This year’s inaugural series of Broadway by the Season, written, directed, and hosted by theater historian and impresario Scott Siegel, concluded on Monday, October 30, at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Hall, with songs and stories spotlighting musicals from 1987/88 and 2013/14. Accompanied by musical director and pianist Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band (Patterson on piano, Greg Joseph on drums, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Sean Harkness on guitar), a cast of twelve superlative singers from Broadway and beyond were perfectly matched to their numbers by the discerning and knowledgeable Siegel, who introduced his well-researched set list of songs, and the shows and seasons they were from, with fascinating facts and funny observations.
Act 1 featured selections from two of Broadway’s biggest hits (The Phantom of the Opera and Into the Woods), two of its most infamous flops (Chess and Carrie), and the revival of an iconic musical (Cabaret), opening with a beautiful unplugged rendition of “Think of Me” from Phantom, Broadway’s longest running musical of all time, by breakout star Molly Bremer, who brought her clear soprano voice and meaningful expression, movement, and gestures to her impressive BBTS debut.
It was followed by “I’m Not Alone” from Carrie (which played only four post-opening performances before closing at a loss of $7 million), powerfully sung by Kelli Rabke, who later returned with an outstanding in-character delivery of The Witch’s song, “The Last Midnight,” a notoriously difficult and demanding Sondheim classic from Into the Woods that she absolutely mastered. Two more from Into the Woods, “Agony #1” and “Agony #2,” were given comical heft by the well-paired duo of Adan Gallegos and Tyler McCall, making their entrance down opposite aisles of the house, coming together on stage, and playing off each other. Both fully embraced the humor of the lyrics they sang and enacted, to the delight of the audience.
The first act also featured an upbeat jazzy rendition of the title song from Cabaret by Kelli Barrett, who moved, stepped, and high-kicked actively around the stage, and three numbers from Chess, which was a hit in London before its transfer and poor reception in New York. Though the musical failed on Broadway, the expressive vocals on “Pity the Child” by Jarrod Spector and the timely and resonant “Anthem” (about national borders) by Ryan Knowles did not fail the BBTS crowd; both were rich, emotional, and well-received opportunities to hear the little-known and rarely performed songs, with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of the Swedish pop group ABBA. And Swedish-born novelty act Gunhild Carling brought her brand of humor to the Chess tune “One Night in Bangkok,” playing three trumpets simultaneously, balancing one on her mouth, tap dancing, and singing, with BBTS resident choreographer and regular Danny Gardner providing appropriately wild dancing and facial expressions in the background.
Rounding out Act 1, and standing out with his showstopping performance of “Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera, was Cooper Grodin (who played the eponymous character on the show’s National Tour), filling in for the previously announced but ill Quentin Earl Darrington. His extraordinary vocal range, breath control, and passion brought down the house and left everyone breathless.
In Act 2, Siegel jumped a quarter-century ahead to Broadway’s 2013/14 season, which he noted, had “more of a home-grown feel,” with fewer transfers from London and more American originals. With that said, Danny Gardner presented a sidesplitting version of “I Don’t Understand the Poor” from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder – an American musical that is set in England and a song that expresses a British Lord’s disdain for commoners – which he delivered with a haughty accent, in a top hat and tails, while riding a blow-up horse and hoofing.
Other numbers were more specifically American in style and theme, including Barrett’s heartfelt performance of the ballad “Always Starting Over” from If/Then, which is set in New York, and her duet with her real-life husband Spector on Jason Robert Brown’s romantic “One Second and a Million Miles” from The Bridges of Madison County, which takes place in Iowa, and which they ended with a kiss. And Knowles returned with an ebullient version of “Friend Like Me” from Disney’s Aladdin (which is still running today at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre), composed and performed in the style of the legendary American jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, replete with scatting and jazz hands.
There were also two hit songs from the musical revue After Midnight, set in Harlem and featuring the most popular entertainers of the Swing Era, who, like Calloway, were regulars at the Cotton Club: “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” (music and lyrics by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh) and “Women Be Wise” (music and lyrics by Sippie Wallace), both from the sensational Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox, a natural-born performer who starred in the Broadway production and completely commanded the BBTS stage. Two more jazz standards from Woody Allen’s jukebox musical Bullets Over Broadway showcased the comic antics of Carling, singing, tapping, and playing the trumpet and slide trombone in her upbeat rendition of “Up the Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin, and Gardner with Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave,” which he sang and tapped with a tempting box of Twinkies.
The genre of the jukebox musical was represented again in the second act with three pop songs from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Courtney Long turned in a knockout vocal on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” – the first #1 Billboard hit by a Black all-girl group in the US, with music by King and lyrics by Gerry Goffin – which she made her own. Spector accompanied himself on guitar in a rocking “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (written by the husband-and-wife team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) and then closed the show with his lead on King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” joined by the entire company for a rousing finale.
For lovers of Broadway musicals, theater history, and entertaining and illuminating concerts by a top-notch cast, Scott Siegel’s Broadway by the Season is a show not to be missed. If you didn’t make it to this one, he plans to return to Kaufman Music Center for a second series, and I hope, for many more years to come.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including intermission.
Broadway by the Season: 1987/88 & 2013/14 played on Monday, October 30, 2023, at Kaufman Music Center, Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street, NYC.