Hands Across the Sea: Some Americans Abroad
Theatre fans who can't get enough of Scott Siegel's popular Broadway By The Year series at Town Hall may want to petition (or give a large donation to) The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) and demand more programs like last week's Hand's Across the Sea. Founded by Co-Artistic Directors Michael Barrett and Stephen Blier, NYFOS has produced nearly 100 vocal recitals dedicated to songs from both the classical and popular repertories. Though musical theatre is not their main focus, the company's Broadway-themed recitals which I've seen have been of consistently high quality.
Hands Across The Sea, performed at Merkin Concert Hall, featured songs by American composers from shows that premiered in London musicals, concentrating heavily on the first half of the 20th Century when the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins all premiered a show or two via transatlantic. The theme was inspired by a backstage conversation Blier had one evening with cabaret legend and popular music historian Michael Feinstein. Another living musical theatre encyclopedia, Bob Kimball (known for editing volumes on the complete lyrics of Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin) was recruited to supply both material and anecdotes.
As with all NYFOS concerts, Stephen Blier served as both sole accompanist, on piano, and master of ceremonies. He's an engaging host who, looking at the material from the viewpoint of a classical musician, often offers perspectives that musical theatre fans should find fresh and thought provoking.
The quartet of vocalists included two musical theatre favorites: the extraordinary singing actress and comedienne Mary Testa and the hilariously vaudevillian showman Jason Graae. Joining them were two fine singers who split their time between showtunes and the classical world: the versatile soprano Lisa Vroman and the lively and entertaining tenor Hal Cazalet.
Although we were still a long way from sexually explicit language in popular songs, Blier explained how Broadway lyricists had a bit more room in London's West End to express erotic imagery and suggest homosexuality. Rodgers and Hart's "Dancing on the Ceiling" (Evergreen, 1930) tells of a woman lying in bed at night, unable to sleep because she can hear the man who fascinates her, who lives in the room above, dancing the night away. Vroman effectively sang it with a lightly suggestive sexual intensity. Jason Graae emphasized the sardonic, self-depreciating humor in Cole Porter's "I'm a Gigolo" (Wake Up and Dream, 1929), sung by a gay man who rents himself out as an escort for elderly women at social functions.
Nymph Errant's plot, about a young girl determined to travel the world and have torrid affairs only to find all the men she meets want commitments, may have kept that 1933 West End hit from crossing the Atlantic, but it would have been interesting to hear the reaction to one of Cole Porter's more suggestive list songs, "The Physician". Vroman was delightfully perky, with a teasing wink, explaining how, "He said my bronchial tubes were entrancing / My epiglottis filled him with glee /He simply loved my larynx and was wild about my pharynx / But he never said he loved me."<