Revisiting My Past Through Encores!
By DANIEL GUSS
Tuesday, February 11, 2020  •  
Tue Feb 11, 2020  •  
Musicals  •   0 comments Share This
"Revisiting old favorites does offer rewards, since they serve as musical time machines."

Often at City Center's signature series, I find myself time traveling…

"Well, I saw the original production…"

It was inevitable that I would utter those words at City Center's Encores!, a series that puts rarely revived musicals back in the spotlight. It happened for the first time in 1996, during Encores!' third season, with its staging of Chicago, which ended up transferring to Broadway where it's still playing today. It happened again the following year with Promises, Promises. After that, my budding Methuselah complex got a reprieve for a few seasons. However, as Encores! trains its chronological searchlights closer to the end of the 20th century, I sound increasingly like a broken record—a reference which only serves to reinforce my advancing theatrical senescence. Of course, revisiting old favorites does offer rewards, since they serve as musical time machines, enabling me to recall previous selves.

Within the Encores! repertoire choices over the past 26 seasons is a subset of revisits that transported me back to one specific time in my life: senior year of high school. In a two-month period that year, I saw No, No, Nanette, Follies and 70, Girls, 70, all shows that juxtaposed the present with the past in content and cast, to varying degrees. The Encores! productions overlaid more perspective on each.

I saw No, No, Nanette because of a close friend who loved nostalgia. While watching the production I decided I loathed nostalgia; later I came to realize what I actually loathed—or rather, didn't understand—was camp. (As for nostalgia… well, look at me now.) Ruby Keeler (who starred) and Busby Berkeley (who supervised the production) held no significance for me then, though I was happy to make the acquaintance of Helen Gallagher, Bobby Van, Patsy Kelly and the incomparable Jack Gilford. Encores! assembled a cast that included Sandy Duncan, Beth Leavel, Charles Kimbrough and Rosie O'Donnell, all with their own rich theatrical associations that carried me into the realm of nostalgia.

Mara Davi and cast of
Mara Davi and cast of 'No, No Nanette' at Encores!

I had to see Follies because Stephen Sondheim's previous show, Company, had changed my life. After Company's miraculous opening number, I was expecting a similar coup de théâtre in Follies, and it duly arrived with "Who's That Woman?," immeasurably enhanced by Michael Bennett's spectacular staging. During all the revivals of Follies I've attended, the original "mirror number" (as "Who's That Woman?" has come to be known) has returned to me in all its glittering glory to outshine its successors. Still, the Encores! cast (Victoria Clark, Victor Garber, Michael McGrath, Donna Murphy, Christine Baranski, Mimi Hines, Jo Anne Worley and many others) did ample justice to the fecundity of Sondheim's score, and the musicians, playing Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, helped to transport me back to 1971.

70, Girls, 70 was short-lived in its original run but has one of the richest scores in the Kander-and-Ebb canon. Like Follies, 70, Girls, 70 introduced me to a number of performers who may have inspired nostalgia in mature audience members  (Mildred Natwick, Lillian Ross and Hans Conried, whom at least I had heard of thanks to his having hosted the television program Fractured Flickers). By the time Encores! got around to 70, Girls, 70, I certainly felt mature watching Olympia Dukakis gamely take on Natwick's role alongside such veterans as Bob Dishy, Anita Gillette, Charlotte Rae and that great trouper, George S. Irving, whose showstopping number "The Caper" created a memory to stand in tandem with the indefatigable Mr. Conried.

Some revisits have touched on multiple moments in my life—Chicago, for example. I fell in love with Gwen Verdon at the tender age of 11 via the original cast recording of Damn Yankees. Long before I ever saw her dance, I loved the dance in her voice. I discovered the album in a roundabout way: I played Applegate in my all-boys summer camp production of Damn Yankees, and because our Lola was a counselor with a voice that made Harvey Fierstein sound like Jeanette MacDonald, he lip-synced his musical numbers to the recording. (At least he had a few moves and looked good in a dress.) When I was 19, a tour of Damn Yankees played Chicago (of all places) while I was at Northwestern University. I played hooky to see Verdon and my role's originator, Ray Walston, in the musical that had such personal meaning for me.

When Chicago opened a year later, I bought my ticket with great anticipation, as it would be the first (and, as it turned out, only) time I would see Verdon originate a role. Disaster struck when she had to leave the show for throat surgery weeks before I was to go. The producer saved the production by bringing in Liza Minnelli for a limited time. I could have seen her, but I decided to exchange my ticket for later in the run to ensure I would see the Roxie I had set my heart on. Encores!' mounting sparked a cascade of memories—from camp, Chicago and Chicago. Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth achieved a beautiful balance. With her smoky voice and sterling Fosse moves, Reinking (who also had played Roxie during the original run) was my Verdon surrogate, and came oh-so-close to her spirit.

One of my most powerful Encores! revisits came at Zorba. Although I had seen three other productions of the musical, I wasn't prepared for the quiet wallop it would deliver this time. My first exposure was the original production, which I saw at age 14. Herschel Bernardi as the iconic Greek and Maria Karnilova as Madame Hortense both made strong impressions. When I was approaching 30, a revival with Anthony Quinn (who played Zorba in the film) held some fascination, though I related more to Nikos, the young man whose arrival in Greece sets the story in motion. The York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti staging of Zorba featured a strong cast, led by Jeff McCarthy, Emily Skinner and Beth Fowler.

I was 60 when Encores! presented Zorba. I thought I was ready to identify with the title character, but instead found myself relating to Madame Hortense. Her song "Only Love," poignantly rendered by Zoë Wanamaker, resonated with me in an outsize way thanks to a recent unexpected and monumental life change: my marriage. There I was—with my husband Ray, and my former partner Richard and his husband Henry—hearing Fred Ebb's lyrics in a new way: "Give me love… / Only love; / That's everything. / Two eyes start seeing, / And two arms start sharing, / And two lips start knowing / How good it is. / To feel, / To touch, / To care. / For after all, / After love, / What else is there?" Suddenly, foolish Madame Hortense seemed very wise.

This season, the Encores! lineup includes Mack & Mabel and Love Life—neither of which I saw when they were first produced. And for the first time, there will be a musical from the 21st century, Thoroughly Modern Millie, which will undoubtedly unleash similar reminiscences from a younger generation of veteran theatergoers.

Of course… I saw the original production.

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Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price and James Galway, to classical music compilations and Broadway cast albums.

Top image: Donna Murphy and the cast of Follies at Encores! Photos by Joan Marcus.

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