Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Lee Horwin

We’ll Take A Glass Together!: The Songs of Wright and Forrest From MGM to Grand Hotel


“I wanted to be surrounded by women I’ve known most of my life, who I’ve worked with and loved,” declares Walter Willison. This show is doubly personal for the host/writer/director. Not only does it fall on his birthday, but the performer knew and worked with Wright and Forrest over 15 years. (He peppers the concert with illuminating facts and anecdotes.) This retrospective was the single unrealized project on the collaborators’ bucket list when they passed.

Robert Wright (1914- 2005) and George Forrest (1915- 1999), musical theater composer-lyricists, worked together over 70 uninterrupted years beginning in high school. At 14 and 15 respectively, Wright had accompanied Ziegfeld’s Helen Morgan in an illegal speakeasy and Forrest had entertained aboard cruise ships. Setting their caps for film, the two played clubs from Miami to Los Angeles landing a job at MGM as songwriters. “In those days,” Willison reminds us, “You had to go to one of those beautiful, gilded movie palaces” to hear the music. He sighs.

An evocative “A Bag of Popcorn and a Dream” (also the name of a CD celebrating the partners’ oeuvre), begins a parentheses of Hollywood-era songs exuberantly performed by our host, a showman to his toes. It was “The Donkey Serenade” that cinched the writers’ status with Louis B. Mayer recognizing success when he saw it. There’s a song in the air/But the fair senorita doesn’t seem to care/For the song in the air/So I’ll sing to my mule…Go figure. With music by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, the partners took Mayer’s advice and adapted classical material.

              George “Chet” Forrest, Walter Willison, Robert Wright, 1989 Tony Awards (Photo by Henry Grossman)

Song of Norway was based on the life of Edvard Grieg. Attractive, young vocalists Katie Dixon, John Drinkwater and Matthew Drinkwater rendered “Hill of Dreams” from the show. For most of Janet -they called her Janet, not Jeanette-MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s tunes, Wright and Forrest refashioned folk songs.

As many of their Los Angeles Civic Light Opera musicals traveled to Broadway, Wright and Forest followed. In New York, they also penned special material for The Copa- cabana, a venue one would hardly associate with the team. Nightclub selections are offered by Lee Horwin and Marcy DeGonge Manfredi whose droll “I’m Going Moroccan for Johnny” gives us a glimpse into the collaborators’ humor: I’m facing the East/And salaaming all over the place…

Kismet, adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin, was reviewed as having “not a song in the whole show.” Its score included “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “This Is My Beloved,” and “Stranger in Paradise.” Willison and Heather MacRae offer a medley from the show- the duet balances enthusiastically-while DeGonge Manfredi performs “Beloved.”  Kismet was followed by Kean, Timbuktu! (another take on Kismet), and Broadway’s first Anastasia represented by Katie Dixon’s “Think Upon Something Beautiful” with the singer more conscious of notes than lyrics.

Diane J. Findley

Vocalist Diane J. Findley, whom Wright and Forrest appropriately recognized as adding class to any vehicle, sings (and acts) two numbers. “Has Madame Had It?” was written for Marlene Dietrich hoping she would star in At the Grand, the first iteration of what would later become Grand Hotel. Part monologue, part song, it arrives phrased like musing. Has Madame had it?…Is Madame slipping?…Should Madame chuck it?…Findley asks hesitating, one eyebrow aurally raised.

The unquestionable highlight of the afternoon is A Grand Hotel Suite. The musical, with the help of composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and director Tommy Tune, scored more than 1,000 performances and a Tony nomination. It was  Wright and Forrest’s last collaboration. Three of the show’s original cast members successively take the stage.

Lynnette Perry, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi

Lynnette Perry appealingly resumes her role as pretty young typist, Flaemmchen, with  “Flame Girl” describing film star aspirations, a song that was cut in Boston. Perry’s charming gestures and low key delivery land well. Karen Akers, who played Raffaela, confidante/secretary to the famous ballerina, performs the difficult “What You Need” with unexaggerated investment, palpably creating the character. And the great Liliane Montevecchi (as ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya) inhabits Maury Yeston’s moving “Bonjour Amour.” This artist’s signature flair and credibility are bracketed by wicked, onstage humor.

We close with a lively version of “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” the right song with which to exit in cheer and end this season’s Ziegfeld Society’s shows-which resume in September.

Unfortunately, we also leave with ringing ears. Consistent over-loudness, often inappropriately stressing lyrics and voices, may have been a boon to those hard of hearing, but the rest of us (and performance) suffered.

Finale: Back Row-MD Jose Simbulan, Stage Manager Mark Lord, John Drinkwater, Matthew Drinkwater, Executive Producer Mark York

Front Row: Katie Dixon, Heather MacRae, Diane J. Findley, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi, Writer/Director Walter Willison, Lynnette Perry, Lee Horwin, Marcy DeGonge Manfredi

Photos by Steve Friedman
Opening: Walter Willison

The Ziegfeld Society presents
We’ll Take A Glass Together!: The Songs of Wright and Forrest From MGM to Grand Hotel
Hosted, Written & Directed by Walter Willison
Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano – Jose Simbulan
Lang Hall Hunter College
June 24, 2017
The Ziegfeld Society  

1934 Ziegfeld Follies of the Air


Ziegfeld Follies of the Air – The New 1934 Live From Broadway Broadcast Revue

The Ziegfeld Society’s first full-fledged fundraiser comes to us a live radio broadcast direct from Heaven’s WHVN. Replete with period microphones and an on stage sound effects man/announcer Arthur Nichols (Ian Whitt) brandishing an APPLAUSE sign, the star-studded revue features many of Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s top performers, some undoubtedly there on special leave from lower depths.


The 1934 Ziegfeld Follies Quartet: Jamie Buxton as Judith Barron, Taylor James Hopkins as Jack Pepper, Chelsie Nectow as Vilma Ebsen, Matthew McFarland as Buddy Ebsen

With Paul Whiteman (Mark York) at the piano, 1919’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” forever associated with the slow descent of Ziegfeld showgirls down an inevitably elaborate staircase, is offered by The 1934 Ziegfeld Follies Quartet: Vilma Ebsen (Chelsie Nectow), Buddy Ebsen (Matthew McFarland), Judith Barron (Jamie Buxton), and Jack Pepper (Taylor James Hopkins). The able, young singers intermittently deliver commercial jingles like Buster Brown and Atlas Elevator Shoes, as well as providing harmonized backup.

Our well turned out Host, actor Eddie Dowling (Walter Willison), introduces each vocalist with sweeping appreciation. All are attired according to character by Costume Designer Mitchell Bloom.


Walter Willison as Eddie Dowling

Ruth Etting (Candice Oden) and Marilyn Miller (a sparkling Erin Cronican) arrive in tandem with excerpts from too many songs, leaving a choppy impression. Billie Burke, Mrs. Ziegfeld (Carole Demas) sings:.. You can do any little thing that you’ve a mind to, but you must do it with a twinkle in your eye…with flirty class. Later Burke is inexplicably interrupted by Marilyn Miller while performing “Look For the Silver Lining” , at first infuriated and then reconciled during the number. Clearly the writers know something we do not.

will and lola

David Giardina as Will Rogers; Lee Horwin as Libby Holman

“In 1934, the #1 female box office star was Shirley Temple, the #1 male was Will Rogers. As Rogers, David Giardina sings a couple of laconic western songs with a little patter between. Both look and vocal style reflect the original without imitating. During the Quartet’s evocative rendition of “Limehouse Blues,” we have the unexpected pleasure of dancers Renee and Tony DeMarco (Heather Gehring and       Lou Brockman) giving the radio audience time to refill cocktail shakers. Tango-ish choreography designed for the small stage is a marvel of sinuous winding and draping. Ms. Gehring reminds one of Cyd Charisse.

As Helen Morgan, Shelly Burch excels at Morgan’s warble, unstable octaves, and drunken spaciness. (Does the audience know Morgan was an alcoholic?)                      Lee Horwin’s scandalous Libby Holman has the right, deep, almost singing style. “Moanin’ Low” and “Am I Blue?” emerge with apt cynicism. Enough biographical monologue for its own show, however, tips this event’s balance. “You’re all wondering if I did it. (murdered her young husband). I take Jeanne Eagels’s advice, Keep your trap shut and become a legend.”


Carole Demas as Billie Burke; Erin Cronican as Marilyn Miller

Sheila Wormer plays Mr. Ziegfeld’s secretary Matilda “Goldie” Glough at first passing through the audience reminding us about cell phones and then in a ba-dump-dump conversation with Dowling. Ms. Wormer is good, the material not so much. Fanny Brice (Loni Ackerman), with nasal tonality, sings the unfamiliar “Becky is Back at The Ballet,” a strange choice considering the star’s signature numbers. Her last purposefully awkward turn lands the vocalist in a decidedly humorous, Brice position from which she has to be hoisted up. Dowling/Willison’s excellent, infectiously happy “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and tender reprise of “A Pretty Girl…” are highlights.


Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman as Renee and Tony DeMarco

Also, indisputably a highlight, is the appearance of Mistinguett (Liliane Montevecchi) whom Ziegfeld pursued for his extravaganzas but never secured. Head to toe in flame red velvet (with boa), Montevecchi launches “Je Cherche Un Millionaire” and “Mon  Homme” (“My Man”, a 1916 French song, then popularized in translation by Fanny Brice in 1921) with bravado, showing her fabulous legs, sharing anecdotes. (She once dined with Mistinguett and later played the veteran on stage.) “I was a star of The Folies Bergère for 10 years. I was covered in feathers. This is what’s left,” quips the famously wry artiste.

Mark York, Founder of The Ziegfeld Society and Artistic Director Walter Willison then surprise Montevecchi with its first annual Lifetime Achievement Award. The packed house erupts.

big lilia

Mark York as Paul Whiteman; Liliane Montevecchi as Mistinguett

Mark York’s Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano are symbiotically with performers every step of the way. Treatment of classic material is authentic and appealing.

This is an ambitious show with failings and successes. Talent is a mixed bag. Research is impressive. The Ziegfeld Society celebrates a link in entertainment history which should be supported, preserved, and enjoyed:

“The Ziegfeld Society of New York City, a not-for-profit organization, aspires to enlighten, entertain and educate current and future generations of theatergoers and young artists about the legendary performers, songwriters and creators of our vast musical theater heritage.”

Photos by Steve Friedman

Opening:  Liliane Montevecchi receiving her award from Mark York

The Ziegfeld Society presents
Ziegfeld Follies Of The Air-
   The New 1934 Live From Broadway Broadcast Revue
Devised and Directed by Walter Willison,
Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano by Mark York
Broadway at Birdland
315 West 44th St. (With Thanks to Jim Caruso)
January 30, 2017

NEXT ZIEGFELD SOCIETY EVENT: Call On Dolly! A Celebration of the Broadway Hit Musical Hello Dolly starring Richard Skipper     February 25, 2017   3:30 Hunter College
FOR RESERVATIONS – Call Lucy 917-371-5509