Musical Theatre Historian, Kristin Pressley, will lead a discussion before each show to help you view the show from another perspective.
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Classic Conversations from the 2016-17 Broadway Entertainment Series
By Kristin Pressley
It’s hard to study Broadway history without bringing up the star of tonight’s show.
Ben Vereen has been around for decades. Born in October of 1946, he grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and knew at a relatively young age that he wanted to be a performer. He got his chance early - enrolling in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts and studying under the likes of world-renown choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins.
At 21, Vereen was cast in the Broadway company of “Sweet Charity.” Two years later, he won a role in the “Charity” film adaptation, playing opposite Sammy Davis, Jr. The two performers developed a friendship, and Vereen danced with and understudied for Davis in several productions.
This led to leading roles of his own. After dazzling in Broadway’s 1971 production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” Vereen was cast as the Leading Player in Stephen Schwartz’s “Pippin” (a production of this musical is scheduled to visit the Classic Center later this season). For his performance, Vereen won the attention of casting directors across the country. He also won a Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Musical.
The world quickly became his oyster. Film roles were offered, as was a role in the television miniseries “Roots.” For his portrayal of Chicken George, Vereen was Emmy nominated.
Vereen has stayed busy ever since.
The singing, dancing, Tony Award-winning actor is now 69 years old. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down. His schedule is as hectic as it’s ever been.
In addition to prepping tonight’s show for a Thanksgiving week run at Manhattan cabaret 54 Below, Vereen is currently starring in two television series - Fox’s “Making History” (opposite Yassir Lester and Adam Pally) and Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete,” which co-stars Giovanni Ribisi.
He also took a turn as Dr. Everett Scott in Fox’s October remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This adaptation of one of Broadway’s best-beloved hits (1975’s “The Rocky Horror Show”) is the next in a series of stage shows being translated for the small screen - among them “The Sound of Music,” “Grease,” and “The Wiz” with “Hairspray Live!” slated to air on NBC next month.
Vereen, long known as an advocate for arts education, thinks this trend is a great one.
“It becomes another pathway to the arts and allows art to express itself and reach people,” he told Caryn Robbins of BroadwayWorld.com. “What that does is stimulate people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to come to New York to see a Broadway show … so it’ s wonderful thing for the arts.”
Vereen took his outspoken arts advocacy to this summer’s Democratic National Convention where he noted the importance of the arts for professionals in all walks of life.
“I’m not saying everybody’s got to be a song and dance man or an artist …,” he told the Huffington Post. “We need our creative-thinking people in politics, in corporations …”
The actor is committed to doing his part to make that happen. Each year, Vereen sponsors a scholarship competition for students committed to pursuing a career in musical theatre. The Ben Vereen Awards are awarded annually to pupils in San Diego high schools.
Vereen also champions the Wellness Through the Arts program. Available to San Diego students, the program awards young people who are seeking a healthier lifestyle through the arts. Competitors create videos that communicate their feelings on obesity, diabetes (Vereen himself is a Type-2 diabetic), low self esteem, and bullying.
He’s somehow managed to accomplish all of this while keeping a frenetic performance pace. In addition to the roles listed above, Vereen has performed on television, with recurring roles on shows, like “How I Met Your Mother,” Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” The roles that have meant the most to him, however, have been in the shows - “Wicked,” “Chicago,” “Fosse,” and “Hair,” among them - that have beckoned him back to Broadway.
As Vereen said, “Theatre’s my first love. It will always be my first love!”
That’s what prompted the development of tonight’s production. A retrospective of sorts, “Steppin’ Out” looks back at his illustrious career and features a few of his favorite things - singing, dancing, and paying tribute to the greats — like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
According to a New York Times review of the show’s premiere, it’s a not-to-be-missed kind of occasion. “In the tradition of his idol Sammy Davis, Jr., Mr. Vereen is an old-school song and dance man who never lets up,” writes Stephen Holden. “He wins you over with his sheer energy, good will, and showbiz know-how.”
For TheaterMania.com, Brian Scott Lipton takes it even further: “The … star is expending enough energy up there to power all of the Big Apple.”
Prepare to be amazed.
A passionate fan of musical theatre, Kristin Stultz Pressley is a frequent lecturer on Broadway shows and their histories. She earned a doctorate in Theatre from the University of Georgia. Learn more at http://www.DrBroadway.com or by following @DrBway on Twitter.
*Ben Vereen is the godfather of R&B superstar Usher.
*Vereen is a member of the Theatre and Dance Halls of Fame.
By: Kristin Pressley
Each year, more than 50 million tourists visit New York City.
With perennial draws like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Fifth Avenue window displays, and ice skating rinks at Central Park and Rockefeller Center, it’s no surprise that the number of guests hits a fever pitch in November and December, as revelers from everywhere flock to experience Christmas in the City.
The theatre, of course, is part of the draw, as well. If there were any question as to whether or not the industry stands ever-ready to meet audience demand for holiday offerings, consider this:
Broadway is a billion dollar enterprise annually. Its theatres routinely turn in their highest grosses of the year in the weeks just before and just after Christmas. Last year alone, the Broadway League reported that the 40-some theatres making up the Great White Way turned in receipts of more than $43 million for the last week of the 2015. Outside of the five-week holiday window (Thanksgiving through New Year’s), the week whose gross came closest was the last week of March when Spring Break’ers dropped $31 million to see the dozens of shows onstage.
In response to this demand, Broadway has historically supplied shows like “A Christmas Carol,” “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular,” and—this year’s smash hit—“Holiday Inn.” Merry musicals have become as anticipated a tradition as the Macy’s Parade.
It’d probably please a compulsive snuggler like Buddy to know that his “Elf” fits cozily into this milieu.
Adapted from the 2003 film, which starred Will Ferrell in one of his first films after a seven year stint on “Saturday Night Live,” the show was intended to run from November through New Year’s. Producers envisioned it’d recoup its investment with short-runs annually for five years.
Instead, the show spent two Christmases on Broadway (where it broke box office records at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre), one in London’s West End, and the last five on the road by way of several national touring companies.
Bob Martin co-wrote the book of the show with Thomas Meehan. Martin, a Canadian writer/performer who won the 2006 Tony Award for the script of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” was originally invited to audition for the iconic role of Buddy the Elf. Minutes into his reading of the script, however, he knew he wasn’t right for the part.
“I said to them, ‘I really can’t play this part. I’m too old,’” Martin told Richard Ouzounian of The Toronto Star. “There’s way too much singing and dancing involved, and it’s going to be a really athletic performance.”
Still, director / choreographer Casey Nicholaw and his creative team liked the ideas Martin suggested for the script; they invited him to work with Meehan on the script instead.
Meehan, a three-time Tony Award winner with ten Broadway shows under his belt, says the character that Martin felt himself “too old” to play, is precisely what attracted him to the piece in the first place.
“[Buddy] has exactly what I look for,” Meehan said in a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair. “I want a central character who’s bigger than life, a singular character whose story you follow.”
Having written for characters like Little Orphan Annie (“Annie”), Max Bialystock (“The Producers”), and Rocky Balboa (“Rocky the Musical”), Meehan has gotten that chance on more than one occasion. In “Elf,” that central character is bolstered by the music of Matthew Sklar (composer) and Chad Beguelin (lyricist).
Together, the pair penned the songs for the musical adaptation of “The Wedding Singer,” as well as the Broadway-bound “The Prom.” When lead producer Mark Kaufman approached them with the idea for a musical “Elf,” they couldn’t say, “Yes” fast enough.
“It was just so great, because Buddy’s singing throughout the movie. It’s just so musical,” Beguelin said in an interview with Broadway.com. “You never feel like it’s artificial for these characters to sing …there were all of these great ways to integrate music into the storytelling.”
The story told is largely the same one that David Berenbaum wrote for the film. There are a few changes - Papa Elf is replaced by Santa Claus as the narrator of the piece; brother Michael doesn’t bond with Buddy over a Central Park snowball fight but a science fair project, instead - but for the most part, fans of the film will see their favorite moments; they’ll just be translated to the stage and set to some of the Great White Way’s most merry-making music.
“It was all about creating up-tempo, catchy, kind of jingly songs,” said Sklar. “… everything should feel like it would fit right into a holiday Christmas sampler but still function as a musical theatre song.”
Director Sam Scalamoni, whose “Beauty and the Beast” visited the Classic Center last season, has reimagined Nicholaw’s Broadway production for the national tour. It remains largely the same; his primary changes serve to make the show more accessible to non-New York audiences the tour will see as it crosses the country.
The result is a production that The New York Times called, “A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment.”In other words, if “smiling’s your favorite,” “Elf” is the musical for you.
By Kristin Pressley
January 8th was Elvis Presley’s birthday. Had the undisputed King of Rock and Roll lived to celebrate the day, he’d have turned 81 years old. Still, even 40 years since Presley’s death, there was much to celebrate on that day just a little over one week ago.
Perhaps the most auspicious cause for celebration is the legacy Presley left. His musical career was unparalleled in its success. In addition to earning gold, platinum, or multi-platinum honors for 150 different albums and singles, Presley starred in 31 feature films. He’s also the only solo artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many entertainers attempt to recreate his iconic stage presence. “Elvis impersonators” - amateurs who perform as Presley as a hobby or at social gatherings - have existed, since very early in the King’s career.
Carl “Cheesie” Nelson was one of the first. As early as 1954, the talented Texan performed his Presley-esque routine to warm up an audience before a Texarkana concert. Presley was so impressed that, to squeals of delight from the audience, he kept Nelson onstage to sing a duet. The two remained friends for years to come.
As the years went by, many others followed Nelson’s lead. In the 1970s, comedian Andy Kaufman even impersonated Presley as part of his act (Presley is rumored to have said Kaufman was his favorite mimic). After Presley’s death, an entire industry exploded around copying the King.
Ten years later, Edward “Doc” Franklin, a Memphis veterinarian and nightclub owner who’d cared for Presley’s animals, thought it might draw a crowd if he were to host a contest for these performers at his Bad Bob’s club. 30 of Presley’s impersonators showed up for that first “Images of Elvis” (as it was called) competition.
Presley’s fans came, too. Franklin’s widow remembers beer trucks in the club’s parking lot to compensate for the high-demand on the bar. The event was such a success that promoters in other cities decided to follow suit.
The so-called “Super Bowl” of these events is the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, or “the Ultimate” to those in the business. “The Ultimate” began in 2007 and is the contest officially-sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises. Another distinction of the Ultimate is that its contestants are all Elvis Tribute Artists. As opposed to “impersonators,” who are amateurs, “Tribute Artists” are those who perform as the King professionally.
It’s winners of “The Ultimate” who play the parts of Elvis Presley in tonight’s show. Dean Z, Jay Dupuis, and Bill Cherry, each of whom portray Presley at different points of his career, are all past winners of the international competition.
Sponsored by Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., the contest judges contestants in the areas of Vocals, Style, Stage Presence, and Overall Performance, and to the victor go some pretty stellar spoils. The winner of the 2017 contest will win not only the title of “Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist,” but he’ll also go home with a $20,000 cash prize and a contract to perform with Legends in Concert.
Legends, with 20 venues in places like Las Vegas, New York, and Waikiki, is known for its spectacular tribute-style concerts recreating the acts of iconic performers like Dolly Parton, Elton John, and, of course, the King.
The show premiered in Las Vegas in 1983. Intended to run for a limited, six week engagement, its astounding success has kept it running the more than thirty years since, making it the longest-running, independently-owned production show in Las Vegas history. The show played Broadway in 1989 and has toured to fifteen countries on five continents.
Legends in Concert partners with Elvis Presley Enterprises to produce tonight’s show. Entering its seventh year, “Elvis Lives” recaps Presley’s life, focusing on four epochs of his career. Tribute Artists recreate his performances in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as in his movie career and later concert years.
Added to the live performances of the three Tribute Artists are performers who portray Ann Margret and others. With a live band, a company of dancers, and rarely-seen video provided from Graceland’s archives, “Elvis Lives” is a must-see for any fan of the King.
It also fits perfectly into the popular trend of creating “bio-musicals” that use an artist’s music catalog to tell the story of his or her life.
One of the most popular of these - and the one credited with spawning so many others - is Broadway’s “Jersey Boys.” Earlier this week, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical closed after telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons nearly 5,000 times, since it opened on Broadway in November of 2005.
“Beautiful: the Carole King Musical” and “On Your Feet,” the story of Latin music superstars Emilio and Gloria Estefan, are currently running on Broadway. Some of these, like those listed above, take on a traditional “book musical” shape. They have a full script set to sounds of the familiar music.
Others, like “Love, Janis” (about the life of Janis Joplin) and “Hank Williams’ Lost Highway,” come in a somewhat different form. They’re “musical experiences,” closer akin to multimedia concerts.That’s where “Elvis Lives” fits in to the genre. Like “Rain,” the Beatles tribute that visited the Classic Center in April of 2015, “Elvis Lives” is sure to appeal to any and all who get “All Shook Up” at the sound of Presley’s unmatched body of work.
By Kristin Pressley
These days, there is no shortage of blockbuster films that have been adapted for the Broadway stage. Broadway’s current roster features big-screen gems, like “School of Rock,” “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” and the soon-to-open “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.” Each of these made big-time box office hay before premiering on the Great White Way.
This reverses the long-held tradition of converting successful musicals into film form; it makes sense, though. As Broadway budgets grow bigger and bigger—the average musical costs between $8 and $12 million to get on its feet—producers feel more comfortable investing in titles that are familiar to audiences.
By the same token, audiences are feeling the cash crunch, as well. The average price for a ticket to a Broadway show is well over $100. Investing so heavily in their entertainment often causes patrons to prefer a sure thing, as well.
These economic realities have created a perfect storm wherein producers are seeking what they hope will be a familiar (read: bankable) enough story to pull wallets out of the pockets of theatregoers who are being asked to pay handsomely for an evening out on the town.
Every now and then, though, someone is willing to take a risk. That’s the case with tonight’s show.
“Once the Musical” started out as “Once” the film - the largely improvised, Irish independent film with its measly $150,000 budget. It starred Glen Hansard and Merketa Irglova. Together, the two made up the musical duo The Swell Season, and as such, they wrote all of the music for the film (and, by extension, the musical). It was shot over the course of 17 days with a couple of Handy Cams and premiered in 2007.
Instantly—and to the surprise of everyone involved—the accolades came. The film won both the 2007 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film and the Academy Award for Best Original Song (“Falling Slowly”). It also won the love of audiences, building a cult following with those who helped it to gross $20 million in ticket sales.
While that $20 million certainly made a hefty return on the film’s original investment, it was hardly the massive success of other films that were converted into musicals. For instance, “Legally Blonde,” Hollywood’s 2001 smash that became a Broadway musical in 2007, grossed $141 million. “Aladdin” raked in $217 million at the cinema, while “The Lion King” movie earned nearly a half billion in ticket sales. Obviously, “Once” didn’t fit the “blockbuster” bill as most film-to-stage adaptations do.
Still, something about the film resonated with English stage director John Tiffany (Tiffany more recently directed the West End production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”). The power of Hansard and Irglova’s music transfixed him, as did the images in the film, which evoked vivid memories of his childhood and his father, an amateur musician.
Tiffany then engaged Irish playwright Enda Walsh. “If you’re writing a play about Dublin,” Tiffany told one reporter, “[He’s] the guy who writes it.” Initially, Walsh resisted. Tiffany, however, persisted, convincing Walsh to spend two days working on the play with him. As they did— listening to the music and brainstorming ideas for the eventual musical—Walsh changed his mind.
He cites two reasons for his change of heart: first, he saw his home city of Dublin as having been hard hit by a recession; a play, he thought, could be his love letter to his beloved home. Secondly, he truly believed that everyone could relate to the story of unrequited love.
With both a director and playwright in place, Tiffany and Walsh set out to sign a third member to their creative team. They set their sights on choreographer Steven Hoggett. Hoggett and Tiffany had grown up together in England; they’d met in youth choir and bonded over a shared affinity for music videos. Tiffany told Hoggett of the project. When Hoggett watched the film, his answer was a resounding, unequivocal, “NO.” He was unsure of how to choreograph such an understated story.
Tiffany’s response was to challenge his mate. He suggested the unknown alone was reason enough to take on the project, adding, “If we only did things we know how to do, it’d be boring.”
Thus convinced, Hoggett signed on.
The show was developed at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the Spring of 2011. Soon after, it transferred to the New York Theatre Workshop and opened at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on March 18, 2012.
Just as its celluloid sibling had been, “Once the Musical” was both a critical and box office darling. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 8, including the one for Best Musical. When it closed in January of 2015, it’d played nearly 1200 performances.
Also like its film sister, “Once the Musical” made easy work of recouping its $5.5 million investment. Not only did the show turn profitable—only about 3 in 10 Broadway shows achieve that milestone—but it did so in less than six months, which, according to producers, happened “faster than any Tony Award-winning Best Musical in more than a decade.”
Not surprisingly, the success of “Once” got the attention of other stage producers. Suddenly, they saw that films didn’t necessarily need to bring box office gusto to the table. They simply needed a relatable story and engaging music. As a result, under-the-radar, independent film offerings, like “Kinky Boots” (a 2005 film turned 2013’s Best Musical), “Waitress” (a 2007 film and 2016 Best Musical nominee), and the soon-to-open “Amelie” (2001’s irresistible French film) were opening alongside well-known titles, like “Groundhog Day,” which premieres in three weeks.
Steve Kazee, who won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance of Guy, described the show this way to playbill.com: “We’re going to be the one show on Broadway that’s very different from all the other shows, and I think that’s a good selling point for us.”
By Kristin Pressley
Tonight’s “Pippin” comes to The Classic Center by way of its 2013 Tony Award winning revival. Directed by Diane Paulus, the Broadway production of “Pippin” was actually just another stage in the development of a show that composer / songwriter Stephen Schwartz has been working on for most of his career.
The idea came to Schwartz when he was a teenager. It was the mid-1960s, and he and some Carnegie Mellon University classmates saw a production of James Goldman’s play “The Lion in Winter,” which tells the story of Christmas 1183 in the court of King Henry II.
In response, Schwartz and company decided to write a spin-off. They’d focus—very, very loosely—on the family of another medieval king—that of Charles the Great, whose teenaged son Pippin became the vehicle through which Schwartz grappled with many of the same issues he found himself facing in the turmoil of a changing America.
“Pippin, Pippin,” as it was called then, was originally performed by Carnegie Mellon’s Scotch n’ Soda Theatre Troupe. Schwartz, who later went on to write such musical mainstays as ““Wicked” (2003), sensed he had a story worth sticking with.
So he did.
Even so, Schwartz also continued working on other projects. His first off-Broadway show, “Godspell,” opened in 1970. A musicalization of the biblical parables of Jesus Christ, “Godspell” enjoyed a very robust four year run and captured the attention of producers on the hunt for the next big musical theatre composer.
When producers approached him for more material, Schwartz, by then a graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious theatre program, presented the idea of “Pippin, Pippin.” They liked what they heard but suggested some significant revisions to the script. By the time those changes were made, the show needed a mostly-new score, as well.
The resulting piece — now called “The Adventures of Pippin” —told the story of a man (Pippin) trying to find meaning in life while traveling with a commedia dell’arte troup.
Bob Fosse, fresh from his Academy Award winning film of “Cabaret,” was hired to direct. Known for darker works - his production of “Chicago” would premiere just a few years later - Fosse found Schwartz’s work to be too sentimental. Fosse agreed to direct only if he could significantly rewrite the show.
Knowing that Bob Fosse’s name on the marquee would mean big things for the box office, the producers agreed. Fosse took over what became “Pippin,” making it a very dark, very sinister, very sexual story. He also developed the character of the Leading Player, a role played by Ben Vereen in a Tony Award-winning turn.
Though drastically different from Schwartz’s original vision (according to Schwartz, not a single line or note from the original show remains in it today), the re-worked - and re-named - “Pippin” was perfect for increasingly cynical Broadway audiences in the early 1970s. The show opened in 1972.
It was a hit.
In addition to its popular success, it also met with critical acclaim. “Pippin” won five Tony Awards and ran for nearly 2000 performances before it closed in 1977.
Schwartz’s experience with Fosse’s revisions, however, left him somewhat disillusioned with the Broadway process. After its Broadway run, Schwartz took out most of Fosse’s changes and restored the piece to a much earlier version. It is that “Pippin” that has been so frequently produced on the community theatre circuit.
Over the years, Schwartz was approached dozens of times about a Broadway revival of “Pippin.” He never agreed. Schwartz didn’t want a simple reproduction of the original and, he said, the performance by Ben Vereen and direction by Bob Fosse were so iconic that it’d take monumental performances to overcome them.
So for nearly 35 years, “Pippin” never saw the bright lights of the Great White Way.
Enter Diane Paulus.
Artistic Director of the America Repertory Theatre in Boston, Paulus had seen the original production of “Pippin” as a ten year old girl growing up in New York. She never forgot it. After graduating from Harvard and the Columbia University School of the Arts, Paulus had gone on to Broadway acclaim of her own by re-envisioning American classics like “Hair” (2011) and “Porgy & Bess” (2012).
Next on her wishlist of works to recreate was “Pippin.” Paulus had been looking for an excuse to work with Seven Fingers, a Montreal-based circus group that had spun off from Cirque du Soleil. She remembered that show she’d loved as a little girl and thought that the circus analogy was perfect for the world of “Pippin.” Where Fosse had used an acting troupe, Paulus envisioned circus performers.
Schwartz himself had thought of the circus analogy, too. He didn’t think it would work, though, so when Paulus approached him with her idea, he didn’t immediately buy in.
The more he familiarized himself with her work, however, the more he began to believe she could make it work. When he saw the way she’d given new life to “Hair,” the partnership became official.
Together, Paulus and Schwartz created a hybrid “Pippin” that features pieces of each stage of the show’s nearly 50 years of development. They changed Fosse’s ending to one that Schwartz felt was more true to the story. They made the Leading Player a female in order to cut down on comparisons with Ben Vereen, and they carefully paid homage to Fosse’s work without totally replicating it in their choreography.Their formula was a winning one. The production won four Tony Awards, ran for more than 700 performances, and introduced a whole new generation to the journey of “Pippin.”