Broadway by the Year: 1970
(First off, my most profuse apologies for the lateness of this recap. Long business trips have a way of interfering with theatre writing…)
In contrast to the earlier shows of the ninth Broadway by the Year season, Scott Siegel chose a year with several hit shows—and hit songs—as the season finale at Town Hall last week. 1970 is probably best known for Company and Applause, but this was also the year of Purlie and The Rothschilds, as well as one of Richard Rodgers’ final musicals, Two by Two. To his credit, Siegel gave every show ample opportunity to prove its worth, offering a wide spectrum of songs and styles, nicely accompanied (as always) by Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band.
Any concert that begins with Cheryl Freeman belting “I Got Love” from Purlie is pretty much off to a strong start, and Christiane Noll had a tough act to follow when she tried her hand at Sondheim’s wordy “Another Hundred People” from Company. Her wide-eyed and innocent take on the jaded song didn’t quite work, making her seem unsure rather than urbane. Max von Essen gave a fast and fierce “Something, Somewhere” from Two by Two, and Stephen DeRosa sang a very cute “Where Was I When They Passed Out Luck?” from Minnie’s Boys.
“Getting Married Today” is one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs for any singer to tackle, and Melissa Errico did the number justice with her rapid-fire delivery and added lyrics that made catching a breath even harder (“…because I wouldn’t ruin anyone as wonderful as he is, but I thank you all for the gifts and the flowers…”). Walter Willison, an original star of Two by Two back in 1970, sang a gorgeous and very emotional “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You” from that show, and was followed by Martin Vidnovic’s powerful and intense “Sons” from The Rothschilds.
BBTY regular Scott Coulter sang a lovely and haunting “Mama, A Rainbow” from Minnie’s Boys, the one hit song from the show, followed by the song that was originally meant to be the musical’s breakaway hit. Sung and danced by the evening’s director and choreographer Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson Wiley, “Rich Is” was a very cute tap number, but the use of updated lyrics not from the show damaged the old-fashioned mood of the moment. One of the beauties of Broadway by the Year is hearing the original lyrics of classic songs, no matter how out-of-date or offensive they might be, and hearing an adapted-for-radio version of a showtune is like drinking grape juice instead of wine.
Special Guest Star Ute Lemper sang a “Ladies Who Lunch” that was the perfect victory of style over
substance. While the character of Joanne may be an alcoholic, a singer performing her number should probably not act drunk. The dramatic choice simply didn’t work, and the song’s dry cynicism got lost in the artifice.
After several false starts, Christiane Noll sang a torchy “That Slavery is Love” from Cry for Us All unamplified, followed by Cheryl Freeman belting a rich “He Can Do It” from Purlie, also unmiked. (Since body mikes were in wide use by 1970, the singers and Scott Siegel would have been perfectly within their rights not to offer any unplugged songs for this edition. Thank God they didn’t go that route.) Act One ended with Darius de Haas singing a soulful “How I Feel” from The Me Nobody Knows.
Appropriately enough, Act Two was off to as strong a start as Act One’s with Darius de Haas and BBTY regular KendRick Jones dancing and singing a fierce “New Fangled Preacher Man” from Purlie. (Is KendRick Jones the new-fangled Darius de Haas? Time will tell.) Scott Coulter performed a poignant “The Tree” from The Me Nobody Knows, and Melissa Errico sang a very energetic “One Halloween” from Applause.
Special Guest Star Sahr Ngaujah, soon to be on Broadway playing the title role in Fela!, got his gospel on with a wonderfully energetic “The Harder they Fall” from Purlie, and Scott Coulter, Jeffry Denman and Max von Essen sang a haunting and simply gorgeous arrangement of “Sorry/Grateful” from Company, letting the harmonies symbolize the nature of relationships. Von Essen remained on stage to sing the complete “Being Alive” rather than the more traditional abridged concert version, and proved that he will make a formidable Bobby in a few years. His raw and unabashedly emotional take on the song earned him an extended, and well-deserved, ovation.
The three dancers of the evening—Jones, Denman and Patterson Wiley—turned “Side by Side by Side” into a bright dance number, which (somewhat surprisingly) worked. Shorn of its cynicism, the song can work quite well as an ode to friendship, and the dancing (naturally) helped considerably.
Special Guest Star Tovah Feldshuh (there were a lot of special guest stars this time around) sang a very effective “Welcome to the Theater” from Applause, conveying all of Margo Channing’s simultaneous disgust and love for her industry. (Isn’t this show due for a Broadway revival, perhaps with Melissa Errico as Eve?)
For the eleven o’clock number, Martin Vidnovic sang a poignant and very powerful “In My Own Lifetime” from The Rothschilds with no amplification, beautifully conveying an optimism that seems timeless in the 19th century, 20th or 21st. The evening ended with the entire company singing an upbeat and energetic title song to Applause, the anthem of performers everywhere. It was the perfect ending to the evening, really—an old-fashioned crowd-pleasing love letter to show business, focusing on the highs rather than the lows.
Broadway by the Year will be featured at the Berkshire Theater Festival this summer, with regular performers Scott Coulter, Kerry O’Malley, Christiane Noll and, of course, the Ross Patterson Little Big Band showcasing the musicals of 1930 and 1964. For New Yorkers, the 10th season of Broadway by the Year will kick off in 2010. See you at Town Hall.