City Center's 'Encores!' is worth a party

Linda Winer

Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer. Linda Winer

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday,

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Wow, can it really be nearly 20 years since musical-theater lovers gathered at New York City Center to thrill to a starry concert performance of "Fiorello!" the 1960 Pulitzer winner about legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia?

"Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert," was conceived as a new series of short-run revivals of lost and neglected shows often with dream casts, minimal spectacle and an impeccable respect for musical tradition.

Only the insufferably petty and precise will notice that "Encores!" actually opened in February 1994, which makes the festivities seem just a bit, you know, premature.

But never mind. "Encores!" deserves a party. As Theodore Chapin, who was there at the conception of what became an instant New York institution, says, wincing with disarming candor, "This is the 20th season. It's the world of branding we live in."

However one counts it, this idea seemed so inevitable that, after the first night, I suggested declaring the series a legendary New York tradition. It wasn't long before other cities began their own versions, and, as Chapin sees it, "a bit of a genre" was born.

Concert musicals were not unknown, certainly, when Chapin ran his idea past Judith Dakin, then head of City Center. "Yes, they had been done before," says Chapin, who is, for starters, president and executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization. "But they had never been done very well."

They created an advisory committee of what Chapin calls "really good theater people" (and Dakin affectionately called "musical-theater nuts"). They picked the first three shows -- "Fiorello!" "Allegro" and "Lady in the Dark." They came up with a template that, over 57 productions, has remained remarkably resilient. Walter Bobbie, artistic director of "Encores!" from 1994 to 1996 and director of "Chicago," the series' first Broadway transfer, liked to describe it as "summer stock with the A-team."

Each show is, as Chapin calls it, "a two-week gig." One week goes to rehearsal, one day for dress rehearsal, then six performances. A seventh was added last year. Because the run is so brief, some of the best people are able to sign on. "We can borrow someone from a long-running show," he explains, "or fit into a television schedule."

Many things remain constant, including Jay Binder, the all-important casting director. That means he has been involved in putting Bebe Neuwirth in "Chicago," Patti LuPone in "Gypsy," Nathan Lane in "Do Re Mi" and, in 2002, a 19-year-old Vassar student named Anne Hathaway in "Carnival."

The orchestra, which can have as many as 30 glorious musicians, is always onstage. ("Allegro" put them in the pit, as if in a traditional show. Chapin now vows, "Never again.")

For years, the actors carried scripts, a comfortable reminder of the project's mission. According to Chapin, however, most actors "think carrying the book makes them look like they don't know what they're doing." He says debate about book-no-book has become "a cosmic discussion" around there.

How much production is too much? John Lee Beatty, set designer from the start, established the "Encores!" look as theatrically clear minimalism. Then, directors wanted more and more sets and costumes. Chapin prefers things simple. For "Li'l Abner," Kathleen Marshall (artistic director from 1996 to 2000) had actors in tuxedos with rolled up trousers and bare feet. "Yes, exactly," recalls Chapin. "That said 'It's Dogpatch, but it's a concert.'"

Over the years, there have been inevitable internal controversies. Should the shows be popular or obscure? "Everyone has an opinion ... too popular, too obscure," says Chapin, who says he is "proud that we continue to have a mixture. Some people come to see a particular title. But the ones that look like slam-dunks often are not."

After such Broadway transfers as "Chicago" and "Gypsy," people worried that their success would distort Encores! into a tryout house. Chapin appears to have found peace with the commercial possibilities, "If there is a life after "Encores!" fine. But this is not about pre-Broadway."

Then there were those three summers of extended-run shows. "Gypsy" began in the summer of 2007 before going to Broadway. These days, Chapin is more interested in something he calls "Encores! 2" -- including smaller concert stagings of Off-Broadway musicals.

Today, Jack Viertel is artistic director, Rob Berman is music director and the advisory board disbanded after, as Chapin believes, "it did what there was to do." Chapin is on the board of City Center, where he jokes that he is the "noisiest person about 'Encores!'"

When the series opened, "Fiorello!" was an inspired choice. From the '40s through the '60s, City Center was home to many staged musicals. And LaGuardia, mayor from 1934 to 1945, actually opened the theater himself in 1943. As Arlene Shuler, president and chief executive of City Center, said in a statement, LaGuardia was "the man singularly responsible for saving City Center from the wrecking ball and transforming it into Manhattan's first performing arts center."

Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of "Fiorello!" reminisced with me recently about that first show. He says he had "no idea" that the series would become so important, "but it sounded so appealing, I said 'Absolutely yes.'"

Much of the original book will be restored for this production. There also will be a new musical number in a place he felt always needed one. It was the last thing his collaborator, composer Jerry Bock, set to music before he died.

"Fiorello!" which opened Wednesday, has its last performance tonight. "It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman," the 1966 flop musical that Charles Strouse and Lee Adams based on the comic strip, runs March 20-24. "On Your Toes," the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical that had choreography by George Balanchine, runs May 8-12.

Chapin says there was a time, perhaps eight years after the series began, when people worried that "Encores!" was running out of shows worth a second look. Perhaps that time will come.

For now, however, "Encores!" continues to prove that American musicals -- not just the great ones -- often are more than disposable entertainments that lived and died in somebody else's century. Rather, they are part of a body of work, a repertory to be explored regularly, as we do symphonies and operas, for more than 19 or even 20 years.