BWW Interviews: A Little Education from James Rocco on BROADWAY SONGBOOK: COMDEN & GREEN

BWW Interviews: A Little Education from James Rocco on BROADWAY SONGBOOK: COMDEN & GREEN

James Rocco's BROADWAY SONGBOOK series at The Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minn., is a treasure for anyone who has an iPod full of showtunes (me: guilty!) and should earn continuing education credits for audience members who gain a wealth of knowledge in theatre history over the course of the show. Bonus: the performers are locals who are Twin Cities stars but could be starring on the stage in NYC.

The series returns June 13-15, 2014, with a tribute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who co-wrote some of the most beloved and successful Hollywood musicals and Broadway shows in the mid-20th century. Bonus: Seating is on the Ordway's Music Theater Stage, providing a unique backstage experience.

BROADWAY SONGBOOK offers an intimate, personal look into the stories behind the songs that created Broadway. Comden and Green's partnership spanned six decades. Their quintessential style defined the sophistication and wit of New York City and classic Broadway musical comedy. They won 12 Tony® Awards, received two Oscar nominations, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the American Theatre Hall of Fame and received Kennedy Center Honors. Each of their shows and movies overflow with show-stopping musical moments.

Rocco, Ordway's vice president of programming and producing artistic director. co-wrote the show with Jeffrey P. Scott and musical arrangements are by Raymond Berg and Albert Evans. I had a chance to find out a little more behind-the-scenes information about the show from Rocco himself. Start your education here, and then get your tickets before time runs out.

Why did you pick Comden & Green to feature in this show? What makes them special?

JR: I've always thought of Comden and Green as the masters of wise cracks. They were total New Yorkers who were smart and modern. Their use of language and word play set a new high for American musicals.

Tell me a little about Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

JR: They were both born in New York and they met when they were out-of-work actors. Their partnership lasted six decades and their careers as writers began by accident.

Along with their friends Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein they found employment in a little club in Greenwich Village where they put on Revues, they aptly called themselves, The Revuers. At first they were doing other people's material until they learned that you had to pay royalties for that sort of thing so according to Betty and Adolph, they decided instead to chip in and buy a pencil. The rest is history.

Did you know Comden & Green personally?

JR: Well growing up in New York, they were legendary. When I was about 17, I was waiting for an elevator and when the doors opened there they stood. My jaw dropped, I walked into the elevator (not realizing I was blocking their exit) and said in a very loud voice, "Oh my God, you're Betty and Adolph!" Then the elevator doors closed. It was a very awkward ride.

Years later, I had been working on a revised stage version of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN at Music Theatre of Wichita and Paper Mill Playhouse and of course they had to approve my work. When I finally "re" met them I decided I would not mention that I was the boy who held them captive in an elevator.

What songs will audiences recognize best from their songbook?

JR: New York, New York, Make Someone Happy, Why Oh Why Ohio, I Can Cook Too, and many others.

What was their best song and their best show, in your opinion?

JR: Kristen, that's a trick question. I can tell you my personal favorites are ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (because the word play is unbelievable), ON THE TOWN because it's perfect and WONDERFUL TOWN.

What is a little known fact that you can share about Comden & Green that will surprise audiences?

JR: Mike Nichols idolized them and said something like when he died he hoped they would be performing at the party in heaven.

When you choose artists with such extensive careers, how do you and your cowriter narrow down which numbers to include in the SONGBOOK?

JR: That's difficult. Some of my favorite songs have to be eliminated. We know the show is going to be between 90 minutes and two hours long. We know we want to give the audience a well-rounded look at the body of work. From there we begin matching the right performers to song and all of a sudden themes emerge.

How will this Broadway Songbook be the same and/or different than previous installments?

JR: This one has a tap dance and an ensemble "dance" number. It's been fun to find ways to get everyone together to make the show more exciting. We have also added a small combo. In the past we have had solo piano accompaniment but for this one, because of the fast pace and humor in the material, we thought we should add a bass player and drummer.

Tell me a little about the talent in this show - new faces? old favorites?

JR: You'll see both new and alumni! Erin Schwab and Regina Marie Williams are doing some knockout comedy. Kirby Trymucha-Duresky, who told us on the first day of rehearsal that she is about to have a baby, is also back. It's been really exciting to know Kirby all these years, see her grow as a performer and to have gone through her getting married four years ago and now having her first baby.

Reid Harmsen is doing some work that I've never seen him do before. He is a really good tap dancer in the Tommy Tune vein. That's one of the things that is so great about working on this series. All of us get to explore material we would not usually get asked to perform and sometimes it really turns out to be life changing.

Speaking of Tommy Tune, Peggy O'Connell, who was in MY ONE AND ONLY with TT on Broadway is making her SONGBOOK debut. I've been wanting to work with her since we were gypsies back in NY. She is so unique. She's doing a piece of material that was cut from WONDERFUL TOWN.

Let's see-add to that Carl Schoenborn and Elena Glass. Finally a young woman who attends the Saint Paul Academy of Performing Artists came to an audition a few weeks ago and she was perfect for a song Comden and Green wrote for Leslie Uggams, so she will be joining us, too.

I heard you are taking BROADWAY SONGBOOK on the road -- tell me about that.

JR: This summer we are doing a BROADWAY SONGBOOK retrospective of the first 100 years of Broadway. Thanks to the Minnesota State Arts Board, we are going to rework that show and visit five wonderful theaters around the state in October. (See schedule for the tour below.)

What's next for the series at the Ordway?

JR: After our Broadway First 100 years, in the spring, we will be taking a look at the next 50 years of Broadway with Rock & Roll on Broadway. From there...who knows.

More information:

Tickets are available at or call the Ticket Office at 651.224.4222, and for Groups, call 651.282.3111.

Ordway special from @theOrdway on Twitter:

Don't forget about the Comden & Green SPECIAL TICKET OFFER! Use promo code SONGBOOK25 for $25 tickets! Get them at

Schedule for fall BROADWAY SONGBOOK tour of Minnesota:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Paramount Theatre

125 4th Ave NE Austin MN 55912

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Sheldon Theatre

443 West 3rd Street Red Wing MN 55066

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dawson-Boyd Arts Association

601 9th Street Dawson MN 56232

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Historic Holmes Theatre

826 Summit Ave Detroit Lakes MN 56501

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Paramount Theatre

913 West St. Germaine Street St Cloud MN 56301

Photo: Broadway Songbook: Left to Right - Cameron Wright, Tonia Hughes, Connie Kunkle. Front - James A. Rocco. Courtesy of Ordway Center for Performing Arts.

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