Play It Again, City Center: As ‘Encores!’ Opens Its 20th Season, a Look Back at the Series’s Most Memorable Revivals

Keeping the musical spirit alive

James Naughton in 'Chicago.'

James Naughton in ‘Chicago.’

In May of 1999, at the cast party that followed the final “Encores!” presentation of Do Re Mi at City Center, Betty Comden and Adolph Green stepped up to the mic—beaming brightly—to thank all the miracle workers who’d made the show happen.

“Adolph and I really never thought we’d see this show again in our lifetime, and here it is,” Ms. Comden confessed with a grand sweep of her left arm, following that up just as quickly with an equally grand sweep of her right arm, “and there it was.”

Such is the fleeting nature of “Encores!” revivals—three shows a year for a half-dozen performances each—but it’s enough to maintain a heartbeat in our musical-theater past (in these atonal times, a priceless gift). “Encores!”—the series’s full name is “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert”—began at City Center in 1994 with a mission to revive old musicals, and in the past two decades, 57 treasures have whizzed past like comets, flaring brightly and then fading.

The good news is that the brief runs enable casting director Jay Binder to use Broadway as his own personal Whitman’s Sampler, choosing the crème de la crème to give their all. Conductors like Rob Fisher and Rob Berman maximize the melodies, and adapters like David Ives chisel the flab from old books.

The very first encore, on Feb. 9, 1994, was Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiorello!—written in honor of Hizzoner, who’d saved City Center from the wrecking ball in the 1940s. And when “Encores!” returns to City Center this week, its three-show run once again opens with Fiorello! (Jan. 30 to Feb. 3), wrapping up 20 years in a nice, neat bow.

Not one of those “Encores!” suckers got by me, I’m pleased to say. Below are my 10 favorites. These may not be great musicals, but they have great scores, and, using the Comden and Green criterion, they are great miracles—bygone shows pulled from the folds of time and put back on a stage for a quick look-see that genuinely warmed the heart. So cue The Most Happy Fella’s “Happy To Make Your Acquaintance,” and away we go …

1. CHICAGO (1996) In the O.J. era, Kander and Ebb’s corrosively funny musical about achieving celebrity through criminality finally found its audience. The original 1975 Broadway production with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach racked up an impressive 11 Tony nominations, but it lost all of them, mostly to A Chorus Line. This “Encores!” resurrection went directly to Broadway in November 1996 and is still playing 6,728 performances later, the longest-running revival of all time and the longest-running American musical ever. (Only Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and Cats have run longer.) Its 1997 Tony retribution included Best Musical Revival, Best Actor (James Naughton), Best Actress (Bebe Neuwirth), Best Choreography (Ann Reinking, recreating Bob Fosse’s style), Best Director (Walter Bobbie) and Best Lighting Design (Ken Billington). The 2002 big-screen version won six Oscars, among them one for Best Picture, which sweetly went all the way back to the show’s original stage producer, Martin Richards. Chicago is the most profound example of “Encores!” giving a richly deserved second hearing to a show in quiet repose.

 

2. CALL ME MADAM (1995) Another songfest, unheard since its original 1950 Broadway run, that got a terrific “Encores!” airing—a real Irving Berlin earful, this one (his last great score). The show was supposedly inspired by the 1949 appointment of Washington party-giver Perle Mesta as ambassadress to Luxembourg, but the original program insisted “neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams nor Miss Ethel Merman resemble any person living or dead.” Tyne Daly, a Tony-winning Mama Rose, again gave the ghost of Merman a good mud-wrestle, and her dueling duet with her thin-reed aide (Lewis Cleale)—“You’re Just in Love”—was raucous fun.

 

3. PROMISES, PROMISES (1997) Again, “Encores!” beat Broadway to the punch in giving a public hearing to a solid-gold score (this one by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). In many respects, this on-book concert edition was superior to the version that eventually did get to Broadway in 2010. For one thing, it had Martin Short, who apparently was doing only Neil Simon-scripted musicals in those days (he was between a Tony nomination for The Goodbye Girl and a Tony for Little Me), but if you’re going to rewrite Billy Wilder, you’d better be Neil Simon. Mr. Simon’s device of having Mr. Short directly address the audience turned Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, on which the show was based, into a real theater piece, and, Lord knows, Mr. Short’s character could stand some audience sympathy, being a sad-sack schnook who makes his corporate ascent by lending his apartment to his bosses for their trysts. For another thing, it had Christine Baranski, on furlough from TV’s Cybill, in a sidesplitting 10 minutes as a barfly pickup. Kerry O’Malley was appealing as the slightly used heroine, Terrence Mann earned his hisses as her married lover, the chief corporate cad, and Dick Latessa got to test-run his subsequently Tony-nominated performance of the bewildered doctor next door.

 

4. DO RE MI (1999) This relic from the days of tailor-made star vehicles was tailored for Phil Silvers. They don’t make ’em like that anymore—show or star—but Nathan Lane, charging forth in comic overdrive and letting the shticks fall where they may, made you forget that. After all, this is the guy who got a Tony for a role that had also won a Tony for Mr. Silvers—and for Zero Mostel. The man knows no fear. He moved across Do Re Mi’s cartoony turf of jukebox racketeering like Nathan Detroit once removed, gingerly delivering “It’s Legitimate.” As his exasperated Mrs., Randy Graff made a game pass at a Nancy Walker facsimile, singing the soaring “Adventure” about her life with him. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Heather Headley, en route to Tonys of their own, handled the romantic subplot neatly. Additional seasoning: Lewis J. Stadlen, Marilyn Cooper, Brad Oscar, Lee Wilkof, Michael Mulheren, Tovah Feldshuh, Noah Racey, John Herrera, Gerry Vichi and “Make Someone Happy.”

 

5. ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (2000) Kristin Chenoweth is also a latter-day one-of-a-kind who can pass for a yesteryear one-of-a-kind. She did the difficult-to-duplicate Barbara Harris twice for “Encores!”—in The Apple Tree, which went to Broadway (if not as effectively), and in this skylarking Lerner and Lane excursion into ESP and reincarnation. When it shuffled to Broadway, it was barely recognizable after a Frankenstein patch-job of the plot. Happily, Ms. Chenoweth’s adorable Daisy Gamble alleviates this thought. It’s a pity she wasn’t around to channel Judy Holliday for the “Encores!” Bells Are Ringing, but she was of some service to the state when the series reprised The New Moon, Music in the Air and Strike Up the Band.

 

6. ST. LOUIS WOMAN (1998) “Encores!” entered a whole new dimension with this heroic resurrection of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s 1946 score (“Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” for starters). Composer Rob Fisher led the charge to the archives and, discovering that the original orchestrations were lost, brought onboard legendary orchestrators Luther Henderson, who handled the dance music, and Ralph Burns, who reorchestrated all the rest. (Another massive, meticulous reconstruction was done on The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke’s big hit in that, “I Can’t Get Started Without You,” seemed somewhat ironic in light of the “Encores!” overhaul it got.) The musty melodrama twirling around St. Louis Woman’s setting—a black gaslight-era saloon peopled with racetrack riffraff—was star-buffed by Vanessa L. Williams, Charles S. Dutton, L. Scott Caldwell, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Victor Trent Cook.

7. ALLEGRO (1994) This is one of two misfires in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon that benefited from an “Encores!” reprise (the other, Pipe Dream, made the cut last year). The R&H craftsmanship was unmistakable, even when the songs were unfamiliar—and there was a real kick in that. Playing against their proven mass appeal, the team swerved in a risky, experimental direction with this show, but what emerged was a stiff, stodgy story of a young doctor (Stephen Bogardus) momentarily blinded by the big bucks of the big city. His grandmother was played barely above a whisper by Celeste Holm in one of her last real stage appearances. Opening night began with the hilarious reminiscences of the original production assistant—then a 17-year-old gofer, now Stephen Sondheim.

 

8. ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (2010) Its original Broadway run lasted nine performances—four more than the sold-out “Encores!” gig, which was the fourth most successful in the series’s history. Chalk that up to the cult that formed around a Sondheim who was then just leaving the starting gate. Adapter Mr. Ives hammered away at the show’s big stumbling block—Arthur Laurents’s annoyingly absurdist book. It centered on a bogus miracle cooked up to save a bankrupt town run (into the ground) by a corrupt mayoress, who comes replete with a backup male quartet; when they eventually evaporate, Donna Murphy collapsed like a rag doll, sobbing “My boys! My boys!” That’s a brain-burning memory, as is Ms. Murphy’s “One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose a Man),” which alone justified the Broadway transfer of Wonderful Town and Ms. Murphy’s subsequent Tony nomination.

 

9. CARNIVAL (2002) Anne Hathaway made an exquisite New York theater debut in this show as the orphaned innocent who mistakes puppets for people—and, like Leslie Caron and Anna Maria Alberghetti before her, got away with it without seeming outrageously gullible or soft-headed. She was matched in the charm department by her puppet playing-partners from Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop. Her live-action co-stars—Brian Stokes Mitchell, Debbie Gravitte, Douglas Sills and David Costabile—enhanced the enchantment. The under-appreciated score includes one of Bob Merrill’s most lilting, “Love Makes the World Go ’Round.”

 

10. BABES IN ARMS (1999) When Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 musical was turned into a film two years later, it became the archetypal Mickey and Judy movie: kids of vaudevillians put on a show in a barn so they won’t be placed in a work farm while their folks are buck-and-winging it all over the provinces. Youth was served in spades by the first R&H: “Where or When,” “Way Out West,” “Johnny One-Note,” “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “My Funny Valentine.” All were devoured with relish and exuberance by such fresh-faced “Encores!” recruits as Erin Dilly, Perry Layton Ojeda, Australia’s David Campbell, Kevin Cahoon and Melissa Rain Anderson. Inside joke: their departing parents were all graduates of A Chorus Line—Priscilla Lopez, Thommie Walsh, Don Correia and Donna McKechnie. All of the above were directed and choreographed in the key of fun by Kathleen Marshall. The absolute capper of the show was a comically combative “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” superbly executed by Jessica Stone and Christopher Fitzgerald.

Writing about “Encores!”, it’s tough to keep a tsunami of wonderful memories at bay.

… What about Pistache, the Parisian chanteuse and café proprietor that Patti LuPone shook the rafters with in Cole Porter’s  Can-Can?

… and that haunting male-choral rendition of “Some Girl Is on Your Mind” in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Sweet Adeline?

… and that boisterous collision of clergymen and hussies, choreographed by Rob Ashford, all of them questioning “How the Money Changes Hands” in Bock and Harnick’s Tenderloin?

… and Jason Danieley’s charming malarkey that heartbreakingly hides a drunken failure of a father in Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? And blowsy Emily Skinner, in the same show, daintily itemizing her first husband’s virtues (“He Had Refinement”)?

Happily, there’s more to come.

editorial@observer.com