Of the fourteen seasons the Kaufman Center has been presenting Bound For Broadway at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Broadway Close Up series on Monday nights, Liz Callaway has hosted the event ten times. As she confided to the audience last night, she was hoping that maybe there would be a cake waiting for her at the theatre, or even some entrance music – one of her signature songs, perhaps – as she came onstage, but no. She made her entrance across the stage to her chair accompanied only by the warm ovation she received. Which is doubtless as it should be; this is a bare-bones operation. Onstage: three directors chairs, a couple of microphones, a few stacking chairs, some music stands, and a Steinway. That’s it. Into this spartan concert format are invited a few composers and lyricists with shows currently in development, prior to full production. Ms. Callaway asks them some questions about their writing process, and then performers enter to sing some of the musical theatre material from these shows.
This was a very entertaining evening. Ms. Callaway is a warm and gracious host, and the talented hopefuls whose work was on display here are hardly newcomers to the New York theatre scene. Next To Normal, The Drowsy Chaperone and Avenue Q were participants in past seasons, and most of the creative team members are old hands at this. Many of the performers, some ofthem quite well known, are currently appearing in Broadway shows and were apparently taking the opportunity to perform on a Monday night when their shows are dark. The result was a treat from start to finish, the level of the music and lyrics throughout set quite a high bar, and the largely subscription audience was attentive and appreciative. The first-rate piano accompaniment for the evening was provided by Fred Lassen, Andy Monroe, Matt Castle, Joshua Salzman, and Sam Davis.
Adam Kantor and Sarah Stiles started off the evening with “She’s My Wife” and “It’s Only A First Date” from Nine Wives, Book and Lyrics by Dan Elish, Music and Lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen. Both performers are strong vocalists and neatly captured the simultaneous angst and hope of early dating rituals, without overstating them. Next up was Drive, with Book, Music and Lyrics by Andy Monroe, who also accompanied Tom Stuart’s rendition of “Drive” and James Cochran and Courtney Shaw in “A Really Nice Guy.” Although Drive is perhaps hampered by the fact that its central premise is, well, let’s just say Adult, its additional signal difficulty is that all its scenes take place in the front seat of a car. Which means that the devil is in the details; getting up and dancing are just not in the cards. Not your ordinary musical, but Ms. Shaw and Mr. Cochran were especially good at the detailed give-and-take this material is going to need in order to succeed, and succeed they did. Finishing out the first act was My Life Is A Musical, Book, Music and Lyrics by Adam Overett, whose central character is afflicted (he hates musicals) with the titular conceit that his waking hours are haunted by his own personal chorus and a musical score, which only he can see or hear. It’s a funny idea, and in the capable hands of a very droll Howie Michael Smith rich laughs are earned by playing it straight, given the silliness of the imaginary circumstances surrounding him, which he does in the title song and with much more heart in “Sing To Me.” He is joined by the versatile Sarah Stiles for “Someone Else’s Song,” and backed up for all three numbers by his own chorus, of course, comprised of the talented Jennifer Blood, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, KJ Hippensteel and Jason Michael Snow.
You will be glad to know that Liz finally got her entrance music for the second act, thanks to the game Joshua Salzman on the Steinway and to the immediate delight of the audience. Ms. Callaway looked properly gratified as she took her chair. The Legend Of New York opened the program after the interval, Book and Lyrics by Ryan Cunningham, Music by Joshua Salzman, based loosely upon an apocalyptic Biblical story and set in New York City during the famous Blackout of 1977. F. Michael Haynie strutted out vocal riffs in the bluesy “Cloud 54” like a hip stray cat in a back alley speakeasy, and Kevin Massey delivered the challenging finale number, “Heavenly House On A Hill,” in which his character has to choose between celestial salvation or being destroyed along with the rest of New York City. Without giving anything away, let me just say that E.B. White would have been proud of him, and Mr. Massey nailed his difficult vocals with his customary aplomb. The evening’s final entry, Leaving Home, Book and Lyrics by Sean Hartley, Music by Sam Davis, in its present incarnation seems to be based upon three divergent stories unified by the theme of the title. In the capable hands of Stanley Bahorek, the plaintive ballad, “The Land Of The Dead,” is at once slightly creepy and terribly touching, a cry for love from an introverted computer nerd desperate for affection; a modern-day Judd Frye addicted to video games. The veteran actor Edward Hibbert might have shredded some curtains, had there been any, with his funny, naughty rendition of “Love And Real Estate,” about a hot apartment deal he failed to close. Imagine a song like Maltby & Shire’s “Miss Byrd” written for Paul Lynde, and there you pretty much have it.
Notwithstanding the generally excellent level of talent throughout the show, Bound For Broadway really did manage to save its best for last, as it fell to Ms. Callaway to sing the final number, “The Perfect Guy.” If she does this every time she hosts one of these shows, you can see what has kept this audience coming back for the last ten years. Those of you who know Liz Callaway’s work will understand my elation when she finally rose to sing, and those of you who don’t know her work ought to go out and buy one of her CDs right now. Of course, she just nailed it, as she always does, and the evening ended on this very satisfying high note.
Bound for Broadway is a bit of a misnomer, as most of these developing shows are pitched in scale and by subject matter toward less lavish venues, like regional theatre or Off-Broadway. Don’t let that dissuade you from attending this worthy series; this is where real creativity is happening in today’s musical theatre. Broadway is no longer the barometer for anything but commercial success. It takes a series like this one to cradle truly imaginative work, and to let us know what is really possible when you take three boards, two actors and one passion, and give them a song.
Still ahead in the Broadway Close Up series:
A Party with Amanda Green, Mon, Oct 28 at 7:30pm
Cy Coleman, Ladies Man, Mon, Nov 18 at 7:30pm
Sing for Your Supper, Mon, Dec 09 at 7:30pm
Merkin Concert Hall
129 W. 67th Street
New York, NY 10023
212 501 3330