On this day in classical music: Italian opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli was born in Cremona in 1834. His best-known opera is “La Gioconda” (“The Happy Woman” or “The Ballad Singer”) was given its premiere in 1876. From the opera’s ballet comes the “Dance of the Hours,” a work featured in Walt Disney’s film classic “Fantasia.” “The Dance of the Hours” also inspired Allan Sherman’s song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.” Listen to members of the World Orchestra perform the “Dance of the Hours.” Joseph Milo conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LL4Myjyd-A
On this day in the musical theatre: The 2002 revival of “Man of La Mancha” closed up shop in April 2003 after 304 performances. Brian Stokes Mitchell headed the cast as Don Quixote, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza and Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza. The production earned Tony Award nominations for Mitchell, Mastrantonio and best musical revival but came up empty handed. Listen to Mitchell perform “The Impossible Dream” at the 2003 Tony Awards. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgzXwpePTTU
Musical musings: When was the last time you saw a Broadway performer stand alone, center stage, and sing a song that stopped a show? These days, a big production number can stop a show — but a solo? An impossible dream, you say? Exactly. When Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Quixote hits the last, long note of “The Impossible Dream” in the revival of “Man of La Mancha” … the audience can no longer contain itself; spontaneous applause erupts and becomes a cacophony as Mitchell brings the song to its triumphant end. Afterwards, the applause goes on and on. Welcome to musical theater heaven. By all means, bring your young and impressionable sons and daughters to “Man of La Mancha.” This is the kind of theater that can change the course of someone’s life. It can instill unshakeable idealism, create a moral compass, or — if nothing else — establish a lifelong love affair with musical theater. – Barbara and Scott Siegel
On this day in classical music: The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the premiere of Samuel Barber’s “School for Scandal” overture in 1933. Still a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, Barber was just 21 when he completed what would become one of his most popular orchestral works. The work’s title was taken from the Richard Brinsley Sheridan play. Listen to the MCYO perform Barber’s “School For Scandal” Overture. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mp0R4FjwfI
On this day in the musical theatre: A revival of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” closed on Broadway in 1992, after 229 performances. This small-scaled version featured two pianists performing an arrangement sanctioned by Loesser. One missed the lush qualities of Loesser’s brilliant score but once the ear adjusted to the piano accompaniment, the compelling narrative and eclectic score worked its magic. The cast was populated with singers who easily transitioned from the world of opera into that of the musical theater. Spiro Malas and Sophie Hayden were the principal parties in this story of a May-December romance. Scott Waara won a best supporting actor Tony Award for his role as Herman. Listen to Spiro Malas and Sophie Hayden perform “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0i5rLSSLjcA
Musical musings: An overview of (Barber’s) total oeuvre shows that virtually all his large-scale orchestral works, with the exception of the two symphonies, carry literary illusions; yet he would not admit to programmatic intentions even in those cases where he assigned specific literary titles. Such was the case with his first composition for full orchestra, the Overture to The School for Scandal. Although the title refers to the eighteenth-century drawing-room comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the composer avowed it was not intended as a prelude to the play but “as a musical reflection of the play’s spirit.” From Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music by Barbara B. Heyman
On this day in classical music: John Cage’s 4’33” caused a scandal at its 1952 premiere. As its title suggests, the work lasts four minutes and 33 seconds. When “performed,” a musician appears on stage (often sitting at a piano). The idea behind the work was to let an audience hear any ambient sounds for the specified duration. Watch William Marx perform Cage’s 4’33.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4
On this day in the musical theatre: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” closed on Broadway in 1964 after playing for more than two years. “Forum” marked the first musical for which Stephen Sondheim composed music and lyrics. Based on the comedies of Plautus, “Forum” starred Zero Mostel as a slave who bargains for his freedom. Naturally complications ensue before everything gets sorted out just before the final curtain. While “Forum” earned six Tony Awards, including best musical of the season, Sondheim’s score was completely overlooked. Watch Zero Mostel and company perform the opening scene (“Comedy Tonight”) from the 1966 film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-hZhr2k2hk
Musical musings: Zero Mostel, a very animated blimp, will personally defy you not to like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The clients laughed and seemed to enjoy themselves, but there was always the suggestion that had they not done so, Mr. Mostel would have passed among them and belabored them with a baseball bat. Under George Abbott’s slick direction, the show moves and the audience roars. From Opening Nights on Broadway by Steven Suskin
On this day in classical music: Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu died at age 68 in 1959. Martinu’s early compositional efforts were Romantic in style and character. He was later influenced by Stravinsky and began writing in a neoclassic vein. In 1941, Martinu emigrated to the United States. He returned to Europe in 1956 and died three years later in Switzerland. Martinu composed six symphonies, 15 opera, 14 ballets and numerous orchestral works. All of his symphonies were written during his stay in the U.S. Listen to Jiří Bělohlávek conduct Martinu’s 1953 “Overture” with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLNVoM8zR5I
On this day in the musical theatre: “Sugar Babies,” a musical tribute to the era of Vaudeville, closed in 1982 after a three-year run. Stars Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller headed the cast of the revue, a collection of nostalgic songs and riotous comedy sketches. A typical exchange – Hortense: I was walking in the lobby of my hotel and there was Brock talking to my old friend the Colonel. I must have hidden my feelings pretty well. Because I overheard the Colonel say to Brock, “Is that Hortense?” And Brock replied, “She looks pretty relaxed to me.” Watch Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller perform a medley from “Sugar Babies” for HRH Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) at the Royal Palladium. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIrWvUYnbiA
Musical musings: Who would have thought that Broadway was ready for an old-fashioned burlesque revue featuring two faded old movie stars? Harry Rigby, that’s who. Starting with a bunch of moldy sketches compiled by college professor Ralph Allen and the not overly distinguished song catalog of Jimmy McHugh, Rigby — whose 1970s revisicals of pre-Depression musical comedies had revivified Ruby Keeler, Patsy Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Alice Faye — keenly tossed Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller into the mix and out came a hit. Sugar Babies wowed ’em, running three years. Credit the Mickey/Ann chemistry; the first national company, which headlined two real musical comedy stars — Ms. (Carol) Channing and Mr. (Robert) Morse — unaccountably fizzled after only eleven weeks on the road. From More Opening Nights on Broadway by Steven Suskin
On this day in classical music: Aaron Copland’s “El Salon Mexico” received its premiere in Mexico City in 1937. The work is a musical depiction of a Mexico City dance hall of the era. Copland employed four Mexican folk songs in “El Salon Mexico,” a work that remains a staple of the orchestral repertoire. Carlos Chavez conducted the Mexico Symphony Orchestra in the work’s premiere. Listen to the Houston Youth Symphony perform an excerpt from “El Salon Mexico.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMn6EU3yjcc
On this day in the musical theatre: John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1975 musical “Chicago” closed on Broadway in 1977. Based on Maurine Dallas Watkins’ play, “Chicago” told the gritty story of two women imprisoned for murder. The production featured the highly stylized choreography of Bob Fosse, which together with stellar performances by Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, helped the musical amass a run of 947 performances. Despite earning 11 Tony nominations, “Chicago” lost in every category. A 1996 revival, in contrast, won 6 of the eight awards for which it was nominated. This November, the Broadway revival will celebrate its 16th year, making it the longest-running revival in American musical history. Watch Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon perform excerpts of “All That Jazz” and “Nowadays” from “Chicago.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5u7NeeIWAE
Musical musings: Bold, cynical and stylish as can be, Chicago is a musical out to kill. And if Tuesday’s glittering new show somehow misses the mark, applaud it for its daring and moments of brilliance. This is a Bob Fosse show all the way from its cocked head to its pointed toes. The whole thing moves like a well-oiled machine. Taking a trivial melodrama of the ’20s, Fosse and his collaborators have constructed a corrosive cabaret show in which murder and its aftermath are presented as show turns, each one announced in Brecht-Weill fashion. In addition to the overall brilliance of his choreography, Fosse creates by far the sexiest dance routines imaginable. Put Chicago down as a luridly effective spectacle, one too beautiful for words … at least for the words used here. From More Opening Nights on Broadway by Steven Suskin
On this day in classical music: British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams died at age 85 in London in 1958. Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music. While there, he befriended Leopold Stokowski and Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams’ musical output is extensive and includes nine symphonies, five operas, considerable choral music and the works for which he is perhaps best known, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and the “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” Listen to the Stockholm Youth Symphony Orchestra perform the “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AjpVuRRXZc
On this day in the musical theatre: Michael Jeter was born in Tennessee in 1952. After studying theater at what was then Memphis State University, Jeter embarked upon a career that included stage musicals, television and film. Jeter played the Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein in “Grand Hotel” and won a 1990 Tony Award for his performance. Jeter left “Grand Hotel” to join the cast of television’s “Evening Shade.” Jeter died in 2003 at age 50. Watch Michael Jeter and Brent Barrett perform “We’ll Take a Glass Together.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDc9ul70kyY
Musical musings: Anyone with a memory of the all-star film “Grand Hotel” should be surprised by the initial appearance of Michael Jeter in the Broadway musical of the same name. The role of Kringelein, the dying bookkeeper embarked on a final fling, was created in the film by the portly Lionel Barrymore. In contrast, Mr. Jeter is slight and unassuming. But by the end of the show, he completely possesses the role — and is a singing, dancing Kringelein.
The turning point of the Tommy Tune musical comes when the actor, in a fantasized burst of energy, contradicts his character’s apparent feebleness and awakens in a frantic Charleston. This joyful dance to life, “We’ll Have a Glass Together,” reaches its climax when Mr. Jeter leaps over a bar as if it were a high hurdle. Mr. Jeter has been in a number of other shows … in recent years … but none with the opportunity offered by “Grand Hotel” to demonstrate his prowess in physical comedy and eccentric dancing. For this perennial new face, that Charleston may represent a leap into stardom. – Mel Gussow writing in the New York Times
On this day in classical music: American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was born in Lawrence, Mass. in 1918. A true Renaissance man, Bernstein composed for the Broadway stage (“Wonderful Town,” “Candide,” “West Side Story”), orchestra (three symphonies, the “Serenade” for violin and orchestra), opera (“Trouble in Tahiti,” “A Quiet Place”), ballet (“Fancy Free”), film (“On the Waterfront”), chorus (“Chichester Psalms”), and solo piano (four sets of “Anniversaries”). In 1959, Bernstein became the first American-born music director of the New York Philharmonic. He recorded extensively during his 10-year tenure with the orchestra and made a historic tour to the Soviet Union. During the last two decades of his life, Bernstein appeared frequently with many of the world’s finest orchestras, including a Christmas Day concert in Germany that commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall. The New York Times once referred to Bernstein as “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” Listen to Bernstein conduct his overture to “Candide” with the London Symphony Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=422-yb8TXj8
On this day in the musical theatre: “42nd Street,” a stage musical based on the 1933 film, opened on Broadway in 1980. Produced by veteran showman David Merrick, this was director/choreographer Gower Champion’s last musical. Following numerous curtain calls on opening night, Merrick told a stunned cast and audience that Champion had died earlier that day. The production took the best musical Tony Award that season and ran for more than eight years. The opening night cast included Jerry Orbach as Julian Marsh, Tammy Grimes as Dorothy Brock, Wanda Richert as Peggy Sawyer, Carole Cook as Maggie Jones and Lee Roy Reams as Billy Lawlor. Watch Jerry Orbach and company perform “The Lullaby of Broadway” from “42nd Street.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKuaoculKDg
Musical musings: When potential investors (for “42nd Street”) told Merrick the project was doomed, he decided to mount it out of his own pocket and began to run up $2.4 million worth of costs. (He bought out three small investors already in place, giving him complete control without any fiscal oversight whatsoever). Things looked dire when 42nd Street’s Kennedy Center tryout met a poor response. The show needed polishing, and Gower Champion was unable to do it. 42nd Street came to Broadway and mysteriously went back into rehearsal, as previews were postponed and the opening date was changed and changed and changed. The producer issued illogical statements, explaining that he was waiting for “the Great Man way up there” to send a courier telling him when to open. Merrick has finally gone nuts was the inference — and the press gleefully covered the story. 42nd Street opened dramatically, with the curtain call announcement of Champion’s death earlier that day at the age of sixty. The combination of the show’s ebullience and Champion’s tragic but timely exit pushed 42nd Street into quick sellout status and immense financial success throughout the English-speaking world. – from More Opening Nights on Broadway by Steven Suskin
On this day in classical music: American composer Paul Creston died at age 78 in 1985. Born Giuseppe Guttoveggio to Sicilian parents living in New York, Creston was largely a self-taught composer. His extensive musical output included six symphonies, numerous concertos and a large body of piano music and chamber works. His works for saxophone quickly entered the repertoire, as did his “Celebration Overture” and “Prelude and Dance” for concert band. Many of Creston’s works employ rhythmic underpinnings that support soaring melodies. Listen to the Austin Symphonic Band perform the “Celebration Overture.” Peter Bay conducts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbS-RTOwzfk
On this day in the musical theatre: The 1979 Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” closed in 1980 after 301 performances. It had been a quarter of a century since the last revival of this musical appeared on Broadway. The 1979 company boasted some of the biggest names in the musical theater, including Christine Andreas (Laurey), Laurence Guittard (Curly), Mary Wickes (Aunt Eller), Bruce Adler (Ali Hakim), Christine Ebersole (Ado Annie), Harry Groener (Will Parker) and Martin Vidnovic (Jud Fry). Andreas and Groener were nominated for Tony Awards but neither won. Oklahoma native Lara Teeter appeared as Will Parker in a subsequent national tour. Listen to Laurence Guittard perform ”Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ2bMMt-sxk
Musical musings: Florida producer Zev Bufman launched a national tour of “Oklahoma!” that ultimately returned to Broadway. The show’s reviews ran the gamut from two raves and two favorables and to one unfavorable and one outright pan. “Oklahoma!” only ran for 293 performances but managed to recoup its initial capitalization and made money.
For composer (Richard) Rodgers — who’d undergone the disappointing “I Remember Mama” that spring and whose previous outings had been the similarly unhappy “Do I Hear a Waltz” (1965), “Two by Two” (1970) and “Rex” (1976), the rejuvenation of “Oklahoma!” was more than welcome. The composer — Broadway’s greatest, perhaps — died two weeks after the opening on Dec. 30, 1979, at age 87.
On this day in classical music: French composer Albert Roussel died at age 68 in 1937. He studied with Eugene Gigout and Vincent d’Indy, the latter at the Schola Cantorum de Paris. Composer of four symphonies and several chamber music works, Roussel is best remembered today for his ballets, most notably “Le festin de l’araignée” (“The Spider’s Feast”) and “Bacchus et Ariane.” Listen to the Vivace from Roussel’s “Symphony No. 3.” Lionel Bringuier conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2MEh-LJNYo
On this day in the musical theatre: Some of the musical theater’s biggest talents collaborated on “Rags,” a tale about a European immigrant and her son who come to New York. Charles Strouse (“Annie”) contributed one of his finest scores for “Rags,” which starred opera singer Teresa Stratas as Rebecca Hershkowitz. Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) supplied the lyrics and Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) wrote the book. The production opened to less than enthusiastic reviews and despite protests from the cast, closed after just four performances. Strouse, Schwartz and Stein reworked their musical for a 1991 revival and made additional changes for a Paper Mill Playhouse production in 1999. The original company, with Julia Migenes substituting for Stratas, released a cast recording five years after “Rags” closed. It’s one of those rare recordings that makes people wonder why the musical failed in the first place. Listen to Dick Latessa and Judy Kuhn perform the title number from “Rags.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuuMIa3fMxw
Musical musings: “We tried to do too much,” Strouse said of the original production. “People got lost in (the original production). The diffuse, scattered story now centers on Rebecca Hershkowitz, a young immigrant mother who escapes to the Lower East Side after a pogrom, and her love affair with Saul, an American labor organizer trying to unionize the sweatshop where she works. The (original) score was influenced by Middle Eastern, Irish, Scottish, English folk, American honky-tonk, obviously jazz and ragtime and klezmer — even Greek music of that day, and Broadway, too. It is now more impressionistic.”
On this day in classical music: French composer Claude Debussy was born in St.Germain-en-Laye in 1862. He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 10 and studied there for the next 11 years. Debussy won the Prix de Rome in 1884. Although influenced by the music of Richard Wagner, Debussy forged his own musical path, experimenting with unusual harmonic progressions and broadening the orchestra’s color palette. Debussy’s musical output was large, with an enormous body of music for solo piano. His orchestral music ranges from the early “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and the three “Nocturnes,” to “La Mer” and three sets of “Images.” While all of these works have solidly entered the repertoire, “La Mer” emerged as his most popular work. Listen to Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform the opening movement of “La Mer,” titled “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ceQGUuILxM
On this day in the musical theatre: A Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” opened in 2008. Oklahoman Kelli O’Hara headed the cast as Nellie Forbush, an Arkansas nurse stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot earned a Tony Award for his role as French plantation owner Emile de Becque. In an era when musicals get by with very few musicians, this revival enjoyed the luxury of a 30-piece orchestra that gave Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lush musical score its due. “South Pacific” earned seven Tony Awards, including best musical revival. The production ran for 1,000 performances and was broadcast on PBS in 2010. Listen to Kelli O’Hara perform “A Cockeyed Optimist.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YinLPRDV2f4
Musical musings: Debussy’s friend Erik Satie had a quirky sense of humor, seen most notably in the titles of his own compositions: “Desiccated Embryos,” “Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear,” “Two Preludes for a Dog.” In a discussion of the opening movement of Debussy’s “La Mer,” titled “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” Satie quipped that he especially liked the bit about a quarter to eleven.