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."
Wake Up and Dream's classic, "What Is This Thing Called Love?", was given a rapturously still and bluesy interpretation by Testa. She followed shortly with a wacky high-pitched voice and comic hip shaking for "Naughty Baby" (Primrose, 1924), with music by George Gershwin and a lyric co-authored by Ira Gershwin and Desmond Carter.
As the great grandson of P.G. Wodehouse, Hal Cazalet provided divine interpretations of the lyrics of that celebrated wit. A highlight was his solo work on "There Isn't One Girl" (Sitting Pretty, 1924), a Wodehouse/Jerome Kern number where a man fears he will never find a woman willing to marry him. ("For all the punch that Mr. Mendelssohn has / He might as well have written nothing but jazz.")
Even Stephen Sondheim was represented, as the program included two songs that made their stage debuts across the pond. Though "The Glamorous Life" was first heard in the film version of A Little Night Music, it was not heard on stage until that musical was produced on the West End. Blier described the lyric as being written for "a twelve year old girl who sounds a lot like Stephen Sondheim", but Vroman delivered it with grown-up intelligence and humor.
"Country House" was written for the London premiere of Follies in an attempt to inject a little more humor. It was dark humor, of course, as Testa and Graae met with comical defeat as Phyllis and Ben trying to find quick repairs for their rocky marriage. (Blier describes it as "19 years of psychotherapy in a three minute song.")
The theme of the program was altered slightly for the last two selections. Though Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray wrote the score to High Spirits, the musical version of Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit, Sir Noel was so taken with their song "Home Sweet Heaven" that he used it frequently in his nightclub performances, adding his own verses to the mix. So Mary Testa sang how, "The King of Prussia / (I call him Freddy) / Is keeping house in town with Mary Baker Eddy."
The unusual finale was a version of Cole Porter's "You're The Top", used in the 1935 London production of Anything Goes, including revised lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse which replaced some of the references that may have been too American for the Brits. "Waldorf salad" was replaced with "Russian salad", "Bendel bonnet" was removed in favor of "Ascot bonnet" and, most interestingly, "Berlin ballad" was dropped for "Gershwin ballad."
Though the New York Festival of Song is committed to presenting recitals that explore all styles of music, musical theatre lovers should keep an eye out for more of their Broadway-themed events.