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Wonderful Sound

A talk with Rob Fisher, musical director of the City Center Encores! series. logo
Rob Fisher
Reviews of the Encores! series of concert musicals run hot and cold--though more hot than cold. But one element always wins raves: The playing of Rob Fisher and the Coffee Club Orchestra is praised to the skies, whatever critics and audiences think of the score, the book, the casting of a particular show. When the curtain rises at City Center, and the elegant Mr. Fisher's baton with it, the happy result is a musical-comedy rush. In an era where new musicals don't even bother with overtures, Fisher and his excellent musicians restore the sweep of the strings, the snap of the brass, the irresistible optimism that we associate with classic scores. At evening's end, a significant portion of the audience hangs around to savor the play-out music and applaud the orchestra--not something you'd likely see at The Wild Party or Marie Christine.

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.

Vanessa Williams and
Stanley Wayne Mathis
in 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.
TM: What was the easiest show to do?

FISHER: Oh, well, Chicago.

TM: Did you know it was going to hit like it did?

FISHER: Of course not. When we did that invited dress [rehearsal] and people started cheering and screaming for the vamps leading into songs...I knew it had a special place in people's hearts, but I had no idea how much. John [Kander] and Fred [Ebb] were the same way. They were completely stunned.

TM: So why do you think the reaction was so enormous?

FISHER: That's a big and complicated question. I think about it a lot, because with eight companies running, I think about Chicago frequently. It's actually two different questions: Why did our audience react that way and why has it been so successful everywhere else? Chicago is kind of quintessential show biz. To have two musical-comedy divas competing is a dream for a lot of musical theater fans. And that score is so fantastic and perfectly orchestrated to the note, by Ralph Burns. Then we struck gold with that casting--and that casting also came together pretty late. I never like to reveal how late! In the bigger picture, people were reacting to the Americanness of the show; also to the lack of sets and production, with the focus on the performers instead. It was such a refreshing change. It seemed so new. People have told me they'd forgotten that you could connect individually to performers the way you can in Chicago. You can't really do that in some of the big British shows, for example.

TM: The classic sociological explanation for the success of the revival has been that the country has gotten as cynical as the show is.

FISHER: Right. And there was the timing--post-O.J.

TM: When you've finally got the parts together and you've ironed the kinks out and you're making decisions on tempi and dynamics and so on, how much does the original cast album of a show influence the interpretative decisions you make?

FISHER: I refer to everything that's available. I'm always interested in knowing what the original tempos were, but you can't always rely on the cast album as a record of what they did on stage. Occasionally, tempos are marked in the score, but that's rare in show music--although, with this Bernstein, there's a metronome marking for almost every piece.

TM: That Allegro cast album never sounded like a cast album to me. That's one of the Encores! titles I appreciated most.

FISHER: Yes. That was a great musical experience for me, because I found the score so beautiful. And the Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations are sensational.

TM: This is the seventh season for Encores! Has it changed for you since it started?

FISHER: Yes. There's been a constant, subtle escalation of production values. Everything is still done cheaply, but it's not as minimal as it once was in terms of sets and costumes. As far as choreography and movement, there's less of people just holding their books and delivering straight out. There are more body microphones, which allows more staging. All of that seems to make the audience happy. It's quite a nice cross-section of people that comes to these shows. And devoted! There's no audience that's better anywhere, for anything.

TM: Has the fact that each Encores! show has become an event changed your role?

FISHER: I'm still there as kind of the score keeper, the keeper of the notes. There is more pressure, because the expectations are greater and the visibility is so high now. People are more careful about saying yes to roles.

Lewis Cleale and Tyne Daly
in Call Me Madam
TM: I heard that, when Tyne Daly did Call Me Madam, she told all of her actor friends, "Hey, you've got to do one of these; it's so much fun, and not a big time commitment."

FISHER: She was great. She was the first star of that stature to do Encores!, and she's been a great P.R. voice for us.

TM: A lot of people feel that these classic musicals in concert--Encores!, the York Theater's "Musicals in Mufti," and the Mel Miller shows downtown, and series in London, L.A., and Chicago--are so popular because there aren't a lot of good, new shows. Do you agree with that?

FISHER: There are other reasons. People like to be reminded of this way of writing a musical, and of the spirit in which they were written. Whatever the vocabulary is for writing in the year 2000, to be able to write in this spirit is a wonderful thing that, I hope, can still happen.

TM: Meaning, the spirit of optimism?

FISHER: There's an underlying energy of exploration and invention that's so strong in these shows: "Let's try this." In all these shows, it's as if the creators got together and their talent exploded. I hope people can find a way to use that in creating new things. It seems optimistic, I know.

TM: This season, in one form or another, I got to see 70 Girls 70, Dearest Enemy, Ben Franklin in Paris... Are we in danger of running out of shows that deserve to be done again?

FISHER: Not for a while. There is a finite number, but it's a big number.

TM: You can't tell me anything about next season, can you?

FISHER: Not a chance!

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