92 Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists: Fresh Takes on the American Songbook

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92 Street Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists

Fresh Takes on the American Songbook

January 28, 2019        

By Peter Haas for Cabaret Scenes

E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, the lyricist for such timeless songs as “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” and “If I Only Had a Brain,” sat on a stool onstage at the 92nd Street Y. Talking with Broadway conductor Maurice Levine, he chatted about his craft. Then, memorably, he sang one of his own enduring lyrics, “Over the Rainbow.”

Yip Harburg & Maurice Levine

The year was 1970, and the evening was the first in what has become one of the 92nd Street Y’s—and the city’s—most popular programs: Lyrics and Lyricists. Created by the late Levine, the series is about to begin its 49th season, now produced by Ted Chapin, director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. Cabaret Scenes talked recently with Chapin. His comments follow.

I recall an evening in the first season, when L&L’s guest was a young Stephen Sondheim. He was seated on stage, shuffling cards on which he had written the questions he might be asked. Since then, over time, the series has looked at the American Songbook from many different angles. Some evenings focused on a particular lyricist, some on songs associated with a performer, like Ethel Merman.

Today, we like to include a narrative about the writer we’re featuring. Our audience likes to learn things—about the lyricist, about the art of songwriting, and new, interesting facts that you won’t find in books. For example, did you know that Oklahoma! was begun as a partnership of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart? According to a letter we found from Hammerstein, it was a combination that lasted for at least a month.

All the songs from the Great American Songbook have some point of view, some reason to be—particularly, of course, songs from shows. I want our numbers—and the information behind them—to be delivered theatrically, on stage. At the same time, it’s all right if it’s offered from the podium or stated by our performers. This season, we’ll have a little of it all.

Ted Chapin
Photo: Ben Crawford

Part of the fun of the series, for me, is working with good people. Our first show, We’ll Have Manhattan: Rodgers & Hart in New York, features Santino Fontana in the cast. He also created it. He’s played Hamlet; he was the Prince in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, on Broadway, and he’s the lead in the musical stage version of Tootsie this spring. He is a very interesting actor. We’ll have new people behind the scenes as well. Gina Rattan is directing that show; she has worked on several Broadway shows, including as associate director on Cinderella.

For our second production, we’ll be spotlighting Sammy Davis Jr., whose remarkable career triumphed over racism. The show will include projections that were designed by Tony Walton for the original production of Golden Boy, in which Davis starred. And we’ll hear songs that reflect the various stages of Davis’ life, such as “Mr. Bojangles,” “Birth of the Blues,” and the one that best identified him, “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” Coincidentally or perhaps not so coincidentally, about the same time, there will be a documentary shown on PBS.

Our third show, at the end of March, will focus on one of theater’s greatest lyricists, Sondheim. It’ll be called Sondheim Wordplay, and our director is Christopher Gattelli. It should be fun: there isn’t a lyricist in American songwriting who plays with words and language with greater virtuosity than Sondheim. We’re planning some surprises; he wrote some very funny parodies, so we’ll have a combination of the familiar and the new, celebrating him with his own brilliant words.

Number four, at the beginning of May, will be A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75, which I’ll be hosting, with Parker Esse directing. Oklahoma! ushered in a wholly new type of musical, and we’ll be looking at what made it a hit—and keeps it a hit.

Our season finale, at the beginning of June, will focus on songs written for television. Included will be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs for Cinderella, Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, Cole Porter’s Aladdin, and others written for the small screen.

One of my hopes is to put the spotlight on new performers, new artists, and new directors. Among the latter, we’ll have Gina; for our Sammy Davis show, we’ll have Tazewell Thompson, and for our third, on Sondheim, we’ll have two Tony-winning collaborators from Newsies—Christopher Gattelli and Jack Feldman. Part of my fun as producer of L&L is to cast the surround—the people who help put the evening together, like the show’s creator, the crew, and the creative team— in addition to the people on stage.

Luring new audiences

There is whole world of young people who are interested in Broadway, people who go to Feinstein’s/54 Below or are active on social media. Bringing them in is the curse of all institutions these days We found that they came to see people like Jonathan Groff and George Salazar; that’s one way we can build audiences. Then there’s the Y’s location, on the Upper East Side: I want the Broadway world to know that there are crosstown buses!

Jonathan Groff, David Pittu, George Salazar, Elena Shaddow, Stephanie Styles. Photo: Richard Termine

Still another thought, as we think ahead, is to see if we can bring in today’s new generation of songwriters. Will our audience accept an evening of someone new? It’s a challenge to do it in a way that is acceptable to audiences who don’t know who they are.

There’s never a lack of ideas for L&L, and that’s cool. I’m always on the prowl for new ones.

2019 L&L Season

We’ll Have Manhattan: Rodgers & Hart in New York
January 26-28
Created by and featuring Santino Fontana
Gina Rattan, director
Andy Einhorn, music director
David Chase, arranger & orchestrator
With Lilli Cooper, Jessica Fontana, Ann Harada, Vishal Vaidya

Yes I Can: The Sammy Davis Jr. Songbook
February 23-25
Laurence Maslon, artistic director
Tazewell Thompson, director
Michael O. Mitchell, music director
Featuring Harriett D. Foy, Jared Grimes, Max Kumangai, Matthew Saldivar, Betsy Wolfe

Sondheim: Wordplay
March 30-31; April 1
Jack Feldman, writer
Cast to be announced

A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75
May 4-6
Ted Chapin, host
Parker Esse, director
Andy Einhorn, music director
Cast to be announced

Live and in Living Color! Songs from TV
June 1-3
Rob Berman & Chase Brock, co-artistic directors
Mo Rocca, host
Sara Lukinson, writer
Cast to be announced

Peter Haas

Writer, editor, lyricist and banjo plunker, Peter Haas has been contributing features and performance reviews for Cabaret Scenes since the magazine’s infancy. As a young folk-singer, he co-starred on Channel 13’s first children’s series, Once Upon a Day; wrote scripts, lyrics and performed on Pickwick Records’ children’s albums, and co-starred on the folk album, All Day Singing. In a corporate career, Peter managed editorial functions for CBS Records and McGraw-Hill, and today writes for a stable of business magazines. An ASCAP Award-winning lyricist, his work has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Feinstein’s, Metropolitan Room and other fine saloons.