Press and Media

January 12, 2011

Peter D. Kramer

Nyack's music man Neil Berg made Mark Twain's characters sing in "The Prince and the Pauper" and turned the apostles into rockers in "The Twelve."

The composer and lyricist has also helped create concerts for stars as diverse as Tony winners Michael Crawford ("Phantom of the Opera"), Betty Buckley ("Cats") and Alice Ripley ("Next to Normal").

Berg's "100 Years of Broadway" concerts have celebrated The Great White Way's rich history, drawing on the talents of actors and actresses who take to the stage and rekindle the energy and fire they once brought to the same songs on Broadway.

The 1982 graduate of Tappan Zee High School has helped to create a major high school musical-theater powerhouse at St. Joseph's Regional High School in Montvale, N.J., serving as musical director for productions at the perennial contender for the region's high school theater awards.

Berg starts 2011 riding a high that ended 2010: A 21-performance run of his "Broadway Holiday" show at Los Angeles' 500-seat Geffen Playhouse drew raves.

"All of the 'jaded theater thing' you hear about musical theater in L.A. was nowhere to be found," Berg says. "We must have hit on the right vein, it was like a rock concert out there."

It was the latest trek in Berg's mission to spread the love of musical theater, a journey that continues, albeit closer to home, on Jan. 16, when ArtsRock presents "Neil Berg's Broadway for Kids" at 1 p.m. at the Lafayette Theatre in Suffern. The show will feature songs from "The Little Mermaid," "Mary Poppins," "Oliver!" and "The Prince and the Pauper," Berg's musical that ran nearly two years at the Lamb's Theater just off Times Square.

Without a hint of irony, Berg sums up his role: "My mission - as someone who's part of the Broadway community - is to keep this art form thriving. The best way to do that is to introduce it to young people."

Want to know more about this composer-lyricist-producer? Here are 10 things you might not know about Neil Berg:

1. He was the first student ever tried by Tappan Zee High School's student court.

"One of my fellow students was the judge and there was a prosecutor and I was the defendant, charged with trespassing and insubordination for playing the piano in a rehearsal room during my lunch period after a teacher told me not to." He was cleared of all the charges, except for telling the teacher to go fly a kite, but the takeaway from that brush with student justice has been long-lasting.

"My sentence was I had to go to the children's ward at Rockland Psychiatric and play a solo concert for the kids," Berg says. "That started my career in doing charity work. It changed my life. The kids at Rockland Psych were so thrilled that I was there and it taught me a lesson: If you can give other people what you love so much, they are thrilled to have it."

2. He was an all-county baseball player, a centerfielder at Tappan Zee, recruited to play at Columbia University.

"I found out that if I went to Columbia, I'd have to sit on the bench for two years. Binghamton called me and I could start as a freshman, which was important to me. Not to mention that Dan Tauken, the best baseball player I'd ever seen from Rockland County, was at Binghamton, so I thought it was a great program. Dan was a pitcher and he was All Daily News Player of the Year. And I went on to play four years at Binghamton and was all-state, All-SUNYAC," the best of SUNY's student athletes.

3. In high school, he played against Tom McNamara, who is now the scouting director of baseball's The Seattle Mariners.

McNamara, the standout Albertus Magnus baseball player, was a year younger than Berg, but faced him often enough to remember his opponent all these years later.

"He could hit and he could go get the ball in the outfield," McNamara says from his Mariners office. "He was just a good player. When you were playing your position and Neil Berg got up, you expected a ball to be hit hard and right at you, which is usually the mark of a good hitter."

4. He met his wife in the Broadway Show League softball fields in Central Park.

"I was a ringer. A lot of my friends are actors, but because I'm a composer, the only way to get on a team is if your show is on Broadway. One of my good friends, Brad Little, was in 'Phantom of the Opera' and so I was playing on the 'Phantom of the Opera' softball team and this redhead comes in, who I hadn't met, from the road to play Christine on Broadway. And I fell in love. And that was it ... and she had a good arm."

(P.S. Years later, when his show, "The Prince and the Pauper," played the Lamb's Theater, he was too busy to play in the Show League.)

5. He once used a $400 titanium-aluminum baseball bat that belonged to the singer Meatloaf.

"I hit a rocket, as hard as you could hit a softball, but I didn't get under it, so it was a single. I jogged down to first and the first baseman, a guy with long hair, tells me the bat I was using was lousy, that I should use his bat the next time I get up. So I pick up his bat and it's great. I hit a home run so far it was comical. It was over a tree. I crushed the ball. As I round first, the guy yells 'Don't ever touch my bat again!' It was Meatloaf."

6. Even as a show-business insider, he's not good with putting faces to names.

"I'm horrible at recognizing people."

7. His best professional advice came from Beth Fowler, who starred in "Sweeney Todd" and "Baby" on Broadway.

"I was at a recording session audition and I showed up trying to be who I thought she wanted me to be. She said, 'Neil, you're young. You're talented. The best thing you can do is just tell me what you want. Be yourself. That's good enough.' "

8. He doesn't get starstruck anymore.

"If you're confident at what you do and you're ultra-respectful, you want the person to live up to the image you have of them. The truth is that the talent is one thing but the talent becomes secondary once you work with them. Always. It's always about the person first. I don't care how talented they are, if I don't like working with them, I won't work with them. You're almost fearful that they won't live up to the image. You want them to be the hero that you admired. Most of the time they are."

9. He bought an iPod, but never used it.

"I gave it to my wife. I listen to Sirius radio, the EStreet Channel and Classic Rock."

10. He loves the Yankees, but he'd rather be Brian Cashman than Curtis Granderson.

"I love fantasy baseball and the wheelin' dealin'. I play in two fantasy leagues."