Joel Grey in the originalEncores! staging of Chicago
Joel Grey in the original
Encores! staging of Chicago
So now there's talk about a Sweeney Todd movie and an Into the Woods movie and even a new Bye Bye Birdie movie. This week, TV Guide asked its on-line readers: "Which Broadway musical should be made into a movie, like Chicago?" and gave 14 shows from which to choose, including household names like The Phantom of the Opera and undeserved obscurities like Side Show. (Rent won, with 33% of the votes.) Look at all the excitement over filming musicals!

And we have Encores! to thank. If it hadn't mounted Chicago at City Center in 1996, there would have been no Broadway transfer and no one would have thought of making a film of it. Chicago is Encores! greatest legacy, though by no means the only reason we are in the series's debt.

It all began in 1994 with Fiorello!, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winner that just wasn't getting done any more. The Encores! mission: To do concerts of shows with great scores and not-so-hot books that could use abbreviation (which they got). With Fiorello! Jerry Zaks returned to performing, much to the delight of anyone who saw him dazzle in Tintypes years before he turned to directing. Looking back on it now, he was joined by quite a cast: Adam Arkin, Philip Bosco, Mike Burstyn, Liz Callaway, Marilyn Cooper, Gregg Edelman, Philip Hoffman, Donna McKechnie, and Faith Prince. Nevertheless, tickets weren't hard to get to what seemed merely a pleasant opening to what might become a pleasant series.

Allegro followed, and many wanted to be there simply because Sondheim would make a pre-curtain speech about the show. He was a 17-year-old gopher on the 1947 flop, hired because he knew the right person: Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the book and lyrics for this experimental musical. But the Encores! presentation was a boon for those who only knew the terribly abbreviated cast album (the 33 and 1/3 LP is only 33 and 1/2 minutes long). A cast including Stephen Bogardus, John Cunningham, Jason Danieley, Christine Ebersole, Jonathan Hadary, and Celeste Holm performed seven songs that had gone unrecorded. Too bad that the semi-regular practice of recording Encores! shows didn't start with this one, especially considering that Rob Fisher and the Coffee Club Orchestra were so much perkier than the musicians on the doleful original cast album.

Lady in the Dark:Christine Ebersole
Lady in the Dark:
Christine Ebersole
Granted, the Lady in the Dark that followed didn't live up to expectations, but it's a difficult piece to pull off and Christine Ebersole made a game try. As the 1994 season came to an end, the buzz was out there. Never mind that we only saw performers in tuxes or street clothes, and never mind that they were holding scripts. After a while, you didn't even notice these things.

The year 1995 brought Encores! first cast album, Call Me Madam. You don't need analyzing to figure out why this was cause for celebration: Here was the whole score on one disc, which we didn't get in 1950 because Decca had Ethel Merman under contract and RCA Victor had signed the show. So the former company offered a record with Merman doing her songs with a few other performers, while the latter label brought in the pleasant-voiced but non-theatrical TV personality Dinah Shore to sing with the rest of the original cast. This new Call Me Madam with Tyne Daly on DRG did the show justice, sounding exciting and theatrical in a way that the others didn't.

We got another album with the next show: Out of This World, an out-of-this-world score that didn't quite register on its remote-sounding 1950 cast album. This DRG'er did, though. And how nice that the final 1995 Encores! entry was also recorded, giving Patti LuPone fans the chance to hear their darling sing Vera in Pal Joey. This was the presentation that got musical theater enthusiasts truly excited about Encores! and was the show that officially made each presentation both An Event and A Hot Ticket.

While DuBarry Was a Lady in 1996 didn't set pulses racing (it isn't as good as we were led to believe), the town went crazy over Melissa Errico in One Touch of Venus. The lady hasn't had much luck since, but she still gets hired because people remember her galvanizing performance as the statue that came alive. When that year's Lucille Lortel Award was awarded for Best Actress in a Musical, Errico got it -- interesting, for those are Off-Broadway awards. Granted, Encores! still isn't considered Broadway, but did even Ms. Lortel herself think that a theater with nearly 3,000 seats should be considered Off-Broadway? (This wasn't the first Lortel to go the Encores! way; there was one the previous year for "Special Achievement," just as there was one from the Outer Critics Circle.)

Next came The Show That Made Encores! Famous: Chicago, still running more than six years later, the longest-running Broadway revival of all-time, and one that's doing much more than holding its own even with the film version as competition. But even before Chicago moved to Broadway that fall and won six Tony awards (including Best Musical Revival) that spring, the august New York Drama Critics Circle gave Encores! a special citation. No question that the series was now a New York treasure.

Martin Short and Christine Baranski in theEncores! presentation of Promises, Promises
Martin Short and Christine Baranski in the
Encores! presentation of Promises, Promises
What a shame that 1997's Sweet Adeline didn't get recorded, if only for "Some Girl Is on Your Mind," one of musical theater's most glorious melodies. Too bad, too, that we don't have a permanent souvenir of Martin Short doing Promises, Promises. But at least The Boys From Syracuse got the digital treatment, allowing us to hear that delicious dance music in "Dear Old Syracuse." That's the real asset of these Encores! albums: the dance music that had been denied us in the era when LPs could barely make room for all the songs. (By the way, if there's anyone who preferred the recent Roundabout production of Boys to the Encores! presentation, I've yet to meet him.)

All right, so 1998 brought a dip with a lackluster Strike Up the Band and L'il Abner. But won't we always be grateful that St. Louis Woman yielded an extraordinary CD, just re-released on Decca Broadway? The 1946 original cast album offered 11 songs and didn't even last a half-hour; the new one has 17 tracks, including "I Wonder What Became of Me?" which originally had been dropped after opening. Passing on the show would have been easy for City Center president Judith Daykin and Encores! artistic director Kathleen Marshall, because the orchestrations were lost, but the two just went out and hired Ralph Burns to do terrific new ones instead.

In 1999, Babes in Arms gave us the newest Broadway babies, including Kevin Cahoon, David Campbell, Erin Dilly, Christopher Fitzgerald, Scott Irby-Ranniar, Perry Laylon Ojeda, and Josh Prince -- though ol' pros Priscilla Lopez, Donna McKechnie, and Thommie Walsh were on hand, too. But the show that followed was the most inspired choice of all. For while people were mentioning book show after book show that Encores! should do, Marshall shrewdly chose something that most of us never considered: a revue, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. True, many complained that it was an awfully long night in the theater, but what a stunning Decca Broadway cast album resulted! How fascinating, too, to see the original (and surprising) context for the show's big hit, "I Can't Get Started."

That season concluded with another delight now on record -- Do Re Mi. This was an important building block in director John (Urinetown) Rando's career, and I'm guessing he's the one responsible for the Best Moment Ever in a Show Where a Performer Read from a Script. Those who knew the score from the 1960 original cast album remember that Nancy Walker had a lyric-less sequence in "Waiting, Waiting" where she simply sang, "Dy-dy-dy-dy." Rando had Randy Graff look as if she'd lost her place in her script, and sing nonsense syllables until she caught up. As Cora Hoover Hooper would say, "Brilliant!"

We're still lamenting that Kristin Chenoweth's Daisy Gamble in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Donna Murphy's Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town weren't recorded in 2000, but Tenderloin was, and got a far superior rendition to the Capitol original. Yes, David Ogden Stiers was under-rehearsed, but he still sounds better than arch Maurice Evans, and Patrick Wilson definitely beats the even more arch-sounding Ron Husmann on the 1960 disc. Finally I understood words I never got before.

Encores! allowed us to hear all of A Connecticut Yankee and Bloomer Girl in 2001, and brought up the most-asked questions of the year: Was the cast going to wear tuxedos -- and then nothing at all -- when they did Hair? (No to both questions.) Last year, we got to see such stars-in-the-making as Anne Hathaway in Carnival! and Norm Lewis in Golden Boy. And if The Pajama Game seemed wrong for a series that's supposed to celebrate neglected shows, here's betting that, for many young 'uns, it was the first time they ever saw it on any stage. And weren't Brent Barrett and Karen Ziemba wonderful?

So now artistic director Jack Viertel has chosen House of Flowers, The New Moon, and No Strings, all of which have glorious music and imperfect books that will profit from reductions. Best of all, Encores! has become -- before the show, at intermission, and afterwards -- the largest party for musical theater enthusiasts. Here you can meet and greet people who care as much as you do about this wonderful art form. When you do, very little time passes before someone says, "You know what'd be a good show for Encores! next year?" May every suggestion be taken in the ensuing decades as the series continues to prosper.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]