We’re delighted to announce the 2017 season of City Center’s Tony-honored Encores! series, which will kick off with Roger Miller’s Big River from February 8-12, 2017. The season will continue with Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers, running from March 22-26, 2017, and close with Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s The Golden Apple, running from May 10-14, 2017. Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel explains why we’re bringing these shows back to life.
The 2017 Encores! season will lead audiences all across the USA—and take a hundred years to do it. Our 24th season features three distinct American regions and three historic time periods. Beginning with Big River, which is set along the Mississippi River Valley in the 1840s, we’ll move to the East Coast for Cole Porter’s 1930 Prohibition jape The New Yorkers, and conclude with a visit to the Pacific Northwest, where The Golden Apple retells the stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey, setting them at the base of that other Mount Olympus, at the end of the Spanish-American War.
Three more different shows can hardly be imagined. Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first produced on Broadway in 1985, was one of the few musicals to buck the trend of the British invasion of that decade, which included Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. It was an entirely American invention, based on Mark Twain’s great American novel, and featuring a score by a unique American voice, the country-western artist Roger Miller.
Pap Finn (John Goodman) and Huckleberry Finn (Daniel H. Jenkins) in the 1985 Broadway production of Big River. (Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
Miller brought his upstart wit and imagination to bear on Twain’s satirical novel in a unique way. He’d never written a musical before, and quite possibly had never seen one. His explanation of how he got roped into the enterprise was typically Miller-esque: “[Producer] Rocco Landesman,” he explained, “made me an offer I couldn’t understand.”
The result was a surprise hit and an artistic surprise as well—a modest but affecting retelling of the story of a runaway boy and a runaway slave on a raft, theatrically as bold as it was simple, and with a memorable score that sounds like its characters, its time, and its place. It was nothing like a Broadway musical in most senses, and no one who worked on it had any real experience in the field.
This kind of thing usually spells disaster, but in the case of Big River, it launched a number of important careers instead, including John Goodman, director Des McAnuff (The Who’s Tommy, Jersey Boys), and set designer Heidi Ettinger. Orchestrator Danny Troob became one of the key music makers at Disney, and Landesman himself went on to head up Jujamcyn Theaters and was then appointed Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Like its central character, Big River was an upstart that was rewarded instead of punished in the end—it won the Tony and ran over 1000 performances.
If Big River is a bucolic musical, no show could be more citified and urbane than Porter’s The New Yorkers. Virtually forgotten today (and therefore the kind of challenge that Encores! can hardly resist), this 1930 extravaganza celebrating speakeasies, gangsters, society dames, and the great city they love produced a number of standards, including “I Happen to Like New York” and “Love For Sale.”
Its scandalously comic tone is reminiscent of a Pre-Code Hollywood movie—completely amoral, louche, and unscrupulous, as befits a musical that was the brainchild of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno. The magazine’s first cartooning superstar, Arno was a politically incorrect, mercilessly mordant dissector of the urban classes; his early targets consisted largely of wealthy older men chasing after chorus girls, stout dowagers whose sex appeal had spectacularly failed them, clueless little bald men with waxed mustaches, alcoholic bluebloods, the bootleggers who serviced them, and working stiffs who watched it all in fascinated horror.
The New Yorkers takes all of this on gleefully. Or so we have deduced. Much of the original material from the show has been lost, and this will be the most ambitious reconstruction Encores! has ever done, made possible by The Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Broadway Musical Restoration Fund. We are starting with ten Porter songs, a barely legible photocopy of some version of the script (it made us laugh out loud), and a Playbill that lists the songs and who performed them. We relish the challenge of reinventing this lost evening of sophisticated Depression-era craziness, and we’re eager to share it with Encores! audiences.
Cole Porter in 1933, a few years after he wrote The New Yorkers.
The Golden Apple is as ambitious as The New Yorkers was—in its day—disposable. Set at the turn of the 20th Century in Washington State, Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s 1954 Americanization of Homer’s epic poems began life Off-Broadway at the Phoenix Theatre and transferred to Broadway a month later. By today’s standards, this mixture of serious composition and whimsy is a mammoth undertaking, on the order of Sweeney Todd or Porgy and Bess. It is through-composed, featuring a large orchestra even by Broadway standards and some delightfully tricky music.
The characters, although they are as American as Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, all retain their classical Homeric names, and many of the actual incidents from The Iliad and The Odyssey have been adapted into archetypal events from rural turn-of-the-century America—the pie-baking contest, the balloon ride, and so forth. The character of Paris has been transformed from a prince into a traveling salesman, while Helen of Troy, who runs off with him, is simply a beautiful, bored housewife with an older, inattentive husband.
Helen (Kaye Ballard) seduces Paris (Jonathan Lucas) in the original Broadway production of The Golden Apple.
One song from the score—Helen’s “Lazy Afternoon”—emerged as a standard that has been continuously interpreted by jazz, cabaret, and even classical concert singers ever since, marking Moross and Latouche’s score as one of the signal achievements of a Broadway season that was commercially dominated by shows like The Boy Friend, Peter Pan, and The Pajama Game.
The show opened to rave reviews, but seems to have been a case of “too rare a breed” for the average theatergoer in the era of the tired businessman. Nonetheless, the quality of the writing is so high and the imagination so inventive that The Golden Apple is among the most frequently requested shows by our audience.
It has been on the Encores! wish list for a long time now, but the difficulty of mounting it, given our short rehearsal time and limited production opportunities, has made us shy about tackling it. But in the context of our American journey in 2017, it seemed too good an opportunity to resist any longer. We hope you’ll be with us when the time machine pulls out from City Center next February.
Subscriptions to the 2017 Encores! season are now available.
Jack Viertel is the author of
The Secret Life of the American Musical.