CLASSIC MUSICALS LIVE AGAIN AT CITY CENTER
Against all conventional wisdom, audiences this spring have zealously pursued tickets to three musicals that offer nothing in the way of whirring helicopters, falling chandeliers or the like.
We're talking about the Encores! series of Great American Musicals in Concert at City Center.
Judith E. Daykin, City Center's President and CEO, began this endeavor in 1994 with the Bock and Harnick musical Fiorello! That inaugural season continued with Rodgers and Hammerstein's boldly experimental Allegro and concluded with Lady in the Dark, a musical valentine to psychoanalysis from Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin.
Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, Cole Porter's Out of This World and the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece Pal Joey played to ever-larger houses in the second year of Encores! Indeed, there's no better measure of the series' burgeoning popularity than the fact that its audience has grown by leaps and bounds. City Center's huge gallery section765 seatsremained closed for the first five Encores! presentations, but was opened for last season's Pal Joey and now for this year's entire season in response to phenomenal demand. Yet another 70 seats were added where the orchestra pit would normally be, since conductor and musicians are situated onstage for the concerts. This brings the total number of tickets available for each show, which plays for four performances only, to a whopping 2,754. Do the arithmetic, and you'll find that this year's series may very well play to 33,000 people in just 12 performances.
Up until now, Encores! has focused on the golden age of the thirties, forties and fifties because (a) contemporary audiences love to see what they missed, and (b) the scripts and scores of these shows are often very much in need of archival reconstruction. On the other hand, as artistic director Walter Bobbie says, "important things have happened in musical theatre since I got off the bus to New York in 1970." So this year's program will conclude with Chicago (May 24), Kander and Ebb's 1975 take on the media frenzy surrounding a murder trial (!!!). "When you look at what's happened in our social/judicial history over the past few years," Bobbie says, "Chicago doesn't seem so cynical anymore; it's almost a documentary." The show is preceded by two old chestnuts more in line with the original conception of the series: Du Barry Was a Lady (Feb. 1517), a Cole Porter gem, which starred Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr in its 1939 Broadway outing; and 1943's One Touch of Venus (March 2830), with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ogden Nash, whence came the incredibly gorgeous "Speak Low."
Bobbie considers the performance of classic musicals in their original form a valuable corrective in that so many revivals, recordings and film versions have taken outrageous liberties with these shows: Songs have been savagely cut, other songs added, scripts tinkered with, etc. "Everyone thinks 'Friendship' is from Anything Goes," he says by way of example, "but it's really from Du Barry Was a Lady. And everyone thinks 'Well, Did You Evah!' is from High Society, but it's also from Du Barry; the number was introduced by the young Betty Grable."
"The Encores! experience has been a great pleasure for me," says the series' musical director/conductor Rob Fisher, "because I love the sound of a full orchestra. Times being what they are, we're getting further away from that with smaller ensembles, synthesizers and the like. The shows we've done have had great orchestrations by people like Hans Spialek, Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker."
Because the entire rehearsal/performance period for each of the Encores! is less than two weeks, some of the biggest stars of Broadway, Hollywood and televisionwho might not be able to commit to a longer runhave lent their talents: everyone from Patti LuPone and Tyne Daly in plum, juicy leads to Christopher Durang, Celeste Holm and Tony Goldwyn in supporting roles. The downside is that folks of such caliber are reluctant to commit to these projects very far in advance. Amazingly, stars Faith Prince and Robert Morse were not officially cast in Du Barry Was a Lady until three weeks before the opening performance on February 15.
"There's been no attempt to sign-up people six months prior to a show," Bobbie says, "because we'd hate to lose them to a far more lucrative movie or T.V. series. So we walk a tightrope. But it's worked so far."
Looking toward future Encores!, Rob Fisher feels that "we have to do some Arlen and some Gershwin." Fisher, Bobbie and Daykin confirm that they are constantly besieged by fans brandishing wish lists of shows they'd just love to see given the Encores! treatment. Such has been the major impact of one of this city's newest and yet most indispensable cultural traditions.
-- By Michael Portantiere