For almost 14 seasons, New York City Center's Encores! series has been providing a rigorous representation of the American Musical Theatre at its purest — playing original orchestrations whenever possible, featuring works that are usually less often heard by the public, or, when presenting better-known works, doing so with an attention to detail and a commitment to hearing them in their original form that we hope justifies their appearance on our stage. We've proudly presented these shows, warts and all. We've taken it all very seriously. Then one day we all said to hell with it — let's take a break. Fourteen years is a long time.
Stairway to Paradise didn't grow out of that impulse — it led to it. For years we've been discussing the great Broadway revues without knowing quite what to do with them. Shows like George White's Scandals, Earl Carroll's Vanities, The Band Wagon, As Thousands Cheer and the New Faces series shared the street with operettas, musical comedies and musical plays for more than half a century, but were the most disposable form of Broadway musical.
The problem was that so many revues — plotless, sketch-driven shows, satirical, political or just plain silly, with great songs that don't exactly add up to a dramatic score — were the equivalent in their day of "Saturday Night Live." They served a purpose for the moment, but had neither the ambition nor the universality to survive whatever it was they were commenting upon. But oh, those musical numbers! Berlin, Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Dietz and Schwartz, and later Harold Rome, Jule Styne, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green all cut their teeth on revue material.
When I started examining the work I did it in chronological order purely for the sake of convenience. But quite quickly I made what seemed to me a remarkable discovery: because these shows were so topical, their highlights, lined up year by year, began to tell the entire social history of the United States in the first half of the 20th century. None of these shows had a semblance of a plot on its own. But cumulatively, they sort of did — the story of changing American mores, attitudes and events as we moved from the pushcart to the station wagon, from the days when women wanted the vote to the days when men began to mow the lawn. In between those events, a lot of things happened. Two world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the stirrings of working class rebellion, women's rights and civil rights, and the technological miracles of radio and television that first served as a source of parody and ultimately doomed the form itself. For songwriters and sketch writers, these events rarely went unremarked upon. They were fodder for a season's entertainment. And so, with the invaluable assistance of collaborators Jerry Zaks, Rob Berman and Warren Carlyle, we've tried — without being didactic or obvious — to tell the tale. We begin with Ziegfeld and end with Styne, Comden and Green. We begin with immigrants and end in the suburbs. We begin with a Gibson Girl and end with a Peter Arno blonde, packing a six-gun no less. The conviction to mount this show — to abandon good Encores! practice, so to speak — came with the discovery that 2007 marked the 100th anniversary of the first Ziegfeld Follies. Surely, we thought, we're entitled to wander off course a bit to salute Mr. Ziegfeld, who glorified the American girl for almost three decades and inspired everything from tragic homage (Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies) to full throttle lampoon (Irving Berlin and Moss Hart's Face the Music). And while we're wandering into uncharted waters, we might as well admit that in some respects we've simply let ourselves go — the revue form inspires this kind of unruly activity. We've tried to be faithful, but some mischief has crept in; we've combined two glorious Rodgers and Hart tunes ("Manhattan" and "Mountain Greenery") from two editions of The Garrick Gaieties into one. We've included a song ("I Know Darn Well I Can Do Without Broadway") by Jimmy Durante that's actually from a 1930 book show called Show Girl, but it's a revue number nonetheless. Durante was imported into the show and brought his own material with him. Most of the numbers that we discovered had no surviving orchestrations. So, with a couple of exceptions the score is newly orchestrated by the legendary Jonathan Tunick, whose mastery of every conceivable period stood him in such good stead when he orchestrated Follies near the beginning of his career in 1971.
We've tried to be true to the chronological spine that inspired us in the first place, but even there, we've played a little fast and loose. "Rhode Island is Famous for You" was written in 1948, and you'll hear it coming too early tonight, but so what? "The Maiden With the Dreamy Eyes," from 1901, wasn't written for a revue but a sliver of it was much later used in one — Tintypes — in 1980. Victor Herbert's "If I Were On the Stage" was first heard in a book show, Mlle. Modiste, but was then interpolated into a revue, Miss 1917, after the soprano Anna Held allowed that she preferred it to Jerome Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me." Her declaration inspired a screaming match in the aisle between Messrs. Kern and Herbert that has been talked about ever since. The point is, I guess, that we had an idea and tried to make an entertaining evening, and we've not let much stand in our way, which has always been the preferred method of creating a revue. So sue us. Before you know it, we'll get back to our battle stations, and we solemnly promise that this kind of Encores! rebellion will never be allowed to happen again.
(This piece appears in the Encores! Stairway to Paradise Playbill at City Center.)