Posted on May 18, 2007 at 9:04 pm

I’ve played a couple of really cool places in my time. The first time I played Carnegie Hall was in 1992, when I was 22 years old and accompanying the Tonics (you can hear it here, and there’s even an adorable picture of me hiding in the mass of people on the front cover), and that was an overwhelming experience, especially since it was then broadcast on public television. I’ve played there another five or six times since then, often with the New York Pops, and it’s always thrilling to be in the middle of that kind of history.

I played Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2004 as part of a concert with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and that was particularly cool because the hall was new and I got to bring the Caucasian Rhythm Kings with me. In terms of pure acoustical experiences, Disney Hall ranks at the top of the big halls I’ve played – even though they were still trying to figure out the amplification system, the sound that surrounded us and came back at us while we were playing was the most intimately enveloping power that I’ve ever had in a room that big.

Benaroya Hall was great this past winter when I conducted the Seattle Symphony with Pizzarelli, and I had a fabulous time at Esplanade Hall in Singapore when I conducted a Broadway pops concert there.

But this week at Strathmore was very different and really special, because it was the first time I’ve done my own show in such a big hall. And obviously, Songs for a New World is a very important show to me. Not to mention that the hall is absolutely gorgeous and designed to be extraordinarily acoustically versatile, which suits that show perfectly.

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l to r: JRB, Gary Sieger (obscured), Tituss Burgess, Brian Dunne, Shawn Galvin, Brian d’Arcy James, Randy Landau (obscured), Alice Ripley and Laura Griffith in Songs for a New World at the Strathmore Music Center, May 16, 2007. (Photo by Margot I. Schulman)

You can read what other people thought about it here, but what I can tell you is how fulfilling an evening it was for me personally. I haven’t played Songs for a New World as a show, a straight-ahead theater piece with four people and no narration, for probably ten years now, and it was amazing to realize how differently it felt to play it and at the same time how familiar it all was. I surprised myself by being able to play the entire thing completely from memory, and that really enabled me to connect to the material viscerally in a way I hadn’t expected.

I can’t imagine that there’s been a cast as strong as this one since the very first production at the WPA in 1995, and every person delivered above and beyond what I could have expected. It’s a brutally hard score to perform because every actor has to alternate between big star-power solo numbers and very complicated and nuanced ensemble work, but all four of these cast members delivered, and delivered off book, which was even more impressive. Most impressive of all was Laura Griffith, who took over from Laura Benanti seven days before the first performance and sailed beautifully through both performances as though she were born to sing this material. (As for Benanti: in the event you missed the announcement, she had to bail out because of a very important screen test in Hollywood – she had an incredible opportunity and we sent her off with nothing but love and best wishes.)

All four of these actors took real ownership of the songs, and brought exquisite musicality and theatrical instinct to this sometimes-immature material. It was particularly satisfying to hear Brian d’Arcy James sing “She Cries” because we actually intended Brian to do the show twelve years ago, and he not only fulfilled everything I would have hoped for then, he brought those twelve years of experience and life to the table and elevated the songs well past what either of us could have done in 1995. Alice Ripley, who I’ve really only come to know in the last year, was a revelation; I honestly don’t think there is a more difficult role than Woman 2 in the entire musical theatre canon, and Alice was able to inhabit each of the four monster solos with deep individuality and humanity, and then she dug in to the backup singing like she’d spent her life wanting to be one of the Supremes. Then there’s Tituss Burgess, who I hadn’t really even heard when we hired him. The thing about Man 1 is that it was built on Billy Porter’s voice, and Billy had a very unusual range – the part is essentially written for a male alto, and it has proven the undoing of many an otherwise fine cast. On top of the ridiculously difficult vocal requirements, the acting is really intense, and considering he has to sing like a girl, it’s hard to find someone who can convincingly play a schoolyard basketball star. So when my wife recommended Tituss to me, I knew she understood how serious the requirements were. Needless to say, from the very first rehearsal, Tituss was perfect for the role. He could sing it, comfortably, musically, beautifully, and he acted it with enormous confidence and compassion. I was deeply lucky to get this cast together. So was the audience.

And getting to play with this band was a privilege. I’ve been working with Randy Landau since the first production of Songs twelve years ago, and while he’s always played well for me, he’s grown into such a nuanced and instinctive interpreter of my work that I can’t conceive of not using him. Brian Dunne is a drummer I first saw playing with Gary a couple of years ago – his only experience as a theater musician was playing Hot Feet last summer, so I was a little nervous about how he’d deal with the very theatrical requirements of this show, but he slammed it, he nailed it, he was a joy to play with. And considering his main gig for the last couple of years has been with the Average White Band, it’s not at all surprising how funky and groovy he made the songs. There was a local percussionist brought on board named Shawn Galvin; he was recommended to us by the Signature’s music director, Jon Kalbfleisch, and he was a dream. And finally, I can’t describe the pleasure of playing with Gary Sieger – there wasn’t a guitar part in the show originally, but after hearing what Gary brought to the music, I wouldn’t do the show without it now.

On Monday, I found out that a very important person in my life had passed away. Pat McDowell was the accompanist for my choir in junior high school, and then she was the choir director for my first two years in high school before she headed off to the Philippines with her husband, who had just been appointed the superintendent of the American schools there. In the time she was at Ramapo Senior High School, she set the best possible musical example for me by being someone who was relentlessly inquisitive and passionate about music, someone who had very specific taste and knew how to defend it. Pat exposed me to a lot of great things and gave me a lot of room to learn and make mistakes and grow as a leader, as an arranger, as a pianist, as a person. It may seem like a lot to have given me in two years of high school, but I was ready for a mentor, and more than anyone else in my life, Pat was that for me.

One story: she asked me to accompany the choir for a program, but she insisted on putting a mirror on the piano because she said I needed to see myself while I was playing. Until then, I had no idea that I stuck my tongue out the entire time. She didn’t cure me, but she made me aware of it, and I’ve gotten a lot better in the twenty years since then.

And another: I was in her office at school once doing my homework, and I saw that she had started writing an arrangement of a song called “Cousin Mary.” It was a Coltrane song, and in trying to find a recording of this weird thing, I came across an album by Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan. Because of that recording, I fell in love with the work of Jon Hendricks, and I learned ten million things about vocal arranging from his work. When I finally got to work with him eight years ago on the score for Kimberly Akimbo, I felt a straight line going right back to Pat McDowell. I felt that same line all this week playing at Strathmore with these great singers and this magnificent band.

So I dedicated these performances in Bethesda to Pat McDowell’s memory, because I couldn’t have gotten there – or much of anywhere else, really – without her. Every note I played felt like a gift shared between the two of us, there in that beautiful hall.

And I tried not to stick out my tongue.

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