The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Bombs Away! - April 18, 2015
by Winslow Rogers
I never know quite what to expect from a Samantics concert, but each one is unique and unforgettable. This one was no exception — an evening of songs from failed Broadway shows. The concert was a mix of songs worthy of a second look and those that make clear just why their shows were turkeys. The concert was meant to give us an experience analogous to that of freeway drivers who can't take their eyes off the accident on the side of the road.
I attended the concert at the First United Methodist Church on J Street in Sacramento. Samantics also gave the program in Berkeley and Vacaville. The audience in Sacramento was not as large as I would have liked, and I look forward to the day when Samantics concerts are the box-office hits in Sacramento that they deserve to be.
As usual with Samantics, the printed program was a marvel of information and pizzazz. Posters of all twenty-four shows were reproduced in bright color on glossy paper, along with production credits, opening and closing dates, excerpts from reviews, and the amount of backers' money the show lost. The winner? Lord of the Rings (2006) burned through $25 million and never made it to Broadway.
There are familiar names among the credits, showing that even the greatest of Broadway talents can have a bad day. There were songs by Richard Rodgers, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Frank Loesser, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to name a few.
Click here to open the printed program in a new window.
The thirty-voice Samantics chorus came out in black tuxes and dresses onto risers facing the audience. Director Sam Schieber, the founder and creative force behind the group, sat down front at the piano facing the singers. He provided accompaniment to the singers and turned around to give witty commentary to the audience. This was a soloists' concert more than a choral one, with only a few chorus-only songs, and the chorus backing up the singers on the other numbers. The chorus was well-trained with a nice balanced sound, and the dozen-or-so soloists were unfailingly enjoyable, with Broadway-style voices appropriate to the material.
And what incredible material it was. Behind each song was the tale of a different Broadway disaster. You may never have heard of these musicals, but some of them bear household names, such as Gone With the Wind, Rocky, Carrie, and Lord of the Rings. This is not a coincidence. As Schieber said, Broadway hopefuls fasten onto well-known properties thinking that will guarantee success. Usually it's the opposite.
Samantics performed thirty songs in a little more than ninety minutes, leaving this reviewer breathless. I will mention some of my favorites to give you a taste of this quirky concert.
One of the Broadway bombs produced a song that has escaped oblivion. Barbra Streisand had a hit recording with "He Touched Me" from Drat! The Cat! (1965), a show that lasted for only eight performances on Broadway. Orlana Van Zandt was not intimidated standing in Streisand's shadow and reprised the song effectively.
"I'm Infected," from Cry-Baby (2008), "Garlic," from Dance of the Vampires (2002), and "Heaven," from Carrie (1988) are as inept and grotesque musical fare as you can imagine given their subject matter. Sweeney Todd they are not.
"Harmony" from A Family Affair (1962), one of the few chorus-only numbers, is all about what choral singers do in every concert. It works very well and would be welcome on one of today's choral concert programs.
Ankles Aweigh (1955) has a song titled "Nothing Can Replace a Man." Yes, it's a reversal of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. There's nothing wrong with doing this, but the lyrics are too unsubtle in proclaiming the fact. Jill Wagoner put the song across well, with lively music-hall gestures. Christine Nicholson and some of the ladies of the chorus came down front to present "Love is Hell," from Oh, Captain (1958), with appropriate screechy raucousness.
Bring Back Birdie (1981) was an unsuccessful sequel to the smash hit Bye Bye Birdie. We are used to sequels and ongoing franchises in today's entertainment world, but it didn't work this time. The sequel had only four performances on Broadway. However, the "Middle Aged Blues" from that show, sung with flair by Robert Rennicks, was witty and delightful.
I had a favorite sublime-to-the-ridiculous experience at the concert. The music of Anya (1965) is drawn from Rachmaninov. The adapters, Robert Wright and George Forrest, had written successful musicals based on the music of Grieg (Song of Norway) and Borodin (Kismet), but with Rachmaninov their luck ran out. Lisa Singh gave a lovely rendition of this pleasant music, but she was up against impossible odds. The melody comes from the long (fifteen-minute) slow movement of Rachmaninov's second symphony — as lush and compelling an expression of Romantic yearning as I know.
The encore was a tour-de-force from Teddy and Alice (1987), a musical about President Theodore Roosevelt and his daughter Alice. The score is drawn from the music of John Philip Sousa, a contemporary of TR. You've heard "The Stars and Stripes Forever" many times, but a vocal rendition? Ryan Ritter mastered the tongue-twisting lyrics of "Wave the Flag," the adaptation of the march, with ease. I took this song as a respectful tribute to Sousa and not a travesty; the songwriters, Hal Hackady and Richard Kapp, relished the challenge and carried it off with panache. The chorus entered for the grand finale.
Who knew that after an evening of unknown Broadway bombs, we would leave the theater humming a familiar tune? That's another ironic twist of the sort Samantics is famous for, and that keeps me coming back to their concerts.
Winslow Rogers is a retired university professor, administrator, and guest artist series producer from Grass Valley. He is finishing his second year of reviewing concerts for the Sacramento Choral Calendar.