I'm not even sure when Scott and Barbara Siegel started the series of Broadway by the Year at Town Hall (four Mondays a year, each devoted to songs from a certain year's shows, starring hot and not so hot performers who are off that night) - I think it was about eight years ago - but it's become one of those unmissable New York things like Encores or losing millions of dollars in mass transit funds out of sheer legislative stupidity. This is on the pleasanter side of the ledger with walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and new ethnic restaurants. (Yohalem's Law: Whenever there's a political crisis anywhere on earth, three new restaurants open in New York.) (I'm saving New York recipes for when I'm forced to flee to Vancouver or the Punjab.)
Where was I? 1954. That's the year displayed last night. You never know when the concert is going to be a triumph or a fizzle - the series has boasted plenty of both. 1929 was a triumph - "How could it not be?" Barbara Siegel scoffed at me. "Two Cole Porter shows! Three Rodgers & Hart shows!" But 1930 was a fizzle, and the same sort of songs were going on. There has to be a balance - I prefer songs I've never (or rarely) heard before (or not in a very long time), and because there is hardly any time to rehearse, the singers tend to prefer songs they already know, which tend to be from well-known shows. If you hit 1945 and you'll get a flood of Carousel. (But that show had Marc Kudisch and Christine Noll doing the complete scene around "If I Loved You" unplugged - every syllable clear as a bell to the top row in that adorable hall). Also, dare I admit it? there are certain performers nowadays whose style drives me crazy. I look forward to Marc Kudisch (who wasn't in this show but will be in the next, 1965, on May 12) but I never look forward to Scott Coulter's high, whiny tenor. My date looked at the program, saw Scott Coulter was singing "I'm Flying" from Peter Pan, and sighed, "He'll turn it into an inspirational ballad with lo-ong drawnout phrases" - which is exactly what SC did. To be fair, it got one of the night's biggest ovations - just not from me. Scott Coulter was the evening's designated director, however, so he didn't have much opportunity to sing. (Good.) 1954 was the year, besides Peter Pan, of Pajama Game - all great songs, but thrice-familiar - for one thing I just saw the revival with Harry Connick and Kelli O'Hara. There were seven songs from PG on the list and five from PP - I was hoping for more from The Golden Apple (favorite show of all true musicals queens, along with She Loves Me) and Fanny (which I barely know) - they only rated two each. House of FLowers and The Boy Friend rated three each, and there were also songs from By the Beautiful Sea and The Girl in Pink Tights.
But the songs are just the groundwork; it's the performances that make or break a Broadway by the Year. The deal is: you cadge or swipe or entreat or acquire or - in extreme cases - buy a ticket, squeeze in, admiring the posters from Town Hall programs of old (Leontyne Price in Coronation of Poppaea in, of all years, 1954! Lotte Lenya and Kirsten Flagstad and Paul Robeson in recital! (Separately.) Political meetings to protest Franco or McCarthy or nukes or Vietnam or segregation - we are in Old Leftie Town home base). Then Scott Siegel appears with a page of factoids from the year in question, including who was born that year - in 1954, he happened to mention, not born but bar mitzvah in Hibbing, Minnesota was Bobby Zimmerman (sound of what sounded like B. Dylan singing Hebrew prayers in his trademark rasp) memorialize Edythe Kenner and tell us who had an accident at the last minute and didn't show up.
Highlights of what then ensued: Jen Cody (tiny, fabulous) and Mark Price (ideal foil) doing "Won't You Charleston With Me" and "Hernando's Hideaway," extremely young Kendrick Jones dancing "Slide Boy Slide" (early steps on a career sure to make him a household name Very Soon), Emily Skinner, mistress of comic ballads, singing "I'd Rather Wake Up By Myself" and (with Mark Price) "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" (she was also lovely in "Once Upon a Time and Long Ago" but the lyrics were inaudible in "You've Got to be a Little Crazy" (and it's a patter no one knows, so we NEED to hear the lyrics), Cheyenne Jackson's "Hey There" and (with Sierra Boggess) "There Once Was a Man" (If you haven't got a couple who can put this duet over as powerhouse as this - don't stage Pajama Game, Paul Schoeffler's "Captain Hook's Waltz" - if you count telecasts, Peter Pan was really the first musical I ever saw (and with Mary Martin and Cyril Richard no less), and every word of the lyrics came back to me - but now I understand them - "Who's the slimiest rat in the pack? Captain Hook! Captain Hook!" Debbie Gravitte was terrific in "I'm Not At All In Love" but far too slow and dreary with "Lazy Afternoon," Sierra Boggess did a fine "Windflowers" (but why no "Goona-Goona"?), Noah Racey and Melinda Sullivan took on the inevitable "Steam Heat." Three 70-year-old men sang "I Won't Grow Up."
Defects: Natalie Belcon, usually a great belter, has not learned that songs with elaborate lyrics require distinct enunciation or they're wasted; and Scott Coulter sang a song cut from Peter Pan, "When I Went Home," making it clear why it didn't fit in that light, enchanting show. This isn't much for levels of tedium - given my druthers, I'd have had them do more from the shows I don't know and "Two Ladies in the Shade of the Banana Tree" from House of Flowers. But 1954 has to rank with 1929 as one of the best shows in the series, and I'm ecstatic to make the acquaintance of Ms. Cody (maybe I'll run over to the Lortel to catch her in Junie and Ms. Boggess (no, I'm not going to Little Mermaid) and catch any gleams of Msdms. Skinner and Gravitte and Messers Jackson, Price, Schoeffler, Racey and - you'll hear about this one A LOT - Kendrick Jones.
A tough ticket getting ever tougher. Hang out around the edges and you might be able to score something. You'll be glad you did.
Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.