Thursday, November 17, 2011

Interview with Jack Viertel of Encores!

left, Carla Cooke, Wynton Marsalis and Adriane Lenox; below, Jack Viertel (photos by Joan Marcus)

Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Parade
November 18-22, 2011
New York City Center
151 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Encores!, which began in 1994 to return vintage musicals to the New York City stage, is now one of the premier musical institutions in the city. The current Broadway smash-hit production of Chicago began at Encores!, as did the recent Gypsy with Patti Lupone, and there have been wonderful revivals of such “forgotten” gems as St. Louis Woman with Vanessa Williams, The Apple Tree with Kristin Chenoweth and Bells Are Ringing with Kelli O'Hara.

The guiding hand of Encores! is artistic director Jack Viertel, who ensures that the series continues to present top-notch revivals of musicals beloved and/or forgotten, and although this season is no different, in fact it begins differently, with the first fruit of a new partnership between Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC), Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Parade, featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, playing tonight through November 22.

Viertel spoke recently about Encores! and JALC’s partnership, what else is coming this season, and the recent renovation of New York City Center (Encores’ long-time home).

Q: How did the relationship between Encores! and JALC come about?
A: I was talking with the president of City Center about the different ways that we could expand Encores! We thought of two ways: that there are classical music composers and jazz composers who also wrote Broadway shows. We had a meeting with JALC, which was also thinking about how to explore the areas of jazz that their regular concert format didn’t lend itself too. So we decided to do a show every other year, one at our hall, one at their hall. Then the question was: what do we do as our first jazz show? Cotton Club Parade was my idea to recreate a Cotton Club floor show, and Wynton is a big fan of Duke Ellington, whose band was house band at the Cotton Club. It seemed to fit together, so we decided to start with that, and here we are.

Q: How did Cotton Club Parade take shape?
A: The most interesting thing about the original Cotton Club shows which we are trying to genuinely recreate is that they were a real crossroads of jazz singers, Broadway singers and vaudeville performers: these shows brought Broadway a little bit closer to jazz and jazz a little bit closer to Broadway. And, of course, Wynton’s band is the best jazz band there is. Our performers include genuine jazz singers like Carla Cooke and Tony-winning Broadway performers like Adriane Lenox, and everyone in between, with even some coming out of the street-dancing and hip-top tradition.

Q: Do you expect different audiences than the ones who usually attend Encores! shows?
A: Well, we have our subscribers and JALC has its own subscribers, who will also be there. We’re also marketing this show to general audiences too. We’ve been trying to reach out to different audiences for awhile, to try and mix up who comes to our shows. Even when we do our regular Encores! performances, they’re each unique and each draws different audiences. I hope Cotton Club Parade will also draw an audience of people who just want to hear good music and who go to different jazz clubs in the city.

Q: What is on the regular Encores! schedule this season, and how do you decide which shows to perform each year?
A: We have three Encores! shows coming later this year: Merrily We Roll Along (February), Pipe Dream (March/April) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (May), all of which we’re very excited about, of course. We have a long list of shows that we want to do, and we decide which set of three we want to do together each season. Sometimes the rights for the music are not available, or the orchestrations have been lost, or something like that prevents us from doing a show. We always like to do shows that don’t resemble one another, so that the audience has a completely unique experience each time.

Q: How is the renovated City Center?
A: The renovated City Center looks fantastic: it’s absolutely amazing, and I’m frankly very moved by how it all turned out. Even the acoustics feel different to me, but it’s a little hard to really tell until we actually are in there doing our shows. City Center was the first hall that used amplified acoustics for musical theater back in the 1940s (it was originally a Shriners Temple, not a performance hall). But things have improved greatly since then.

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