d begun years before in music. His happiest decision turned out to be associating with the popular Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the venue with the single largest subscription base in the country.
The Walnut was building that base as Lutz became associated with producing artistic director, Bernard Havard, and proved his mettle as a musical director.
The rest is happy history for Lutz, who has worked on just about every major musical at the Walnut for the last two decades.
“Every show is completely different from every other,” Lutz explains. “Each presents a new challenge, a new approach. So I’m never bored!”
And who would be, with more than 125 productions at the Walnut, as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Jupiter Theatre in Florida, and international tours in Brazil, Belgium, Columbia, Peru and Spain in earlier years with “West Side Story.”
Lutz’s work at the Walnut encompasses musical classics like “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Miss Saigon,” “The King and I,” “Les Miserables,” and “Love Story, The Musical.”
There have been four Barrymore nominations — the local equivalent of the Tony’s.
And there has been the joy and satisfaction of working with talented actors, musicians and staff.
The sacrifice, Lutz admits, is community involvement in the Gilbertsville area, which he loves as a home for his wife and young teenage daughter.
“Who has time?” Lutz laments good-naturedly, given that so much of his life is spent either commuting to, or at the Walnut Street Theatre. “I work nights and weekends, which is not the schedule most people live by.”
As Shakespeare reminds, “The show’s the thing.” And currently, that translates into “Grease” for Lutz.
The rollicking tale of teens that has become a classic is both a nostalgia lure for older audiences, and a delightful romp for younger ones. The run at the Walnut Street Theatre opened this week and continues through July 14, marking an extension already mandated by ticket requests.
“‘Grease’ is just a lovable show,” says its musical director of this paean to bobby socks and the late 1950s at Rydell High.
Songs like “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Summer Nights,” and “Greased Lightnin’” resonate for audiences who may even have seen the original production, which burst on the scene in 1972 and received seven Tony Award nominations.
Two revivals followed, in 1994 and 2007, and the 2007 film with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John also is a flashpoint for many.
For Dougg Lutz, the challenge is in keeping the music faithful to its roots, yet fresh and alive. And as with every show, it is Lutz who must make the accommodations to various actors’ vocal ranges and personal styles.
“I sometimes have to do a little tweak here and there,” he says, understating the vital role a musical director plays in any on-stage musical.
So when “Greased Lightnin’” the iconic car, makes an appearance on the Walnut stage, it’s Lutz who must keep things moving along in both real and symbolic terms..
“You have to keep going, even through minor and major glitches — and they happen,” says this veteran who notes that while a musical score is sacrosanct, a key may have to be altered or adjusted to suit a voice.
It’s all part of a day’s work for Doug Lutz, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love what I do — and I feel blessed to be doing it,” he said.
“It’s always a little disappointing for me when audience members get up and make a dash for the parking lot as a show is ending,” he said. “Those actors up there on that stage — and yes, the musicians in the pit — all work so hard. And that applause is a way of telling us that yes, it was all worth it!”
“Grease” continues at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, through July 14.
Tickets: $10-$95. Phone: 215-574-3550. www.walnutstreettheatre.org