His singing show tunes in Schwartz and All, as he calls the show, may surprise his TV fans, but, in fact, Wallem is a longtime musical theatre actor with many credits in Chicago and around the country. The actor, who recently played goofy Hazel in the Encores! concert of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream (of which there is now a cast album), logged almost 2,500 performances as both Jinx and Sparky in various companies of Forever Plaid including in Chicago (Royal George Cabaret), Las Vegas (Flamingo Hilton and Gold Coast Hotel), Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Drury Lane Oakbrook, and the first national tour.
Wallem only recently got into television, and only partly because his sister, Linda Wallem, co-created "Nurse Jackie." "I wish I could say my role was just handed to me, but I actually had to audition harder than anyone," he told Playbill.com. "She got me in the first door, the rest was all me!"
Born in Rockford, IL, Wallem was influenced early by a playwright uncle, James Robert Smith, who wrote dozens of plays and musicals that were performed all over the Midwest. The late Smith's play Background Music was published by Baker Plays. "He's the reason I became an artist, no question," Wallem says. The actor is also the co-author (with Danny Musha) of a Lizzie Borden-centered musical called Frozen River, which has gained traction in readings and workshops.
Wallem's partner in crime for Schwartz and All at Birdland is the revered Chicago cabaret fixture Beckie Menzie, a pianist and vocalist who launched the show with him several years ago at Davenport's Piano Bar, a Windy City institution. It later played Don't Tell Mama in New York.
Wallem said that Birdland approached him about doing a show, and since Schwartz's 65th birthday is coming up, it seemed a good time to return to the broad-appeal songs of the composer-lyricist of Pippin, Godspell, Wicked, The Magic Show and more.
"It was a perfect excuse to do it again and to expand it," Wallem says, adding that bass and percussion will be heard this time around, with Menzie at the piano.
"As a singer, his music is such a dream to perform for so many reasons," Wallem explains. "I'm especially a fan of his story songs. I don't think anybody writes a complete story the way that he does. And his accompaniment, even in the basic vocal selections, is always so specific and lush. It feels like he automatically writes the piano to be a full orchestra underneath the singer. I love that."
The Birdland audience can expect a five-minute mashup of Schwartz hits, touching on "about 20 songs," followed by some of the composer-lyricist's lesser-known gems — songs from Rags and Personals and "Prince of Egypt," anyone?
Some surprise guests will pop up for the show, too, but don't expect "Nurse Jackie" star Edie Falco to sing (although they did collaborate on a 2011 cabaret show, The Other Steve and Edie, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre); she's currently in rehearsal for Manhattan Theatre Club's The Madrid.
Schwartz and All: Stephen Wallem Sings Stephen Schwartz plays 7 PM Jan. 21 at Birdland at 315 W. 44th Street. Tony Humrichouser directs. It's part of the Broadway at Birdland series. There is a $25 cover and a $10 food/drink minimum.
For reservations call (212) 581-3080 or visit BirdlandJazz.com.