Presented by New York City Center, Encores! is a series that revives three Broadway musicals each November-March season. Some of the musicals are well known, others not. But in our ten years of attending Encores!, every show has been worth seeing, and almost all have offered great musical theater experiences.
Just imagine the excitement of being able to relive the great composers and lyricists in American musical theater history: Porter, Kander, Ebb, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein II, Sondheim, Styne, Fields, Harnick, Harburg, Comden, Green, Adler, Ross, Lerner, Lane, Berlin, Loesser, Gershwin, Bock, Strouse, Arlen, Weill, Bernstein, Kern… All these and more have had their shows revived at Encores!
The performances are semi-staged. The full scores are performed by a lush-sounding twenty-odd-piece orchestra that plays in full view on stage. (Compare this with many Broadway musicals today where the “orchestra” is perhaps a five-piece group, larded with synthesizers, and hidden from view.) The choreography follows as closely as possible that of the original production, as does the book. The sets, however, are minimal -- a fair trade in my view. Another Encores! hallmark -- the performers, who only have eight days of rehearsal, carry their scripts with them (just in case).
But there is nothing else “semi” about the Encores! productions. Under artistic director Jack Viertel, the acting, singing, dancing, and directing are always first rate. Encores! is able to recruit first-class established talent, as well as emerging stars, and for meager recompense -- this is a not-for-profit theater. The attraction for some is the ability to learn and perform in a musical that they never had the chance to participate in. Others do it for fun. Some do it as a showcase. But none does it for the money – there isn’t any. Another measure of the quality and appeal of the Encores! revivals: several have gone on to Broadway runs, including the long-running Chicago, Pajama Game, and Gypsy.
Some of the performers during the last decade who’ve answered the call at Encores! are: Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Kate Baldwin, Jim Norton, Cheyenne Jackson, George Hearn, Raúl Esparza, Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy, Christine Ebersole, Victoria Clark, Sandy Duncan, Philip Bosco, Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Victor Garber, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Eli Wallach, Brian D’Arcy James, Karen Ziemba, Maurice Hines, F. Murray Abraham, James Naughton, Len Cariou, Brent Barrett, Anne Hathaway, Idina Menzel.
Each show runs for only five performances over four days. So you don’t have a lot of opportunity to catch one unless you plan in advance. Indeed, this year’s subscriptions are sold out, though single tickets are available for the two remaining productions, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley.
The initial performances of the 2010-11 season were staged a week ago. Bells are Ringing was first produced on Broadway in 1956, starring Judy Holliday. This wacky but delightful musical includes such hit songs as "The Party’s Over," "Just in Time," and "Long Before I Knew You." While Judy wasn’t available to return for the Encores! production, Kelli O’Hara proved to be a terrific replacement. Kelli (South Pacific, The Pajama Game, The Light in the Piazza) is now at the top of the Broadway firmament, yet she – like so many other stars -- is also part of the Encores! world.
And now for something completely different -- we’re talking night-and-day different from Bells are Ringing -- is the forthcoming production of Lost in the Stars, which plays February 3-6, 2011. This show was one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted on Broadway. The playwright Maxwell Anderson and composer Kurt Weill created this 1949 musical based on the Alan Paton novel about racial unrest in South Africa. (I can assure you that the Bells are Ringing song, "I'm Going Back to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company" will not be reprised in Lost in the Stars.)
The third and final production this season is a revival of the 1948 hit, Where’s Charley, playing March 17-20, 2011. This Frank Loesser musical was a platform for Ray Bolger, the incomparable comic dancer (better known to some as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz). But to me, Ray Bolger is “Once in Love with Amy,” the show-stopping song-and-dance number in Where’s Charley. And Frank Loesser, of course, is at the pinnacle of composer-lyricists -- Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
What’s amazing to me is how few of our New York friends are regulars at Encores!, or even occasional attendees. And few of our out-of-town friends have even heard of it. Well, consider yourself apprised. Go to the Encores! website and get with the program.
See you on West 55th Street.