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)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Pippin" Revisited


I hate to say goodbye to PIPPIN, unexpectedly one of my favorite productions of the last few years.  Having seen Fosse’s original, I was dubious about the reinterpretation, but was happily blown away by almost every aspect.

Long-run-itis takes a heavy toll on some shows (it did on the original CHICAGO, NINE, and many other shows I’ve seen multiple times.) Maintaining the original impact and excitement of a production is hard, if not impossible. One of the few exceptions in my theatre-going career was A CHORUS LINE, which was in as tip-top shape at the end of its fifteen-year run as it was when I saw it pre-opening (I can’t vouch for what happened in between.)

As PIPPIN prematurely ends its Broadway run:

John Dossett remains perhaps the best character-slash-leading-man in New York, playing every role he does with 100% integrity and consistency; he holds down the fort with his Charlemagne, less campy-winky-nudgy than his predecessor, and he brings out the best in his merry compatriot Charlotte D’Amboise (as he did with Bernadette Peters in GYPSY, doing what I call “Acting For Two” and making her performance seem far better than it was.)

Priscilla Lopez is a fine Berthe and I’m thrilled I got to see her do the part, having seen her 39 years ago in the original A CHORUS LINE in the aforementioned pre-Broadway days. The part is served best by a true yakka-yakka-yakka vaudevillian, but they’re in short supply in 2014; we’ll take the musical comedy legends as and while we can.

I greatly miss Matthew James Thomas in the title role; he was gorgeous, sang like crazy, danced like crazy, had a twinkle in the eye, a sense of the offbeat, and a sincere wistfulness that perfectly complemented the wild circus surrounding him.  One Josh Kaufman plays the role now, and he sings pretty well, goes through his scenes pretty well, dances notably less well – he lacks star quality in both his everyday suburban-guy-at-the-supermarket-cash-register appearance, general energy, and acting chops in terms of vividly relating to his stage family.  You know my shtick: far too few musical theatre performers go to acting class, to the tune of practically none.

Unfortunately I saw an understudy for the Leading Player; I have to cut the gal a break, since it was her first performance in the role, and she certainly gave a creditable rendition of the part; but there’s just no way to have PIPPIN without a true star up front, taking the audience by the throat and threatening to strangle them and throw them into the firepit in the Finale with her/his bare hands.

Some of the production choices bother me more now than originally, partly because of my repeat visits, and partly because new surrounding weaknesses accentuate others.  The heavily truncated, mangled, hurried “War Is A Science” seems as if they could barely be bothered to do it at all, and wanted it over with as quickly as possible – unfortunately unaware that the extended original (available on YouTube and DVD) was one of Bob Fosse’s most ingenious creations ever, and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics were well worth the trouble. Likewise, removing the war-statistics context for the famous “Manson Trio” does it no favors, stripping it of exactly what Fosse was saying (people routinely mistake Fosse for a choreographer, when he was above all a writer, sociologist and social critic.) The heavily reduced orchestra is no asset, despite terrific playing by all, and the expert re-orchestration by the always expert Larry Hochman, forced to do a great deal with a tiny group to work with.

I doubt there’s been a director in the house for some time. It’s subtle; a little loose in pace and electricity. Saddest of all is the change in one of my favorite performances in years, that of Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine; where her original characterization was hugely original, hugely funny, risky, on the edge, but just inside the edge, ultimately moving and bordering on heartbreaking, enlivening the potentially dreary “Act Two” – repetition, a long run, and probably the absence of a director’s return has tipped the scales towards a FORBIDDEN BROADWAY pastiche of her original performance, hugely jokey, over-the-top, exaggerated out of all proportion and outside the show.  And yet – perhaps because her incredible original performance is indelibly imprinted on my mind – when Pippin finally turns to see her in the Finale, and realizes what’s important in life, I still felt a huge gulp in my throat and a tear in the eye, same as when I saw the show in previews and fell apart.  So she’s still got something.  And for that type of moment, I say to PIPPIN: Adieu, and thanks for the memories. 

© 2014 Fred Barton