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Ron Richardson and Daniel Jenkins in the original Broadway production of Big River. (Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts)

This February, Roger Miller’s classic musical Big River will return to New York in an Encores! revival. Below, producer Rocco Landesman offers a rollicking account of the show’s unlikely creation.

“If I’d a knowed what trouble it was to enact this history I never would a tackled it.” We certainly didn’t know, my wife Heidi and I, what we were in for, as we drove from our home in Brooklyn to a rare Roger Miller concert at the Lone Star Cafe in lower Manhattan. Could Roger Miller, we wondered out loud, write a Broadway musical?

The American musical and country music, we had long felt, were much closer in form and spirit than was generally thought, with their emphasis on lyrics in the service of storytelling and hummable melodies. Roger, I knew with total certainty, was a genius, the greatest American songwriter; he could do anything.

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January 17, 2017 by New York City Center

Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George; photo by Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece is coming to City Center next week in a series of benefit concerts starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford. We looked back at how the show was written, how it revolutionized musical theater, and how it taught a generation of artists to move on.

“When I first hear a song sung, I’m worried that I’m going to be embarrassed by what I wrote,” said Stephen Sondheim while Sunday in the Park with George was in previews. “So I try to postpone the moment.” The quote is endearing, and more than a little absurd, coming from the patron saint of musical theater—but in early 1984, Sondheim hadn’t quite hit apotheosis. His previous musical, Merrily We Roll Along, had closed on Broadway after a disastrous 16-performance run, prompting such giddy theater-world schadenfreude that Sondheim considered abandoning Broadway to write mystery novels or video games.

Then salvation came—in the form of a Pointillist masterpiece. In June 1982, Sondheim began a tentative collaboration with James Lapine, a young Off-Broadway playwright. In search of a subject, they began rifling through photographs and paintings, one of which was Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

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October 19, 2016 by New York City Center

Edith Vonnegut painted the poster art for the 1979 Off-Broadway production of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Any Millennial with a wireless connection and a heart probably YouTubes “Part of Your World” more often than they care to admit. The songs of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken sustain us—they’re part of the American subconscious—which makes it all the stranger that the team’s first collaboration, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, has been virtually forgotten. Based on Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, the 1979 musical follows the journey of Eliot Rosewater, a potato-chip-loving millionaire who devotes his life to saving an Indiana town full of lost souls. Savagely funny and unapologetically political, Rosewater is returning to New York this week in a City Center revival. In this oral history, you’ll learn how the show was created, why it flopped Off-Broadway, and why it deserves to live again.

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July 25, 2016 by New York City Center

Kurt Vonnegut

During the autumn of 1979, genius lived in the ballroom of the Ukrainian National Home. The 56-year-old countercultural icon Kurt Vonnegut was there, hunkered down over sheet music with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, two young songwriters who’d created a musical version of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Ashman and Menken would rocket to fame a few years later with Little Shop of Horrors, but at the time Vonnegut regarded them, kindly, as “a bunch of nobodies.”

Still, he was happy to be in a rehearsal room. “He was in love with the theater,” says Edith Vonnegut, his daughter. “He just thought it was the most fun of all the arts, because you got to play with all these different people.” Vonnegut was a devoted theatergoer who raised his children on Broadway cast albums like My Fair Lady and The Music Man; in the 1950s, he’d even served as president of the Barnstable Comedy Club, a “far out” community theater in Cape Cod. Vonnegut occasionally played bit parts at the Barnstable—a dinner party guest here, a Trojan warrior there—but mostly he hung backstage, writing and directing star vehicles for his wife Jane.

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July 18, 2016 by New York City Center

Four of Elizabeth Swados’ former students performing her work. Photo by Luiz Ribeiro.

“I can turn all kinds of things into songs,” the late Elizabeth Swados once said. She wasn’t kidding. On July 6, 2016, a concert of her deep cuts made the case for Swados as an artist of boundless range, willing to tackle everything from Old Testament romance to the desensitization of soldiers in Vietnam. “I’d never seen a woman make work like that before,” said Encores! Off-Center Artistic Director Jeanine Tesori at the concert, which was held in City Center’s Grand Tier lobby before the first performance of Runaways. “She was an amazing force, and I don’t think that enough people know about her.”

But the Cult of Swados keeps growing. At the concert, Tesori was joined by five charter members—Thomas Hennes, Matthew Marsh, Preston Martin, Shaina Taub, and Hannah Whitman. All of them were taught by Swados at NYU Tisch. And all are animated by the sense of living in a post-Swados world—in Martin’s words, “a world in which a bunch of babies like us were saved by a shaman that couldn’t get her hands on everyone, so now we gotta get out there and lay hands on the rest of humanity in her honor.” So they came to City Center—to sing, to crack Debbie Allen jokes, and to reveal which Swados song has become a NYU-wedding staple.

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July 11, 2016 by New York City Center
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