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March 5, 2008

Nostalgia for "Broadway Musicals of 1947"

Nostalgia plays a big role in contemporary theater. People (me included) are always talking about how great shows were back in the old days. Revivals have become the bread and butter of most Broadway seasons. And for the last 15 years, the folks behind the Encores! series have showcased musicals from the past with increasingly elaborate concert productions. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more passion for the past than I witnessed when I went to the first production of the new season of Broadway by the Year, the eight-year old series that presents songs from musicals that opened in a selected year.

The year in the spotlight on Monday night was 1947. And the shows featured in The Broadway Musicals of 1947 ran from big hits like Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow to arty failures like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and Street Scene, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes, to total obscurities like Louisiana Lady, which ran for just four performances. And while the Encores! orchestra has 30+ members, Broadway by the Year’s Ross Patterson Little Big Band has just five. There’s no set; costumes are improvised and the lighting is pretty basic. And yet the audience couldn’t get enough of the show. Each performer had to come back on stage for a second bow before the applause died down. Each song was greeted with audible sighs of contentment. Despite a few hostile glares, the woman sitting behind me couldn’t keep herself from signing along to at least half of the numbers—and not just the ballads that became standards but the novelty songs too.

As anyone who has read this blog will know, I consider myself a theater lover. I’ve sometimes called myself a theater geek. But I’m a piker compared to the folks who filled The Town Hall on Monday. During intermission, I overheard heated discussions about what Kurt Weill’s best period was and laments for '47 songs that hadn't been included. Across the aisle, a man greeted an old friend by humming songs to her. The souvenir shop in the lobby, which was mobbed, was a card table filled with CDs of hard-to-find cast albums and recordings of previous By the Year concerts. The series has clearly developed a cult following. “Is this your first time?” the woman on my left asked the man on her left. “Oh no,” he said, slightly offended. “I come all the time.” She nodded approvingly, “Me, too,” she said. I immediately put my head into my program, afraid that I’d be found out as a rookie.

But even a rookie can have a good time at Broadway by the Year. The series creator and producer Scott Siegel narrates the evenings, and he started off with a little social history to set the year’s musicals in context. He reminded the audience that 1947 was the year of the first UFO sightings in Roswell, New Mexico and the start of the Marshall Plan in Europe; that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball that year and the term Cold War was introduced; and that 1947 marked the debuts of the kiddie TV show “Howdy Doody” (Siegel lead a group sing-along of the show’s theme song) and the first Tony Awards ceremony. Then the music started. Broadway stalwarts like Marc Kudisch, Howard McGillin and Alexander Gemignani were among the 13 performers who sang and danced in nearly 30 numbers. Kendrick Jones, a teen tap dance whiz kid did a couple of specialty numbers that brought down the house. They’re all incredibly talented and some of the numbers were sung, wonderfully, without amplification, a reminder of how it was in, yes, the good old days.

But what I loved most was the Mickey-and-Judy-like let’s put on a show spirit of the whole thing. There’s no chance that anything from these concerts is going to transfer to Broadway the way that the Encores! productions of Chicago, Wonderful Town and The Apple Tree did. The production values suggest that the performers certainly aren’t in it for the money. They’re there because they love what they do and they love doing it for people. Their passion is contagious. I left with a grin on my face.

Each concert is just one night. So you’ve missed 1947. But there’s plenty of time to get a ticket for The Broadway Musicals of 1954 (with music from The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, The Boy Friend, Fanny, The Golden Apple, and House of Flowers) which is scheduled for April 7; The Broadway Musicals of 1965 (Man of La Mancha, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Do I Hear a Waltz? The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, Flora, the Red Menace, and Skyscraper) will be on May 12; and The Broadway Musicals of 1979 (Evita, Sweeney Todd, They’re Playing Our Song, I Remember Mama, and Sarava) set for June 16. In fact, I might run into you at that last one.

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