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.
Less than a year after the largest circus folded up its tent for good, we have a film that celebrates the spectacle of what was once the greatest show on earth. And portraying the iconic showman is the multi-talented Hugh Jackman, demonstrating the versatily to go from playing the immortal mutant Wolverine to dazzling us with his skills as a song and dance man. With this role the Austrailian actor adds to his impressive musical resume, which includes: Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (Golden Globe Award); Curly McLain in Oklahoma! (West End, London, Olivier nomination); and, Broadway’s The Man from Oz (Tony Award). In The Greatest Showman, Jackman occupies center ring as P.T. Barnum, who founded the show that became the Barnum & Bailey Circus, bringing to audiences a collection of off-beat entertainment that was as shocking as it was thrilling.
The Greatest Showman is not a biopic, instead spotlighting the high – and low – points of Barnam’s life and career. But the main theme focuses on Barnum’s philiosphy: “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.” A secondary, but just as forceful theme, is one of inclusion. Barnum’s shows brought together “oddities,” people who had been shunned by society because of their deformities, but soon formed a family, found a home, and stood together to fight those who continued to villify them. In today’s political climate, those feelings are sure to resonate with many in the audience.
Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman
The film represents a labor of love by those involved. Director Laurence Mark and co-screenwriter Bill Condon (along with Jenny Bicks) first came up with the idea after working on the 2009 Acdemy Awards broadcast and being impressed with Jackman’s performance as host. “I thought, wow, this guy’s the greatest showman on earth – and that’s when I went to P.T. Barnum in my head,” Mark said, according to the film’s press notes. Shortly after, Mark approached Jackman with the idea of playing Barnum and got him on board. Michael Gracey, who views Barnum as a visionary, the Steve Jobs of his day, soon signed on as director.
The song-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had not yet gained fame for Dear Evan Hansen (2016 Tony Award for Best Original Score), or for La La Land (2017 Academy Award for Best Original Song, “City of Stars”), were hired after the team commissioned samples from dozens of songwriters. While the film is a period piece represented by the story, scenic design, and costumes, the songs (pop) and choreography (hip hop) are contemporary. The exuberant opening number, “The Greatest Show” features Barnum, dressed as the ringmaster leading the circus cast in the first of many dance numbers. (Viewers will be reminded of the energetic “Another Day of Sun” which opened La La Land.) It gets the film off to a rousing start.
Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810. As a young boy (played in the film by Ellis Rubin), Barnum helped his father, Philo (Will Swenson), who worked as a tailor. Although the youth caught the eye of Charity (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of one of his father’s wealthy clients, Barnum was acutely aware of the social hierarchy that placed his family on a lower rung. That rejection would fuel Barnum’s passion to succeed on a grand scale, especially after he marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and pledges to give her the life she deserves. For her part, Charity actually seems happy escaping her gilded lifestyle for a much simpler one where she cares for her two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), cleans their small apartment, and even hangs laundry on the building’s roof. Charity, however, isn’t oblivious to what she’s signed on for with Barnum. Williams, who has a lovely although not powerful voice, conveys those conflicted feelings in “Tightrope.” But Williams’ glowing presence serves as a counterpoint to Barnum during the dark times when he suffers setbacks.
After losing his boring job as a clerk (the company closes down), Barnum redoubles his efforts to follow his dream. Soon he’s operating “Barnum’s American Museum,” a solid brick building located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The attraction evolves from displays of objects to ones that feature the oddities: Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady (a terrific Keala Settle); Tom Thum (Sam Humphrey); Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), to name a few. Director Gracey handles these characters with skill and sensitivity, allowing them to evolve from reluctant participants in Barnum’s circus to fully formed performers finding their rightful places in the show. Particularly impressive is Settle, whose solo “This Is Me” would have stopped the show on Broadway.
Barnum’s families – his personal one and his professional one – come apart when he becomes enamoured of the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, and convinces her to go on tour in the U.S. While Rebecca Ferguson, also Swedish, has appeared in many films, including The Girl on the Train, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, her role as Lind will certainly bring her the attentiion of a wider audience. Still, after such a build up of Lind’s talents, Ferguson’s performance of “Never Enough” falls short. The role required a singer whose stature was equal or larger than Lind’s. A Lady Gaga perhaps.
Zac Efron and Zendaya
Kudos to Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey for casting Zac Efron and Zendaya as the miss-matched couple who finally defy the odds and come together. Philip Carlisle (Efron) leaves behind his comfortable upper class life to join Barnum’s circus and almost immediately is smitten by Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist. Efron, who has acted in musicals since he was a child, is more than up to the challenge of singing and dancing opposite Jackman. He’s lost none of the boyish charm he once displayed when he starred in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical. Zendaya, another Disney alum (she current produces and stars in the channel’s K.C. Undercover, can now add high-wire antics to her list of talents. (She apparently did some of the scenes without a net!) This gal is one to watch.
The Greatest Showman is great entertainment, but it’s also a film about the power of imagination and what an individual can achieve with inspiration, dedication, and a lot of hard work. While younger viewers may not be familiar with P.T. Barnum, they will certainly appreciate this story and see similarities with the many creatives genuises whose ideas and inventions continue to change the way we live and work. It’s a story that never grows old.
Photos by Niko Tavernise courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“Every song I will sing tonight will be about someone who helped me get here. Every note and every word will be shared in the spirit of gratitude…” leading lady Kelli O’Hara tells us, explaining her show title. The hall is packed to the rafters for the musical theater actress’s solo Carnegie debut. (This year also saw her Metropolitan Opera Debut.) In another era, enthusiastic fans would carry her on their shoulders.
Oklahoma born O’Hara is eminently likeable. When that glorious soprano soars from her fresh, pretty, Mid-Western face and petite figure, audiences feel connected. She seems like one of us, albeit with extraordinary vocal abilities. Patter is warm and sincere. The artist tells us about her start in the business and family members. Each musical selection has context.
To her mom, the dreamer, who listened to Frank Sinatra, she dedicates Vincent Youmans’ “Without a Song.” It’s an unusual arrangement, somewhat western, though vocally balladic. To her father, who taught her how to work, O’Hara dedicates “To Build a Home” which swells and swirls in heartfelt interpretation. (Jason Robert Brown from The Bridges of Madison County in which she costarred): …And blade of grass by blade of grass/And ear of corn by ear of corn/And bale of Hay by day by day/They build themselves a home…
“The Light in the Piazza” is imbued with the innocent character’s immense sense of wonder. (From the show of the same name by Adam Guettel in which she played Clara, “a role that changed my life.”) Apparently she and Victoria Clark sang the entire score to an ailing Betty Comden in her apartment, the kind of thing, O’Hara says, that can make the work wonderful.
Two of what the artist calls her “man songs,” i.e. numbers ordinarily performed by men, are “Finishing the Hat” which she comments is “no longer just a man’s problem” (Stephen Sondheim from Sunday in the Park with George) and “This Nearly Was Mine” (Rodgers and Hammerstein from South Pacific in which she played Nellie Forbush.)
The first arrives with new mindset in place. An overtaxed woman tries against odds to complete what she started in the face of endless demands. The understated version (with wonderful violin), eschews its usual pointillist arrangement in favor of quiet intensity. The second number, buoyed on piano eddies (until the bridge) begins swaying slightly with regret, then erupts into an uncontainable waltz.
When O’Hara got to New York 18 years ago, she had a temp job in the box office of Café Carlyle. Barbara Cook was playing. Her first performance on a Carnegie Hall stage was a Barbara Cook concert. “In this life you look for people who set examples…” Much to collective surprise, Ms. Cook is then wheeled out in her chair to receive admiration and affectionate thanks. O’Hara sits on the floor next to the icon, hot pink dress billowing around her.
Kristin Chenoweth, Kelli O’Hara
We’re also introduced to fellow Oklahoman, Kristin Chenoweth who, instead of feeling competitive, got O’Hara her first agent and voice teachers here. They sing – what else – a rousing “Oklahoma!” Both performers bounce, taking turns holding “that” note while the other bounds on. The audience spontaneously claps time. What is it in the water of Oklahoma…?
Selections for her attending children include a tandem “Smile” (Charles Chaplin) and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” which don’t quite work together (for her son, an avid Beatles fan) and, by O’Hara herself, the charming “She Sings” written for her daughter Charlotte.
O’Hara tells us she couldn’t manage juggling work and family without appreciable help. Her husband, Greg Naughton, joins for one of his compositions “about not getting too crazy busy to share your world.” The country number arrives in easy harmony, fiddle-sounding violin and two-step rhythm. With bandmates Rich Price and Brian Chartrand, the four then perform his “Dance With Me,” a country tune with a sweet, comfy sound but alas, mostly unintelligible lyrics.” (The band is Sweet Remains.)
Brian Chartrand, James Naughton, Kelli O’Hara, Greg Naughton, Rich Price
Taking the atmosphere a step further, adding O’Hara’s father-in-law, actor James Naughton, the group sings an a capella “Lonesome Road” (James Taylor) with only an overhead microphone. A pristine rendition, it sounds like a hymn.
One of the unquestionable highpoints of the evening is the story/song “They Don’t Let You In The Opera (If You’re A Country Star)” by MD/Pianist Dan Lipton and David Rossmer: Now, I was born down in Georgia/But Georgia wasn’t good enough for me/I’d sing country songs for them, but/My heart sang La Bohème and it/Didn’t help we moved to Tennessee/Nashville’s not the place you sing/High C…Wearing a cowboy hat, delivering every lyric with just the right yee-haw inflection, segueing into serious opera, O’Hara shows us singing and acting chops with infectious panache.
There were two encores.
Photos by Chris Lee Opening: Second Encore: “I’ll Get By (With a Little Help from My Friends)” John Lennon/Paul McCartney
Kelli O’Hara- Never Go Solo Dan Lipton- MD/Piano The Stern Auditorium Carnegie Hall October 29, 2016
Catherine Russell’s latest concert for Jazz at Lincoln Center was apparently “thirty years in the making.” Both a celebration of composer/arranger/bandleader Sy Oliver and an appreciation of Russell’s mother, Carline Ray, for 70 years an innovative jazz singer and musician, the evening is clearly a labor of love. We hear numbers from Oliver’s tenure with the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra and selections rearranged for, and performed by his vocalist wife, Lillian Clark, first with The Sentimentalists and then for The Lillian Clark Trio which included Ray and young Catherine herself.
Though Russell has presented isolated selections from the original show, up to now, she hasn’t had the opportunity to offer a large number of the swing songs as originated by the group. Tonight, joined by Carolyn Leonhart and La Tanya Hall with pristine harmony, impeccable phrasing, and infectious pleasure, the artist realizes her dream.
Mike Munisteri, Catherine Russell, Tal Ronen, Evan Arntzen
We begin with a musical rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Mandy” ebulliently swung by the terrific band in an arrangement by Jon-Erik Kelso. Kelso’s solos throughout support his reputation for sparkling clarity and invigorated swing. The entire room grins. A happy-go-lucky, crisply articulated “My Blue Heaven” (Walter Donaldson/ George A. Whiting) follows. “I used to sing the top part, now I’m singin’ the bottom,” Russell quips.
“Don’t Blame Me (for falling in love with you)” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) evokes a USO dance from the forties. It’s slow enough so that awkward soldiers won’t step on their partner’s feet too much. The trio is complicit, not a musical thread dangles. It’s as if they’d been doing this together for years. “Say It Isn’t So” (Irving Berlin) delivers swaying, textured harmony hand in hand with John Allred’s polished, wah-wah trombone. Vocal solos are cottony; sincere.
Mark Shane, Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell
Oliver’s arrangement of a medley from Oklahoma! bears his signature stamp. Familiar songs sound blithe and fresh as swing. Vocalists emerge and retreat back into the group with fluency, sometimes warmly acknowledging one another. Guitarist Matt Munisteri provides subtle underpinning.
A 1950 version of the 1927 “Ain’t She Sweet?” (Milton Ager/Jack Yellen) with Evan Arntzen’s here doodling saxophone is hip and happy. …Cast an eye in that direction/Dig that child from fore to aft…Arntzen is this evening’s discovery. Russell calls him an old man in a young body. The musician plays superb sax, clarinet and flute exhibiting a preternatural understanding of the period and stylistic savvy.
“Opus One” (Sy Oliver/ Sid Garris) is the epitome of harmonic vocal swing, playful and bubbly. “It’s The Talk of the Town” (Jerry Livingston/Al J. Neiburg/Marty Symes), on the other hand, is so shadowy, even consonants seem airbrushed. Vocals dip and rise like scallops. Munisteri again embroiders.
Catherine Russell (behind: Mark McLean, Evan Arntzen, Jon-Erik Kelso
Russell also offers solos. I Know a Little Bit About a Lotta Things/But “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” popularized by its author, Peggy Lee, is eeezzzeee. Lyric lines have fading tails so that each connects to the next without a gap. The song arrives unfussy, conversational. Louis Armstrong’s “Give Me a Kiss to Build a Dream On,” with lush, muted trombone, begins the mellow, lilting, slow dance we know, builds to a burlesque stroll, and ends emphatic.
“T’Aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”written by Oliver with Trummy Young for Ella Fitzgerald is performed with call/response, vocal to horns, then vocal to vocal: the band speak/sings in unison. “I’ve been waitin’ to ask them to sing somethin’ for a long time. They weren’t overjoyed, but…” Russell wryly tells us. Vocal is brighter here, more open-throated. The performer taps her right foot, then steps side to side in her inimitable, refined, I-can’t-help-but-move-a-bit manner.
Oliver’s arrangement of “On the Sunny Side of The Street” (Jimmy McHugh/ Dorothy Fields) was a big hit for Tommy Dorsey. Jaunty and light with Kelso’s trumpet in tangy, rasp mode, the song leaves the room awash in high spirits.
The three vocalists should come together again. Their sound is catnip.
Also featuring: Mark Shane-piano, Tal Ronen-bass, Mark McLean-drums
April 15, 2016- Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room