Broadway By the Year
and Scott Siegel
by Nancy Rosati
Haven't we all read a negative review and been tempted to say to the critic, "If you're so smart, why don't you produce a show? Let's see how well you do!" Well, last year critic Scott Siegel decided to pick up that gauntlet. Not content with his already impressive list of titles which include author, columnist, reviewer, and radio commentator, he has added the words producer and host to his bio by coming up with a rather unique idea for a show. He decided to create an evening that contained songs from Broadway musicals of a specific calendar year. In 2001, two such nights were presented as part of a broader series called Not Just Jazz at New York's Town Hall, focusing on musicals from 1943 and 1957. Audiences came and were delighted. So were the critics and a new series was born.
This year Scott approached the Town Hall management and requested a full series of his own called Broadway By the Year. They agreed and scheduled four concerts, covering the years of 1933, 1940, 1951 and 1964. Tickets are available by subscription and so far over two thirds of the houses have been sold. Subscribers have the option of retaining their seats in the future, or of upgrading them if they prefer better seats next year and can find any available.
I asked Scott how he selected the years to represent and he said it wasn't an easy process. "I didn't want any of the years to be too close to each other. I wanted to have a separate feeling for each show. I also thought it would be nice to have them in separate decades. Because we're new and we haven't yet built up an audience, we wanted to make sure that we have stuff in these shows that the new subscribers will love. I looked for years that had at least one or two guaranteed shows with that had really good music with songs and composers that people would recognize. For instance, 1933 has two Gershwin shows and a Jerome Kern show. 1940 has a Cole Porter show.
"The last year, 1964, was just one of those monster years that has everything you ever thought of as a major hit. It's going to be very difficult because we can't include everything. 1964 had Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, Anyone Can Whistle, Fiddler On the Roof, and Golden Boy. Then there are several other which afficionados will know, such as What Makes Sammy Run?, High Spirits, Fade Out-Fade In by Jules Styne, Ben Franklin in Paris, and Bajour. It was a huge year. On the one hand it presents something on a commercial level where people will say, Oh wow, what a year. I've got to see what they're going to do.' But it also presents the biggest challenge - how to satisfy people and not have them think you're giving a show short shrift. We have to find a way to get the sense of that year without doing the entire score to Funny Girl or Hello, Dolly!."
Scott had a great time producing last year's shows. He was a complete novice and relied on the people around him, who had far more experience than he did. His first decision was to hire people he loved, who would appeal to him if he were in the audience. He chose Sally Mayes, Heather MacRae and Jason Graae, figuring that they were pros and he'd have nothing to worry about. He did admit to some opening night jitters five minutes before he walked out on stage for his hosting debut, but he quickly realized that the audience was focusing on the singers, not him, and he relaxed. He describes his job as "providing the glue for the show." In a script that he's written himself, he explains why they're singing what they're singing, and tells a few "hopefully amusing anecdotes." He's not there to spell out the books of the musicals, because he feels that audiences are there to hear the music. "What we're trying to do by giving you a year's worth of Broadway music in one night is to suggest the plasticity of this great music. We may be doing songs of 1933, but we know a lot of these songs today and there's a reason for that. It's not because these shows are being redone and redone, it's because the songs live on."
They don't always do the songs in the same manner as they were done in the original show. He feels he has to do that with certain classic songs or audiences will never forgive him, but with the more obscure numbers, they can be more innovative in their presentation. "The idea is to be entertaining so we want to do these songs the best way we can, and allow the people who are creative today to be able to put their stamp on them, just like the people did in the past generations. In addition, we want to pay homage to the songs that people do know the context of, and make sure they appreciate where they came from. It's a little bit of both. We're not concertizing' because I don't like that. The cast will be instructed not to sing at the audience but to the audience. A lot of what I do as a critic is cabaret reviewing and in cabaret there's really no fourth wall. I encourage the singers to talk to the audience, not just get up there and sing to a microphone, but to know that there are people out there and to communicate with them. I want to make it a real cabaret concert experience."
Producing the 2001 shows taught Scott a great deal. "Last year I chose the cast first and then selected the music. This year I'm doing the opposite. I'm selecting the songs and choosing the cast because of the demands of the music. I know I'll find the right people who will fit." Instead of the three performers he used for 1943, he's now using four or five, and even more in the 1964 show. This offers a wider flexibility of voices to meet the demands of the varied musical styles, and is less demanding for the singers who have quite a bit of preparation for a one-night only appearance. They don't do songs from the shows in order. "We want to keep it lively for the audience and the performers. They're going to be doing duets with various members of the cast and there will be some group numbers. The solos will be mixed up throughout the show. We're trying to divide the music in a way so that everybody has great stuff."
They're not only doing the hits. "A lot of beautiful songs have been basically forgotten or overlooked because they were in a flop. Last year, in the 1943 show there was a Lerner and Loewe show that people have basically forgotten because it played eleven performances. It was called What's Up? and we found two songs from that show which were delightful. People didn't know them but they were little gems to be rediscovered. It's nice to be able to find songs like that and bring them back to life.
"We're trying to satisfy two audiences with these shows. There's the audience that comes to the show because they love Broadway music and they want to hear the hit songs and you want to give it to them. That's the largest part of the audience but it's not the opinion-making part of the audience. It's not the core audience that keeps these shows going from year to year. You also want to appeal to the real theater afficionados who say, Anyone Can Whistle? I've heard that 3,000 times! I want to hear the song that was cut from it.' They want to hear the obscure stuff. We try to find the balance between those two audiences and to please both of them by not giving them too much of the obscure stuff or too much of the obvious stuff."
The 1943 show was recorded last year and the CD will be available at Town Hall. Each of this year's shows will be recorded for possible release by Bayview Records. Scott's also hoping that the series will grow in popularity to the point that he can take them on the road to other cities beyond New York.
They are still finalizing the casts and material for three of the four nights but the 1933 show cast will include Mary Testa, George Dvorsky, Mary Bond Davis, Anne Runolfsson and Marc Coffin performing songs from Roberta, Melody, As Thousands Cheer, Pardon My English, Let Em Eat Cake, Strike Me Pink, Hold Your Horses, Three Penny Opera, Murder at the Vanities, Champagne Sec, and Blackbirds of 1934 (which opened in 1933). Cast members for subsequent shows will include Bryan Batt, Rob Evan, Natalie Douglas, Julie Reyburn, Chip Zien, Alison Fraser, Davis Gaines, Amanda McBroom, Tom Andersen, Brent Barrett, Liz Callaway, and special appearances by Richard Skipper as Carol Channing and Steven Brinberg as Barbra Streisand in the 1964 show.
"One of the reasons that I did this in the first place is because, as a critic, I see so many talented people all the time in theater, whether it's Broadway or Off-Broadway, and in the cabaret clubs, and I wanted to have an opportunity to take these people who are so talented ... I'm not saying that they work in obscurity but sometimes they play to small audiences and I wanted to give them the chance to stand in front of 1500 people and really connect. I didn't want to have a huge cast because then each would only do two songs. I wanted a small enough cast so that everybody really had their place in the sun and had the opportunity to reach an audience of a substantial number. If I had a television show I would do that. It's the biggest thing that I could find, at 1500 seats, to find a stage for these people whose talents I admire."
How well did the critic do producing his own show? He admitted that it is somewhat harder than he expected and he has a newly developed respect for the process, but he's learning and having a wonderful time. So far, his reviews have all been raves.
Broadway By the Year: 1933 March 18
Tickets $35 and $30 with 20 percent off for a four-show subscription
The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
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