by Rob Lester
Gathering together tidbits of theatre lore, archival photos projected on a screen, up-and-coming young theatre singers, the current crop of Broadway performersand, notably, original cast members or members of the creative team to sing from the scores and/or offer first-hand recollectionsthe program is a feast for musical theatre fans. Its ninth such celebration (which includes Celebration), on March 26 with two totally different programs, will continue to captivate those who saw short-run musicals and those who wish they'd run to the box office in time or weren't yet in town, in the theatre habit, or alive. With performances, memory-sharing, and sum-ups of history, it's an intriguing mix, engendering reactions both of wistful "What might've been" and "What were they thinking?!" bewilderment.
The programs will take place in their latest venue, Joe's Pub at The Public Theatre in downtown Manhattan, with the 7 pm show surveying such musicals as Big Deal (cast member Cady Huffman will be participating), How Do You Do I Love You (represented by its songwriters, David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.), Lolita My Love (covered by Meg Bussert), Suessical (with original cast member Eddie Korbich), as well as revisiting Coco, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Elegies: A Song Cycle, Musical Chairs, and Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party. Anne L. Nathan and Betsy Wolfe will also be among the performers. At the 9:30 show, Dee Hoty goes back to The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public (a Broadway sequel), Julia Murney will look back at Lennon, one of Five Guys Named Moe, Jerry Dixon, travels down his memory lane, and Lynne Wintersteller represents Closer Than Ever. Although Sally Wilfert is an alumna of two shows on the menu, King David and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, her song will be from Ballroom. Among others on hand will be Telly Leung, Kate Shindle, and Elena Shaddow; other shows on the table are Amen Corner, Celebration, Children of Eden, Kelly, and The Times.
As an admiring attendee and reviewer-member of the committee selecting it for a Bistro Award this year (to be presented on April 23), I was happy to hear the thoughts and perspective of its very enthusiastic, young three musketeers of musicals. They are narrating co-hosts and creators Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy, and their talented pianist/musical director Caleb Hoyer. They tell me the idea was hatched from a mutual love of musical theatre and specifically by "rare and inspiring Broadway photos" that Jennifer began posting on Facebook, catching the attention of kindred spirit Kevin, whom she knew from NYU. With musical director Caleb, their first choice as music man, they met at the Neptune Diner in Astoria, Queens (home of Ethel Merman) and recall throwing around ideas, discussing Flora, the Red Menace, and being fueled by their shared passion for musicals and multiple servings of the diner's delicious jello, which they remember also being red.
Kevin had been fascinated by "pictures of old marquees or campy advertisements where babies were calling in to get tickets to see Baby," etc. and soon they went live with their trivia and treasure troves, a time machine of sorts added when they began to seek out their heroes who were in shows they had seen with fascinated fans' eyesor wish they had. Caleb found ways to dig up the more elusive sheet music and rehearse with performers in between duties musical-directing a full production of one of the "under-appreciated" shows in the canon, Smile. And they've all been smiling ever since.
Caleb will sing in the March show, and Kevin often does an impressive turn in the shows, while Jen generally settles for regaling the crowd with fun facts and cute coincidences of history. "I'm proud of the formula we've found to create something entertaining where audience members also learn something," she remarks. "It's my absolute favorite thing when someone comes up to me after one of the concerts and says something like, 'Wow, Via Galactica! That reminds me of something that happened during Spider-Man previews!' or 'Don Scardino really was the Chad Kimball of the 1970s.' There's a thing that my friend Nick Blaemire and I spoke about that really got into my head about how we shape the series: 'There's no such thing as a bad musical. There are only musicals you love and musicals someone else loves.'" She also references the song from the musical [title of show] about the worth of being "Nine People's Favorite Thing" (instead of being the "ninth favorite thing" of many people). "And I really think that it's true. By showing people these great pieces of musicals that may not have been huge hits, we're hopefully changing their mindset about how they look at shows today. Maybe they hear Alli Mauzey sing 'Screw Loose' in the concert and think, 'There would've been something I loved about that show! I wish I'd seen Cry-Baby.'"
Although some may enjoy snarkily snickering at Broadway post-mortems, and be dismissive about the also-rans and just focus on the long-runs, Kevin emphasizes that, "It's easy to be negative. Why not celebrate them?" And the stories they hear from those who were around the rehearsal process, the trying out-of-town try-outs and changes and personality clashes are eye-openers. Looking back on some of the sagas recounted, he slyly adds, "The weirdest/most amazing ones tend to involve drugs and the 1970s. What a magical time it must have been to be on 'the Broadway'!" He says the first concert jogged his parents' memories of shows they'd seen. "The one that they never forget is seeing Let My People Come at the Village Gate, and reluctantly having to shake hands with the nude actors as they left the theatre." For Caleb, a couple of the many anecdotes jump to mind. In preparing "Playground of the Planets" from The Little Prince and the Aviator, there was uncertainty about how part of the song went. He remembers, the day of the concert, huddling with Anthony Rapp, who managed to fill him in on the words he'd sung as a child 30 years earlier. Caleb relates, "in our 7th edition, in which we featured Legs Diamond, Randy Graff called out from the audience in the middle of the segment and told us that the director of Legs Diamond was in the audience. I think Jen's heart stopped for several seconds." She's had many a heart-stopping moment, a theatre-lover re-living favorite performances live, years later: "I've gotten to sit on stage and watch from three feet away as Mary Testa belted out "Set Those Sails" from In Trousers, a song that I wore my boombox out listening to in the 1990s. To get to share moments like that with the performers, my cohorts, the audience, and a world of kids in their bedrooms watching on YouTube: that's unbelievable."
And it goes deeper. As they say, the melody lingers on. And so does the memory. Caleb explains, "I think people are caught off guard by how inspirational the series is. I always am, every time. Our goal is not to 'inspire,' and yet, discussing these underappreciated works that were born of incredible passion, dedication, and hard workregardless of their critical or commercial receptionis so poignant, and encouraging to aspiring artists."
Making contact with Broadway veterans and those who've left the scene is not always easy, but the intrepid Miss Tepper is always hopeful and people are always helpful. "Actually, that's a challenge I love. Sometimes we think, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could get Patti Karr?' and then we find a way to contact someone who knows her agent's cousin's scene partner ... It just shows you how the community is all completely connected. It's like 'Six Degrees To Patti Karr.'" Kevin has his direct-approach method: "I call it 'cold Facebooking.' It consists of me writing to some fancy Broadway legend out of the blue, and convincing the person in 50 words or less that we aren't crazy. Other times, performers who have previously done the concert gang up on their fancy friends and convince them that these three young 'uns are on to something!" And, sometimes, a writer "calls you up out of the blue and agrees to share his amazing songs with you!" They're grateful for the stories they read up on or hear from the trenches, and Caleb point out that some "are so unbelievable that we often joke about creating a fictional show and writing a song from it and then featuring it in the concert to see if anyone would catch it as a phony."
On their real wish list for the future is doing an edition at a Broadway theatre and having Kristin Chenoweth sing "The Golden Ram" from Two by Two. But for now, they're happy with a mountain of memories and music and a truckload of talentand talking about Truckload, an odd, little-known (because it closed in previews) 1975 show helmed by Patricia Birch that fascinates them. They warn me with their familiar, self-described "theatre nerd" flare-up of obsession and relish, "Don't get us started on Truckload!"
For more information, photos, and footage of past concerts, see www.ifitonlyevenrunsaminute.com.
Joe's Pub is at 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. For each of the March 26 shows, admission is $15, and there is a $12 food/ drink minimum. For tickets, visit www.joespub.com