"I never think of Encores! as a launching pad for Broadway," said Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel when asked about a number of concerts that have transferred to the Great White Way, including the wildly successful (and still running) revival of Chicago. "I never have and I imagine I never will." Yet a lot of people are thinking just the opposite: most recently Roundabout Theatre Company Artistic Director Todd Haimes when he picked up the Encores! Off-Center concert of Violet (Jeanine Tesori's musical about the help a girl seeks following a terrible wood-chopping accident) for a full Broadway production. The show opens April 20 and stars Sutton Foster in the title role.
Encores! has been mounting high-quality and fully orchestrated concert readings of classic Broadway musicals since 1994. With a limited number of performances but a seemingly endless supply of plum roles, Encores! draws big-name stars. Previous seasons have boasted the talents of Kristin Chenoweth, Anne Hathaway, and the legendarily divalicious Patti LuPone, who famously went on to play Momma Rose on Broadway after appearing in the 2007 Encores! Summer Stars production of Gypsy.
As usual, Broadway fans can look forward this spring to another star-studded Encores! season. Who knows? We may be seeing a lot more than seven performances of these classic shows. Here's what's coming up:
This madcap musical comedy by Neil Simon (book), Carolyn Leigh (music), and Cy Coleman (lyrics), features one actor playing seven roles. Tony Award winner Christian Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Smash) stars as seven men in a delicate love octagon with the glamorous Belle Poitrine (Rachel York). As she encounters each of the seven, she kills them, right? Wrong! But to figure out what she does do with them, you've got to watch the show.
Viertel explained, "Anika Chapin [daughter of Encores! Advisory Committee Chairman Ted Chapin] said to me at intermission of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike when it was [off-Broadway], 'What about Christian Borle in Little Me?' And I thought...that's a terrible idea. Then as I sat down and before the lights went down I thought...no, that's a brilliant idea. I was thinking of Nathan Lane...more traditional, old-world comedians, people who are comfortable doing that kind of comedy. The idea of doing it with a 21st-century comic genius was very exciting."
In addition to Borle and York, Little Me stars Tony winners Harriet Harris (Cinderella) and Judy Kaye (Nice Work If You Can Get It), as well as Tony Yazbeck (Gypsy).
With book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), this is the story of Tony (Shuler Hensley), an Italian-American grape farmer living in Napa, California. He's having a long-distance love affair with Rosabella (Laura Benanti), a much younger woman living in San Francisco. When she asks him to mail her a picture of himself, he instead sends one of his young and handsome farm foreman, Joe (Cheyenne Jackson). Who does Rosabella fall for: the man writing the letters or the man in the photo?
"It's not a love story in a classic sense with good guys and bad guys. It's morally complicated, which is so often what love is," explained Benanti. "It doesn't have to be this idea of fairy-tale love. Who is the person who is going to make a decision to be there for you?"
The show is almost entirely sung-through, which lends itself naturally to the Encores! style of big orchestras and even bigger voices. "It's basically a big operatic drama," Viertel said. "Putting it next to Little Me made a lot of sense because they're so different from each other."
Irma la Douce is a popular French sex worker living in Paris. Nestor, a poor law student, falls in love with her and becomes very jealous of her clients. So he disguises himself as a rich older man in order to have Irma all for himself.
With music by Marguerite Monnot and lyrics/book by Alexandre Breffort, Irma La Douce was a big hit in France in the late 1950s. It was eventually given an English-language translation by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman. It went on to successful runs in the West End and Broadway. Viertel has always wanted to do Irma La Douce, but was reluctant because of the small cast size and the fact that it is not an American musical. In fact, this will be the very first show in 20 years of Encores! to not have an American origin.
Always the pragmatist, Viertel admitted, "Although these things should never enter into discussions of art, the huge cost of Most Happy Fella (a 38-piece orchestra and 36 actors, which is more than we ever budget for) is offset to some degree because Irma has a small cast and orchestra." Also helpful in terms of cost: This concert production will be directed by John Doyle, a man well-known for his economic staging of classic musicals (Sweeney Todd, Passion).
If history is any indication, Irma is the one most likely to make the Broadway leap. Part of Chicago's longevity can be attributed to its relatively small cast and orchestra, allowing producers to run that stripped-down revival on a shoestring. "It made sense to transfer Chicago to Broadway," said Viertel. "Aside from its quality, it's a manageable economic problem, whereas a show like Gypsy really is not." Sometimes less really is more.