A ducat for “Broadway By the Year,” now in its fourth season, has become the proverbial hot ticket. A capacity Town Hall aud enthusiastically welcomed wunderkind writer-producer Scott Siegel, who turned back the pages to 1926, when Calvin Coolidge was president and 40 new musicals opened on Broadway. “Life was good,” Siegel noted, congratulating anyone in the house born in that year; life expectancy at the time was just 56.
The year marked a bountiful season for Broadway’s legendary tunesmiths, among them George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin. The real joy of the series is hearing long castaway Broadway songs that rarely make their way into cabaret retrospectives of great American composers.
Broadway’s modern Millie and special guest star Sutton Foster sang “It,” probably not heard in these parts since the late Ann Miller glorified the Sigmund Romberg biopic “Deep in My Heart” a mere half-century ago. The saucy declaration by Oscar Hammerstein II recalls a time when “sex appeal had the most complex appeal,” and the nation was captivated by It Girl Clara Bow. Foster made “it” most appealing.
Marc Kudisch, serenading a stuffed toy spaniel, sang a lazy Lorenz Hart lullaby, “Sleepyhead,” while Bill Daugherty noted the ironies of “This Funny World.”
Another Rodgers & Hart ditty (the team had five shows running that season), was “A Little Birdie Told Me So,” delightfully declared by Nancy Anderson. The evening’s sweetest moment found Anderson and Nancy Opel wondering, “Where’s That Rainbow?”
A regular feature of the series finds performers unplugged, singing to the top of the house sans electrical enhancement. It served as a rousing romantic turn for Kudisch, who sang Romberg’s “The Desert Song” with the kind of ardor once found behind tent flaps. It seems desert romance was still in the hearts of the public at the time: 1926 was the year Rudolph Valentino died.
Foster sang the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” off-mike, just as Gertrude Lawrence performed it 78 years ago in her first American book show, “Oh, Kay!” at the Imperial Theater. Tony winner Foster rendered a sweetly simple, direct and emotionally honest performance.
The three delectable Broadways lassies, Anderson, Opel and Foster, joined for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and hey, it’s not what you think. It appears lyricist Buddy DeSylva penned the song, inspired by Anita Loos’ 1926 tome, for a show called “Queen High.” The ladies made it a flavorful statement of the flapper era.
“Wicked’s” Eddie Korbisch was on hand in search of “That Lost Barbershop Chord,” a sunny rarity by the Gershwins from the revue “Americana.”
Siegel’s anecdotal narrative is always spiced with historical data and a devilish touch of whimsy. Did you know legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld dropped his name from top billing, which had always been his marquee trademark, when a hit song turned out to be very popular? He re-titled the musical after the showtune, “No Foolin’.”
Unlike the honorable Encores! series, there are no dialogue excerpts, props or skeletal set designs. There is, however, a pointedly well-focused lighting design by John Gordon.
For those who weren’t there way back when, “Broadway by the Year” is like opening an illuminating time capsule.
Series sweeps into spring with the musicals of 1935 on March 15 (“Porgy and Bess,” “Jubilee,” “Jumbo”), 1949 on April 19 (“South Pacific,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”), and 1963 on June 14 (“Oliver!,” “She Loves Me”).