History Boy: The Mind Behind "Broadway by the Year"

Special Features   History Boy: The Mind Behind "Broadway by the Year"
Scott Siegel is a nostalgist by necessity. For the past month or so, he's been living and breathing 1947. Beginning in mid-March, he will be in a 1954 mindset.
Scott Siegel with wife Barbara.
Scott Siegel with wife Barbara. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Siegel's time-traveling is all in service of "Broadway by the Year," the Town Hall concert series he created eight years ago. Every season features four one-night-only concerts, each devoted to the musicals of one particular year in Broadway history. The journalist and critic has reached as far back as 1925 and showcased as recent an annum as 1978. The popular series has been praised by critics for offering an incisive, educational and simply entertaining window into our theatrical past.

How Siegel opens that window is not as easy at it might seem. He's not just spending an afternoon at home listening to old cast albums and jotting down a laundry list of songs. From idea to show, the process is painstaking, with many steps along the way.

The first step, of course, is deciding which years to spotlight. But even that is not simple. "I make sure I separate the years, so there's a generational jump," explained Siegel. "There's at least seven years between shows so the musical styles change, so two concerts back to back won't seem too similar. For instance, every show in the late '30s to early '40s has a South American theme going through it."

For the coming season, he has stuck by this rule, selecting 1947, 1954, 1965 and 1979 for special treatment. Once the years are in line, the musicals presented during each year are rounded up. If the year falls in the 1920s, this can mean many dozens of shows. "Once you get to the '40s and '50s, it's maybe 10 to 15 musicals," he said. "It takes two or three days to get through all the music."

For the scores of the musicals, some of them obscure, Siegel leans heavily on his musical director Ross Patterson, and his sheet music consultant, Michael Levine, who has a large personal collection of sheet music and knows where to get the tunes he doesn't own. In order to make songlist decisions, he gets together with Patterson, who plays through every single song collected. "We don't want to base our choices on what somebody else thought was a great song. We want to make our own decisions." Apart from Siegel and Patterson, "we" can also mean Siegel's wife and writing partner Barbara Siegel. A number of factors dictate which songs make the cut. One of them is the needs of the audience. Or, should I say, audiences. "There are those who come for the sense of nostalgia, to hear the songs they know and love," said Siegel. "That's the larger part of the audience. And then there's the smaller but important part of the audience who come to hear the songs they never get to hear."

In terms of 1947, this means six songs each from Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon, two enduring hits that opened during that year. Filling out the evening will be songs from the lesser-known Street Scene, Allegro and High Button Shoes, as well as a few tunes from shows few people have heard of. The most obscure song is from a play with music called Music in My Heart. It's title is "The Balalaika Serenade," and it has lyrics by Forman Brown, and music by some Russian named Tchaikovsky. Siegel describes it as "lush, like Romberg and operetta, romantic, big."

Marc Kudisch will sing that number without a mike. It's the kind of song Kudisch � who has been in several "Broadway by the Year" concerts and directed three � likes. Pairing songs and singers is a crucial part of constructing the concerts, said Siegel. "If we have the cast in place, or some part of the cast, it becomes a matter of matching cast to songs, or songs to cast, to make sure we have the right people singing the right songs."

Siegel has a core group of actors he turns to again and again, including Kudisch, Noah Racey, Nancy Anderson, Jeffry Denman and Emily Skinner. Each cast, however, includes news inductees and converts. Every actor has his or her reasons for making an appearance. Some embrace the chance to sing the old songs they love. Others like the opportunity of presenting a song unfamiliar to the audience and making it his or her own. Many use "Broadway by the Year" to showcase talents and singing styles they don't get to commonly exercise. In the 1947 concert, for example, dramatic and musical actress Donna Lynne Champlin, will display a little-known skill she has kept under her hat until now.

Many actors have opened new career doors by appearing at Town Hall, said Siegel. Martin Vidnovic got concert work after making an appearance, and uses a forgotten comic song that he performed in a "Broadway by the Year" concert, called "The Dying Cowboy," in his cabaret act. Actress Nancy Anderson won a CD gig out of her Town Hall turns. And Ring of Fire actress Lari White has become a hot cabaret ticket; she's currently playing at the Oak Room. She performed in Siegel's "Broadway Musicals of 1978" concert, and, as Siegel tells it, she "sang a song by Carol Hall from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Carol Hall was in the audience. She did a song from Working and [composer] Stephen Schwartz was in the audience, and she sang a song from Ballroom and [composer] Billy Goldenberg was in the audience. All three of them went nuts for her. She performed directly at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall because of that."

Once the actors and songs are in place, the performers are sent their music. They meet with Patterson to set the keys, and then learn the material on their own. The cast then gathers for a week of rehearsal to figure out how to stage the numbers, and where each song should go in the program. The team get a couple rehearsals in Town Hall during that week, including the last dress rehearsal.

Siegel, meanwhile, prepares his notes for his role as host of the evening. He shook with nerves before his first "Broadway by the Year" concert, but has long sing tamed the butterflies in his stomach. "I come to it as the people in the audience do, as someone who loves the music," he said. "I'm almost a member of the audience. I'm not slick, so there's a comfort level with me."

As for his relationship with the performers, he says they sometimes use him as "a playful prop," singing part of the song to him. He has even sung a bit himself, but never more than "a phrase." But he's fine with that.

"I want to see the show."

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