ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Encores! Season

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Encores! Season
 
A look at the formation of a City Center Encores! season.
Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel.
Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

This week's question comes from the Playbill.com staff.

Question: Encores!, the concert reading series of old musicals, recently ended its main spring season at City Center (its new Encores! Summer Stars series at City Center will feature Gypsy, with Patti LuPone, from July 9-29). How does Encores! decide on next year's season?

Answer: Playbill.com spoke to Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel to find out. "I've never ended a season thinking, 'I don't know what in the world we're going to do next season.' There's just too many shows," Viertel says. "What has been hard is to come up with a season," he adds. "Sometimes we have a show that we feel very passionate about, but you don't know what to put around it."

Viertel spends about 12 weeks a year at Encores!, mainly during the spring season, and the rest of the year at Jujamcyn, where he is creative director (though he will often make calls for one from the other). He decides on the Encores! season's three shows by the end of June.

To help narrow the field, Viertel will read scripts and listen to CDs, or a music director might play through a show for him on a piano. He has hundreds of cast recordings at home. He often consults the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

"Allowing yourself to enjoy the daydream [of putting on a certain show] is an important part of the process, even though it feels like playing hooky," he says. "There are shows that are fun to dream about because there are shows that have great moments in them. You have to look at it seriously and say, 'Is the rest of the show so boring or irritating that it's not worth sitting through those great moments?'"

Viertel has a long list of people he asks for advice, including Ted Chapin, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and the chair of the Encores! advisory committee, which meets in between the second and third shows to talk about issues from the current season and to discuss the following season; Arlene Shuler, the president and CEO of City Center; Jay Binder, who does the Encores! casting; David Ives, who adapts many of the scripts; and many of the Encores! music directors, such as Rob Fisher, Paul Gemignani and Rob Berman, and its directors, including John Rando, Walter Bobbie and Kathleen Marshall.

Once Viertel narrows the field to around 10 or 15 titles, he gets down to the nitty gritty of shaping a season. No two shows can be by the same songwriter. Sometimes, shows contingent on certain actors or directors have to be postponed to future seasons for scheduling reasons. Encores! typically only has the time and money to reconstruct the orchestrations for one show each season. "And then it comes down to, 'Do we have a season that has enough variety, enough different types of shows, shows from different eras, shows with different feels to them?'," Viertel says.

"Sometimes you go back to a show that didn't appeal to you three years ago but somehow it does now," he adds. For example, "Pardon My English is a show that we put on a list every year and Rob Fisher was a big fan of it, and I was harder to convince," he says. "The book was such a mess that it was hard to commit to it." One season, however, he says, "We needed a silly sort of old-fashioned musical in the middle and we said, 'Let's do it,' and it turned out to be a big success for us."

Sometimes a performer will get behind a certain show. "Karen Ziemba and Brent Barrett always wanted to do [The] Pajama Game. We thought Pajama Game was a little well-known for us," he says, but "the fact that people are passionate about [a show] puts it high on the list."

Often, Viertel and his colleagues will come up with an idea to do a show that's contingent on a certain casting choice. Viertel wasn't hot on Can-Can, but one year, "Jay [Binder] said if Patti LuPone wants to do Can-Can, we should do Can-Can. So we called Patti LuPone and said, 'Do you want to do Can-Can this year?,' and she said yes. And that happened within 40 minutes!"

He says, "[For] Kristin Chenoweth in The Apple Tree, I basically called her manger and said, 'If she wants to do The Apple Tree, we'll do The Apple Tree and if she doesn't want to do The Apple Tree, we won't do The Apple Tree." They did The Apple Tree, and Chenoweth eventually did the show on Broadway.

What about shows that are talked about but never done? "There's always been a impulse to do Fanny, which is a beautiful show, a beautiful score, but it's a drama," he says, referring to the show with songs by Harold Rome and a book by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan that opened on Broadway in 1954 and ran for two years. "There are shows that for one reason or another we never seem to get to, [but] we will get to all of them if we live long enough."

So how is the decision finally made? Viertel says, "Eventually we have a conversation with Arlene [Shuler], who runs the whole institution [of City Center], and we say, 'Let's write a press release.'"

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