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.
After 21 shows in 12 days (whew!) to benefit a worthy outreach program, Urban Stages traditionally ends its annual Winter Rhythms Festival with a show called From All of Us to All of You: Seasonal Songs and Disney Too. One might think holiday songs would be presented with Disney numbers centered on love, brotherhood and friendship. Instead, subject matter is unnecessarily all over the map. Piano, unless noted, Daryl Kojak.
Stephen Hanks opens the evening with its Jiminy Cricket title song and a bit of lighthearted, ersatz dance. (Piano Mathew Martin Ward.) Later, he presents a spirited “Have Nagilia.” In a more original vein, Karen Gross delivers Tom Toce’s wry, crossover “Shalom Santa” as the daughter of “a lapsed Catholic and a cultural Jew.” Gross imbues the lyric with vexation and irony, but vocally pushes a bit too hard.
Stephen Hanks, Sandra Bargman, Billie Roe
Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful “I Remember” (Evening Primrose) is ably rendered by Sandra Bargman who wraps herself in melancholic longing, palpably excavating each vision. The vocalist seems to have slipped the word Christmas into her lyric. Billie Roe performs a version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” with impeccably wicked characterization. Attributable to the witch in Little Mermaid, the song couldn’t be further from anything seasonal. (Piano Mathew Martin Ward.)
Sarah Rice introduces a lovely, lilting medley from Bedknobs and Boomsticks and Snow White quoting songwriter Robert Sherman’s* modus operandi: “to help children be good, productive people and to have hope,” establishing something of a reason for inclusion. Rice’s familiar timbre and skilled soprano do the songs justice. (Piano and effectively echoing backup vocal Matthew Martin Ward.)
Sarah Rice, Joshua Lance Dixon, Gabrielle Stravelli
Charlotte Patton imbues “He’s A Tramp” (Lady and The Tramp) with easy swing and low key flirt. Carly Ozard’s “Perfect Isn’t Easy” (Oliver and Company) displays a big warm voice and contralto bark. Gabrielle Stravelli’s “If I Were a Bell”/ “Jingle Bells” mash-up is a musical stretch, but adroitly rendered by the excellent performer.
Also featuring: Renn Woods’ laudably controlled gospel/R & B (deft piano Michael Raye), Joshua Lance Dixon’s sympathetic “Proud of Your Boy” (Aladdin), Jeff Macauley who still needs to take it down, enthusiastic, Hechter Ubarry, over expressive tenor Blake Zolfo, Marieann Meringolo’s reverent “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, Daryl Kojak’s jazz instrumental of “Silent Night”, Rosemary Loar straddling American Songbook and Jazz, Rob Davis with a classic medley that should’ve ended the evening.
Mary Sue Daniel’s’ “I’m Flying,” from television’s 1960 Peter Pan rather than the Disney version (!?) destroys every bit of soaring exuberance with an inexplicable interpretation oblivious to lyrics or context.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
*Most classic Disney songs were written by brothers Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman
2017 Urban Stages Winter Rhythms Festival presents From All of Us to All of You: Seasonal Songs and Disney Too Producer/Host- Stephen Hanks Musical Director- Daryl Kojak December 23, 2017 Urban Stages 259 West 30th Street
Zero Hour is a helluva piece of writing. Now tightened from two acts (first premiering in 2006) to intermissionless, time-stopping captivation, Jim Brochu’s one man play offers a no-holds-barred look at the quick, wry, perpetually angry leftist; a boisterous man who, though an actor by profession, longed to just paint. This deeply researched piece, as personal as it is historical, illuminates Samuel Joel (Zero) Mostel. Peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and insults, its serious depiction of reasons for the subject’s dark side, including a pivotal run-in with The House Un-American Activities Committee, provides affecting, whiz-bang dramatization.
Mostel speaks to a New York Times reporter blackmailed into modeling. We don’t hear responses. This cleverly allows Brochu to look directly at his audience while he (actually) sketches. “I don’t want to know your name, this is an interview not a relationship.”
The actor begins with his 1915 birth on “a beautiful little radish farm at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Pitkin Avenue” and ends about to start rehearsals for a Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant. Mostel died shortly thereafter.
We hear about his passion for art (since childhood), immigrant Jewish parents that declared him dead when Mostel married outside the faith, his second wife Katie “a gawegus (phonetic) Catholic Rockette”, HER MUTHA!, and his inadvertent entrée into show business. Brochu leans over the drawing table to scream the last two words stentorian and bug-eyed, then lightly resuming the tale as if his outburst had never occurred. Sheer Zero.
He answers the annoying phone “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League,” screams, swears, slams the receiver down and cheerily says, “that was my wife.”
The subject went from being an art student, to lecturing on art-adding humor, then doing benefits and finally breaking out as a comedian at Barney Josephson’s Café Society. (We see part of the routine. Both physicality and timing are recognizable.) Watch the bird movement of his large head as it jerks around as if gauging the room’s temperature; his eloquent hands, fingers most often splayed, gesturing close to the body – like a smaller man; and the frozen beat he takes to allow humor to land.
“I was a Marxist….Why? WHY???!!!.(ostensibly the reporter has asked) BECAUSE OF HITLER AND FASCISM!” Next comes the WPA, a Hollywood contract cut short when Mostel blew off a Louis B. Mayer party for a Longshoremen benefit, and the life altering HUAC: Communism equaled liberalism equaled Judaism! Names are vehemently named. Participants excoriated. Friends mourned. Part of his testimony is shared. As if things weren’t bad enough, the actor was then run over by a bus. (Did you know this, reader?)
Theater includes famous roles in Marjorie Barkentin’s Ulysses in Nightown, Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco),A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gilbert), which suffered near fatal growing pains on its way to Broadway and threw in his path one of Hollywood’s major HUAC informers, and the iconic Fiddler on the Roof, (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein) during which his past came back to haunt the actor. (The actor initially hated both Forum and Tevye, the first iteration of Fiddler.)
We then neatly circle back with palpable regret to lost peers, lost family, and Mostel again forced to leave his art studio for theater. A last line, which refers to what he considered an outrageous request from Katie, couldn’t be better. It leaves us with a knowing smile.
Jim Brochu is so filled with energy, so present, it’s as if he’s performing early in the run of a new show. The actor has honed his character over the years to a degree that brings a whole human being to life. Though familiar mannerisms and speech patterns (including intermittent volume) are employed, this is less a purposeful imitation than top notch channeling.
Director Piper Laurie has done a wonderful job of utilizing the stage, seamlessly evoking mood change in extremely subtle chapters. Pacing is just right. Use of props is completely natural. One assumes this is predominantly the original direction.
Josh Iacovelli’s Scenic Design is detailed and evocative. His Lighting adroitly defines subtly overlapping vignettes.
There’s no credit, but Sound Design is excellent.
Production Photos by Stan Barough
The Peccadillo Theater Company presents Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour By Jim Brochu Directed by Piper Laurie Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street Through July 9, 2017
The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts is currently host to a small, gem of an exhibition featuring the art/design of nonagenarian artist, Hilary Knight. Those of you aware only of Knight’s most iconic creation, the irrepressible Eloise (authored by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Knight) should treat yourselves to this glimpse into his utterly stylish and inventive world. Meticulously designed and constructed by the honoree himself, the show unfortunately lacks documentation. I recommend the two recordings offered through earphones for illumination.
“What’s amazing to me is that I still do it. Most people my age are playing golf or under ground.”
Hilary Knight’s parents, Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges, were successful illustrators/designers across diverse fields. Surrounded by taste, talent, and pleasure in craft, he never thought of doing anything else. A sampling of the couple’s work includes Sturge’s charming circus murals painted in the boy’s childhood room. “At four or five,” Knight drew over his mother’s own circus drawings in one of her sketchbooks. A lifelong enchantment with the big top ensued. Pristine, accomplished silhouettes in his oeuvre are inspired by her work for Oneida Silver. (Second floor)
The Circus is Coming by Hilary Knight
Movies – especially musicals and theater – enthralled him. “I never paid attention to the plots, just the sets and costumes.” The elaborate production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo at The Hippodrome, Adrian’s costumes for The Great Ziegfeld, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark – “The dream sequence was so beautiful I can see it now” – and Sabu films were particular favorites. “…This kid my age who was riding almost naked on an elephant – I thought, that’s a good idea…” (A fantasy achieved later in life.)
The young man studied with Reginald Marsh at The Art Students League then enlisted in the navy, preferring its uniform to that of the army. Irreverence showed itself with his painted mural of naked Geishas in an officer’s Okinowa Quonset hut.
Prestigious theater designer Jo Mielziner facilitated a season as assistant at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. Knight found scenic design “too big.” He’s always striven for control. “With books I could do exactly what I wanted.” The New York School of Interior Design added to multifaceted awareness and skill. He painted murals, built packaging maquettes and illustrated. No aptitude went to waste.
Two Vitrines – Vanity Fair Drawings; Portraits – Note Julie Wilson, upper right
Knight credits watercolor drawings of misbehaving children in Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s 1887 book of children’s manners La Civilité as very early inspiration. (He pored over it as a child.) Later, he was taken with Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s girls in British satirical magazines. (St. Trinian’s was a popular series featuring uncontrollable boarding school inhabitants.) Other influences include Lautrec, Mucha, Erte, Rockwell, and Hirschfeld.
In 1952, inspired by Searle’s pen and ink art, Knight drew “a strange little girl” with her mother for an article on bad little children in Mademoiselle Magazine. Its caption was “I think I’ll throw a tantrum.” (First floor). Eloise by any other name.
The artist lived in a bohemian brownstone filled with people “on their way to becoming important in their fields.” DD Dixon, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland occupied the top floor. While doing a photo shoot with MGM vocal coach and nightclub performer Kay Thompson, Dixon overheard and was addressed in what Knight calls Thompson’s “funny little girl voice,” conjuring a character in the third person. This, the editor thought, should be a book…and I know just the right illustrator. Kismet. “DD is completely responsible for Eloise.”
The original Eloise book
Eloise’s appearance was based, in part, on Knight family friend, Eloise Davison, food writer for the Herald Tribune. “…a funny, pudgy little woman with messy hair I pictured as a child.” Thompson had definite ideas about her charge’s life. Like the author, she would live at The Plaza Hotel. There would be no interfering father (she had hated her own) or even a male dog (Weenie has no weenie). “With all her brilliance and sophistication, Kay was curiously prudish…”
Thompson also insisted the girl’s mother should be perpetually absent, therefore never aging. The only drawing of mother and child and Knight’s favorite Eloise art is an unpublished depiction of our favorite mischievous girl choosing her puppy at “an elegant pugery.” Her elegant mother sits, legs crossed, wearing an enormous Audrey Hepburn chapeau and classic sheath. She watches the proceedings with, of course, her back to us. Knight says her body represents that of Uma Thurman.
Three sequels followed before Kay Thompson lost interest and pulled everything but the original book from print. “She wanted to do it all herself and couldn’t.” The incalculable loss to Knight is compounded by ours.
Hilary Knight’s silhouette self portrait with theater posters
“I was going to the theater a great deal.” Knight started designing theater posters with Harry Rigby’s production of Half a Sixpence in 1965. Some of those that followed were No, No Nanette, Good News, I Love My Wife, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Makin’ Whoopee, Mame and Sugar Babies. These and more are on display. Many were tailored to a particular, always identifiable star. Julie Wilson looks as if she might step out of the page, Ray Bolger as if he’ll dance off it.
Some of Knight’s theater poster designs
The artist apparently created endless designs for Timbuktu and La Cage aux Folles securing neither commission. His interpretation of La Cage, however, was rejected by Alan Carr “for showing drag queens instead of a relationship.” (Ironically the final choice, by another illustrator, emulated Knight’s viewpoint.) Knight also enjoyed working with dance companies. The array of styles, each befitting its vehicle is marvelous.
Portraits are showcased in carefully arranged vitrines: Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn as Dr. Ferway de la Fer and Her Assistant Sweepa Truehorn stand in frame. (Horne played de la Fer in the film Broadway Rhythm.) Knight purchased some beaded, French Victorian leaves at a Doyle auction of the vocalist’s possessions. The two figures are bead leaf hunters. She holds a tiny trowel. Like many of the portraits, the piece is a contained diorama, part photography, part collage, part assemblage.
Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne
We see Sabu; Martha Raye (on an ersatz bootleg album cover); Kaye Ballard;, a 5’ Kay Thompson; full page appreciation of Liliane Montevecchi; Isabella Blow; Barry Humphries, with whom Knight collaborated on years of priceless Etiquette Pages in Vanity Fair Magazine; and Ann Miller with Stephen Sondheim. “Ann was doing Follies and couldn’t get the lyric …An imitation Hitler/But with littler charm… so Stephen was in the booth helping her.” (“Can That Boy Foxtrot!”) Knight can’t wait to start a portrait of his friend, Gloria Vanderbilt.
Feathers, Fur Fins and Fans: Isabella Blow “Birds” portrait under glass – wearing Philip Treacy’s Andy Warhol feather hat; above her, the original drawing for a MAC LIPSTICK carton; top right- 1946 oil painting ”the SEA NYMPH”; Righthand photo includes a costume for the film Frog and Nymph worn by Knight’s assistant Wilson Lopez. Performance artist Phoebe Legere played the sprite. (A frog falls in love with a water nymph).
Upstairs, there are costume sketches for one of the artist’s significant dreams Tail’s : An “Exotic, Erotic Revue” inspired by The Crazy Horse and Sugar Babies. He’s even designed a theater for it. (Music, he tells me, would be that of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.)
Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 50 books and authored nine. He’s designed theater posters, costumes and sets, makes props, furniture and décor, illustrates for magazines and special projects, and is a collage/assemblage portrait artist. I’m sure I’ve left something out. He rises between four and five a.m., feeds his guppies (no kidding), and works almost every day. Energy, enthusiasm, and warmth are palpable.
Barry Humphries ‘A Moon Bed for Dame Edna’
“To me the most interesting thing is what I’m working on now.”
All exhibition photos and those of Hilary Knight courtesy of Hilary Knight All quotes are Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts – First and Second Floor 40 Lincoln Plaza (between 64 and 65 Streets) Through September 1. 2017 WATCH FOR: Eloise at The Museum at The New York Historical Society June 30-October 9, 2017
Hilary Knight with his niece, Lily Knight
Publishers are slated for: Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life, a Memoir and Olive and Olivier, a graphic novel about eccentric twins separated at birth – Olive will be written by Hilary Knight’s twin nieces, Olivier by Knight.
Lena Dunham’s appreciative 2015 documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise is available online.
New York City Opera has risen like a phoenix from threats to its demise. Lavish staging of Candide by the estimable Harold Prince is, but for a few casting glitches, glorious. (The director previously helmed productions both with this company and elsewhere.) It’s been a great many years since many of us attended a performance of Candide, yet the overture sounds like an old friend, filling one with happy anticipation. Sound Design (Abe Jacob) and orchestration are superb.
The story of star-crossed lovers Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno) is narrated by the play’s author Dr. Voltaire (Gregg Edelman). Cunegonde’s parents, the Baron (Brooks Ashmanskas) and Baroness (Sishel Claverie), and her brother, Maximilian (Keith Phares), disdain Candide as a bastard, forbidding marriage.
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jessica Tyler Wright, Gregg Edelman, Keith Phares, Meghan Picerno
With the addition of flirty, sexually accommodating maid, Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright), the three young people are home schooled by “wisest of all philosophers and scholars” Dr. Pangloss (Gregg Edelman) who teaches “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Contentedness might be scooped with a spoon, but doesn’t last.
Candide is exiled and conscripted (in a potato sack) by two Bulgarian soldiers warring with Westphalia. Cunegonde’s family is slaughtered. She herself is kidnapped and raped. Before he can climb out of his sack and she can raise herself from a state of exhausted discard, not 20 feet from where he’s been abandoned, immediate experience forgotten, they’re singing a duet. Get used to it.
Chip Zien, Gregg Edelman, Brooks Ashmanskas and the company
Both characters, eventually joined by nine-lived Maximilian, Paquette and “the old lady” have a series of preposterous adventures separating and reuniting them as they’re borne by circumstance from Lisbon to Spain to The New World, Turkey and back. Used and abused (especially our ingénue) they’re nonetheless resourceful, steadfast, forgiving, and optimistic. Despite Cunegonde’s early aspirations to live the high life, the group ends up fulfilling Candide’s ambitions to have a little farm. Voltaire was, after all French and one must consider The Age of Enlightenment as having some way to go.
Meghan Picerno, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson
It’s good to see Harold Prince back in harness. The veteran director never once loses awareness of aesthetics on another large, somewhat complicated set. Whether the company is placed as chorus, playing a street scene (during which every participant has action and attitude), or united in movement, the stage looks swell. At one perfectly appropriate point, Candide works his way across an audience row; the Sage appears on a balcony, dropping parchment homilies like leaves. (This parentheses is the one point that drags.) Excepting those of Edleman and Lavin, Prince handles flamboyant character turns with eyebrow raised finesse.
Meghan Picerno, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Linda Lavin, Gregg Edelman
Jay Armstrong Johnson (Candide) has a simply beautiful tenor and displays fine acting. As Cunegonde, Meghan Picerno offers remarkable range and control, but she’s often a tad strident and less obtusely innocent than one imagines the character. The narcissistic Maximilian is well served by Keith Phares’s droll manifestation and excellent vocals. Wry warhorses Brooks Ashmanskas and Chip Zien have a winking comic touch in multiple roles.
To my mind, there are two major casting mistakes. Gregg Edelman (Dr. Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, the Sage and others) can sing, but is neither a character actor, nor ever funny. His endless turn as the Sage is palpably painful. Linda Lavin (Old Lady), otherwise funny in her signature Upper West Side, deadpan, New York persona, is out of her realm both vocally and theatrically. Occasional Yiddish accent of a word makes one wince.
A marvelous, illustrated Set by Clarke Dunham provides just the right context for this zany tale of excessive pastiche. Were this a children’s book, he’d be awarded the Caldecott Medal. Hidden among appealing artwork, stairwells and balconies give the show’s director ample territory on which to play. Dunham inventively utilizes cut-outs (deliciously on cart wheels) and banners giving the show a naïve (not unpolished) feel, the extravagant masquerade of a music hall. His ship (which rocks back and forth) is wonderful.
Judith Dolan’s Costumes collaborate with visual environment as effectively as they do story and character. Color is tapestry rich. Seemingly arbitrary layering is flattering, often silly, always decorative, and splendidly thought-out-especially headwear. The designer’s horse, sheep, and lion costumes are inspired.
Wig and Makeup Design by Georgiana Eberhard is also symbiotic. Nothing looks out of place despite eccentricity. Every role is given distinction. Faces emerge painted, but never vulgar.
New York City Opera hopes to take this production on tour. It would be a genuine pity not to make it available to further audiences.
The Opera’s 2016/2017 season includes seven new productions, three New York premiers, and one U.S. premiere. Next, in March, a new production of Respighi’s La campana sommersa and, in June, Peter Eotvos’ new production of Angels in America.
Photos by Sarah Shatz
Opening: Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno
New York City Opera presents Candide
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics by Richard Wilber, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Harold Prince
Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall
January 8, 2017
Jule Styne (Julius Kerwin Stein 1905-1994) was a British American songwriter who contributed to over 1500 published songs (“All of which we’re going to do for you today,” Harvey Granat quips) and 25 Broadway shows. He earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning one. Styne was a 10 year-old prodigy, a favorite pianist at Chicago mob clubs, played in a band, and acted as vocal coach at Twentieth Century Fox. Sammy Cahn was his first writing partner.
Granat sings their first hit, 1944’s “I Walk Alone” in prime, lilting balladeer mode. “They ask me why” he says, and I tell them I’d rather/There are dreams I must gather…he croons, making the song intimate. Success kept coming for the duo. “Good songs historically rise out of bleak times,” Reed comments referring to The Depression and WWII.“Because people have to have a way to express hope…I have a feeling that in the next four years, we might get some nice songs.”
We hear “Time After Time” (from It Happened in Brooklyn) with mid-tempo, jazz colored piano and then sing along with 1945’s “Let It Snow,” written during a Los Angeles heat wave. An inordinate number of the large audience know every word.
Reed shares the story of Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff’s discovery: Just divorced, the young woman was in Los Angeles crying her eyes out, living in a trailer park with her son, trying unsuccessfully to break into radio. She had borrowed money to take a bus back East when her agent invited her to a party at Jule Styne’s suggesting “free food.” Resistant, she accompanied him. The host had seen her sing at a little club in New York and coaxed Doris to perform. A rendition of “Embraceable You” earned her an audition at Warner Brothers.
Unaware that Jack Warner had rejected the aspirant as being “sexless,” she was hired by Director Michael Curtiz to star in Romance on the High Seas with a score by Cahn and Styne. Doris Day became the biggest star in Hollywood. Granat offers her signature number from the film, “It’s Magic.” All I can say is that if he sang it to you, you’d follow him home.
Cahn and Styne were commissioned to write “Three Coins in the Fountain” as a title song for another film. The studio returned their composition demanding a bridge. “I was determined to write the worst bridge ever conceived,” Cahn told Granat many years later. He wrote: Which one will the fountain bless? /Which one will the fountain bless? The song won 1954’s Academy Award. Granat sings like a storyteller. Come to think of it, he kind of tells stories lyrically, like a vocalist.
From the show Hazel Flagg, written with Bob Hilliard, there’s “How Do You Speak to An Angel?”/I’m completely in the dark/When you know you’ve just met an angel/Is there a proper remark?…Lovely. Out of Bells Are Ringing, written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, we all sing “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over.” “You’re lucky if you get one hit song in a show, he’d get four or five,” Reed remarks appreciatively. “Long Before I Knew You” arrives with yearning salved by love.
When Stephen Sondheim was brought onto the team developing Gypsy, he had just written the lyrics for West Side Story and made it clear that this time he wanted to author both music and lyrics. Ethel Merman, however, demanded the bankable Styne. Sondheim would’ve backed out had not his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II recommended he do the musical. “June Havoc (Baby June) always said, she was not my mother,” Reed asserts. “There was a lot of backstage tension and resentment. When Merman was on stage, she played a completely different show.” Both men agree it’s an extraordinary piece. Two numbers from the classic come next.
In the course of this afternoon’s entertainment, Reed himself performs two songs. “The trick is to choose ones nobody knows so they have nothing with which to compare.” His version of “Blame My Absent Minded Heart” (from It’s a Great Feeling) is gentle and cottony with the word “heart” palpably exhaled. “You Love Me” (from West Point Story) is sincere, if less memorable. The writer tells a great story, remembers endless facts and seems to have known everybody worth knowing. He recalls Styne as always cheerful and unusually ready to play at his own terrific dinner parties.
Though Do, Re, Me, (also with Comden & Green) had little staying power, it gave birth to the iconic “Make Someone Happy” which today emerges with music in which you want to walk barefoot. “Ain’t that true?” whispers Granat. We learn that the title role in Funny Girl (written with Bob Hilliard) was offered to and turned down by both Mary Martin and Carol Burnett, who felt Fannie Brice should be played by a Jewish woman. It was, of course by the young Barbra Streisand whose stardom was cemented. The room sings “People.” Granat is low key, but insistent, his hand balling into a fist on needing other children.
At the top of the event, in light of the election, Harvey Grant promised a stress-free hour plus. And so it was. We all left smiling.
Other notable Styne shows include: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Sugar (based on the film Some Like it Hot), and Hallelujah Baby!
Granat co-produced four-time Academy Award winning songwriter, Sammy Cahn, on Broadway in Words And Music, which had a successful run and toured throughout the US and abroad.
“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
I would call this an appreciation. I’ve listened to Stranger in a Dream several times now, hearing something new or drifting at different junctures each pass. The recording is, in fact, dreamy. Though ostensibly a celebration of Marian McPartland inspired by Stacey Sullivan’s appearance on Jon Weber’s radio show, Piano Jazz, the two musicians have made these songs their own.
This is music you want to hear wrapped in someone’s arms, sharing a romantic dinner or working your way through a bottle of good wine. Vocals are often diaphanous, phrasing deft, accompaniment sensitive.
Sullivan sighs into Stephen Sondheim’s “Loving You.” The ends of phrases leave afterglow. Its brief instrumental is meditative. An elegant rendition. “Stranger in a Dream” (Irving Caesar/ Marian McPartland) evokes shadows, curling smoke, collars up, alleyways. We’re beckoned by Steve Doyle’s haunting bass. Vocal is almost visibly sinuous. I imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, replete with hookah. “In the Days of Our Love” (Peggy Lee/Marian McPartland) is like sorting through packets of faded, ribbon-bound love letters and stained, curling photographs. Jon Weber’s piano caresses.
“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” (Rodgers and Hammerstein) is borne by an uncommonly original arrangement. Distant clop, clop horse-hoof-vamp fades to the languid, waking singer, rubbing sleep from her eyes, stretching, putting on coffee, optimistic perhaps in the wake of a good dream. Sullivan makes this intimate rather than the vast cornfields to which we’re accustomed; ‘one woman’s experience.
“September in the Rain”and “Come Away With Me” (Al Dubin; Nora Jones/Harry Warren)-an inspired pairing, offer escape rather than brooding reflection. Bone-damp ghostliness is broken by light, stage left at the back. A second surprising combination arrives with “All the Things You Are” (Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern) and Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor Opus 69 #2. ‘Just beautiful.
Even classic swing numbers, though up-tempo, are predominantly subdued. A cottony “Prelude to a Kiss” (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) never gets dense or insistent;“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” eschew pounding boogie woogie – though footwork is fancy and the girl goes flying. During “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/George David Weiss), Sullivan elongates her lyric while Weber’s fast, precise piano jitterbugs on its own caffeinated recognizance and Doyle’s bass sounds like a syncopated hummingbird.
“Castles in the Sand” (Walter Marks/Marian McPartland), one of my particular favorites, begins a capella like a child’s rope skipping song. It’s young, buoyant and somehow delicate. Nick Russo’s strings tickle.
Musicianship is grand. Overall feelings: pleasure.
Opening: Left photo: Maryann Lopinto; CD photo-Bill Westmoreland
Internal Photo: Stephen Sorokoff
Stacy Sullivan-Stranger in a Dream
Jon Weber- MD/Piano, Steve Doyle-Bass, Nick Russo-Guitar & Mandolin Click to buy on Harbinger
Louis Rosen, composer/songwriter/librettist/musician/author/educator is a Jewish white man for whom black experience profoundly resonates. He’s also a musician with an affinity for serious poetry. My first impression of the artist reflected neither of these attributes. Comfortably ensconced on a stool at New York’s Birdland, he sang his own songs, playing acoustic guitar. They were, as I said in my review, literate, sincere, folksy… a graceful advocate of understatement. It felt like the 1970s.
The second part of the program consisted of selections from Dream Suite, music by Rosen, words by Langston Hughes. I wrote, Songs arrive full blooded and black, hybrid American opera-without libretto… roots lay in gospel, R & B, boogie woogie, blues… Like George Gershwin, here was an artist who effectively burrowed under the skin of black culture. Rosen, however, had no need for theatrical thru-line. Each lyric could be married to music specific unto its sentiments.
A little research unearthed the prolific composer’s Twelve Songs on poems by Maya Angelou, One Ounce of Truth-The Nikki Giovanni Songs (with Dream Suite, these comprise The Black Loom Trilogy) and The Ache of Possibility utilizing more Giovanni. What, I wondered was the source of such fellow feeling? What was his journey?
Rosen was raised on Chicago’s far South Side in a mile square enclave of middle class, Jewish white folks who built the community just after World War II. It was “A good place to buy a home, raise children, build a synagogue, and enjoy the fruits of family life.”
Starting when he was 10, and escalating to “white flight panic mode” after the Martin Luther King assassination, something uncomfortable happened to his secure, picturesque neighborhood. Despite avowed lack of prejudice, as black people traded up and moved in, Rosen’s white buddies and their families moved out. The Jewish Community Center and then the Temple shut down. “People succumbed to the fear their homes wouldn’t be worth anything after awhile.” There’s regret in his response and a tinge of former confusion. “It was happening all over the country.”
The boy and his contemporaries were in the eye of the storm. There had always been blacks and Latinos in school “you assumed the price for entering the Men’s Room (in high school) was a quarter,” but never like the incoming wave. Still Rosen was physically assaulted only once and then by two Chicago policeman because he had long hair. They threw him against the patrol car, “did a mildly rough search, no doubt looking for drugs, and found none. It wasn’t serious, but it taught me what it is to be targeted based on appearance.”
His family stayed another five years, then moved a few miles away. Mrs. Rosen, like many others, suffered the loss of her dream house and hopes of growing old within the community that had nurtured her marriage. It wasn’t until age 40, when he interviewed past residents in an effort to fully understand the phenomenon, the artist found empathy for what occurred.
Shakespeare to Sondheim
Though his family played an American Songbook version of “Name That Tune” around the dinner table, young Louie Rosen was into R & B. He joined a garage band performing – before closure – at The Jewish Community Center and bar mitzvahs. By 16, he’d dispensed with drums teaching himself piano and guitar. He also began to write, albeit without knowledge of notation. Singer/songwriters made him want to be a musician. When neighborhood street sounds changed, the teenager heard so much soul music, it annoyed, rather than intrigued him. “If I have any regret, it’s that I never went down to the blues clubs in Chicago.” I glance at the porkpie hat.
After an ambivalent Gap Year, Rosen buckled down to college and then The Chicago Conservatory. He might, he conjectures with implicit shrug, have been a basketball coach or history teacher were it not for this chapter. Extremely broad programs included jazz orchestration and a class on Stravinsky.
Rosen kind of fell into theater. The last year at school, he shared a house with his playwright brother; thespians converged. At 22 and wet behind the ears, he was hired to compose a score for Romeo and Juliet and six songs for an Aristophanes play. It was the first time he coupled music with verse. Supporting himself by teaching, he went on to score Macbeth and Winter’s Tale inadvertently becoming the city’s go-to Shakespeare guy.
“I had no experience with black culture; classical music doesn’t expose you to African American musicians.” A self proclaimed serious artist, the only theater composers he liked were Gershwin, Weil, Bernstein, and Sondheim. Exceptions might be made for those musicals attacking important subjects like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.
In 1981, NYU inaugurated a pilot graduate program for theater writing. As a prologue, eight musicians were invited to spend three weeks in workshop with Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Rosen came to New York. “At this point, Sondheim had just written Sweeney Todd. The 1970s made us think you could do serious, experimental theater.” His voice takes on energy in recollection.
The group met in a loft on Crosby Street. Rosen describes it as looking like “a heroin den.” He loved that uptown guys would come down for this. “The first thing I had to do as a young man was get over the fact that I was in the room with Sondheim and he was treating me like I had a right to be there. Once I did that, I had to listen very closely. He was unpretentious, but terse, with laser like precision zeroing in on problems…” The student especially learned form, lyric writing for character, and the significance of musical gestures that make take one from dialogue into song. They still occasionally communicate.
“I really liked Hal too. He criticized one of my songs in a way that to this day is the best put down I’ve ever had: `I feel the music is gratuitous’ and he was right, it was generic.” Up go the eyebrows.
That December, Rosen returned to New York (and stayed) entering NYU’s MFA program. A two week intensive with Leonard Bernstein was held on 47th Street, upstairs, next to The Gaiety Deli in a space donated by The Shuberts. “He was a showman. When he walked in, he stopped in the doorway and looked around until all eyes turned.” The Maestro wore a cape.
The first session was scheduled for three hours. When time was up, a loquacious Bernstein suggested if someone would get him dinner, he’d stay until he had to be at the theater. “They bring this greasy chicken. He’s eating and speaking with tremendous insight about Mark Blitzstein. There are these movie posters up on the wall. In the middle of a sentence, he takes a drumstick bone and says, `Let me see if I can hit Lana Turner in the tits,’ throws it, and goes on without missing a beat.” Rosen grins.
When a couple of students brought in a song with what they thought was a Greek feel, Bernstein sat at the piano and offered 20 folk music motifs on which they might’ve built. “He said, steal from the real and make it your own, don’t give me faux Greek…He enjoyed astonishing us.”
Avoiding what he felt was the language of popular music, Rosen wrote instead for Brecht’s Galileo and Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. “It’s like an actor getting a classical role. No one can do the definitive version.” He authored a successfully produced musical with Tom Bishop called Book of the Night and a song cycle entitled “A Child’s Garden of Verses” that blossomed into a second musical illuminating the life of Robert Louis Stephenson.
“I was really writing about my own childhood, the facts of his life in tandem with my emotional and musical crisis.” The piece is set on the last day of summer. An older Stephenson looks back working through a writer’s block. “It was interesting the degree to which I could communicate personally with someone else’s words.” The song cycle, what we called “concept albums” in the 1960s and 1970s, is an ideal form for Rosen. “Stories can be told, an emotional journey created, characters portrayed, but unlike musical theater, all the dots don’t need to be connected.”
The South Side
Rosen was now in therapy. It was time to face the past. Awarded the first NEA Grant given to an individual, he intended to create a musical theater piece based on growing up on the South Side. Six of the evocative songs he included with his grant application ended up on the CD South Side Stories. For perhaps the first time, an underbelly of jazz and blues, what he calls “the blue note” can be discerned in his music. “It metaphorically means the integration of everything I’d grown up with.”
…It was bungalows all in a row/Where a family dream could grow/And only Democrats knew where the bodies were buried/On the South Side…(“The South Side”)
I asked myself Why?/I asked myself, Who?/I answered some just don’t like barbecue on the/ South Side…Are we leavin’, are we stayin’?…Was the question, What to do?/Or was the question, What excuse do we use?… (“The South Side Blues”)
In the process, he realized not only that he didn’t understand what happened any better at 40 than he did at 13, but that his experience was not uncommon. “So I put aside music and started writing the book.” The South Side – The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood 1998
Tracking down and interviewing former black and white neighbors, Rosen created fifteen composite characters who “speak” rather like those in Our Town (Thornton Wilder) or Under Milkwood (Dylan Thomas). “I went in thinking racism was the only issue and came out understanding that fears were based on past history and the tribal nature of humankind.” A reference, in part, to the persecution of the Jewish people? Its author thinks of the edifying (nonfiction) volume as a spoken cantata. It was also something of an exorcism.
Miscommunication came up again and again:
“…knowing that blacks and Jews shared some similar experiences – you know, slavery, discrimination; we’d been partners in the civil rights struggle -I thought we had an awful lot in common. I was really surprised when certain things happened…that showed a gap between the two groups…” from a white woman
“So we felt. “Enough is enough. Fifty-fifty we don’t mind-living in an integrated community. But after that, forget it…It’s just like Tevye-you can’t look back.” …from a white man (Tevye is the protagonist in Fiddler on the Roof)
“I think I subconsciously felt we weren’t a wanted race, that it didn’t matter what you looked like, how you sounded, whether you were intelligent or educated – you just weren’t wanted, collectively….So when the Jewish people were leaving the neighborhood, I wasn’t surprised…” from a black woman
By the time Rosen started his next effort – Dream Suite, Songs in Jazz and Blues on poems by Langston Hughes – he’d read more books than he could count about the Antebellum South and a serious amount of African American poetry, from Harlem’s Renaissance to the 20th Century. “Hughes was the best… his work breaks through racial boundaries to touch the soul of humanity – racial, political, and personal….it says something worth saying.” Immersing himself in the author, Rosen devoured both autobiographies and a book of short stories. He identified with Hughes’ introspective nature.
“Most important for a composer, his poetry sings with natural ease and grace…the language is rich in imagery…yet always rooted in the American vernacular and soulfully direct in emotional expression…” The idea was to eschew art songs for settings within the broad reach of popular material.
“So called art songs by Schubert, Barber, Rorem live side by side with those of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim…It’s all one to me. If my musical voice is distinctive, its originality comes in the manner of synthesis…`Harlem Night Song’ (for example), starts with shades of Aaron Copeland and moves into shades of Jimmy Webb, though you don’t hear them explicitly.”
Rosen has been surprisingly successful with this approach. Much of what was written arrives so like songs it’s as if he collaborated with the lyricist. The CD of Dream Suite was inspired and recorded by Alton Fitzgerald White “we have a deep musical connection” who had been in the workshop of Book of Night and, upon recommendation, Capathia Jenkins, who became Rosen’s Muse, recording and performing with him ever since. “She and I come from completely different worlds, but the worlds become one with the work.”
“When Louie said I think I’d like to write for you, I didn’t take him seriously, but true to who he is, he called about a month after recording to tell me he started to sketch some of Maya Angelou’s poems. (one of her favorite poets)… It’s a tightrope to walk if you’re a white person trying to reflect the black experience. He gets it,” Jenkins says. Rosen’s settings are a challenge the vocalist relishes. If she doesn’t feel he’s written in her voice, that a song doesn’t speak to her, she tells him straight out. If the composer wants something “juiced” or “finessed” he speaks up. They describe Nikki Giovanni with the exact same phrases. It’s a symbiotic relationship, “an honor,” she adds.
Dream Suite was the first of the three song cycles that evolved into The Black Loom Trilogy. “If you take African American elements out of American music, you don’t have American music…That collision of cultures had a huge impact on my generation… it’s probably the most fundamental driving force in my life.”
Maya Angelou depicted the down and out with an edge Rosen found “sassy, political, and slightly angry.” He was attracted to the pride and dignity of her women. The composer also chose Angelou because the writing was a fit for Jenkins, “both her voice and being…these days I’m either writing for myself or Capathia.” Already familiar with Nikki Giovanni, he discovered over time her voice had mellowed becoming more positive. With gravity, there was new playfulness in the author’s poetry and prose. Giovanni has performed with Rosen and Jenkins. Jenkins calls her “salt of the earth.”
Louis Rosen and Nikki Giovanni
“At this point, the music was flowing at a pace that went beyond what I, as a lyricist, could keep up with. So every work for which I’d write music and lyrics would be matched by one or two where I set poetry to music… The journey of the three pieces is one towards light. I could personally express what I wanted to say through the content. It sang to me.” Rosen feels he’s currently finished with the black experience.
I ask how it is that religion hasn’t found its way into Rosen’s oeuvre. He’s addressed culture and history, but fixed on no Jewish writers for inspiration or raw material despite similarities in the black and Jewish experience and the environment in which he grew up. There’s a long silence. He responds by pointing to a song in South Side Stories about the relationship of a light skinned girl and dark skinned boy to which the girl’s parents object. “The original lyric was about a Jewish boy and a Gentile girl. I just wanted Capathia to sing the song, so I changed it slightly.” Except for a couple of isolated lines in two others, there are no additional references.
“I’ve struggled for years with the role of Judaism in my life. We went to synagogue, I had a bar mitzvah. By the time I was 15, Judaism had disappeared from the hood…I’ve never really felt a part of it. There are lots of things I’ve never felt a part of-like my generation…” Rosen thinks of himself as spiritual, not religious.
“My Third Act”
When James Lapine asked the composer (in 2014) to write music for his Lincoln Center production of Act One based on Moss Hart’s autobiography of the same title, Rosen hadn’t written for theater since the 2004 production of Moliere’s School for Husbands at the Westport Country Playhouse. Nor had he missed it. This is not to say Rosen hadn’t been busy. The artist almost always has several projects besides teaching Music Appreciation and Theory – everything from Bach to The Beatles – at 92Y School of Music over 30 years. He loves it. “It keeps me learning. When I learn something new I want to share it. The wow factor of discovery hasn’t gotten old for me.”
Lately, the multifaceted Rosen writes both music and lyrics in a chapter he calls more confessional than professional. “I think I was awakened to that distinction from an interview I read 30 years ago with Bob Dylan”; songs to get old by dealing with this moment in life. There are ballads, wry comments, and storysongs.
My son’s 529 Plan’s going M.I.A./My pulse rate is the opposite of A.O.K./I see rows and rows of red ink/Where there once was black/Stare into the abyss too long-/It’s gonna stare back… “The Middle Class (Used-To-Be) Blues”
“I still work a lot and I still want my work to be heard, but the desire now is driven less by large dreams than by the passion and joy of creating, then offering the work through performance and recording…The importance of being present with my wife and son, or spending a day wandering or reading in Prospect Park can’t be overstated. Social Security is visible on the horizon and as I said in `My Third Act’, eventually… I’ll be workin’ on my memoir while I’m workin’ on my tan.”
In December Rosen will perform his own music at The Duplex in collaboration with the formidable Karen Mason, whom he’s known since Chicago. A new CD, Dust to Dust Blues, will be released in 2017, the artist hopes to record both a 15 song cycle provisionally called “I Don’t Know Anything,” and, with Darius de Haas, A Child’s Garden Song Suite, inspired by the musical theater piece. Whew.
All Photos Courtesy of Louis Rosen Programs Courtesy of The Goodman Theatre Photos of Louis Rosen and Capathia Jenkins at Birdland by Kevin Alvey