Keeping Score

By Rob Fisher
09 May 2008

<I>No, No, Nanette</I> star Rosie O'Donnell
No, No, Nanette star Rosie O'Donnell
Music director Rob Fisher says Ralph Burns was one of the reasons why it was easy for Encores! to say "yes, yes" to No, No, Nanette.

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Vincent Youmans was a composer of excellent Broadway scores and many hit songs that the Encores! Advisory Committee (including yours truly) has been looking forward to seeing presented onstage at New York City Center. And there's no better representation of Youmans or the boisterous spirit of the mid-1920s than No, No, Nanette, which he composed at the age of 27.

No, No, Nanette was a big hit when it opened on Broadway in September 1925, running for 321 performances and becoming the most popular musical of the '20s. It is perfect for Encores!: a notable score by an important American composer with a book that would be hard to revive. Well, apparently not that hard. In 1971, No, No, Nanette was revived on Broadway and became an even bigger hit, winning numerous awards and running 861 performances. It was the hottest ticket in town and the cast recording a big seller. Now, there was the difficult choice of which version to present to the Encores! audience.

After much soul searching (including plenty by yours truly) it was decided to present the revival version. After all, Burt Shevelove had tidied up the book considerably in his adaptation for 1971 and the revival soared with spine-tingling new orchestrations by Ralph Burns.



Ralph Burns became a friend of Encores! and a friend of mine after the 1996 Encores! production of Chicago. He had an extraordinary career arranging and playing the piano for the big bands of Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. The 15-year collaboration with Herman began in 1944 and created new sounds for jazz and popular music. In the 1960s Burns began orchestrating for Broadway, combining his hipness and skill as a band arranger with an instinct for how to wring the most excitement from a pop tune. His taste is always impeccable.

Burns' success continued through many Broadway shows and films and he maintained a fruitful collaboration with Bob Fosse, both onstage and onscreen. When I approached him in 1996 about reworking a few things for Chicago's transfer from Encores! to Broadway, he enthusiastically agreed to help. We enjoyed a continuous conversation from that point until he died in the fall of 2001.

After providing arrangements for some concerts and recordings I was involved in, Ralph said he would love to do a whole Broadway score. Timing is everything, because Encores! had decided to reconstruct Harold Arlen's St. Louis Woman for the 1998 season even though were no surviving orchestrations and little to go on besides a brief original cast recording. At no point in time could there have been a more perfect choice for an orchestrator of a brassy show with a score from the 1940s than Ralph Burns. Happily he continued writing for Broadway and won Tony Awards for his work on Fosse and Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Our good fortune continued when we were able to reunite Ralph with his friend Luther Henderson who created the dance music for St. Louis Woman. Henderson and Burns enjoyed a similar collaboration on No, No, Nanette (and Funny Girl among others) where Henderson also orchestrated much of his own dance music. But such is the seamlessness of their collaboration that you cannot detect where one hands off to the other.

In Chicago, first on Broadway in 1975, Burns captures the flavor and sass of the 1920s without actually recreating it. Four years earlier he had done the same thing in No, No, Nanette, but with more elegance and polish reflecting the character of the story and its inhabitants. Using the admittedly very different scores of John Kander and Vincent Youmans, Burns brilliantly gave us two distinct reminiscences of the '20s; one edgy, spare and raw, the other smooth and voluptuous. In both he chose to use a duo piano team and spotlight them in a way that was a regular feature on Broadway in the 1920s. They are particularly important to the thrilling sound of No, No, Nanette, and in his version, jazz master Ralph Burns constantly reminds us that the era of the 1920s wasn't called the jazz age for nothing.

(Maestro Rob Fisher, Encores! music director from the series' inception until 2005, returns to the New York City Center stage to close the 15th season of Encores! with No, No, Nanette, starring Beth Leavel, Sandy Duncan and Rosie O'Donnell. This piece appears in the Playbill for the show, May 8-12.)