Saturday, May 6, 2017

Nora Mae Lyng: The Prince And The Showgirl

The Prince And The Showgirl

Notes on the death of Nora Mae Lyng, May 2017

Hello to the Kmeck family, and to all of Nora’s friends and family. I will be writing a long memoir of Nora’s and my epic Noel-and-Gertie Show Business Friendship For The Ages in the future, but until then, I offer my deepest, most painfully sad and heartfelt thoughts to wonderful George, wonderful Phoebe, wonderful Max and the entire Lyng family.

For many years, Nora has literally been two feet away from me at all times, since over this computer screen on my wall here hang the photographs of us “Forbidden Broadway” kids posing with our guests Ann Miller, Ethel Merman, George Burns, Mary Martin, and Carol Channing.

Nora Mae and I met one dark winter day in January, 1981, when I was the unhappy house pianist for Equity Library Theatre’s unfortunate production of “Anything Goes.” Nora’s big audition song, for her entire career, was a riotously hilarious rendition of “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.” She was beyond brilliant in a single verse and chorus of that song, for decades. I played the hell out of it for her, on that fateful day, instantly sensing I was playing for a comic and vocal genius. Her last comic surprise move in the last four bars instantly sent tears of hilarity streaming down my face; surprised by my trademark “big-orchestra” playing, she cocked her head, looked over at me at the piano, and said: “You sure put a burr under MY ass, kid!” and the room erupted in laughter. And in that instant was born the epic friendship of 36 years.

At the dance call for the same show, the choreographer went down the line, and asked each of the 30 last contestants in turn, “Any tricks? Any acrobatics?” As usual, the performers killed themselves trying to come up with some lamely impressive answer. “Somersaults.” “Handstands.” “Back Handsprings With a Reverse Sideways Flip.” Finally the choreographer got to Nora, asking, “Any tricks? Any acrobatics?” Nora took a very deep breath and after the most perfectly timed pause in the history of theatre, she succinctly replied: “Well, I had a baby.” The room absolutely exploded. I didn’t think I could love her any more after “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” but from that “baby” line on, we were the fastest friends – and kindred spirits on that production, subversive and wicked with varying degrees of obviousness. Nothing makes for greater friends than two killer-dillers working under cover in a so-so show.

A few months later, she called me and begged me to play her club act of some kind. I HATED playing club acts – all that work, no money, ten people in the audience, no take-away, the whole bit. I told her I loved her but just couldn’t go there; no club acts for me. I was very grand at age 22; she had already dubbed me “The Austrian Prince” after my ancestry and grandiosity. Finally I very wearily said, “OK, Nora, why don’t you come over and SHOW ME THE MATERIAL.” (That was me at age 22.) If you know Nora, you know she doesn’t come over and SHOW YOU THE MATERIAL. But ten minutes later she was in my apartment with some friend of hers who had written her some special material, and she launched into a rendition of “One Of The Boys,” from the then-running “Woman Of The Year.” She pitched her voice into an absolutely perfect, scientifically architected caricature of Lauren Bacall, and began singing: “I’m one of the girls who sings like a boy; my voice is as low as the tunes I destroy.” I fell apart, and once again, tears of hilarity streamed down my face. She “showed me the material” alright, with her lyricist friend Gerard Alessandrini closely evaluating my pianistic feel for show music. And thus began my association with Nora and Gerard on a two-person-one-pianist revue called “Forbidden Broadway.” As for what happened next over the following 36 years, an epic tale of great intensity, ups, and downs – well, that’s for the book.  Nora, when I write us up, I’ll try and do you proud. Signed, with tears of despair and devastation streaming down my face, your Austrian Prince.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Carnegie Hall, March 13, 2015

On the evening of March 13, 2015, conductor Steven Reineke and the New York Pops Orchestra gave my 9.5-minute epic "History Of Television Overture" its New York and Carnegie Hall debuts.

Maestro Reineke commissioned this extensive medley of famous television theme songs in Spring, 2014 (so extensive and diverse was the list of themes to be included that I decided to call it simply "The History Of Television.") He debuted it in the summer of 2014 in a concert he put together called "As Heard On TV," which premiered with the Houston and Toronto Symphonies.  The concert also included my "Crime Theme Classics" (another overture-like medley of TV themes, but focused on the crime shows) and my "Muppet Medley," which I had arranged & orchestrated for the Muppets' concert at Carnegie Hall in March, 2012.

I had never heard my "History Of Television Overture" played before last Friday. So not only was I thrilled finally to hear it played by a live orchestra – I was thrilled to have been called to play the piano IN that orchestra – and on the stage of Carnegie Hall – and in front of a completely sold-out house of 2,804 people.

The concert featured the Carnegie debut of Broadway star Sutton Foster, and her huge fan club filled the theatre, including many of the directors, music staff, choreographers, and orchestrators who had worked with her throughout her career thus far.

Before we played my "TV Overture," Steven Reineke went far outside the conventional norm and introduced me to the crowd as the arranger-orchestrator, telling the audience, "He's never heard it before either!" The piece is a barnburner, and a tour de force for any orchestra.  The crowd gave it a huge ovation – and I was stunned when Maestro Reineke had me front and center for a bow. Only stars ever stand front and center at Carnegie – not arrangers. So it was a major career triumph. Thanks, Steven, and thanks to the virtuosic New York Pops!

I previously appeared at the piano, center-stage at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 2011, under the baton of Jack Everly, as we performed our concert "From Rags To Ritzes: The Music Of Irving Berlin," featuring a large number of my orchestrations (some of the best I've ever done.)  Previous orchestrations of mine played by Steven Reineke and the New York Pops at Carnegie include several for their annual Galas: a Hope & Crosby "Road Movie" medley, and a medley of songs from GYPSY; also an overture plus a medley and finale for the Muppets concert, several songs for Cheyenne Jackson's Carnegie debut concert, and several songs for Megan Hilty's Carnegie debut concert (including an epic new version of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," which Megan's been using all over the country.) In the words of a former California governor: "I'll be back..."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

American Showstoppers: An Evening Of Irving Berlin

On March 6th and 7th, 2015, I presented the sixth of my "American Showstoppers" concerts – "An Evening Of Irving Berlin."  The evening featured my 14-piece Fred Barton Orchestra, and starred Karen Ziemba, Brent Barrett, Lee Roy Reams, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Karen Murphy, David Elder, and Damon Kirsche, with featured performances by Jesse Luttrell, Hannah Rose DeFlumeri, and Bruce Landry. The concert was directed & choreographed by Jason Wise.

The Fred Barton Orchestra and the "American Showstoppers" concert series are devoted to classic Broadway music, in my own arrangements reflecting the personality of each composer under discussion, and performed by the best old-school performers who are keeping alive the old art of stopping shows.  Previous evenings were devoted to the showstoppers of Harold Arlen, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers, Jerry Herman, and Cy Coleman.

The Irving Berlin concert played to sell-out crowds at the Michael Schimmel Center in Manhattan, and the Leon Goldstein Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn.  Next season's concerts will feature the music of Frank Loesser and Cole Porter.
Top left, Karen Ziemba – "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy"
Top right, Brent Barrett – "Let's Face The Music And Dance"
2nd left, NaTasha Yvette Williams, "Slumming On Park Avenue"
2nd right, Karen Murphy – "Falling Out Of Love Can Be Fun"
3rd left, Fred Barton – "I'd Rather Lead A Band"
3rd right, Brent Barrett, Karen Ziemba, Lee Roy Reams – "Play A Simple Melody"
Bottom, Lee Roy Reams & Dancers – "There's No Business Like Show Business"
(Photos Kevin Yatarola for the Michael Schimmel Center)