“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.

The overture is about to start

One of the reasons I loved the revival of South Pacific was its fearless use of the entire original overture. The overture, designed originally to play before a show to allow late-comers to be seated before the start of the show, has diminished in use these days, with many shows either opening cold or offering a very brief musical prelude before the start.

I love the overtures. They set a tone for the evening; they allow you to be introduced to musical themes and phrases from within the show and to get a feel for the size and scope of the orchestra and orchestrations. It’s the foreplay. What follows is the sex. It can be long, short, pleasant, exuberant, boring or just downright awful. It’s a part of the experience and I wish that more shows would continue to use them.

My first day of American Musical Theatre class in college, my professor, Stephen Kitsakos, played three as an example to give us a feel for the unending horizons of the musical landscape, as well as use it for a successful introduction to the class. The three he played were The Who’s Tommy, A Little Night Music and Guys and Dolls, (though he actually didn’t use the original overture for the latter, but “Runyonland” from the revival cast recording). When I became his TA I always wanted to toss in some of the ones listed below, but then again I’m always biased towards the greats. But I knew then that I was going to enjoy his class immensely, which I did.

Many of the great overtures are present on their cast albums. Some are truncated due to due the time contraints of the LP but odds are you can find a complete recording out there somewhere. Other recordings, such as Darling of the Day and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, combined the overture and entr’acte for the cast recording (mostly an RCA practice). The original Mack and Mabel, a Gower Champion-directed production (who rarely used a traditional overture in his musicals) opened with a brief fanfare of “I Won’t Send Roses.” When they recorded the cast album, the entr’acte was recorded for the overture. The piece became overwhelmingly popular when Torvill and Dean used it for the 1982 World Championships, where they won the gold medal and ever since, the entr’acte is now officially the show’s overture.

Some of my favorites (alphabetically):

Funny Girl
High Spirits
Irma La Douce
The Light in the Piazza
A Little Night Music
My Fair Lady
On the Twentieth Century
110 in the Shade
Pipe Dream
The Rothschilds
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
South Pacific