By Samuel Leiter
The wind-chill factor may have been zero degrees outside on Monday night, but numerous dyed-in-the-wool Broadway musical theater fans, who may that morning have complained, “Oh, How I Hate to Get up in the Morning, ” nonetheless thought it worth their while to “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag” and “Charleston” over to the Town Hall to hear two dozen singers “Say It with Music” in the latest edition of the popular Broadway by the Year series.
To paraphrase one of the evening’s songs, Porgy and Bess’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So, ” brilliantly performed by Chuck Cooper, “Little Scott was small, but oh my, ” by which I mean Scott Siegel, the bantam-sized impresario who has been creating, producing, and hosting these one-off musical revues at the Town Hall for 15 years. For his latest edition, the indefatigable Siegel once more rounded up a stellar company of established and rising theater and cabaret stars, supplemented by a well-drilled, nine-member chorus singing in perfect harmony under the musical direction of Ross Patterson at the piano, with Randy Landau on bass and Jamie Eblen on drums. Mindy Cooper provided the spot-on direction and choreography.
Instead of devoting the evening to the outstanding Broadway songs of a single year, this edition offered a cornucopia of a single song from every year between 1916 and 1940, most of them familiar gems, but some less well known, like “No, You Can’t Have My Heart, ” from 1938’s You Never Know, scintillatingly sung by Emily Skinner, to which was added a “bonus” number featuring Skinner and powerful baritone William Michals performing “It Never Was” from 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday.
The year-by-year agenda means that some great shows aren’t represented, so when 1927 rolled around, the audience rejoiced to “The Varsity Drag, ” from Good News, superbly sung and danced by Danny Gardner and Aleka Emerson, but Show Boat was nowhere to be found. This was a tiny price to pay for an evening that packed in 27 songs, presented chronologically, with Siegel at a podium linking one to the other with brief and witty historical commentary.
Very few show tunes become part of the popular music environment anymore. It’s hard to conceive of a year-by-year compilation revue covering 1991 to 2015 in which the average audience would be as familiar with the selections as the (admittedly senior) audience at the Town Hall was with these numbers by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and so many others. Here, for example, were “Somebody Loves You” from George White’s Scandals of 1924, sung by Liz Larsen ; “The St. Louis Blues” from Blackbirds of 1928, sung by Lumiri Tubo; “More Than You Know” from Great Day (1929), sung by Nancy Anderson; “Body and Soul” from Three’s a Crowd (1930), sung by Carole J. Bufford; “The Thrill Is Gone” from George White’s Scandals of 1931, sung by Tonya Pinkins; “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorce (1932), sung by Stephen Bogardus; “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from Roberta (1933), sung by Maxine Linehan; “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes (1934), sung by Karen Mason; and on and on.
This is a straightforward show, with few frills, in which one singer after the other enters, sings their heart out, and demonstrates not only the richness of our musical theater past but the enormous depth of our musical performing talent today. Broadway by the Year will follow up with its next edition on March 30, when the musical highlights of 1941-1965 will be featured. I’m already wondering what shows will be represented: Lady in the Dark? Oklahoma!? One Touch of Venus? Carousel? Annie Get Your Gun? And that takes us only to 1946!
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).