Broadway Originals at Town Hall

On a spur-of-the-moment invite from SarahB, I found myself attending my first Broadway Originals concert today, which also marked my first time inside Town Hall. I’d heard of the concert, but had never gone. SarahB, on the other hand, has gone for several years and is always raving about it, so I figured, why not? It turns out to be a glorious afternoon celebrating those actors who introduced so many great songs to Broadway, as well as original cast members of various revivals.

Each act started with a visit from The Manhattan Rhythm Kings (Brian M. Nalepka, Tripp Hanson and Hal Shane) revisiting their songs from Crazy For You. Lorraine Serabian sang two numbers from Zorba, first Maria Karnilova’s “No Boom Boom” and closing the show with her own “Life Is.” Daisy Eagan joked about having one song, but adding “I’m working on that…” before she sang “The Girl I Mean to Be” from The Secret Garden. Bob Stillman reminded Sarah and I how much we loved him in Grey Gardens with his “Drift Away.” I’ve only been familiar with Sarah Uriarte Berry with her rangy coloratura turn as Franca in The Light in the Piazza, so I was amused to see her rock out to “Safe in the City” from Taboo.

Jeanine Tesori accompanied the original Radio (plus one understudy) for “Salty Tears” from Caroline, or Change. Before the trio sang, Ms. Tesori talked about her experience writing the show, and working with George Wolfe (the director). The afternoon’s performance was dedicated to the late Alice Playten, who was part of the show’s original cast. Andrea Frierson was on hand to sing her beautiful solo “The Human Heart” from Once on This Island.

Alexander Gemignani revisited “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables, while in a last minute addition, Jesus Garcia and Ben Davis revisited the duet “O Mimì, Tu Più Non Torni” that they sang in Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme (How last minute? They only rehearsed twenty minutes before the audience was let in; they were unplugged and in glorious voice). Yvonne Constant, decked out as what can best be described as France’s answer to Carol Channing, revisited her number “One of Those Songs” from La Plume de Ma Tante, the obscure ’50s French import that took Broadway by storm for over two years. Ms. Constant first sang the French lyrics, then the more familiar English lyrics with which Jimmy Durante had a huge pop hit. Marianne Tatum, with whom Sarah and I had the loveliest conversation at the Flea Market, treated us to her glorious soprano with “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All” from Barnum and “L’Amour Toujours-L’Amour” from The Three Musketeers, offering us a hilarious story of Barnum star Glenn Close’s quest for motivation.

The longest set of the afternoon came from Marilyn Michaels, who starred in the first national tour of Funny Girl and also appeared on Broadway in the revue Catskills on Broadway. She started her set with Funny Girl’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” combining the act one finale with its act two finale reprise. Then we went off the rails a bit with a series of impressions set to “Manhattan.” It was a simultaneously bizarre, funny and fascinating. For her third act, she reprised a bit from Catskills in which she revisited her one person version of The Wizard of Oz, which brought down the house.

The biggest surprise of the afternoon was an appearance by two-time Tony winner Tammy Grimes. Ms. Grimes has been recuperating from surgery and needed the assistance of a walker. (She quipped, “The only new part I’ve been offered recently is a new knee.”) She sang three songs from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, including “My Own Brass Bed,” “I’ll Never Say Know” and “I Ain’t Down Yet.” Her performance was perfection and that one of a kind voice is remarkably unchanged. She dedicated “I’ll Never Say No” to her co-star Harve Presnell, who sang the song in the show, who died two years ago. She said she had always hoped to see him one more time, before offering a beautiful rendition of the song in his memory – and in his key, she boasted.

The concert was directed by Scott Coulter, with musical direction by John Fischer. Scott Siegel, who created the event, sat onstage at a podium and served as the afternoon’s host. I look forward to going back next year and the year after that. And I hope Tammy Grimes is on hand to sing High Spirits’ “Home Sweet Heaven.”

“Give Our Regards to Broadway” – Manhattan School of Music

This past Monday marked my first trip to Morningside Heights. Admittedly, I rarely leave the Midtown/Upper West Side area when in town,  though I do occasionally shoot downtown for a Fringe or Off-Broadway show here and there. However, there was a special concert at the Manhattan School of Music that sounded like it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The school’s Chamber Sinfonia was presenting “Give Our Regards to Broadway,” an evening of Broadway music and overtures under the baton of Paul Gemignani, with special guest artists Kate Baldwin and Alexander Gemignani. The price of admission? $20. How could I resist?

So SarahB, Follies enthusiast Tyler Martins, and I ventured up to the school’s John C. Borden auditorium. General admission had us picking seats in the second row, three on the aisle. Much to my surprise, the program withheld the evening’s line-up; it seemed as though the artists wanted to surprise us and as both Sarah and Tyler can attest, I was pleasantly surprised all evening.

Mr. Gemignani got things started with the South Pacific overture, using the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. I knew instantly we were in for a whirlwind evening. The students are magnificent. I realize that might sound like an obvious statement as they are attending one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country, but really, these kids are aces. Bennett’s orchestration for South Pacific is among the finest ever created for a musical, and the arrangement of the overture is absolutely staggering. I found myself as overwhelmed by it as I was at the 2005 Carnegie Hall concert and the opening night of the 2008 Broadway revival.

The only verbal remarks of the evening were made by Mr. Gemignani, as he stressed the importance of introducing students to the music of classic Broadway. For 90 minutes, we were treated to a total of 23 pieces. Six of these were overtures, including Oklahoma!, Fiorello! (I practically fell out of my chair when I heard the siren at the beginning), Funny Girl, Gypsy and the special overture created by Mr. Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick for the famed Sondheim 80th Birthday concert.

Kate Baldwin took us on a journey through leading lady land: ingenue, soubrette, star. Ms. Baldwin used her lush soprano on such classics as “What’s the Use of Wond’rin'” from Carousel, “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me (the latter two can be found on her essential album “She Loves Him“).  She also sang “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods, which works better out of context than I would have thought. But the two most surprising moments came when she tore through “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Could I Leave You?” offering the audience a glimpse into two potential star turns in Ms. Baldwin’s future.

Alexander Gemignani made his entrance with the famous a cappella opening of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from Oklahoma, while having a field day with “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate, “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods. His showstopper, though, was a specialty written by Frank Loesser for the Betty Hutton film The Perils of Pauline, called “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble.” The song is about an apartment tenant who needs to move because the neighbor is playing piano night and day. (Tedd Firth was the virtuoso on the piano).

Together, the stars shared a medley from The Pajama Game (he sang “A New Town is a Blue Town, she sang “Hey There”), “Together Wherever We Go” from Gypsy and a spirited “There Once Was a Man,” also from The Pajama Game. One of the more obscure numbers of the evening was “I Want to Be with You,” introduced by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Paula Wayne in Strouse and Adams’ Golden BoyFor an encore, and to the sheer delight of Tyler, they sang “Too Many Mornings,” from Follies.

The musicianship was superb all around. It was a pleasure for me to hear many of these pieces performed with their original orchestration. In many cases, I have only heard experienced the arrangements through the original cast albums. For a mere $20, the Manhattan School of Music gave me the sort of evening I wish I could have every time I see a Broadway musical.

Invited Dress: New York Pops’ Sondheim Birthday Bash

A week ago, I wasn’t even sure I was going to be attending the New York Pops‘ celebration of Stephen Sondheim‘s 80th birthday. There was a possibility that I might be attending with my blog/twitter friend Kelly Cameron, who was covering the show for Broadway World. Then as the week progressed, I received an invite to the dress rehearsal the afternoon of the performance, an opportunity on which I pounced. I figured, if I couldn’t see the actual concert, I could at least have a chance to hear the selections. Kate Baldwin and Christiane Noll, in my estimation the two best actresses in a musical last season, were singing as well as Alexander Gemignani and Aaron Lazar. Singing legend Marilyn Maye was a very special guest artist, on hand to sing “I’m Still Here.” The NY Pops musical director and conductor is Steven Reineke. Choral support was provided by Essential Voices USA (under the direction of Judith Clurman).

There are few performing spaces that I would consider “pure” and Carnegie Hall is one of them. Every time I enter Stern Auditorium my breath is taken away. It’s so pristine and majestic, yet intimate. The acoustics are stunning, some of the best I’ve ever heard (I could clearly hear every instruction Reineke gave the orchestra while facing the stage wall). Since I was a guest and not a patron of the hall, I entered through the stage door and checked in with security. I was then let into the hall by way of the side entrance. The first ten or twelve rows were taped off, but we were allowed to sit anywhere behind that.

Unlike most dress rehearsals, this was not a formal run-through but a working rehearsal in mufti. The singers and players were in jeans and comfortable clothes. Reineke took to the podium and got things off to a start with the Overture from Merrily We Roll Along. While the sound man and stage manager worked out kinks with microphones, placing and monitor issues, Reineke stayed at his podium and led the rehearsal with patience and poise. He ran a smooth rehearsal; there was time for the orchestra to review its parts as well as the singers to fine tune their lyrics and minimalist staging. Songs were stopped and started and refinements were made.

My friend Lauren and I sat in awe as the actors, seemingly stress free, polished their material. It was a lot of work and I’m sure a lot of pressure to pull it all together for the evening show. Lauren is an actress and told me that the experience was beneficial for her to witness, almost like a master class in performance preparation.The invited dress audience was made up of friends of the performers and Carnegie Hall and we were all quite taken with them. The work session was obvious longer than the actual concert, but I was enraptured hearing many of the original arrangements and a plethora of selections from Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Into the Woods. It was also lovely hearing “I Remember” from Evening Primrose as well as selections from Saturday Night. I was a little bummed there was nothing from Assassins or my beloved Pacific Overtures (the latter has been painfully overlooked in every one of these birthday concerts).

For me, it was really a joy to hear the orchestrations. Many of the original arrangements were used (from Jonathan Tunick and Michael Starobin). There were some points where the orchestra ran through sections without the singer: I got to hear the final section of “Another Hundred People” and Reineke had the horn practice the final run for “A Weekend in the Country.” I got chills when when “Weekend” started. It was my first time hearing it live with those charts. It culminated gloriously when the Essential Voices stood in for the Liebslieders in the final section. I sat there in awe, silently screaming “Encore!” in my head. Another musical moment that has always stopped me in my tracks: the release toward the end of “Move On” – when I was in a production of Sunday, I made it a point to be backstage when that moment happened; it’s utterly thrilling every single time.

What I found out just before the rehearsal started was that I was also going to be at the sold out concert that evening (good thing I was well-dressed), so for me it was going to be interesting to see how it would turn out in actual performance. Kelly arranged it so that I would cover for her. Suddenly I was seated on the aisle in the parquet with lots of glorious Broadwayites and concertogers. In a matter of hours, here I was covering the event for Broadway World. There was a bit of deja vu, as I basically retraced my entire afternoon. It was theme and variation in the best tradition of Sondheim. It struck me as surreal and amusing at the same time. I also had a lovely chat with the woman next to me, whose son was singing with the Essential Voices and come down from Boston. (One of her fondest recollections was of the legendary Wall to Wall Sondheim Event in 2005; she and her son spent the entire day basking in Sondheim!) I’ll have more on the actual concert later…