To kick off “Encores! at 25,” the beloved series’ artistic director Jack Viertel and music director Rob Berman created Hey, Look Me Over!, a new musical celebrating shows that have yet to grace the New York City Center stage. We sat down to talk about putting together a production (playing February 7–11) which combines lesser-known Broadway shows, returning musical theatre favorites, and a man in a chair.
Jack Viertel: A long time ago, without having formed it in any way, I had in my head a show called Act One, Scene One, which was going to be act one scene one of many different shows. But nothing ever happened with that idea.
Rob Berman: We felt that there were certain shows that, in the first scene, had a great song or two.
Viertel: Right. But there was no real reason to do this. Then the 25th season presented an opportunity to do something special and I started thinking about Act One, Scene One again and talked to Rob about it. Of course he was quick to point out that there were some wonderful shows to do this with where it actually isn’t Act 1, Scene 1— that there are other places in the show that we would want to do. So, Act One, Scene One went out the window and was replaced by Hey, Look Me Over! because A) It’s a famous song, and B) These are seven or eight shows that Encores! hasn’t done and we want to invite you to look ‘em over. You know, we originally had about 15 musicals on the list of shows we were considering.
Berman: We wracked our brains.
Viertel: It was tricky because there are some shows that are actually extremely lovely shows, but they don’t necessarily have that “Oh, this you gotta hear” moment. So the shows we’re doing are Wildcat, All American, Jamaica, Milk and Honey, Mack & Mabel, Greenwillow, Sail Away, and the very end of George M!
Berman: They all feel like they’re ’60s shows, even though one is from the ’50s and one’s from the ’70s. Musically, by keeping within that range, I think the instrumentation and orchestration of these shows will be more consistent and, overall, it’ll have a more cohesive sound and feel. These are shows that I think musical theatre fans are probably curious about. So, by giving them this little sample platter, I think the audience is going to love it.
Viertel: I think they’ll have a great deal of fun. It’s interesting that these shows all come from the same period, more or less, but you’ll still hear a lot of different styles of music. Because it’s Frank Loesser being almost art song-y. And, you know, Strouse and Adams doing All American, which is kind of raggy and period.
Berman: And two Jerry Herman shows—Milk and Honey and Mack & Mabel.
Viertel: Looking at these shows, you get to thinking about how they touch on so many American archetypes. Wildcat is about entrepreneurial people, you know. People digging for oil and becoming wealthy in the process. All American is about immigration, Mack & Mabel is about Hollywood, and Greenwillow is about wanderlust. These all feel like American themes. They don’t mean to be—we didn’t assemble these musicals for that reason—but there’s this kind of American panoply going on in this show. So, there will be plenty of different candies in the dish, I think, and it’s just a question of threading through them and making it into a production that feels satisfying all the way through.
Berman: Yes, the question for me was always, “What is the experience of the audience going to be, jumping around from show to show? What is the through line? What is the glue?” And the wonderful Josh Clayton, who is the assistant music director for Encores!, said, “You need to get Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone.” And we all sort of stopped, looked at each other, and paused, and you know, were thinking...
Viertel: “That’s exactly what we need!”
Berman: “That’s a great idea!”
Viertel: So, I called Bob Martin, who I worked with on another show, and said, “Do you want to come be Man in Chair?” I told him the idea for Hey, Look Me Over! and he said, “Absolutely.” He got in a cab and came over to my office and we sat and talked about it for an hour or so. And interestingly, that helped us figure out how to describe this show. It’s not a concert, it’s not really a potpourri, so what is it? And what it is, really, is a guided tour by Man in Chair.
Berman: This character, who Bob created for The Drowsy Chaperone, is a very persnickety gentleman who sits at home and listens to his records of old musicals and then one comes to life inside his apartment. As the real show progresses, he stops and narrates and describes and explains things. So for Hey Look Me Over!, the persona we wanted to give Man in Chair is that of an opinionated Encores! subscriber who’s disappointed that we haven’t done any of these musicals. He’ll take our audience through these shows and explain the excerpts they’ll be seeing.
Viertel: He may be mis-explaining it, or explaining it in a comic way, but you’ll always feel you have a representative up on the stage who’s going to help you.
Berman: He’s explaining it all through his particular point of view. Because if that character really existed, he would be an Encores! subscriber. He loves musicals so much, he’s so passionate about them, loves all of the detail, loves all the stories, and is extremely opinionated and critical of things he doesn’t agree with. In addition to bringing Bob Martin’s beloved character back to the New York stage, Hey Look Me Over! provided us a chance, with casting, to have people back in the building who have been at Encores! before. Like Bebe. Bebe Neuwirth was in Chicago. I mean, that show is what made Encores!. We also have Encores! veterans Marc Kudisch and Tam Mutu. Who else?
Viertel: Vanessa Williams did St. Louis Woman. Nancy Opel did Do I Hear a Waltz?. Clifton Duncan was the Balladeer in Encores! Off-Center’s Assassins. These are great people.
Berman: And then, from my end, pulling together the orchestration and instrumentation from all these different places and making them conform to the 30-piece orchestra we have will take a little bit of work. I think when we announced the show, there was some reaction that people felt like they were just going to get a concert—just song, song, song, song, like one of the Encores! Bash concerts that we used to do at City Center. But these are sequences excerpted from musicals in context. It’s not just songs. You’re going to get full scenes, you’re going to get full numbers.
Viertel: After 25 years of Encores!, I do get the question all the time, “Are you out of shows?” And, as you can see from Hey, Look Me Over! the answer is, “No, we’re not out of shows. Here are eight shows in one night that we’re not out of.”
Katie Labovitz is the Editorial Associate at New York City Center.