THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK….an American Heritage

The concept of the Great American Songbook began during the six years when Michael Feinstein was working as Ira Gershwin’s assistant.  During this time of discovery, he became immersed in the music of George and Ira Gershwin and developed his passion for all of the music of the great American composers who wrote during the period now known as the “Golden Age of American Popular Music.”

The “Great American Songbook” is the uniquely American collection of popular music from Broadway and Hollywood musicals prevalent from the 1920’s to 1960’s.  The composers representing this “Golden Age” include the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Richard Rodgers. Singers include Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mel Torme, to mention just a few. Their timeless music offered hope of better days during the great depression, built morale during two world wars, helped build social bridges within our culture and rejoiced with us during economic growth.  We defended our country, raised families and built a nation to these songs. The songwriters and artists of the Great American Songbook translated positive values and an optimistic spirit into the soundtrack of American life.  It is Feinstein’s belief that “the Songbook reflects the passions and diversity of our country and that these values are as true and applicable today as they ever have been. It has been a large part of my life’s work to archive and preserve this uniquely American art form; and, in doing so educate today’s youth about the relevance of the Great American Songbook and its connection to current popular music.”

Michael’s collection is now housed in the new Palladium Performing Arts Center in Carmel, Indiana, (a northern suburb of Indianapolis).  His collection of hundreds of thousands of pages of original sheet music and full orchestrations, thousands of LP’s, private recordings and demos, and memorabilia occupies a 70,000 square foot area in the magnificent $170 million dollar center. His memorabilia includes a snow globe that Irving Berlin gave to Rosemary Clooney after the filming of White Christmas, a ten-page telegram from Florenz Ziegfeld to Gus Kahn, a drawing of sheet music art from the original Porgy and Bess, a limited edition score of Red, White, and Blue autographed in 1937 by Cole Porter, and given to Mr. Feinstein by Bob Hope, George Gershwin’s first song contract from 1916.

Along with the Michael Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook; plans include a museum, a library with interactive displays and digital technology for people to access the material from all over the world.  All of this is meticulously cataloged.  “When I started my Foundation, people began donating things because they wanted to know that it will continue to have a life.  This partnership between my Foundation and the Palladium will assure that these treasures will live forever.”

 

 

Our only Christmas Gift

 

A grant from the Eluned and Edward Russell Charitable Foundation is funding a new program for low income seniors at The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.  “Senior Access to the Arts” is a pilot program which allows groups of seniors from 5 agencies to attend one of twenty performances at the Van Wezel at no charge.

While Sarasota is regarded as the ideal place for senior retirement many of us are unaware that a significant number of our seniors live below the poverty level and as a result live in financially imposed comparative isolation.  Living on a day to day basis leaves no room for niceties such as outside entertainment.  The “Senior Access Program for the Arts” is administered by the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in cooperation with its five partnering agencies: Jewish Family and Children Services, Senior Friendship Centers, Pines of Sarasota, The Jefferson Center and Casa Santa Marta.    The Van Wezel makes available 55 tickets for each of the agencies.  The agencies determine the eligibility of their clients and offer qualifying clients a choice of tickets to one shows out of the twenty available.

As an added bonus, the Van Wezel  invited all of the eligible clients to be their guests at a performance of Miracle on 34th Street.  It is our way of saying Happy Holidays to those citizens to whom this season can be an austere and unhappy time. At the beginning of the performance the Van Wezel hosted a reception for the Foundation Trustees and the participating agency representatives.  This is our way of thanking the Russell Foundation for sponsoring this unique and compassionate program.

One elderly gentleman, when picking up tickets for he and his wife commented that, “Our financial situation has deteriorated significantly over the past several years.  Christmas gifts are only a cherished memory for us.  This generous program has enabled us to give each other our only Christmas gift this year. I hope you realize just how much this means to us. Thank you for remembering!”

Yes! Of course Tim Conway is alive and well…. he’s in Sarasota

Tim Conway is truly the comedian’s comedian.  In his 4 decades of comedic revelry he has broken up more comics at more times than any other performer could ever dream of.  During his 111 episodes on The Carol Burnett Show his ability to reduce his fellow comics to uncontrollable hysterics was such that the crew began placing bets on how many minutes it would take to break up his fellow cast members.  His long time friend and side-kick Harvey Korman once said that Tim was the most dangerous comic with which to work since it was almost impossible to complete a routine without being reduced to a blubbering hulk.

Conway’s often improvised humor (he once said that he never met a script he couldn’t destroy), razor sharp timing and hilarious characters have made him one of the funniest and most authentic performers to grace the stage, television and movies in the last 4 decades.  His spontaneous breaks in character became his hallmark in each routine, and rewarded him with five Emmys and a Golden Globe.  He is on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, he was inducted into the Television Arts and Science’s Hall of Fame and as a member of The Carol Burnett Show he received TV Land’s Living Legend Award and was named by Entertainment Weekly as a member of one of The 10 Most Memorable Casts in Television. In spite of his lifetime of accolades he remains very modest and self-effacing.  As a case in point one of his favorite stories is his recounting of the time when he appeared in the “worst television program of all time.”  The show opened and closed on the same night, “it was so bad that many of the network stations left the show during the commercial break and the west coast affiliates (being warned in advance) did not even go to the show at all.  (They probably went to re-runs of Howdy Doody).  But one good result was that the producers saved a bunch on their party budget….we had the opening and closing parties at the same time”.

When asked for information for us to put into his bio his response was, “I think the Van Wezel audience would prefer it if I would write it myself.”

OK ….here it is!

“I was born and then I did The Carol Burnett Show for eleven years, what else is there to know?  I have six Emmys….big deal!  I am also in the Comedy Hall of Fame; it was a natural since I spent most of my time in grade school out in the hall.  I went to Bowling Green State University for 11 years (I was a very slow learner).  I was in the Army (ours) for two years and was in McHale’s Navy for three years.  That is a total of 5 years of service.  My ambition was to become a Jockey, but at my weight, even the horses were asking me to get off.  I have seven children, two grand children and a puppy. I have been married since 1984, a record for Hollywood. I do not have a serious thought in my head.”

Alright, Van Wezel audience, let’s make a bet on how long it will take you to be rolling in the aisles.

 

Tim Conway and Friends

“…..and friends they are,” says Conway,” Not only friends, but two of the best entertainers I have had the pleasure of working with.  Louise DuArt and Chuck McCann are the friends of which I speak.  Sketch comedy requires a comedian who can not only deliver funny lines, but one who can fill a stage with comedic acting.  That’s why these two are by my side in our show.”

Louise DuArt is often called, “the world’s best comedic impressionist”.  She is also known as the “woman of a thousand voices.”  Louise invites the voices of Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Judge Judy, Barbra Streisand, and the cast of the “Wizard of Oz” into her performance.”

“I thought I was the one to find laughs where there wasn’t one before, but she has the knack of finding laughs where even I thought the well was dry,” states Conway.

Louise has hosted a daily talk show on the ABC Family channel for the past eight years and co-authored with her husband, Squire Rushnell, the best seller Couples Who Pray and is a Women of Faith speaker.

Picture yourself living in New York starting in the 1960′s.  You couldn’t turn on the television without seeing Chuck McCann in Puppet Hotel, Let’s Have Fun, The Great Bombo’s Magic Cartoon Circus, Chuck’s Laurel and Hardy Show and was even the “Hi Guy” in the Right Guard commercials.  He’s worked with Steve Allen, Merv Griffin and Bob Newhart.  He was featured on TV’s Bonanza, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Boston Legal. “He is an outstanding stand-up comedian and has given me more than my share of laughs,” Conway shares, “I am overjoyed that he is now here in Sarasota for you to enjoy.”

Principal cast members announced for Van Wezel’s Traditional New Year’s celebration

Traveling from Vienna and other European cultural centers, the cast and crew of Salute to Vienna is preparing to travel to Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for the New Year’s presentation of the time honored Viennese holiday tradition, “Neujahrskonzert.”

The New Year’s Day production employs a symphony orchestra of over 60 musicians.  Strings are the most numerous with a complement of approximately 39 violins, violas, cellos, and basses. All are used to create the Strauss-ian mood which is the foundation upon which the entire production is built.

Leading the orchestra is young Austrian conductor Peter Sommerer.  Maestro Sommerer has established himself as a conductor with a wealth of symphonic and operatic conducting experience.  At the age of 12, he was the youngest chorus master at the Austrian choir competition for youth choirs.  He began his musical studies in violin and music theory at the Anton Bruckner conservatory and continued at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna (the Viennese Juilliard).  He has conducted at many European opera houses including the Vienna State Opera, German State Opera of Berlin, the Semperoper Dresden and Munich’s National Theatre.  His repertoire includes not only symphonic literature and German romantic operas but also lighter operas and operettas by Johann Strauss, Jr. and Franz Lehar.

The featured Soprano is Monika Fischi from Budapest.  Ms. Fischi made her professional and Hungarian State Opera debut as Norina in Don Pasquale, and has traveled with the Company to the cultural centers of Europe and Asia. Her operetta roles have included Sylvia in the Gypsy Baron and Csarda Princess, Angele Didier in Count of Luxembourg and Contess Maritza. She has had leading roles in Die Fledermaus and the Violet of Montmarte and is touring throughout Europe, Japan and North America with the Budapest Operetta Theatre.

The featured tenor is Daniel Vadasz of Budapest.  Mr. Vadasz has performed in many prestigious theatres throughout Hungary, including the Hungarian State Opera and has been a guest artist in many cities including Vienna, Munich, Hamburg, Rome, Tokyo and London.  He is a full member of the Budapest Operetta Theatre. His repertoire includes featured roles in Carmen, Die Fledermaus. Falstaff, Czarda Princess, Count of Luxemburg and Magnas Miska

The featured dancers are from Ballet St. Polten.  The Company was founded in 1998 by the Lord Mayor of St. Polten. St Polten is the capital city of lower Austria and is its largest city. It has a long history as a cultural Mecca of Austria.  Its Artistic Director and Choreographer Michael Fichtenbaum has had a long career dancing for the Vienna State Opera Ballet and has specialized in Waltz Choreography.  The art of dance and particularly that in the Viennese tradition is especially close to Mr. Fichtenbaum’s heart.  He and the dancers of Ballet St. Polten have brought this special art form to audiences in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.  It is the joy of the Ballet St. Polten to bring their unique charm and Viennese spirit of their dance as the performers jump and twirl backed by the musicians of Salute to Vienna

 

The largest simultaneously produced concert series in North America

Salute to Vienna has had remarkable success as the New Year’s show by creating a whole new concept for the touring holiday show. Seventeen years ago, founders and producers Attila and Marion Glatz, wanted to bring a live rendition of Vienna’s cherished Neujahrskonzert (New Year’s concert) tradition to North America.  After several years of planning and preparation the dream became a reality.  The premier performance of Salute to Vienna was performed to a sold-out house in Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall.  This outstanding success paved the way for it to become the largest simultaneously produced concert series on this side of the globe.  The 2011 production will include performances at Avery Fischer Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

This season’s homage to Vienna’s famed New Year’s concert will be performed on New Year’s Day in 16 cities to over fifty thousand people from New York to Miami and from Vancouver to Quebec.  The shear logistics of assembling 16 casts, orchestras, dance companies and technical staffs and building and transporting 16 sets and crews is unheard of in modern Theater production.  Never before has a touring show been designed for 16 simultaneous performances. All aspects of the production are 16 times more difficult than a normally produced show.  This in itself makes it a “must see” show!

To maintain the highest standards of musical perfection the producers/artistic directors Attila and Marion Glatz constantly travel to Vienna and other major European Cultural centers to carefully select a cast of the most dynamic, young talent the musical world has to offer.  Each year they cast new conductors, sopranos, tenors and dancers of international acclaim to bring a new vitality to the glories of Vienna’s musical past. Salute to Vienna brings all of these artists together in collaboration with a full symphony orchestra to perform festive Viennese music including excerpts from operettas, arias, waltzes and lively czardas and polkas. Compositions by Vienna’s beloved “waltz king”, Johann Strauss Jr. and other of his famous contemporaries create a true feeling of the joy and elegance of a New Year in Vienna.

In their adherence to and preservation of the traditions of Vienna’s musical and cultural heritage the Glatzs’ were awarded the prestigious Gold Decoration of Merit from the Austrian government. Sarasota audiences are among those in only 16 cities fortunate to share this much anticipated annual celebration. This tradition is too unique for anyone to miss….. what the Nutcracker means to Christmas, Salute to Vienna means to the New Year!

Reaching for the Heights

Eleven years ago an unknown student at a small eastern college became homesick for his home in New York City.  He proceeded to write a story about his neighborhood and the people and customs who made up the rich fabric of his ethnicity.  This story grew into a musical which ended up winning Broadway’s highest honors, by first winning its heart.  This once in a generation story, built on the best traditions of theatre, forged into new territory with a message about the importance of home, family and where you belong.  It told of a vibrant community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.  A place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open, and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music.  It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you and which you leave behind.  Here  is the chronological development of this love story from its modest beginnings in 2000 to its unbelievable conclusion.

2000     During his sophomore year at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University a homesick theatre major, Lin-Manual Miranda, writes the first draft of In The Heights. During the next few years, Miranda struggles with his life and his play, trying to find an identity and a place in life for both.  During this time, he teaches Middle School English at his Alma Mater, Hunter College High School, and composes commercial music.  He hardly sleeps and eats but little.  His non-work time is spent  rewriting and polishing his play.

2004     Miranda applies to present a new show at his University’s student-run ’92  theater.  He begins with a play, one song, and a title … In The Heights.  His production breaks all box office records and attracts the attention of director Thomas Kail.  Miranda collaborates with director, Kail to rework and restage his college project for a larger audience.  They capture the interest of producers Jill Furman, Kevin McCullum and Jeffrey Siller.  The five begin  a new collaboration, as work on the play continues.

2005     In The Heights participates in a two week theatre workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre where it won the Georgia Holf Lycincast Award for Lyrics.  Rewrites continue as plans are made to bring the show to New York.  Miranda meets John Mailer (son of Norman Mailer) who is beginning a production company.  He promises to work to bring The Heights to New York.  John and director, Thomas Kail, work extensively with Miranda to prepare for an Off Broadway run of In the Heights.  As Mirands puts it, “Tom broke down what he liked about the Heights and what he would do if he directed it.. Two thoughts occurred to me, one… this guy is smarter and understands the show better than anyone I’ve ever met…two….”Crap, now I have to completely rewrite the show.”

2007     In The Heights begins an off-Broadway run of 200 performances at the 37 Arts Theatre.  During its run, it picks up the Outer Critics Award for Best Musical of the Year.  Running on this success, it prepares for a run on Broadway.

2008     In The Heights plays it first Broadway performance at the Richard Rogers Theatre and celebrates its opening night on March 9.  Four days later voting begins for the 2008 Tony Awards. In The Heights is nominated for 13 awards, eclipsing  those of South Pacific, Sunday in the Park With George, Grease and Gypsy.  The nominations received by the show include the award for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Direction, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting and Sound, Best Actor, Best Featured Actor and Actress, Best Music, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestration.    The cast recording debuts at #1 on the Billboard charts making it the 3rd fastest growing cast album of all time.  In the Heights is picked up by Universal Pictures for a future adaptation as a feature film.  The year ends with In the Heights winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestration.  The show recoups its original cost of $10 million dollars in less than 10 months and opens the box office on the day after the Tony Awards with over $1 million in sales.

2009     Miranda celebrates his 29th birthday by winning the Grammy Award for the Best Musical Show Album.  Miranda and In The Heights are honored with a PBS Special Chasing the Broadway Dream.

2011      In The Heights closes its Broadway run after 1185 performances and begins its National Tour.  Sunday, November 27, ….In The Heights opens at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Florida.

 

Shrek….not just another pretty face

While we all consider, Shrek the Musical to be a delightful, charming, whimsical piece of fantasy, psychologists seem to have found a much deeper meaning hidden between the lines of   William Steig’s original story. To summarize their intensively introspective interpretation of this seemingly innocent story, you must begin by accepting the fact that Shrek is the embodiment of our own inner freak–the manifestation of our body anxiety. We all feel less desirable than we wish we were!  We are constantly bombarded with reminders that we do not have bright enough teeth, our nose is not straight enough or too long, we have saggy skin and baggy butts.  We also know that our bodies do disgusting things (a case in point is the farting and belching contest between Shrek and Fiona) seemingly innocent fun, but deeply disturbing to those of us that constantly worry  about “those things”. Are we “ugly” or are we “attractive,” are we”normal” or are we “psychologically challenged”?  And what about developmental issues or the way our bodies change as we get older? Case in point: Fiona changing from a beautiful princess into an ugly ogre, the sum of all of our worst fears.

But there is a bright side and a moral to the story (if moralizing is your thing).  The story of Shrek and ones like it help us to master those negative feelings and assuage those fears.  After all, the ugly Ogre does get the beautiful princess.  Not only that, but she becomes an ogre herself out of her love for Shrek….the living embodiment of all of our fantasies.  If he can do it, why can’t I?  In that sense, it’s our own “coming out” party……  and you thought Shrek was just another pretty face.

The Dolly You Don’t Know

 

You all know Dolly Parton, the entertainment mega star appearing on the Van Wezel stage October 16. She has won every major award as a performer and songwriter from Country Performer of the Year to acceptance into the Song Writers Hall of Fame.  But there are as many facets to this woman as there are opportunities to succeed.  We are all aware of her career as an award-winning singer, composer and actress but the other side of Dolly is as an accomplished business woman and philanthropist.

As a businesswoman she founded and runs the Dollywood Company whose holdings include Dollywood, one of the world’s most successful international theme parks; two dinner theaters; Splash Country, a wildly successful water park; Dockside Plantation, a Honolulu restaurant; business ventures in Branson, MO and Myrtle Beach, Carolina and Sandollar Productions, a film and TV production company.  As a result she was recently named by Nashville Business “Country Music’s Wealthiest Star.”

The work of which she is most proud, however, is her charitable work with the Dollywood Foundation and her Imagination Library program.  The concept for the Imagination Library began when she was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee.  She knew her dreams would come true and she knew there were children in her community with their own dreams.  “They dream of becoming a doctor or an inventor or a minister.  Who knows, maybe there is a little girl whose dream is to become a writer and a singer.  The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.”

In 1966, Dolly launched an exciting new effort to benefit the children of her home county in East Tennessee.  She wanted to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families. She wanted children to be excited about books and to feel the magic that books can create.  “It was my dream to insure that every child would have books, regardless of their family’s income.” She began by mailing a new age appropriate book each month to every child under 5 in Sevier County so that he/she could experience the joy of finding his/her very own book in each of their mail boxes.  These mailings continue each month until the child turns 5– and in the very last month the child receives Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.

Needless to say, the experience has been a smashing success!  So much so, that other communities clamored to provide the Imagination Library to their children. Dolly thought long and hard about it and decided her Foundation should develop a way for other communities to participate.  The Foundation asked a blue ribbon panel of experts to select the right books and secured Penguin Group, USA to be the exclusive publisher for the Imagination Library. 

Consequently, in March of 2000 she stood at the podium of the National Press Club in Washington, DC and revealed the plan for other communities to provide the Imagination Library to their children.  And, as only Dolly can say it, she wanted to “put her money where her mouth is…and with such a big mouth that’s a pretty large sum of money.” Therefore, she personally provided books to all the children of Branson, Missouri, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – communities where her businesses now operate.  If other leaders in their communities were willing to do the same, well it might just happen…….and you know what?    IT DID!  The program is now spreading throughout the United States.

As a result of her work in education, she was awarded The Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service Work in Literacy, The American Publisher’s Honor Award, The Family Advocacy Award, The National Medal of Arts (the highest of such honor given by the US Government, which was presented by President George W Bush), the Kennedy Center Honors Award for a lifetime contribution to the Arts and the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress for her contribution to our American Heritage.

In 2009 Dolly gave the commencement speech at the University of Tennessee College of Arts and Science.  During the ceremony she received an honorary degree, a “Doctorate of Humane and Musical Letters.”  It was only the second honorary degree given by the University and in presenting the degree, the Chancellor said “Because of her career not just as a musician and entertainer, but for her role model as a cultural ambassador, philanthropist and life-long advocate for education, it is fitting she be honored with an honorary degree from the flagship educational institute in her home state.”

As Dolly herself said, “not bad for a little country girl from the mountains of Tennessee.”