Thursday, August 29, 2013

Broadway Babies/Broadway Belters

As technology allows users to experience the same digital content on a variety of platforms (telephones, televisions, tablets, laptops, and desktops), it helps us to understand how a song remains vital and alive in popular culture. The archival power of YouTube allows researchers from multiple generations to view, analyze, and critique performances from yesteryear while being able to observe how different artists use their craft and humanity to color a lyric or shape an emotional catharsis.

To see how this works, let's examine a series of clips in which a variety of performers sing a particular song. One of the hits to emerge from Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies, was "Broadway Baby" (which is sung by the character of Hattie Walker, a veteran actress and former showgirl).

Born in 1896, Ethel Shutta introduced the song to audiences at the age of 74 when Follies had its New York premiere at the Winter Garden Theatre (where Shutta had appeared in her first Broadway show in 1922). Her personal history was perfectly in tune with the nostalgia of Follies. Not only had Shutta toured with her family in vaudeville, she appeared in several shows produced by the great Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and the Shuberts.

Starting at about the 3:00 mark in the following video clip, you can see Shutta performing "Broadway Baby" (which stopped the show at each performance during the show's run).

Follies has had numerous revivals in concert form as well as fully-staged productions. Here's Mimi Hines (who replaced Barbra Streisand in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl) singing "Broadway Baby" in the 2007 revival produced for the New York City Center's popular Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert series.

Sometimes a song will be performed by a famous singer who has appeared in numerous Broadway productions or who chooses to incorporate the number into her concert or cabaret act.  Here's Bernadette Peters (who took on the role of Sally Durant Plummer in the 2011 Kennedy Center production of Follies that subsequently transferred to Broadway) singing "Broadway Baby" in concert.

And finally, here is the legendary Elaine Stritch (who sang "Broadway Baby" in the 1985 staged concert performances of Follies with the New York Philharmonic) performing the number in London during a performance of Elaine Stritch: At Liberty at the Old Vic Theatre.

Two veteran Broadway performers recently appeared at Feinstein's at the Nikko. Each bears the curious distinction of having made Broadway history with the introduction of a specific musical number -- the kind of totemic song identification which open doors and follows a performer throughout her career. Curiously, both women appeared together in the 1996 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical, State Fair that starred John Davidson.

Although each woman performed a musical set that had been tailored for a previous engagement at New York's popular new cabaret venue, 54 Below, both singers received a warm and welcoming embrace from Bay area fans.

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I originally became aware of Donna McKechnie by seeing her perform in Broadway productions of 1961's How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1968's The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and Promises, Promises, 1970's Company, and the 1971 revival of On The Town.  The author of Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life also toured in productions of West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Call Me Madam, Sweet Charity, State Fair, and Annie Get Your Gun.

Although McKechnie (who won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Cassie in A Chorus Line) has always been hailed as a muscular, high-energy dancer, some people forget that she's also been quite a belter. Having worked with such Broadway legends as Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon (who taught her the role of Charity Hope Valentine), she was often considered to have been Michael Bennett's muse. In the following three clips, she can be seen performing Bennett's choreography to music by three great American composers: Burt Bacharach, Stephen Sondheim, and Marvin Hamlisch.

Now 72, McKechnie brought her Same Place -- Another Time act to San Francisco, performing such classics as Where or When (Rodgers and Hart), "I Got Lost in His Arms" (Irving Berlin), "Time in a Bottle" (Jim Croce), and "At the Ballet" (A Chorus Line). Lesser known songs included Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" (from Saturday Night) and "Uptown-Downtown" (from the London production of Follies), "I Never Know When To Say When" (from 1958's Goldilocks), and "Hate/Love New York" (Portia Nelson).

Many of her selections were tied to a theme of being an "all or nothing" type of romantic, whose choices were always passionate and idealized, if not necessarily wise. I was particularly impressed with a medley of Carole Bayer Sager's poignant "You're Moving Out Today" and "Where Do You Start?" Perhaps the most touching part of the evening was her description of meeting lifelong idol, Fred Astaire (in 1996, McKechnie was awarded the Fred Astaire Award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in State Fair).

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Andrea McArdle's career started off with a bang in 1977 when she replaced Kristen Vigard during rehearsals for the Broadway-bound musical, Annie. After belting out "Tomorrow" from the stage of the Alvin Theatre (where, 47 years prior, Ethel Merman had stunned Broadway during the opening night of Girl Crazy), McArdle became inextricably linked to that song. She also became the youngest performer ever to be nominated for the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

During her "70s and Sunny" show, she relates how, several years later, while appearing with Carol Channing and Leslie Uggams in Jerry's Girls, Channing explained how lucky McArdle was to have had a hit song that she could call her own. McArdle has since appeared in numerous Broadway shows, ranging from The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, and Les Misérables, to Annie Get Your Gun, Starlight Express and Mame.

In a career that has included working with Liberace and appearing on Welcome Back, Kotter, McArdle's voice has continued to mature without losing its power. Highlights from her nightclub act include "Being Alive" (from 1971's Company), "Wherever He Ain't" (from 1974's Mack and Mabel),"Nothing" (from 1977's A Chorus Line),"Fallin'" from 1979's They're Playing Our Song, and "Meadowlark" (from 1989's The Baker's Wife).

Poster art for Andrea McArdle's 70's and Sunny show

Accompanied on piano by Steve Marzullo, McArdle also performed a handful of popular songs from the 1970s that had a deep impact on her in her youth, including "Angry Young Men" (Billy Joel), "Rainy Days and Mornings" (The Carpenters), "I Believe in Love" (Hot Chocolate), "I Can Let Go Now" (Michael McDonald), and "Tomorrow (A Better You, A Better Me)" by The Brothers Johnson.

Having appeared as the young Judy Garland in Rainbow (NBC's 1978 made-for-television movie), McArdle sang a touching medley of "The Trolley Song" and "Over the Rainbow" for her encore.

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