Press and Media

July 21, 2009

Encore Michigan
July 21-27, 2009
By Donald V. Calamia

One of the busiest guys in showbiz just might be Neil Berg. A lyricist, composer, accompanist, producer - Berg is coming to Meadow Brook Music Festival July 18 with his popular musical revue, 100 Years of Broadway. Berg recently talked with about his career, the criteria he used in deciding which shows to include (and exclude) from the show, and how fate intervened to prevent one less lawyer from coming into the world.

With a show titled 100 Years of Broadway, that gave you a considerable span of time from which to choose the numbers that ultimately appear in the revue. Does the show reach back to the early decades of the 20th century and then walk (or sing-and-dance) its way through the years to the 21st century? Or does it concentrate mostly on the more recent eras most theatergoers today are familiar with?

We start the show with an a cappella version of Give My Regards to Broadway from George M. Cohan's 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones, and in the course of the evening we hear important songs from such legendary early Broadway composers like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. It was imperative to have these composers represented. Most songs are performed with great respect to how the composer intended them to be sung. Yet we do have fun, and take some liberties, especially with one particular Irving Berlin tune.

The show is a little over two hours long, so of course I can't do every great song I would like (or represent every worthy composer), or else it would be a Ken Burns week-long documentary. But I think the show has a nice balance of vital songs throughout Broadway's long and splendid history, including songs from current shows like Wicked and Jersey Boys. This show is a rock concert for Broadway fans! The energy is festive, inclusive and they will probably know (and maybe sing along with) every song.

The Broadway musical has had several distinct "eras," "periods" or "styles" over the last 100 years, ranging from Ziegfeld's mesmerizing, feel-good song-and-dance extravaganzas to musicals about AIDS � and pretty much everything in between. Was one of your objectives to acknowledge and celebrate these different eras?

Absolutely! And not only celebrate the eras, but bring to light how the themes and musical styles of Broadway shows over history are in direct correlation with U.S. history.

The American Musical is like the Frankenstein monster of musical art form. Pieces have been liberally borrowed from opera, vaudeville, operetta, jazz, blues, pop music, rock 'n' roll, etc, and now Latin music as used in In the Heights...the kitchen sink of music, and they helped create a new life of story telling. This variety matches the "melting pot" of immigrant cultures which makes up America. All these styles are represented and celebrated in 100 Years of Broadway, and are inherent to the "Broadway" sound.

What was the criteria you used in determining which numbers to include? Were you focused more on the composers and lyricists than you were a show's (or song's) popularity?

The performers I use in my concerts have all starred in at least one Broadway musical. Most have starred in many shows, including some of the most well known. So....

I want to make sure I let the performers recreate some songs/roles that they helped make famous. For example, Rita Harvey played Christine Daee in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, so you can guess she will sing a famous song from that show, which deserves to be heard, as it is the longest running show in history. Obviously there are some theater critics who don't like Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, but this show is not catered to them.

Lawrence Clayton starred as Judas in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, a landmark musical, so he will sings from that show. Erick Buckley had the honor of starring as Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables, so that will be sung. Carter Calvert will recreate the role she originated in the Tony nominated It Ain't Nothing But the Blues at Lincoln Center.

Then I also match the performer with the great Broadway songs from the past that they would be most suited to sing, as well as songs from shows that best help explore Broadway's history. Its a mix.

As a lyric soprano, Rita also sings from My Fair Lady. As a big belter, Carter is perfect to sing from Chicago, Funny Girl and even Stephen Sondheim. Ray McLeod is known as one of Broadway's best legit bass/baritones, so he gets Rodgers & Hammerstein, Man of La Mancha. And so on.

Did any of your selections ultimately surprise you - such as, did you fall in love with a song you didn't really care for originally? Or did you exclude a number that you initially just KNEW would be a part of the show?

When I first put this show together, I was sick and tired of hearing a song like Memory from Cats. But, as I talk about in the show, when you get to hear this song delivered as it was originally intended, by a brilliant performer who understands the point of view of the character and the insight of the lyric, and that undeniably catchy musical hook, well...I can understand (why it) is one of the most requested songs in Broadway history. I've totally rethought my opinion about the song.

To answer your second question, Ray McLeod sings what I think is the greatest song ever written for Broadway, Old Man River from Show Boat. He would never get a chance to play that part in a real production, but the song is too important to leave out, and he sings it incredibly well, so we let him pay tribute to that song and its place in history!

I also felt I HAD to include a tribute to Grease, and talk about the reasons for that show's success, even though some of our performers are not age appropriate.

On the other hand, I left out a few songs which might be critically applauded, but which I didn't think the audience would know or enjoy.

Is there any kind of story that unfolds throughout the course of the evening? How are the songs threaded together � if at all?

I narrate the show from the piano. My approach is that I am giving a party, the audience is in my living room, and I have invited over some singers to sing. These singers just happen to be incredible Broadway performers. I like to involve the audience, and I talk to and with them during the show, sharing stories and anecdotes that I think would interest them, to give them unique insight into the songs they are hearing.

It is not a boring, predictable chronology of Broadway. Yuck! While is it semi-scripted, we go with the flow. It is different every night, which keeps it fresh! As they say in theater Anything Goes!

You've got quite a background yourself as a lyricist and composer. Your The Prince and the Pauper was a recent off-Broadway hit, and Grumpy Old Men: The Musical and The Man Who Would be King are in various stages of development with an eye on Broadway. What got you interested in musical theater as a career � and at what age?

I started typical piano lessons at age 10, but found that I gravitated towards composing right from the start. I loved creative writing, and if you combine storytelling with music, you get musical theater.

I never thought I would make a career of it. I went to college to play baseball and become a lawyer. I still played the piano in college, and actually made extra money playing in a piano bar, but it was never in my head to pursue it for real.

As fate would have it, I was approached by another student to compose a full blown musical in college called Ghost Story, and it was produced by the university. To explain what I felt like on opening night would be like describing Utopia. It was unreal! And, much to my parents chagrin, it was goodbye law school, goodbye baseball - and hello to the wonderful struggling life of a young theater composer.

I immersed myself, and became a student of theater - the history, the composers, lyricists, book writers, shows, etc., and studied with great teachers like Sue Peters and Walter Ponce. And by my senior year, I was asked to write my first professional score for a nearby Equity theater. Then I went to New York City and tried to become part of the theater fabric - making friends, peddling my flawed musicals, attending the BMI theater workshop for aspiring theater writers, studying with the great Skip Kennon and Maury Yeston, and learning my craft.

It drives me crazy when anybody thinks they can write a musical. There is a craft to it that is specific, and must be learned and nurtured. A novice might have a great idea, but trying to write a musical with no training is like having a great idea on how you want your new un-built house to look, and then trying to build it yourself with no experience in construction or carpentry.

I also played many benefits when I was younger for free, but the experience was invaluable - meeting performers who would become great friends, as well as great stars. This led to producing concerts for benefits, which led to producing corporate concerts, which led to this incredible concert career, where I now play over 100 cities a year.

But I never lost sight that I am a composer first, and tried to write about subjects I was interested in, like The Prince and the Pauper and The Man Who Would Be King (which will continue its development this summer at The Village Theater outside Seattle, directed by Tony Award-winner Brian Yorkey) - stories about dreamers who become something more than they ever could imagine.

Fortunately I've also been hired by a theater producer to write the musical version of Grumpy Old Men, and it is one of the best experiences of my life! The source material allows for compositions that are funny, contemporary, but yet have heart. I'm all about heart! And what a cast to help develop it: F. Murray Araham, George Hearn, Marilu Henner, Carol! They plan on bringing Grumpy Old Men to a regional theater in late 2010, and then hopefully Broadway in 2011.

In the past, 100 Years of Broadway has featured such luminaries as Betty Buckley and Ben Vereen. Did you ever imagine early in your career that you�d be working with some of the biggest names on Broadway?

NO! (laughs) But its been wonderful!

Take for example, a legend like Rita Moreno: What a broad! She's from the Bronx originally, like me, so we clicked! When you deal with so many stars, the most important thing to me is their personality. Eventually it becomes "do I like this person, and do I want to work with them," and that's the way it should be, I think. There's too much talent to be hijacked on a project by a wicked diva - or their agent!

You're on the road with 100 Years of Broadway as its accompanist. How long has the show been in production? Are you still having fun on tour? Or are you tempted to let someone else take over so that you can work on other projects?

We've been on an official Broadway national tour for four years, but I have been producing concerts for over 20 years. This show is a culmination of all of those years. I love touring and bringing my show all around the country. Every audience is different, but they all have something in common: They love Broadway. So its wonderful to share my passion with an audience that is just as passionate.

I will continue to do this for as long as people want to hear and see it, but I have an amazing wife and son, and I want to be at home for them (and to coach little league), so I will probably cut back the amount I tour eventually.

As for composing...composing defines me, it's what I do and who I am. I can write on tour, at home, on a bus, in a car, underwater...and if I may borrow and augment from A Chorus Line, "I'm a composer, a composer composes!

I hope to see everyone at the show!