Cabaret Life NYC: Peter Napolitano Transitions from Director to Producer for Urban Stages' 'Winter Rhythms' Program, Dec. 4-15
Interview by Stephen Hanks
It may not be like getting a gift on every one of the 12 Days of Christmas, but for cabaret and musical theater lovers, the 4th Annual Urban Stages "Winter Rhythms" series-presented over a dozen straight nights at the not-for-profit's Off-Broadway theatre on 259 West 30th Street-could be the closest thing to opening a daily present by the tree. From December 4-15, more than 80 singers and actors will perform in an eclectic mix of more than 20 shows, with all the proceeds from ticket sales dedicated to the Urban Stages "On Tour Outreach Program"-celebrating its 20th anniversary this season-that brings more than 300 free multicultural theater and music programs to elementary and middle school age children and their families in libraries and schools throughout NYC five boroughs.
Two years ago, Urban Stages Artistic Director Frances Hill brought in MAC and Bistro award-winning director, lyricist and producer Peter Napolitano to produce the Winter Rhythms program and broaden the scope of it's musical offerings. Last year's opening night program featured a tribute to cabaret producer icon Donald Smith, which was his last public appearance before he died three months later. This year, celebrated cabaret entertainer and Tony nominee Karen Akers will open the Series on Tuesday, December 4 with her acclaimed tribute show Anything Goes: Karen Akers Sings Cole Porter (with musical direction by Don Rebic).
(For a complete list of this year's Winter Rhythms shows and performers go to http://bit.ly/U2swKz)
BroadwayWorld.com Cabaret Columnist Stephen Hanks recently caught up with the new Sol Hurok of Urban Stages to learn how Napolitano has helped Winter Rhythms evolve and to get some insights into this year's program.
Stephen Hanks: Peter, you've had so much on your plate the past few years, what with directing cabaret shows and developing and writing lyrics for your own musicals. Now you're producing your second successive Winter Rhythms Series for Urban Stages. How did you happen to get involved?
Peter Napolitano: Well, a few years ago Frances Hill decided she wanted to do a program in December to raise money for the Outreach Program. The first two years the Series was called "Cabaret Nights" and primarily featured cabaret shows. I went to a few of the shows in 2009 and became more familiar with Urban Stages because I work on many cabaret shows with [Musical Director] Barry Levitt, who in Spring 2010 was the MD for an Urban Stages show called "Langston in Harlem." When Urban Stages was putting their 2010 Winter show list together, I was directing Janice Hall's cabaret tribute to Marlene Dietrich, which was getting great reviews, and Barry recommended that Frances add Janice's show.
SH: And then Hall's show ended up in the February 2011 Urban Stages tribute shows to four legendary singers. Is that what led to you getting more involved with Winter Rhythms?
PN: Yes, Frances wanted to do the "Musical Legends" program but was planning to leave New York on a fund raising trip and wasn't sure how it would come together. I offered to produce it and Frances gave me the job. It went so well and we enjoyed working together so much she then asked me to produce the winter program. My first idea was to vary the mix of shows-musical theater, jazz, classical-beyond just cabaret performances and that's how it evolved into Winter Rhythms.
SH: Putting together a program like this for a December run must be a daunting task. How do you construct this entertainment jigsaw puzzle when you have to plan 22 shows over 12 days with more than 80 performers?
PN: Last year's program turned out to be very successful with about a third to a half of the shows completely sold out. So I don't think we suffered from producing this during December before the holiday season. In putting together the program, I try to go beyond people I know or have worked with before and bring in some cabaret shows that perhaps some people haven't seen yet, especially since the audience we draw from isn't necessarily the usual cabaret audience. In fact, one of the big success stories last year was singer Tanya Holt who hadn't done a solo show in five years. She sold out the house and then took her show for a run at the Metropolitan Room. As for getting the performers to sign on, it's really not that difficult. I might get turned down if a performer has a lot of shows in that particular month or if they are doing a major gig at a club around the same time, but for the most part performers such as Karen Akers (photo above) jump at the chance to donate their time and talents for a cause like the Outreach Program.
SH: Since you direct so many cabaret shows, are you tempted to get involved in some of the Winter Rhythms shows as a director?
PN: Actually, two of the shows in the program I directed originally before Winter Rhythms and I'm also directing the show that features songs from musicals I've written. But I do end up being a sounding board on some of the other shows that don't have directors. What's wonderful about the program is that it involves so many talented and experienced people, I don't have to do too much directing. And I don't need to be involved in the technical stuff because Urban Stages has a terrific staff, including Sean Hagerty, the technical coordinator and sound designer [who is also performing in the Series on December 8 at 9pm], and Meghan Santelli, the lighting designer. But as the producer I sometimes feel like I'm a kid again when I sat in my bedroom with a pen and pad and produced my own Broadway seasons, created shows, decided on the casts, and selected the theaters. [Laughs]
SH: The Urban Stages On Tour Outreach Program sounds like a wonderful educational gift for children throughout New York and keeping it going for 20 years is a great accomplishment. Can you give us a quick glimpse of how the program works?
PN: Frances Hill felt there was a need to bring theater and music to family audiences in the outer boroughs and 20 years later the program stages more than 300 events per year throughout the city at various libraries and schools for elementary and middle-school age children. Urban Stages' Program Director Rachel Sullivan manages the Outreach Program and organizes the teacher/artists who perform the shows, including musicians, mimes and poets. For example, one show involves teaching kids the rudiments of poetry through the use of puppets and at the end of the show the kids write their own poems. Percussionist Rex Benicasa, who is well-known in the cabaret community, presents a "Rhythm and Sound" program using the musical instruments he's collected from around the world and he invites the kids to play on them. There are also original children's musicals on topics such as the ecology, Latin American and Native American folklore, and solo plays about major historical figures like Sojourner Truth, Sacagawea, and the first African-American female astronaut, Mae Jamison.
SH: Those kids would probably love the closing night Winter Rhythms show you have planned, "From All of Us to All of You: Season Songs and Disney, Too!" Do you have any surprises in store for that one? Will Mr. Disney finally be thawed out from his cryogenic chamber and make an appearance?
PN: [Laughs] I don't know about big surprises, but we will have some great singers that night performing both holiday and Disney songs-but only Disney songs from the films made during his lifetime. By the way, do you know where that title "From All of Us to All of You" comes from?
SH: Hmmm, a song from Snow White?
PN: It's the title of the Christmas TV show that would be presented every year during the days of Walt Disney Presents and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in the 1950s and '60s. What was so special about those shows is that you'd see clips from the great Disney animated films that you could only see in theaters. That was pretty special when you were a kid. Hopefully, the people around my age who see our closing show at Winter Rhythms will remember.
Urban Stages Theatre is located on 259 West 30th Street. This year's Winter Rhythms opens on December 4 with an Opening Night Benefit show and dinner for $125 at Seven Restaurant. The December 15 Closing Night Gala concert/champagne reception at Urban Stages is $40. Tickets are $25 per show (both shows in one night, $40). Beer and wine will be available for a $3 donation. No cover or minimum. Tickets may be purchased on www.smarttix.com or 212 868-4444. You can visit the Urban Stages website for more info: www.urbanstages.org.