When the curtain rose Oct. 25 on the new New York City Center, looking handsome indeed with its $56 million facelift, the audience rose as well — to the tune of The National Anthem. "Special guest conductor" of the 31-piece Encores! orchestra — very special but highly apt — was none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he of the old, heartfelt I-point/you-play musical school.
"That's my next career," the mayor announced, breezing up to the speaker's podium afterward, "in 798 days, but who's counting?" As guest-conducting goes, Hizzoner had it all over Charlton Heston, who flailed about in the film "Counterpoint," but basically the mayor was right: "They can't teach that kind of baton technique."
Parallels between the two professions were not lost on him: "In both cases, you're standing in front of groups of people, begging them to follow you. What's more, there's always another group of people behind your back, thinking what you're doing isn't that hard and they probably could do the job much better than I could."
Actually, Bloomberg was responding to a tradition set by a mayor "a lot shorter than me," Fiorello LaGuardia, who had saved the building (built in 1923 for Shriners) from demolition and, when it opened its doors again in 1943 as the New York City Center, took the baton himself and personally conducted The National Anthem. Another bow to LaGuardia was the overture from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's Fiorello! That show launched Encores! in 1994.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Arlene Shuler, who danced at City Center in her ballerina days and is now its president and CEO, gave beaucoup thanks to donors large and small and added a program note: "Unfortunately, Barbara Cook is unable to join us tonight. She injured her back, and her doctor advised her to stay home. Barbara starred in City Center's productions of Carousel, Oklahoma! and The King and I, and she wanted to let us know that the most fun she ever had on stage was here at City Center. Today is also her 84th birthday. We were going to celebrate her birthday on stage, but we wish her happy birthday and a speedy recovery."
An eclectic evening of entertainment followed to celebrate NYCC's reemergence into Manhattan's cultural mainstream. The gifted Kathleen Marshall directed, and occasionally choreographed, the proceedings, which were wittily scripted by David Thompson. The Encores! Orchestra and Chorus were led by a familiar couple of Robs, Berman and Fisher.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre presented an excerpt from Ailey's Pas de Duke (as in Duke Ellington), performed by Linda Celeste Sims and Matthew Rushing. The company's new artistic head, Robert Battle, introduced the piece and said the troupe would be City Center's principal dance company for the next decade, making it a full 50 years spent at City Center.
Alexander Bernstein, son of Leonard, introduced a suite from West Side Story, written by his dad and Stephen Sondheim, and an excerpt from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," both performed by violinist Joshua Bell.
Getting in extra classical licks was mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who performed "Mon Coeur s'ouvre a ta voix," Delilah's Act-Two aria from Camille Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, cautioning the audience in advance that they might recognize the melody from an old Ragu Spaghetti Sauce commercial, "so sing along."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Sarah Jessica Parker, in her beautifully phrased and enunciated Carrie Bradshaw narrator voice, spoke for City Center's dance dominance. "Of all the performing arts," she said, "the one most synonymous with City Center is dance. On this stage, in this theatre, New Yorkers discovered their love of dance — a kind of dance that was uniquely American and, I would like to think, uniquely New York. "In City Center's first five seasons, The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was the main event. New Yorkers loved it. But someone very wisely asked the question, 'Why shouldn't City Center have its own ballet company?' So in 1949 City Center asked George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirsten to establish a resident company, and New York City Ballet was born. In 1954, George Balanchine gave audiences a real Christmas gift — New York's first full-length production of The Nutcracker, and since then, the company has danced it over 1,500 times. So just think of how many young children began their own love affair of dance after seeing The Nutcracker."
All this was by way of introducing New York City Ballet's slot on the program: an except from After the Rain, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and performed by Wendy Whelan and Ask la Cour.
Parker's husband, Matthew Broderick, then stepped forth and addressed the theatre side of City Center. When it first opened, he noted, "the top ticket price was $1.50, which meant, if I'd been around then, I could bring my wife to see a show for $3 or I could bring my entire family of five and pay $7.50. Compared to today, if I bought top tickets for, say, Book of Mormon, I would pay $2,375."
The in-house theatre at City Center was also pointed out — first the New York City Center productions of Jean Dalrymple, then Manhattan Theatre Club in 1984 and finally Encores! since 1994. "The talent wasn't just on stage," he said. "There are rehearsal rooms and offices here, too. On the sixth floor, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks wrote scripts for Sid Caesar's 'Show of Shows.' In fact, it was from a window in that office that Mel Brooks looked down on a woman on the street and shouted, 'If you got it, flaunt it.'"
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
A trio of stars, each with three Encores! credits, then performed: Donna Murphy (Anyone Can Whistle, Follies and Wonderful Town) belted out a blistering "I Happen To Like New York." Brian Stokes Mitchell (Do-Re-Mi, Carnival and Kismet) sang "It Ain't Necessarily So," marking the first musical ever done at City Center in 1944, a revival of Porgy and Bess. And, Patti LuPone (Pal Joey, Can-Can and Gypsy) delivered a fierce "Everything's Coming Up Roses." For a finale, 31 veterans from Encores! shows did "Take Care of This House" from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Between those last paragraphs, something bizarrely amusing occurred. Brian Williams, who daily dispatches "The NBC Nightly News," delivered a killer monologue, easily the most startling stand-up since Liv Ullmann cracked funny at a Shubert gala many moons ago. As a preamble to interviewing two young girls who are part of City Center's Student Program, he hilariously harkened back to his glory days as a high-school thespian where he ran the musical-comedy gamut from Nicely-Nicely Johnson to Curly to Fagin. "'What range,' did you say?" he said, pointing to someone in the audience. "Thank you very much." You had to be there!
Harry Haun is a longtime staff writer for Playbill magazine. He pens Playbill.com's popular On Opening Night column.