It helps, of course, that said orchestra is likely to be playing the cream of Rodgers and Hart or Cole Porter--or, in this seventh season of the series, Lane and Lerner (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), Bock and Harnick (Tenderloin), and, from May 4 to 7, Bernstein and Comden and Green (Wonderful Town). But beyond the brilliance of the material, there is much to be said for Fisher's handling of it. He brings both a musicologist's expertise and a little kid's enthusiasm to his job. The expertise comes from some two decades of restoring and conducting classic scores for a variety of venues, including the Library of Congress, Weill Recital Hall, the New Amsterdam Theater Company, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The enthusiasm is God-given.
Though the restoration of neglected musicals could easily be a full-time gig, Fisher and the Coffee Club don't stop there. There have played for Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio as well as such PBS projects as In Performance at the White House and The Rodgers and Hart Story: Thou Swell, Thou Witty, and they've spent long hours in recording studios. Apart from the Coffee Club, Fisher has conducted a couple dozen Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals, most recently the New York premiere of Sondheim's Saturday Night. And, most time-consuming of all, he's the musical point man for all companies of the Chicago revival, which originated at Encores! In his spare time, the Norfolk-born Fisher enjoys hiking and white-water rafting...but lately, it seems, there isn't any spare time.
When I caught up with Fisher at City Center's offices on a recent Thursday afternoon, he was, typically, juggling projects and fretting over the time constraints of the Encores! season. The large cast of Wonderful Town will include Donna Murphy, Laura Benanti, Richard Muenz, Lewis J. Stadlen, David Aaron Baker, and Gregory Jbara--but, on the day that we spoke, only Murphy had been set. Apart from the months Fisher spends tracking down orchestra parts, reconciling inconsistencies in the charts, and working with orchestrators on filling in the spaces, an Encores! production generally gets thrown together in about three weeks. You've got to love the process, he implies, or you'll go nuts. You might go nuts anyway.
TM: OK, to recap: You're recording Tenderloin...
FISHER: A week from Monday, on the 17th.
TM: And you just got through mixing the recording of Saturday Night. I almost said Saturday Night Live.
FISHER: Well, you know, people showed up at the theater expecting to see Saturday Night Live. We expected people to show up looking for Saturday Night Fever! Yes, the Tenderloin album is being mixed right now; we recorded it last week. And, for Wonderful Town, we have an all-day orchestra rehearsal on Monday.
TM: That's Tams-Witmark [the musical licensing company], isn't it?
FISHER: No, Tams-Witmark rents the tour version of the orchestration, and that's not what we're interested in. We're interested in the original Broadway orchestrations. So we're dealing directly with the Bernstein organization, which is Amberson Music. Charlie Harmon has been creating new full scores and piano-vocal materials. Things are missing. There have never been woodwind books that match the original orchestrations; when City Opera did the show, they split up woodwind books among many people, because they don't have the kind of doubles we have. So we're using a combination of parts.
TM: So, even when we think a show's orchestrations are in good shape, that might not be the case.
FISHER: Yeah. Tenderloin was a surprise for me, too. Because it's rented so infrequently, it had lots of problems that nobody wanted to take the time or money to address.
TM: Well, it sounded good from where I sat. How was it for you?
FISHER: I love those songs. It's an authentic Broadway sound, joyous music that doesn't pander. The lyrics are sophisticated. The music is sophisticated, too, yet easily accessible. Audiences seemed to love the show--and we really never know if that's going to happen. Because we do shows with problem books, and that was one with a big ol' problem book. The question is always: Can we overcome that enough so that audiences can enjoy the score? A lot of credit goes to Walter Bobbie, who directed it, and who wanted to make it a fun evening--kind of a Guys and Dolls approach to the material.
TM: I saw an amateur production a couple of years ago outside Boston, where they did the whole book. A lot was cut for your production. As a purist, I'd rather you'd have done the whole book, but I don't know if all 2,700 people at City Center would agree.
FISHER: It's tough, and in a house like [City Center] that's so big, splashy works better than slow and wordy ones.
TM: What about Wonderful Town? That book doesn't need much fixing.
FISHER: Kathleen Marshall and David Ives are working on the book at this very moment, and they were saying how little revision it needs. It's fairly speedy and streamlined. The problem they're having is that there are lots of entrances and exits, which, in our situation--with the stage set up the way it is--can slow things down.
TM: Many of the musical buffs I've spoken to were surprised to hear that Donna Murphy is doing the Rosalind Russell role.
FISHER: Well, I think she looks forward to an opportunity to do "funny," because she's a funny lady. She's a comedienne, among all the other things she does. And she's the kind of performer that should be doing stuff at Encores!--a two-time Tony winner.
TM: What everybody wants to know about Encores! is, how do the shows get chosen? Who's in on it, and how does it happen?
FISHER: The beginning of it is a bunch of people sitting around a table. Our advisory committee came up with a big list, probably 50 titles. Then, every year we talk through the list again. That's why it's hard for anybody to come up with anything that's not on the list. People say, "I'll bet you haven't thought of...," and it's almost never that we haven't thought of it. Then we start looking at what material is available for whatever seems especially intriguing at that moment. We try for a balance--we can't do three huge research projects in a single season, because there's not time and personnel to get that much music ready.
TM: Is there a particular title you'll keep pressing for?
FISHER: We've done 20 shows so far, and that includes most of the ones I've pressed for.
TM: I kept hearing that Encores! was going to do Love Life this year.
FISHER: That one was right up there till the bitter end. I keep feeling like it's gonna happen. And there's another show I hear about so often--The Golden Apple. So many people are fans of that.
TM: What was the toughest show Encores! ever did?
FISHER: Out of This World.
MM: Really? I thought you'd say St. Louis Woman.
FISHER: Out of This World was tougher because it was unexpected. On St. Louis Woman, I knew there was nothing [in the way of materials]; we were starting from zero, and I had it organized and planned to start from zero. We started a year in advance, so we were able to be systematic. With Out of This World, we had no idea how bad the parts were going to be. And there were no full scores to refer to. It was just horrifying.
TM: Besides you, whom does the burden fall on when that happens?
FISHER: I wish I could share the burden a little more! At various times there have been music associates here, and we get some interns from NYU's music theater program. It's not a permanent staff.