For 20 years, the Encores! series of concert revivals has been its own special time machine. For three short weeks spread over each season, audiences at New York City Center have been offered trips back to experience some of the great, the interesting and the merely old musicals from Broadway's history.
But you know all that. What we're just about to get to know is Encores! Off-Center, a ridiculously enticing summer offspring that intends to do the same for smaller, but perhaps equally significant, shows that have shaped our musical sensibilities in Off-Broadway and experimental spaces.
I mean as enticing as "The Cradle Will Rock" (Wednesday through Saturday), Marc Blitzstein's legendarily inflammatory 1937 labor musical directed by a 22-year-old wunderkind named Orson Welles, produced by John Houseman and funded -- until it wasn't -- by the Federal Theatre Project. When the House Un-American Activities Committee shut down the project and put guards at the door, the company marched the audience to a bare theater and, so as not to defy the unions by getting onstage, the actors performed from the house.
I mean as irresistible as Sutton Foster in a one-night-only (July 17) look back at "Violet," Jeanine Tesori's first musical. The haunting chamber piece had just a limited run at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, but won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and marked Tesori as one of the theater's most original new composers.
And I mean as shimmering with memories of "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" (July 24-27), the seminal Gretchen Cryer-Nancy Ford hear-me-roar musical of 1978, about a 39-year-old singer who attempts a pop comeback with personal songs about the changing roles for women.
Oh, and before each performance, there will be 45-minute conversations and performances, called the Lobby Project, by all sorts of unexpected and fascinating people. Events before "Cradle" include rarely heard vocal works by Blitzstein and an inspired-sounding playlet in which Cherry Jones and Lisa Kron tell the story of the historic opening night from the differing perspectives of Blitzstein and Houseman. One night before "Act," Idina Menzel talks about an arts camp she co-created for girls from underserved communities.
And before I forget, I should mention that almost all tickets are $25. And Lobby Project events are free to ticket holders.
If I sound unreasonably optimistic about an inaugural season of a series that hasn't even opened, so be it. My trust comes from the musical choices and from a Lobby Project schedule so ambitious that it deserves its own column.
Most of all, I'm encouraged by what appears to be the splendid decision to hire Tesori to run the show. The composer's work spans sensibilities as varied as her serious Tony Kushner collaboration, "Caroline, or Change," and the scores for "Shrek" and (Foster's debut) "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
"We're trying to accomplish a lot," she understates in a recent phone interview. When approached about the job two years ago, "I said let's go for a lot of things. I've had scrambled eggs on my face before. Let's just see what happens."
Although she got her music degree from Barnard College and Columbia University, she says she "went to graduate school Off-Broadway. I moved here in 1979 and saw all the shows at La MaMa and the Public, time and time again. I feel like I was waiting for an opportunity to show these things I love to other people. I wanted to study them and hear them again -- live, not on recordings."
Chris Fenwick, music director of "Cradle" and "Act," says he isn't surprised by the scope of Tesori's debut as a producer of such a high-profile series. "She is so politically passionate, so aware. She is connected with her time and with the history of the culture and the country."
Fenwick appreciates more than the political backstory of "Cradle," which stars Danny Burstein, Raul Esparza, Judy Kuhn, Anika Noni Rose and many others. "The text of the show and the score are so powerful," he says, "They're incredibly relevant, but not in a pat way. They really could be about our current American moment."
Besides, what he calls the "boot camp" schedule of the series feels right at home with the musical. As he sees it, "The urgency of the approach matches the urgency of the show."
For Cryer, the timing is also right for another look at this popular piece of women's theater. "When I was growing up, the possibilities for a woman were to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary," she says. "The deal was to get married right away, work to put your husband through graduate school, then go home and have babies."
So how is this relevant today? She says she and co-creator Ford had worried the show would be passe, but were surprised at a recent revival that "it really resonated with young women. These days, they can be CEOs and lawyers -- and, yes, even run an arts festival. But the emotional issues between men and women really don't seem to have changed. We'll see how these audiences respond. It's an interesting experiment."
For all the experimental aspects of the new series, this one will be structured much like the old one. The orchestra will still be onstage, with an emphasis on fidelity to the original music. After a week of rehearsals, there will be one dress rehearsal and five performances -- ideally with the most perfect casts that can find two free weeks between TV, movies and long-running shows.
Everyone will carry scripts because, as Tesori insists, "I don't want anyone pretending this was more than a two-week commitment. I don't care what's memorized. I care that we can't second-guess ourselves because there isn't time."
Otherwise, she says, there are no real rules. Of course, as we both know, that is lot harder than it sounds.
WHAT Encores! Off-Center presents "The Cradle Will Rock" July 10-13; "Violet," July 17; "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" July 24-27
INFO New York City Center, 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org