“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
Most of us grew up with Showplace of the Nation, Radio City Music Hall and The Rockettes. As locals, we’d be taken to the awe-inspiring Art Deco entertainment palace, generally on holidays, where bang for your buck included both a film and live stage show. (Duality ended in 1979.) My grandmother humiliated us by packing sandwiches in waxed paper, so we wouldn’t eat junk. The place seemed unfathomably big and eye-catching.
“New York, New York”- The Legacy Dancers – Photo by Milan Miskos
First memories recall its two, resonant, “Mighty Wurlitzer” organs sliding out as if from nowhere, the entire orchestra rising up and sometimes back as if magically propelled, Christmas carolers filling every balcony, and, inevitably, the show’s centerpiece number, “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” Originally choreographed by The Rockettes founder Russell Markett with costumes designed by Vincent Minnelli, the number remains pretty much as conceived some 84 years ago, a wide variation of formations in military precision, ending with a cannon shot knocking the dancers over like a line of dominoes.
The dance troop, inspired by the John Tiller Girls of The Ziegfeld Follies, was inaugurated in St. Louis as the Missouri Rockets. Renamed the Roxyettes, it was brought to New York City by Samuel Roxy Rothafel to perform first at his Roxy Theatre and then, beginning with the first Christmas Spectacular December 1932, at Radio City Music Hall where the company became what we now know as The Rockettes.
“Another Openin’ Another Show”- The Legacy Dancers -Photo by Milan Miskos
Each and every Rockette must be proficient in ballet, tap, modern, and jazz dance. Height requirements are 5’ 6” to 5’ 10”. (Taller dancers are placed at the center to give the illusion of like height across the line.) Some 400 women audition annually. Often a dancer ‘gets in’ but is not actually hired until someone leaves, which can occur months or years later- such was the case when today’s speakers were company members. Rehearsal and performance schedules are daunting.
Once offered only at Christmas and Easter, the troop was gradually booked for outside events, television, and national tours. Every November, America gets a glimpse of them at The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A current production, New York Spectacular Starring The Radio City RockettesTM , brings employment almost year round.
Make no mistake, this extraordinarily hard-working collection of leggy ladies is a family. Warmth and gratitude inform every personal story. Who else but a Rockette would understand the unique demands and rewards involved in this iconic sisterhood?
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”- The Legacy Dancers – Photo by Milan Miskos
Hosted, Produced, Directed, and Choreographed by former Rockette, Mary Six Rupert, this afternoon’s event offers firsthand histories by alumna as well as intermittent musical numbers spotlighting The Legacy Dancers inaugurated in 2013. Ranging in age from 22 through 60, the ladies don’t all still have ‘perfect’ bodies, but extensions, synchronization and infectious ebullience abound. There are no weak links. These women can tap! Choreography is terrific fun. Alan Smith’s Costumes flattering delight.
Each ingenuous background tale, clearly written by its speaker, is accompanied by projected photos. These usually start with images of a widely grinning, two or three year-old girl in a tutu and end with photos of performance as a Rockette.
Madeleine Jay, who overcame an after-college injury that might have derailed her chosen vocation, was down with the flu when telephoned for a callback. Determined, she showed up fever and all securing a place in the “big, shiny, glossy unit.” Being a Rockette “was the hardest thing I’d ever done.” Jay remembers once “kicking out” (out of sync), anticipating serious repercussions. Instead the girl at her side was kind. Jay has performed and taught since then.
Mary Six Rupert; Bruce Michael-Photos by Richard Williams
Alina Silver, with 11 seasons under her now rather extended belt (she’s pregnant), was “hooked” from her first ballet recital. When a friend suggested going to Chicago for Rockette auditions on something of a lark, neither made the cut. Years later, however, Silver risked losing at a Celebrity Cruise job by flying to LA when the ship hit a glacier (no kidding) to once again audition for The Rockettes. She got in only to discover her friend Katie had as well. “As hard as it was, I appreciated the precision and perfectionism.”
Mary Six Rupert, the founder of Legacy on the Line, started performing as “the Littlest Raindrop” at age 2 ½. During a 15 year tenure with The Rockettes, Rupert danced with the touring Great Radio City Christmas Spectacular and was promoted to dance captain. She spent years in musical theater and now teaches as well as choreographs.
Rupert and student Tomlee L. Abraham offer a jaunty “My One and Only,” a number she restaged for and taught the great Harold Nicholas for the stage show. Her Wagner College students Brittany Cattaruzza and Tommy Joscelyn execute an utterly charming version of “I Won’t Dance” followed by “Ding” with game, older students from Bridge Dance.
Brittany Cattaruzza and Tommy Jocelyn – Photo by Richard Williams
Ann Cooley “was always a bit of a jazzerina.” Having secured her first paid gig as a dancer at age 16, she moved to New York at 18, auditioned for the Rockettes, and was accepted several months later. Unfortunately, no spot opened up for 3 years. Cooley became a musical theater gypsy, then joined the first touring Christmas Spectacular. She has since acted as director/choreographer of her own projects which include a stint teaching Korean artists musical theater tapping.
Former Vice President and Creative Producer of The Rockettes, (at present Executive Director of The Space at Westbury) Bruce Michael got the bug at age 7 when taken to the Music Hall to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He was “completely captured” by film, show, and venue. “All through school I kept planning production numbers.” Immediately upon leaving college, Michael moved to New York and opened a bank account directly across from Radio City where he was sure he’d work. Singlemindedly hanging out at the stage door, he was eventually, rather cinematically, invited in, later becoming a stage manager. He left to start a production company, but returned in far greater capacity in 1989. Michael’s affection for the work and The Rockettes is palpable.
Katherine Corp and Kimberly Corp -Photos by Richard Williams
Twins Katherine and Kimberly Corp dreamed of being Mouseketeers. Encouraged to academic excellence, terpsichorean training rode tandem with impressive cum laude degrees in International Economic Policy. The ladies danced, toured internationally “with a famous magician,” and held substantial corporate banking positions in Japan. They currently own Pilates on Fifth and are in obviously tiptop shape. Duet performance of “The Typewriter Song” replete with eyeglasses, neckties, and briefcases on which they tap, is effervescent.
Dottie Belle spent 25 years with The Rockettes! A convention performance with a precision dance group lead to an audition for the New York company. She ‘passed,’ but there were no places for a year. Called suddenly, she found herself on a cot at The Rehearsal Club dancing four shows a day at Radio City. Belle weathered “four corporate takeovers” dancing as a Rockette at The Royal Albert Hall and with Peter Allen. She went back to school, became a corporate specialist in Health Education and Promotion and now brings fitness into private homes.
“Favorite Son”-The Legacy Dancers -Photo by Milan Miskos
Legacy numbers include “Another Opn’in, Another Show,” Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and a finale of “New York, New York” with toppers and tails. A highlight is “Our Favorite Son” (The Will Rogers Follies) which features a vocal and is performed sitting on a long bench with Tommy Tune’s intricate, imaginative arm/hand choreography and Ann Cooley’s staging. Straw hats are cleverly affixed with bells which sound when tapped. Focus is consummate.
The smoothly run afternoon was both illuminating and entertaining.
Check The Ziegfeld Society web site for next season’s events.
Visit The Legacy Dancers website for more information.
Legacy 36,LLC is an organization founded to celebrate the art of precision dance and the women that have, and continue to, perform this dance style. The mission of this organization is furthered through fully produced productions, lecture demonstrations, precision dance workshops and camps and so much more.
Opening Photo by Giff Braun
The Ziegfeld Society of New York City and Legacy 36 LLC presents for the Fourth Year
Legacy On The Line-The Road to Becoming a Rocket
A Multi-Autobiographical Musical Revue
Produced, Directed and Choreographed by Mary Six Rupert
Will Rogers Follies and My One and Only
Choreography by Tommy Tune
The Legacy Dancers: Linda Bloom, Brittany Cattaruzza, Ann Cooley, Katherine Corp, Kimberly Corp, Nicole Davey, Ashlee Fife, Madeline Jaye, Cassandra Palacio, Adrienne Weidert
Lang Recital Hall, Hunter College
June 25, 2016