Vanessa L. Williams in the Encores!production of St. Louis Woman(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Vanessa L. Williams in the Encores!
production of St. Louis Woman
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
It sounds like a swell party--and they're throwing it twice. This coming Sunday and Monday, November 18 and 19, at 7:30pm, the City Center Encores! Broadway Bash will be held at the home of the beloved Encores! series, which begins its ninth season next year. The series' 2002 slate of musicals to be presented in semi-staged concert form at City Center consists of Carnival (February 7-10), Golden Boy (March 21-24), and The Pajama Game (May 2-5).

Jack Viertel, artistic director of Encores!, says that the Broadway Bash will offer "about 26 or 27 numbers from shows we haven't done yet--shows that we've wanted to do but, for one reason or another, didn't fit into a season. In some cases, the materials aren't in good enough shape for us to do them without a lot of restoration. But we just sort of said, 'Let's at least do some of the songs.'

"I think it'll be really fun," Viertel continues. "The show will have some numbers that musical theater aficionados will be familiar with but typical audience members will be completely unaware of. I don't think we'll be giving the hard-core people anything they haven't heard before but, for the average audience member, there will be lots of discoveries." The starry cast list for the bash is headed by Kristin Chenoweth, Donna Murphy, and Vanessa L. Williams--who have (respectively) starred in the Encores! productions of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Wonderful Town, and St. Louis Woman--and includes such leading lights of the musical theater as Gary Beach, Jason Danieley, Melissa Errico, Christopher Fitzgerald, Randy Graff, Alix Korey, Howard McGillin, Carol Woods, and Karen Ziemba. Viertel reports that there have been no late additions to or defections from the cast. The musical director of these gala performances is Rob Fisher, leading The Coffee Club Orchestra as he has done for every Encores! production.

While I had Viertel on the phone to discuss the Broadway Bash, I asked him about the inclusion of The Pajama Game in the lineup for next season. Some fans of the series have expressed surprise at the choice, given the impression that the original mandate of Encores! was to offer concert versions of shows that never achieved great popularity and/or are unlikely to receive major revivals for one reason or another. Says Viertel, "I think Pajama Game fits smack into the middle of the Encores! mission, which is to present scores that are first-rate but have not had first-class hearings in New York in a while. The notion that Encores! should choose scores that are unavailable on LP or CD has eroded since the series started nine years ago, because now everything is available on CD. I mean, you can get Subways Are For Sleeping on CD, and Florodora!

"The Pajama Game is certainly a more well-known commodity than Carnival or Golden Boy," Viertel allows, "but I would put Pajama Game in the same category as Wonderful Town or Hair or Chicago. These shows aren't obscure per se, nor are they impossible to see a version of someplace; I'm sure you can see Pajama Game at the Westchester Dinner Theater or wherever. But their scores haven't had first-class productions in New York for a long time." When I brought up the fact that both Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game were seen at the New York City Opera, Viertel replied: "Yeah, but the City Opera Pajama Game was in the late 1980s. I know that because I took two small children to see it who are now grown. That's already a long time ago! And Wonderful Town was a little after that, I think."

The Encores! production of Chicago transferred to Broadway for an enormously successful run which still continues, and some observers have suggested that the series has lately been in search of another cash cow. Again, Viertel demurs. "I personally don't have any interest in commercial productions of Encores! shows," he says. "I'm a commercial producer part of the time and I come to Encores! to get away from all that. You have to remember that Chicago is the only one of the 24 Encores! shows that has had a later life. So neither from the point of view of a rights holder nor from our point of view is it a good gamble that any one of our productions will have a life after Encores! And it's certainly not a criterion for choosing shows."

Is Viertel saying that producers don't view Encores! as a sort of testing ground for Broadway and don't try to initiate productions there? "Actually, that has happened," he tells me, "and our response has always been: 'Thanks, but we're not in that business.' Generally speaking, when producers have suggested that kind of arrangement, they've also said things like: 'We know the book of such and such needs work, it needs to be revised and rethought.' To which we reply, 'That's also a business we're not in.' We don't 'fix' these shows. We trim the books sometimes but, when we decide to do a particular show, we want the audience to hear what it was when it was what it was."

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[Tickets to the Broadway Bash at $45 (mezzanine) and $25 (gallery) are available at the City Center box office or may be purchased by phoning CityTix at 212-581-1212 (toll free outside NYC, NJ, and CT at 1-877-581-1212) or may be ordered online at www.citycenter.org. All of the $80 orchestra tickets are sold out but a limited number of center orchestra Patron tickets, which include cocktails before the performance and an invitation to the cast party afterwards, are available at $350, of which $250 is tax-deductible. City Center is located on West 55th Street in Manhattan, between 6th and 7th Avenues.]