Rob Fisher(© Michael Portantiere)
Rob Fisher
(© Michael Portantiere)
A first-rate musical director/conductor will always be in great demand, and that explains why Rob Fisher's calendar is full to bursting. Having recently made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducting the orchestra in four smash-hit concert performances of My Fair Lady that starred Kelsey Grammer, Kelli O'Hara, and Brian Dennehy, Fisher is now in the midst of preparations for the City Center Encores! production of the obscure 1932 Irving Berlin-Moss Hart musical Face the Music, which will run March 29-April 1. And he's also gearing up to conduct the New York Pops in an all-Broadway concert slated for April 13 at Carnegie Hall.

"My Fair Lady was such a blast," says Fisher. "The cast turned out to be really well suited for their roles, even more than I expected. And to stand in front of the Philharmonic -- what a treat that is. They were so happy playing that music. It's scored in a way that suits a symphony beautifully; Robert Russell Bennett did such an amazing job with the writing for strings that having a massive string section is gorgeous rather than overwhelming."

The former resident music director of the Encores! series, Fisher admits that the extremely tight rehearsal schedules for these all-star, limited-run shows can be nerve wracking -- but he says that he's pretty much gotten used to it. "When we did The Apple Tree [on Broadway] in the fall, I almost felt, 'What do I do with all this rehearsal time?' I haven't had that luxury in a while. One thing I'll say about the shows we throw together quickly is that they're really not built to last; the adrenalin gets you through those few performances, and then it all starts to come apart at the seams. A weekend is about as long as they'll hold up before they're ready to go back for more rehearsal."

Of Face the Music, he says: "The restoration of the score was a difficult, gigantic project but not particularly for me, because they had some of the best people at Rodgers and Hammerstein working on it for two or three years." (The R&H office controls the rights to the Berlin catalogue.) "I'm delighted to give people a show that they can't possibly have heard before," Fisher adds. "That's when Encores! is at its best, when we can offer an experience that everyone thought was gone and could never happen again. Face the Music is a very funny satire. The plot is sort of a combination of Fiorello! and The Producers; they're trying to put on a show in order to lose money. The only people who have any money are the police, so the producers get the money from those little tin boxes. It's mostly about police corruption -- but it's all singing, all dancing!"

As for the upcoming New York Pops concert, Fisher is jazzed about working again with Kelli O'Hara. "About a year and a half ago," he relates, "the Pops said they wanted me to do a Broadway program this spring. I decided last summer that Kelli should be my guest, so that was all set long before My Fair Lady was planned. Kelli can sing absolutely anything with perfect style; I feel like we're watching her make breakthroughs every time she takes on another role."

In addition to the title song from The Light in the Piazza and music from My Life With Albertine, the program will sample such scores as Show Boat and Chicago. "We're going to have a little tribute to [orchestrator] Ralph Burns," notes FIsher, "because we'll start with the Funny Girl overture and end with the No, No, Nanette overture -- two of my favorites. We're also going to have Brian d'Arcy James come and sing with Kelli, though we haven't confirmed what the duet's going to be. And there will be another guest, but I can't yet say who it is."

Nor surprisingly, Fisher bemoans the ever-decreasing size of Broadway orchestras, going so far as to say: "I think a lot of producers consciously want to train people away from being able to appreciate a full orchestral sound. When you present that to people, they love it; but if you never let them hear it, they don't know what they're missing. During the last musicians' strike, I believe it was determined that only about three or four dollars of a $100 ticket goes to pay for the orchestra. The total cost per week is about 30 to 40 thousand dollars, which sounds high but really isn't when you consider that these shows can take in nearly a million. Of course, Broadway is about profit, not art. In other situations, art can still prevail. If the classics can continue to be done at places like the Philharmonic and Encores! can explore the shows we don't really know, then we'll be able to keep that stuff alive."

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Ann Hampton Callaway(© Michael Portantiere)
Ann Hampton Callaway
(© Michael Portantiere)
Joe's Pub has become known as a place for musical theater performers to let their hair down and do the kind of stuff you rarely if ever hear on the Great White Way, but the benefit concert that the venue has slated for Monday, March 26 sounds particularly exciting even by Joe's standards. Wittily titled Scream Out, Louise!, it will feature such folks as the great singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway and Tarzan's Chester Gregory singing classic musical theater tunes in new funk and soul arrangements.

The event's producer-director-musical director is Amy Birnbaum, who has a day job in the creative department at Jujamcyn. "I was a music major in school, and I'm still doing my music on the side," she says. "I have a funk and soul band. I definitely knew I wanted to do a benefit that would incorporate Broadway songs, and I wanted audiences to hear them in a way that they've really never been heard before. I grew up listening to James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. I can't list many Broadway shows that have that kind of sound, so it's been fun and challenging to take Broadway songs out of their element and funk them up -- you know, to make a Stephen Sondheim song sound like Stevie Wonder. We're going to have a killer band, about eight pieces, and a turntableist."

Asked for particulars on the program, Birnbaum says she doesn't want to give away too much, but she offers some teasers. "Max von Essen is going to sing 'Good Thing Going' and 'Not a Day Goes By' from Merrily We Roll Along with a real laid-back, '60s-'70s kind of groove. And I'll be singing a funk version of 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man.' I think that song is appropriate because I'm always looking for a boyfriend, but I'm in the wrong profession because they don't play for my team."

Seth Rudetsky and Scott Nevins are set to co-host the concert, which will also include performances by such talents as Judine Somerville (Hairspray, On the Town, The Life), Heath Calvert (Good Vibrations), Aisha de Haas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, Caroline, or Change), Tituss Burgess (Jersey Boys), Brandon Ruckdashel (Off-Broadway's Ascension), and The Broadway Boys (including Jesse Nager, Danny Calvert, Michael James Scott, Daniel Torres, and Maurice Murphy).

Proceeds from Scream Out, Louise! will benefit Family First Nights, a program sponsored by the League of American Theatres and Producers that introduces at-risk NYC families to Broadway. Says Birnbaum, "I was lucky to grow up in a family that supported the arts, and I saw everything. But the price of theater tickets today is so high, and I feel like the audiences are so homogeneous. It's frightening. I'm so glad that we're doing this benefit, and that it's happening at Joe's Pub. The ambience there is terrific; the room has this great, sexy kind of vibe, and the sound and lighting are the best. Those guys really know what they're doing."