by Samuel L. Leiter
The Broadway musical has had its golden ages and its graveyard eras, but even the dreariest seasons usually have provided at least one significant contribution, even if only in a standout song buried in a second-rate show. For those who want a live, if necessarily limited, birds-eye view of how this plays out in practice, there’s no better place to be than at one of Scott Siegel’s Broadway by the Year concerts, now in their 15th year at the Town Hall.
The current four-concert series (one performance each) is devoted to programs that cover 25 years of Broadway history. On May 11, the joint was jumping with joyous theater lovers listening to and learning about (from Siegel’s crisp commentary) Broadway musicals from 1966 to 1990. Although several shows from this period have become classics, these years reveal more tarnish than gold. During this time, musicals struggled to keep pace with the rapid changes in society, theatergoing costs skyrocketed, younger audiences dropped out, escalating production costs influenced artistic methods, melodically memorable songs grew rarer, and fewer and fewer shows displayed creative genius and popular appeal. Among other things both positive and problematic, directorial stars created “conceptual musicals,” rock musicals made their entrance, black artists made the Great White Way more racially diverse, jukebox musicals grew popular by settling for the familiar over the original, and there was a British invasion of powerhouse musicals.
Much of this was encapsulated in the 25 numbers in Broadway by the Year 1966-1990, which began with Jenny Powers (her slinky black dress proudly showing a baby bump) singing “Where Am I Going?” from Sweet Charity (1966). It ended with Danny Gardner, Sean Harkness, and the rest of the large company joining in on “Oh, Boy!” from Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (1990), with the audience adding its own responses.
Performed against a simple curtained background, with a three-piece band directed by Ross Patterson, the nearly two and a half hour show moved briskly, with a sterling lineup of New York’s up and coming as well as established cabaret and musical theater performers showing their stuff. Most theatergoers would quickly recognize Patrick Page, who did “Cyrano’s Nose” from Cyrano (1973), or Bobby Steggert, who sang “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), while promising new faces included Christopher Johnstone singing “Love Can’t Happen” from Grand Hotel (1989).
Most of the songs were performed as solos in solid stand and deliver style, the exceptions being “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” from Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978), featuring Gabrielle Stravelli and Noah Racey, and “Nice Work if You Can Get It” from My One and Only (1983), with Danny Gardner, Brent McBeth, and Drew Humphrey, both of which included tap dance routines; the band’s instrumental of “Stop in the Name of Love” from Uptown . . . It’s Hot (1986); and Jessica Hendy’s “Nobody’s Side” from Chess (1988) backed by the seven-member Broadway by the Year Chorus.
Several appearances had a sentimental value, like that of Lorraine Serabian, who reprised her vigorous “Life Is,” which she’d introduced 47 years ago in Zorba (1968). Then there was ninth-grader Mercer Patterson, music director Patterson’s son, who—in honor of Mother’s Day—offered “Mama, a Rainbow” from Minnie’s Boys (1970), and seemed charmingly awkward about how to accept the audience’s applause when he finished.
It’s unlikely that several shows mentioned here would be on anyone’s list of favorite Broadway musicals, and as Siegel’s remarks made clear, a number were flops. At the same time, while songs most casual Broadway fans would recognize were present, like “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables (1987), sung by Bob Stillman, or “There Are Worse Things I Can Do” from Grease (1972), performed by Carole J. Bufford, a couple of iconic shows weren’t included.
Siegel, who creates, writes, and directs these shows, must base his decisions on many factors, including what shows were represented in his other recent concerts, what singers are best suited to the available material (which he says is the biggest problem), the need for balance in terms of the kinds of songs that follow one another, and so on. Add to this the dropouts because of illness (there were several) and the difficulties of putting on a show like this become readily apparent (“Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera had to be cut for this reason). As Siegel told me, “it becomes a bit of a Chinese puzzle putting the show together.”
Which reminds me: Chu Chem (1989) anybody?
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).