Friday, August 8, 2014

"Broadway Songbook: The First 100 Years of Broadway" at the Ordway Center

The Ordway is opening its fourth season of the Broadway Songbook series with a retrospective of the first 100 years of Broadway. If you're like me, your first question is - when did Broadway begin? It's debatable, but Professor James Rocco - who presides over what feels like a college seminar on musical theater history with live show-and-tell by the Twin Cities' best musical theater performers - tells us that the beginning of Broadway can be marked by The Black Crook in 1866. This is just one of the things you'll learn in this Broadway Songbook, but don't worry, it is anything but dry and pedantic. The stories are fascinating and entertaining (at least to a musical theater nerd like myself), James has chosen just the right collection of songs to illustrate his points, and music director Raymond Berg has beautifully arranged the songs, which are performed with much passion, emotion, and humor by the talented cast of actor/singer/dancers (yes they dance!). If you're a musical theater fan, the Ordway's Broadway Songbook series is a must see, and this is a perfect one to start with. And if you live out-state, you're in luck - this Songbook is going on tour1!

James takes us through the evolution of the Broadway musical, from the aforementioned The Black Crook, through George M. Cohan's invention of the "musical comedy," to the epic Show Boat which was the first musical drama, to the day when Rodgers met Hammerstein and "changed the world" with their sweeping lyrics and melodies and insistence that everything serve the story, to the invention of the LP record that allowed musical theater songs to invade pop culture, to a hint at the beginning of the Rock Musical with Hair (more on that in the next Songbook in April) in 19672, closing out the first century of Broadway. And the best part of this history lesson is we get to hear the music in this march through time.

The Ordway's Broadway Songbook series features a rotating cast of the Twin Cities' best musical theater performers, which this time includes Songbook vets Dieter Bierbrauer, Gary Briggle, Jennifer Eckes, and Erin Schwab, and newcomers to the series Kendra McMillan, Aja Parham, and Randy Schmeling. The cast performs solos, duets, and trios, but the best moments are when the entire company joins in to bring full life to these musical theater songs and give you just a taste of what the whole show might be like. Fortunately, several of the musicals featured can be seen on stages around the Cities in the upcoming season (see footnotes, which seem appropriate for this which feels a bit like a term paper for my musical theater history seminar).

Musical highlights include:
  • The "wide-eyed and devilish singing comedian" Gary Briggle entertains with the '20s song "If You Knew Susie" and "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof from the '60s.
  • Aja Parham sings the standard "Lady is a Tramp" as well as a gorgeous rendition of "As Long as He Needs Me" from Oliver3.
  • Erin Schwab again showcases her unique talents - she has a fantastic voice and is also a brilliant comedian, and when those two things are combined it's a thing of beauty. She brings the house down with "Let's Do It," and also plays it a little more serious with "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl.
  • Kendra McMillan channels Ethel Merman in a clever arrangement of "I Got Rhythm" and Sally Bowles in "Cabaret."
  • Randy Schmeling gleefully sings "Almost Like Being in Love," and leads the company in the rousing "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" from arguably the most successful musical Guys and Dolls4.
  • Jennifer Eckes5 sounds absolutely lovely singing "Till There Was You" from The Music Man. She also makes a fine Eliza Doolittle opposite Gary as Henry Higgins and Randy as Colonel Pickering6.
  • Any day that I can sit in a darkened theater and listen to Dieter Bierbrauer sing "Something's Coming" (West Side Story) and "The Impossible Dream" (Man of La Mancha) is a good day in my book. This was a very good day, as evidenced by the longest ovation of the night after the latter song.
  • The medleys are the highlights of these shows, and this time included a medley from Show Boat, a Gerswhin medley, and a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley. They're very cleverly and playfully arranged, quickly switching from one song to the next, or lingering for a few lines, going from humorous to poignant in a flash. The Show Boat medley is particularly lovely, and again makes me wish for a local musical theater company to do a production of Show Boat on the Showboat. It's just too good of an opportunity to be missed!
  • The show ended with Hair, which felt like a complete 180 from what we had been hearing all night. But that's the brilliant thing about Hair - it changed Broadway forever, just like so many shows before it had. And I was particularly tickled to hear this company sing "Let the Sun Shine In;" the first production of Hair that I saw was a Michael Brindisi-directed production at the Pantages ten years ago, starring Dieter as Claude and Randy as Woof. So much fun to revisit the production that began my Hair obsession.
I now come to the end of my term paper. I hope that I did the show justice and piqued your interest to experience it yourself. As always, this Broadway Songbook is an informative, entertaining, and fun evening of musical theater history brought to vibrant life by talented performers. Playing this weekend only on the Ordway stage in St. Paul, and possibly coming to a city near you this fall.

  1. Tour locations include Austin on Oct. 9, Red Wing on Oct. 11, Dawson on Oct. 23, Detroit Lakes on Oct. 25, and St. Cloud on Nov. 2.
  2. "Professor Rocco, Professor Rocco, isn't it true that while Hair first appeared Off-Broadway in 1967, it didn't open on Broadway until 1968?" said the annoying know-it-all student in the back row, eagerly waving her hand in the air.
  3. Be sure to catch Theater Latte Da's production of Oliver in February, this season's installment of their "Broadway Re-Imagined" series with Hennepin Theatre Trust. Having never seen it, I didn't think I knew any songs from Oliver, but it turns out I do, yet another example of how much musical theater is ingrained in our popular culture.
  4. Don't miss Bloomington Civic Theatre's production of Guys and Dolls, opening next week and already scheduled to perform at this year's Ivey Awards!
  5. If you like Broadway Songbook, you might also like Jennifer's show with three of her friends, Pop-Up Musical, a more irreverent version of musical theater trivia mixed with great performances.
  6. In case you've been living under a rock the past few months, I should tell you that My Fair Lady is currently playing at the Guthrie. And it's scrumptious.
Does anyone need to borrow my notes?

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.