"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
In Concert with The New York Philharmonic
Friday, September 26, 2014 (PBS Arts Fall Festival Opening Night)
For more than a dozen years now the New York Philharmonic has featured an annual presentation of one of the glories of Broadway's American musical theater canon. In the year 2000 it was Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd.” So successful were those performances that it was decided to bring back "Sweeney Todd" in a stunning recreation for 2014, conducted this time by the Philharmonic's Music Director, Alan Gilbert, and starring, in the title role, opera's reigning bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, and with two-time Oscar winner, Emma Thompson, as Todd's helpmate, Mrs.Lovett. This remarkable performance will be our Live From Lincoln Center offering on September 26, 2014.
Whether or not this story of a cut-throat barber (literally!) is based on a historical personage has been a debate in literary circles for centuries. As the tale has it, Sweeney Todd is a psychotic murderer bent on revenge against mankind. The tool of his trade, a shaving blade, offers him the perfect weapon to use to slit the throats of his unsuspecting customers. Their bodies are then used as pie fillings baked by Todd's neighbor and ally, Mrs.Lovett.
It was as early as 1824 that a story appeared in a publication called "The Tell Tale" about a barber in Paris who cut the throats of his customers, stole their valuables, and then had a pastry cook use their bodies in meat pies. No less a giant than Charles Dickens made a glancing reference to the story/legend in his Pickwick Papers of 1836/7 when he has one of the characters urge his listeners to buy pies only from cooks well known to them. A few years later, in Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens again invokes the tale when an unsavory character offers thanks that his checkered existence did not lead him to the depravity of cannibalism.
This grizzly story has had many incarnations over the years. Closer to our time, in 1936 there appeared a British film titled “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” And in 1973 the British playwright Christopher Bond produced a play under the same title. In this version the barber has discarded his given name, Benjamin Barker, and assumed the new name of Sweeney Todd. He returns to London from 15 years spent in an Australian penal colony on a trumped-up charge. Upon his return he discovers that in the intervening years his wife was raped by the judge who sentenced him, resulting in her committing suicide. To top it off the judge adopted the couple's young daughter. All this is hardly material for a typical Broadway musical. But “Sweeney Todd” is far from being a typical Broadway musical.
It explores the byways and alleyways of life, and in so doing shines a spotlight on the underbelly of human existence.
Prior to the 1979 premier of “Sweeney Todd” Stephen Sondheim had enriched our lives as the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's score for “West Side Story” (1957). For all the years that followed and for most of his subsequent work he was both composer and lyricist. Included in this output were such triumphs as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Company,” “Follies,” and “A Little Night Music.” All these, but perhaps “Sweeney Todd” especially, established Sondheim in a class by himself. In 1979 he received two Tony Awards for “Sweeney Todd”: Best Musical and Best Original Score. The same year brought him three Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics. In 1984 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park With George.” He holds eight Tony Awards and an Oscar for the song “Sooner or Later” that he wrote for the 1990 film “Dick Tracy.” Recordings of eight of his musicals have won Grammy Awards. And in addition to all this, “Sweeney Todd” won the coveted Lawrence Olivier Award in 1980 as the Best New Musical of London's theater season.
The title role of Sweeney Todd has been a magnet for some of the theater's most imposing singing-actors, beginning with the originator of the role, Len Cariou. Others who have wielded Todd's razor on stage have included George Hearn, Timothy Nolen, Bob Gunton, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Michael Cerveris. In addition there was a 1998 television production starring Ben Kingsley, a 2007 film starring Johnny Depp, concert performances starring Kelsey Grammer, and stagings of the work as opera (which in many ways is what “Sweeney Todd” really is) enlisting the services of such stalwarts as Bryn Terfel and Sir Thomas Allen. And it was no less a figure than Angela Lansbury who created the role of Mrs.Lovett on Broadway. Others who have played her include June Havoc, Dorothy Loudon, Patti LuPone, Judy Kaye and Christine Baranski.
What a history, and what an EVENT our next Live From Lincoln Center promises to be: Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic in Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd” with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson as the leads, and the veteran of these Philharmonic-Broadway musical presentations, Lonny Price, directing the proceedings once again. Be sure to check with your local PBS station for the exact date and time of the airing in your area.
Patina Miller In Concert
Friday, March 28 at 9 pm
New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts serves as home base for about a dozen constituent organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Great Performances, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Lincoln Center Festival and, of course, Live From Lincoln Center. Another vital spoke in the wheel of the Center is “American Songbook,” the acclaimed concert series celebrating popular song. Beginning on Friday, March 28, and for the next two Friday evenings, Live From Lincoln Center will be devoted to three remarkable events from this season's schedule of “American Songbook,” beginning with Patina Miller in Concert.
As its name implies, “American Songbook” is dedicated to the great repertory of American popular song, from jazz and blues favorites to classics from stage, screen, cabaret and Tin Pan Alley. This year, for example, some two dozen events will have been presented. In its early years “American Songbook” performances were in the David Rubenstein Atrium located on Broadway just around the corner from Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. In recent years it has found a home in the Allen Room of the Frederick P. Rose Hall, on Broadway a few blocks South of Avery Fisher Hall. The Allen Room itself is a very special site, offering spectacular views of Central Park and Columbus Circle – as you will see in our upcoming telecasts.
Patina Miller, the focus of that telecast, is a native of Pageland, South Carolina where she was born in 1984. In her early years she sang in the gospel choir of her church and attended South Carolina's Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. Her college years were spent as a scholarship student majoring in Musical Theater at Pittsburgh's prestigious Carnegie Mellon University. The Carnegie Mellon studies crystalized her career goals. "I'm so thankful to all my teachers who helped me to become the performer I am today," she has said. "I'm so proud of my school and feel so blessed to have gotten a wonderful education and made lifelong friends."
Immediately upon college graduation she set out on her career path and was quickly chosen as one of three finalists for a leading role in “Dreamgirls.” She didn't get the part, but soon she won a role in the daily television soap opera “All My Children.” From June 2009 until October 2010 she headlined the London production of “Sister Act,” which won her a nomination from the discerning British critics for the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award as Best Actress in a Musical. And last year back on Broadway she won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in the revival of “Pippin.”
Patina Miller is bringing us an evening of songs of uplift and comfort. Just look at some of the titles: She begins with the Kander and Ebb glory "Sing Happy" from "Flora, the Red Menace"; "The Glory of Love"; "Someone to Watch Over Me" from the 1926 Gershwins' musical, "Oh, Kay"; "No One Is Alone"; and “Next To Me.”
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. An evening of Song from “American Songbook,” our latest offering on Live From Lincoln Center, Friday evening March 28 at 9 PM. As always I advise you to check the schedule of your local PBS station for the exact date and time of the program in your area.
James Naughton: The Songs of Randy Newman
Friday, April 4 at 9 pm
For the second of our three consecutive weekly offerings Live From Lincoln Center proudly presents “James Naughton: The Songs of Randy Newman” on Friday evening, April 4, one of this season's American Songbook series at Lincoln Center.
James Naughton is a native of Middletown, Connecticut, where he was born on December 6, 1945. Both his parents were teachers, so education played a prominent role in his upbringing. He began singing during his high school years “with the high school band and at parties” in his own words. Naughton is a graduate of Brown University and the Yale Drama School. Early in his mid-twenties he appeared in a production of Eugene O'Neill's “Long Day's Journey Into Night,” which brought him the first of many honors, the Theater World Award. From that point on he starred in a number of stage plays, both dramatic and musical. Two of them, “City of Angels” (1990) and “Chicago” (1997) won him Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Musical.
The legitimate theater may be James Naughton's first love, but he has appeared as a lead actor and supporting actor in dozens of films, beginning with the young law school student in the brilliant “The Paper Chase.” Other notable film roles have included The Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” and Stephen in “The Devil Wears Prada.” In last year's “Hostages” he was President Paul Kincaid. For us, the Live From Lincoln Center audience, James Naughton is returning to the musical stage to perform songs of one of his favorite composers, Randy Newman.
Singer, song-writer, arranger, composer and pianist Randall Stuart “Randy” Newman was born in Los Angeles in November, 1943. Early years were spent in New Orleans, but the family returned to Los Angeles when Randy was 11. He attended University High School in Los Angeles and then enrolled at U.C.L.A. to study music. One semester shy of a B.A. degree he dropped out and began to pursue a full life in the “family business,” music. If the name Newman conjures up film music in your mind, you are absolutely right! Three of Randy Newman’s uncles – Alfred, Lionel and Emil – were highly successful film composers. And three of Randy Newman's cousins – Thomas, David and Joey – are also film composers.
But Randy became a singer and Pop composer and arranger. In addition to recording his own songs, he also saw many other artists “cover” them. Among them were Judy Collins, the Everly Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Pat Boone, Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt and Peggy Lee. Harry Nilsson in 1970 recorded an album made up entirely of songs by Newman. And Newman himself enjoyed a healthy career as a song writer and performer. His first foray into film music came in 1971 as composer and performer of the theme song, “He Gives Us All His Love,” for the movie “Cold Turkey.” He continued to record his songs as a singer, but from the 1980s onward film music occupied more and more of his time.
He came close to the target very early on: in 1981 his music for “Ragtime” was nominated for two Academy Awards. He has gone on to compose the music for seven Disney/Pixar films, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song for two of them: “Monsters, Inc.” and “Toy Story 3.” The principal theme in his Oscar-nominated score for “The Natural” has been taken up by Billy Joel as the start of his shows for his entrance music. All told Randy Newman's film scores have earned him 20 Oscar nominations and 2 wins. “My percentages aren't great",” he joked when accepting the Award in 2011.
To all the above should be added Randy Newman's output in Musical Theater, his activity as a performer and host on television which, among many others, included a guest appearance on the SECOND program of “Saturday Night Live” back in 1975. A Randy Newman Star appears on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and his “I Love LA” has become the unofficial anthem of Los Angeles sports teams. Thus James Naughton has been set a handsome challenge in choosing which songs of Randy Newman to include in his program.
“James Naughton: The Songs of Randy Newman” airs Friday evening, April 4 at 9 PM. I urge you to contact your local PBS station to learn the exact date and time of the program in your area.
Jason Isbell: Moving Forward
Friday, April 11 at 9 pm
For the final installment in our three visits with Lincoln Center's “American Songbook” series we'll attend “Jason Isbell: Moving Forward.” And again we'll be taken to the intimate Allen Room in the Frederick P. Rose Hall, on Broadway three blocks South of Lincoln Center's main campus. The room's spectacular views of Central Park and Columbus Circle are among the highlights of Manhattan's nighttime pleasures.
Jason Isbell was born in February 1979 in Greenhill, Alabama, virtually in the shadow of one of pop-country music's landmark sites, Muscle Shoals, where the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon made records. A trailer was the family home when Isbell was born, but a few years later the Farmers Home Administration was able to provide them with a one-level home. Jason was given an electric guitar when he was about 7 or 8, and by the time he was a high school sophomore he was sitting in and playing with local bands. Isbell was a big kid, built like a football player, but his build was deceiving: he was a sensitive youngster who played trumpet and French horn in his high school’s marching band. An academic scholarship brought him to the University of Memphis where he studied creative writing, an activity that explains the power and polish of his music lyrics. He never did graduate from the University, because when he left he was a single credit short of a degree.
He returned to the Muscle Shoals area and quickly came to the attention of F.A.M.E. Publishing which offered him a contract at $250 a week. He also began playing with bands in the area. An appearance as a substitute guitar player with the driving southern rock-country band the Drive-By Truckers won him a permanent position with the players. He was then 22 years old and already had composed an impressive list of successful songs. Among those he wrote for the Truckers was “Decoration Day,” which became an identifying theme for the group. Here is one section of its haunting message:
It’s Decoration Day
And I've got a family in Mobile Bay
And they've never seen my Daddy’s grave
But that don't bother me, it ain’t marked anyway
‘Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale south
And I got dead brothers in East Tennessee
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
He had no one to fall on but me.
From the same period came another hit, “Goddamn Lonely Love.” But success came too early in life for Jason Isbell and soon alcohol became his constant companion. After six turbulent years with the Truckers he left them in 2007 with the hope of embarking upon a solo career. A few unremarkable efforts followed, but his life was really fully fueled by alcohol. In 2009 Isbell recorded an album with musicians who were dubbed The 400 Unit. That monicker was the former informal name attached to the psychiatric ward of the Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Alabama. The now formal name of the unit is The Behavioral Health/Center/One North located on the first floor of the Hospital.
The year 2012 marked the turning point in Jason Isbell’s life. He entered Cumberland Heights, a rehab facility in Nashville, to treat his problem. After just two weeks he was “clean,” and proudly notes that as of the concert he was just two days shy of being “clean” for two years. During the years of his addiction he had become grossly overweight. After his stay at Cumberland Heights he dropped 40 pounds almost immediately. Later in 2012 his “Alabama Pines” won Song of the Year at the Americana Awards. “I can't get to sleep at night” go the words, sung from a motel room. “The parking lot's so loud and bright. The a/c hasn't worked in twenty years. Probably never made a single person cold. But I can't say the same for me. I've done it many times."
Last June came Jason's fourth album, titled Southeastern, in which he is joined by his singer-songwriter wife, Amanda Shires, and Kim Richey. Since then the album has enjoyed enthusiastic reviews and healthy sales.
Thus we wrap up our 3-episode visit to Lincoln Center's American Songbook series. “Jason Isbell: Moving Forward” will air on PBS stations coast-to-coast on Friday evening, April 11 at 9 PM. Be sure to check with your local PBS station for the exact date and time in your area.
MARTIN BOOKSPAN was Commentator for Live From Lincoln Center for 30 years, since its very first broadcast in January, 1976 until our 30th Anniversary broadcast in 2006. Martin's lifelong love and appreciation for music and all the performing arts have fueled and shaped his distinguished career in both print and broadcast media, which has included associations with the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, classical music radio station WQXR, and television Channel 7 News and Channel 11 News in New York City. He is the author of 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers (Doubleday) and Consumer Reports Reviews: Classical Recordings (Consumers Union), as well as biographies of Zubin Mehta and André Previn, written with Ross Yockey.