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Fred, Onna and Cy: Oh, My - A Few Memories by Glen Roven

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With the passing of Fred Ebb, Onna White and, most recently, Cy Coleman, the 'death comes in threes' superstition seems to have a sorrowful twinge of truth.

These three legends were part of the last generation of professionals who came of age when it was possible-- so it seems to me--actually to maintain a career on Broadway, to do a show every year or every few years, and not only make a living from the theater, but create a body of work that was respected, admired and cherished. I was fortunate enough to work with all three, and I'm grateful for the knowledge they so willingly shared.

I first met Fred Ebb in 1978 when I somehow persuaded CBS to do a half hour television version of Flora, The Red Menace, Kander and Ebb's first show. I was only an aspiring musical director/composer, but I guess my naïve enthusiasm and insatiable appetite for Broadway music somehow connected with the producer of CBS's CAMERA THREE. Now even back then, having a musical produced on TV was a very rare occurrence so Kander and Ebb were around the set. The 1965 Broadway failure of the original Flora had been followed, of course, by enormous success (and I had all the cast albums) so I was a kid in a candy shop. (And what candy! I remember a magical day crawling around John Kander's dank, depressing basement searching for the orchestrations that were collecting dust in a remote corner.)

We had to shoot the show quickly, and something wasn't working in Flora's song, "Sing Happy." It didn't have the impact it needed, or as they say in the theater, it wasn't landing. Fred, the first one to sense the problem, quietly started talking to Lenora Nemitz, our Flora, who was outstanding in the rest of the show. He whispered to her for a few minutes and then started gesticulating wildly. Suddenly, something wonderful happened: Fred started to perform the number full out. And he wasn't doing it as Fred Ebb, he was doing it as Lenora, or more accurately as Flora -- or as Lenora doing Flora -- complete with the choreography, the character and in Lenora's key! It was a remarkable moment. And lo and behold, Lenora scored on the very next take, imitating Fred imitating her.

Over the next few years, I worked with Fred on a multitude of projects with all his favorite performers, Liza, Chita, Joel. In every case, the exact same transformation took place. He came to rehearsal and when we needed dialogue to lead into a song, he would morph into that performer and the words would pour from his mouth like a theatrical font. When Fred did Joel, he was Joel. When he did Chita, he was Chita. As for Liza, you haven't lived until you've heard Fred Ebb sing Liza With A Z!

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I was hired to be the musical director of an ill-fated Broadway production of The Three Musketeers in the early eighties. I was subsequently fired before the show came to Broadway but the sting was lessened by the fact that Onna White, the consummate Broadway choreographer was also let go. Misery loves company, and Onna was great company.

I never knew exactly how old Onna was, but she'd been a Hot Box Girl in the original cast of Guys and Dolls and when we first started working together, she'd just had both her hips replaced. Tall and elegant and with a deep sophisticated voice, she loved telling anyone who'd listen, "I have the same material in my hips that they put in the space shuttle." Despite this—or perhaps because of it-- she was still dancing up a storm, demonstrating all the steps for the teenaged company.

I was doing the dance music and felt privileged to be working with her. After all, she had choreographed the film, Oliver!, a seminal film to those of us who are artistically inclined. She loved to tell stories about the dance arranger she'd used on Irma La Deuce ; she once asked him to come up with some music for a transitional section of the second act ballet--music that sounded like penguins dancing. (Check your CDs for the identity of that dance arranger, none other than a young John Kander!) Here was a great lesson in creating dance music: often the choreographer can't quite verbalize the musical terminology. Many times he or she simply describes the desired mood and it's up to the dance arranger to come up with "penguin music." Stories like that make me weep!

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Most composers I know are pretty good pianists. Some are even great. But Cy Coleman was in a class by himself, a composer who was also a "monster" pianist. Cy rattling off one of his jazz standards instantly conjured up the ghosts of everything cool: Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and the entire strip of the old Las Vegas. Key signatures didn't matter; he could play a song as easily in one key, but once on stage, he often forget the rehearsed key (sometimes on purpose) and play in whatever key his fingers happened to choose. His dazzled musicians had to adjust instantly and without warning to Cy's musical high-wire act.

I was the executive producer of an ill-fated arts center somewhere in the bowels of Pennsylvania. I had the good fortune to nab Cy and his trio for the first night of our jazz festival. The previous night, I'd been flicking around TV and in quick succession heard Cy's "I Love My Wife" as a theme song for a cable show, Sinatra singing "Witchcraft," and a commercial using "If My Friends Could See Me Now". My opening speech was all about how Cy's music has pervaded our culture, how it was virtually impossible not to hear some of his music every single day. Cy came out and was clearly touched by my introduction. A few weeks later I was preparing a show in Greenwich Village called Singular Sensations where I'd interview and accompany legendary musical theater people like Carol Channing, Donna McKechnie and others. Cy's manager, always protective, phoned him to confirm I could handle such an undertaking. His manager reported to me that Cy, who didn't suffer fools gladly, told him in no uncertain terms, "Oh yes. Glen can do it." For me, his approval, was a tremendous gift.

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I had different relationship with all of these giants, but I will always remember the days spent in those musty rehearsal studios working out the numbers. I have to believe that although we have lost monumental artists, they are not finished. In fact, heaven is a bit more heavenly now with Fred doing Piaf for Piaf, Onna telling Mozart to give her some giraffe music, and Cy jamming with Dizzy, surprising him by playing in unexpected keys. Now that's theater!

Glen Roven began his broadway career as a rehearsal pianist when he was in High School. While attending Columbia University he worked on various capacities on several New York productions and at nineteen was the music director of Sugar Babies, becoming the youngest conductor ever on Broadway. Since then he has enjoyed a successful career as conductor, composer and arranger of stage shows, films and TV productions. He is a four-time Emmy winner and this year received his 12th Emmy nomination for Outstanding song of the year. Glen Roven was conductor and arranger of President Clinton's first inauguration and recently conducted the inauguration of George W. Bush. In 1980 he made his European debut conducting the Luxembourg Symphony with Sherril Milnes and Rene Kollo. He has written, conducted and produced for Julie Andrews, Kathleen Battle, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Placido Domingo, Ella Fitzgerald, Renee Flemming, Aretha Franklin, Denyce Graves, Bob Hope, Withney Houston, Michael Jackson, Liza Minelli, Diana Ross, Shirley MacLaine, Stevie Wonder and many others. In December 2000, he was the conductor and arranger for quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg's Gala millenium concert in Washington. He has two musicals in devlopement for Broadway: Pandora's Box written with Maria Schlatter and directed by Gary Halvorson, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, produced by Brian Brolly and directed by Susan Schulman.

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