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With the 1968 release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, not only a mega sales blockbuster but also the album that changed the course of rock music, every record label was looking for another Beatles.
MCA Records, a division of Music Corporation of America/Universal Studios, like Columbia and RCA Records, was once an industry leader. Now, its major imprint Decca was considered a stable, old-line company not identified with contemporary sounds. Not exactly true: through a licensing agreement, they were at the vanguard of the “British invasion,” doing a laudable job of launching The Who. There were respectable sales from three LPs, but
That was soon to change.
For their fourth LP, The Who went into the studio with a theme leads Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry christened a “rock opera.” Townshend came up
with the concept after meeting Indian spiritual master and “avatar” Meher Baba.
He musicalized the story of “a psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a master pinball player and object of a religious cult.” Tommy was acclaimed by critics, rejuvenating the band's reputation. Copies were flying off record store shelves and there was a sell-out U.K. tour.
The logical next stop was the U.S. The band was booked for a 5 A.M. concert at 1969’s Woodstock Music Festival, which turned into a riotous event of screaming fans. Decca awoke to unprecedented requests for product. It finally had its first mega smash in almost two decades – and first top-charted LP. [Tommy became one of the most influential albums in rock annals, eventually racking up sales in excess of 25 million, with later successful film and stage adaptations, and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame].
TV had hurt movie house box offices to the point that MCA transformed its lot into a TV movie and series assembly line. Tommy’s immense popularity suggested another way to pump up the bottom line. The company was in a unique position with film, TV, and music, to use their record artists to crossover to TV for guest-starring roles. However, the company didn’t have The Who under contract, only their records.
The Nashville division, with the rising popularity of country rocker Conway Twitty and coal miner’s daughter Loretta Lynn, was thriving, but these and other country artists didn’t yet have wide appeal or simply weren’t quite ready for prime time. Decca had a rich legacy of albums from long-ago show business giants and a catalog of Broadway original cast albums [including Oklahoma!], but that wasn’t what TV audiences were demanding.
Anything and everything was tried, with dismal results. Berle Adams, a former agent and music publisher who also dabbled as a film producer, the music division’s L.A.-based top executive, instituted a search for new leaders.
New York’s old guard was sent into exile. New, savvier executives were brought in to find the next big power band that could keep the adrenalin flowing. The New York office’s chief Jack Loetz had been a top lieutenant to Columbia’s Clive Davis. As vice president, he brought with him one of the industry’s top marketing and sales experts, Tony Martel. Richard Broderick, a tall, large, robust, balding white-hired man, who’d worked with Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis at RCA, was onboard as international VP.
On a scouting trip, Broderick met in London with MCA’s U.K. chief Brian Brolly, who told him he was on to something big. He played a session tape. “It’s called ‘Superstar.’ It’s from a new rock opera.” Broderick, Irish and a devout Catholic didn’t blink. He was so bowled over, he wanted to hear it again. Brolly arranged an introduction to the composers. Informed that the U.K. division was setting a release date, and wanted a U.S, roll out, Broderick wired New York: “I’ve found what everyone’s been looking for.”
November 4, 1969
Each Tuesday at 11 A.M. Decca’s department heads converged one floor up from their offices at Park Avenue and 57th Street to the MCA board room where they sipped coffee, reviewed sales reports, and sampled upcoming product. Artists & Repertory [A&R] manager John Walsh, a tall blond with matinee idol looks and long shaggy hair who was dubbed the “house hippie,” played demos over what he called “one of the world's worst stereo systems.”
Loetz arrived and seated himself next to Martell. Both had been given a sneak preview. Loetz had concerns; Martel was gung-ho. The helping of tunes did nothing to satisfy the staff. The always-direct James Slaughter, who worked with A&R and Sales, stated, “It’s the same ole same ole.”
When it came to product from Nashville by Queen of Country Music Kitty Wells
and legendary Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb, the 16 staffers squirmed in their chairs. The release from Jay Lee Webb, brother of Loretta Lynn, "Your Cow's Gonna Get Out," brought snide remarks. As staffers derided it, Loetz reprimanded his team: "Gentlemen, The Who and Nashville are what's keeping our doors open!"
Martel motioned to Broderick. He came forward with a 45 R.P.M. vinyl, and solemnly intoned, "There's one more, gentlemen – something quite unusual. Our other labels don't know about it. It will be a Decca scoop. It’s a record from England called ‘Superstar’ by a young composing team, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Quite a fortune was spent on the session and it’s going to blow your minds.”
The record was to be released toward the end of the month in the U.K. and Decca planned an early December launch. He explained, “This won’t just be a single. 'Superstar' is from Jesus Christ, a still unfinished concept album about Christ’s last days. There’s going to be a rock band with the best Britian has to offer plus, get this, a full symphony orchestra. It will be the most expensive in-house project in Decca's history.” Hopefully, you’ll listen with an open mind. The young Brits are calling it a rock opera. We know something about rock operas.”
The tune blasted a pulsating blues rock rhythm as Head sang:
“Every time I look at you, I don’t understand Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ, Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?”
Martel was tapping his hand against the side of the table. The room fell silent, only suddenly to become engrossed in alternating veins of confused conversation, surprise that segued to shock, and, for a few, excitement. Finally, someone blurted, “Dick, what the hell kinda record is this?” Broderick replied, “Something that can be a monster."
“Who’s this guy?” asked one. “Judas,” Broderick replied. “Judas? He betrayed Jesus! Dick, if we put this out, every churchman in the country will stone us. And not just with rocks, but with boulders!”
More feedback followed: “A record like that won’t get airplay,” “No one will touch it,” “All listeners are going to hear is ‘Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?’”, “If you want publicity, this’ll give it to you! The negative kind!”, and “If the record’s causing this kinda stir here, you know it’s gonna create a firestorm out there.”The majority, in quite vivid terms, stated the public – Christian and Jewish – “would rain the wrath of God” on the company. Loetz, Martel, and Broderick hadn’t expected mutiny. Then, Slaughter jumped up. "Guys, it's fantastic. Best thing we've had. It’s time we had something controversial.”
“Okay, you answer the letters!” jibed an associate. “Hey, I’m from Georgia,” Slaughter snapped back. “Jesus is big news!”
“Southerners’ll think this is sacrilege?” a staffer opined. “This’ll offend everyone. We're crazy if we put it out! Decca is a prestige label."
"Yeah," Slaughter chimed in. "A prestige label that needs a blockbuster hit. We can’t live on Tommy forever!"
Martell chimed in, "There'll be controversy, but young people will go for it. They're the ones buying records. It could be a smash."
The radio promotion manager weighed in. “It clocked at over four minutes! That’s
a lifetime on pop stations – if they’ll even program it. Some are gonna be scared,
but if we finesse this the right way FM stations’ll jump on it. Underground’s the
way to go. Listeners are more hip, but we’re not gonna get big numbers.”
After the meeting, the executives remained. "Jack, I want it," said Martell. “It wasn’t all positive, but you can’t say they weren’t fired up.” "London’s ready to roll, enthused Broderick." Lutz advised, “It's not going to be easy. We're going to have a fight on our hands. Dick, get them to listen again. Let everyone absorb it. Can you get us a couple of days?” Broderick replied, “I know Brian will.”
After he departed, Loetz informed Martel that Adams was high on the prospects of the record; however, he confessed he wasn’t so sure. “We’ll be accused of being blasphemers and anti-Semitic. Are we prepared for that? The whole thing must be handled with extreme good taste. If the record bombs, I’m out the door.” Broderick also knew that because of his enthusiasm for the record and expected album he’d be next in line.
For the next few days, office doors were closed as the tune was played. Walsh and Slaughter made the rounds promoting their enthusiasm and playing it for anyone who'd listen.
The most astute executives know who help keep a company sailing smooth: the secretaries. Curiosity was rampant, and a row of them ran to listen whenever they could. The younger set were enthused; the older, not so much. Loetz’s secretary moaned that she could see hellfire blazing. Another had tears in her eyes when she heard the demo. "It's sad when a company like Decca has to make money by making fun of Jesus," she grieved.
By Monday, after consultations with Adams on the West Coast, Loetz gave the word, “Run with it!” None on staff were surprised when suddenly rumors floated that staid old Decca was putting out a sacrilegious record.
, Andrew Lloyd Webber, just turning 17 and soon to be on his way to a term at Oxford, met Tim Rice in 1965. Rice, 22, was writing pop lyrics and was told by Lloyd Webber’s agent he was in the market for a “with it” lyricist. On meeting Rice, whom he describes in his memoir Unmasked as “a six-foot-something, thin as a rake, blond bombshell of an adonis,” he imagined his goal was to be “a heartthrob rock star.”
Lloyd Webber was working on the score of a musical, but the author of the source material was slow coming up with a plotline. He became impressed with Rice’s “rhyming dexterity” and they eagerly joined forces. While Lloyd Webber was educating himself about the music business, Rice jumped at the opportunity of a position at EMI Records, then a music industry giant, getting his foot in the door of their A&R department, where he first met singer/songwriter Murray Head.
With The Likes of Us, as Lloyd Webber noted, “in the deep freeze,” the duo wrote pop songs, one of which was recorded. Other ideas for musicals floated and one, with a Biblical theme, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, had a promising start in a 20-minute “cantata” [that gradually grew and grew to eventually became a hit stage show and recording].
What to do next?
Rice and Lloyd Webber considered a musical about President John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which never went beyond discussions. Lloyd Webber recalled that in a conversation with a minister while at the Royal College a suggestion was floated that he write a musical on Christ's life. “Not the standard fare,” relayed Lloyd Webber, “but a composition that modern youth could identify with.” He reacted was laughter, stating, "What a terrible idea! It'll never sell." When the topic was broached with Rice, he wasn’t enthusiastic.
They musicalized the Richard the Lion-Hearted legend under the title Come Back, Richard, Your Country Needs You. It had one performance, but the only thing to come of it was the title song for a single on the RCA label.
In a meeting Rice had with Mike Leander, a record producer with the likes of the Beatles, Tom Jones, Marianne Faithful, and Donavan and now A&R head of MCA-UK. Leander, in an ironic happenstance if there ever was one, inquired whatever happened to the musical he and Lloyd Webber were working on, “the one that presented Jesus as a flesh-and- blood man.” Rice was flummoxed, as he had no recollection of mentioning it.
He raised the subject with Lloyd Webber, who thought with the passage of time and their lack of successful projects, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.” What might have been too controversial a couple of years ago, felt Rice, “might be more palatable now since people had become more liberal and more intelligent.” It also dawned on both a Biblical story had been their biggest success. Rice admitted they were entering uncharted, sensitive territory, and though they had no wish to offend any religion, controversial territory. The motivation for wanting to do a musical on Jesus's life, Lloyd Webber explained in an interview, "was that if one had had religion sort of rammed down one's throat when one was in school, it was inevitable that Jesus would be one of the first subjects one would choose for a project of this nature.”
They felt out others. Most thought it was a foolish idea. Undaunted, he said, “We didn't give up. It was a chance we decided to take.”
“We knew we had to be different to be interesting and exciting," explained Rice. The duo decided to set their story in the final days leading up to Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. "With my background, we considered rock; and, with Andrew’s knowledge of the classics, opera. Then we had this idea, 'Why not combine the two?' The Who had caused quite a stir by calling their Tommy a rock opera. That's how it all came about." “We had been well-coached in the mechanics of Christianity,” reported Rice. “It had been drummed into us at school. They treated Christ the legend, so we decided to treat the bloke as a man.”
“Superstar,” the duo’s first tune from their rock opera, was intended as a tirade for Judas. It was originally called “Judas’ Song.” Lloyd Webber came up with a simple three-chord structure, embellishing it with a chorus from a short-lived musical idea on King David.
Lloyd Webber discussed the project with Dean Martin Sullivan of St. Paul's Cathedral, who stated their approach “would be acceptable to any Christian who welcomed an honest challenge.” However, his support came with a warning: “It might ruffle some feathers and rekindle anti-Semitic feelings.” It was as if he had ESP.
The team is assembled to record Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera.End of Part One.
Harvey Schmidt of the composing team Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt died Wednesday at his longtime home in Tomball, TX. He was 88. The duo created the longest-running musical in history, The Fantasticks, which ran 42 years Off Broadway and was revived Off Broadway in July 2006 – June 2017; the Broadway musicals 110 in the Shade, I Do, I Do, and Celebration, and Off Broadway’s Road Side.
Jones and Schmidt were inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998. The composers have stars in the Lortel Theatre Off-Broadway Walk of Fame.
A memorial in New York is being planned.Remembering Harvey Schmidt – and Tom Jones, who recently turned 90:
The Fantasticks, the world's longest-running musical, is a show that all but the most hardened soul love. The story is schmaltzy - the ageless one about boy and girl fall in love/boy and girl fall out of love/boy and girl fall back in love. For over six decades Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's musical enthralled millions across the U.S. and in over 80 countries. It is also one of the world's most-honored musicals, with awards upon awards including, on home turf, the Obie and, in a rare recognition of an Off Broadway show, a 1992 Special Tony Award.In its initial Off Broadway run, "the little musical that endured," as it came to be called, racked up a record-shattering 17,162 performances [May 1960 - January, 2002].Songs "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You," "I Can See It," and especially "Try to Remember" have become theater and pop standards now known to generations. All these years later, as Jones once put it: “They still have the magical ability to soar.”
Their cleverly-rhyming opening number sung by Jerry Orbach in The Fantasticks, “Try to Remember,” has been recorded by hundreds, including by Ed Ames, Harry Belafonte, Perry Como, Placido Domingo, Eddie Fisher, Kingston Trio, Gladys Knight, Liza Minnelli, Roy Orbinson, Patti Page, and Barbra Streisand, and, among many others, Andy Williams. Ironically, considering the legend that's grown up around the show, it almost didn't happen.
Flashback to August, 1959: Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt and Charles Word Baker [1923 – 1995; who went on to become a Broadway stage manager, do some “doctoring” on 1982’s cult hit Pump Boys and Dinettes, and a veteran stage/TV director] met as students at the University of Texas, where Jones and Schmidt were at work on a "unique new entertainment" for its time.A professor introduced Jones to Edmond Rostand's 1890 play Les Romaneques, a story of two fathers - next door neighbors - who concoct a feud to fool their romance-obsessed son and daughter into falling in love. "It had a profound effect on me," he says, "but I didn't think of it as a source of a musical. In fact, I'd never seen a musical, except in the movies. We did hundreds of plays in college, but not one musical. It was later, in graduate school, when I met Harvey and Word, that I began to discover musical theater."On their move to New York, while writing special material for revues, the duo decided to write a "fun musical." "I don't remember who suggested the Rostand piece," says Jones, "but we all agreed. Then Harvey and I got drafted."When they returned to civilian life, the duo continued working on their show, which championed such new ideas as an open stage. After another three years, they were about to throw in the towel when Baker suggested trying it out in summer stock.The Fantasticks, as they titled it, a one-act blithe spirit of a musical about love in all its gorgeous simplicity and heartbreaking complexities, would be on a triple bill in New York in Barnard College's summer festival. Taking the plot a bit further, Jones added the fathers arranging a fake abduction of the girl, Luisa, so that the boy, Matt, can gallop heroically to her rescue. “Regarding the title, Jones notes, “The fathers refer to Luisa and Matt as being ‘fantastic.’ I added the ‘k' to make it sound more mysterious."Its early inception was written in verse. At Bernard, they operated “on a less-than-shoestring budget. Schmidt, an accomplished illustrator, designed and executed the costumes in bare bones fashion. “Still they had color and sparkle,” he boasted. The "orchestra" was Schmidt playing piano. In a stroke of later genius, he added a harpist to accompany the songs [for most later productions, that was the instrumentation]. It was Jones' job to get producers uptown to see the show. Rehearsals ran smoothly until the dress. Susan Watson, playing Luisa, was recovering from a fall from the ladder that was the show's only scenery – except for the strolling players’ trunk, and strained her vocal chords. She could hardly manage a whisper. The choreographer stepped in to Watson's dances, and Schmidt sang her songs. It was some performance."We didn't know what else could go wrong," exclaims Jones.In one of those rare show business stories that change lives forever, a fledging producer, Lore Noto, accepted the invite. “Afterward,” said Schmidt, “he told us that he thought the show would be perfect for the booming world of off-beat Off-Broadway.”"Like all producers," recalled Schmidt, "he had some suggestions. They were minor. One was that the show be expanded to two acts. We couldn't help but love Lore when he told us that he'd produce the show only if we had total creative control."Jones and Schmidt were so broke, they held auditions in their Upper West Side apartment. "We couldn't afford a casting director," remembers Jones. "Hopefuls were lined up out the door and down four flights of stairs. I don't remember how Jerry [Orbach] heard about the show, but he came and sang and read. He was sensational."Then and there, the composers and Baker decided he'd be the perfect El Gallo and they went to tell him; but Orbach, late for another audition, had left to grab the subway. Related Schmidt, "We ran down the stairs, past the other waiting actors and caught him at the corner." As fate would have it, Orbach scored at the next audition and was offered a role in a new Broadway show. "At five times the salary Lore could pay!" said Schmidt.But, later stating he just had “this gut feeling about the musical,” Orbach chose The Fantasticks. The show he was up for closed out of town. The other members of the original cast were: Thomas Bruce, actually, Jones, as Henry and George Curley as Mortimer – the “strolling players”; Rita Gardner [the short-lived 1963 Pal Joey revival, and a noted Broadway stand-by; later, The Wedding Singer] as Luisa; William Larsen as Hucklebee [the girl's father]; Kenneth Nelson [later of Boys in the Band fame] as Matt; Richard Stauffer as the Mute; and Hugh Thomas as Bellomy. Jay Hampton had the role of the Handyman, which was eventually dispensed with.The performance space at the 150-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich was
only a little larger than a throw rug. The bare-bones set consisted of a piano at center, multi-colored streamers, a wooden “wall,” a bench, the strolling players’ trunk, and a cardboard moon hung on a pole. From inception, Jones and Schmidt thought their creation would be the perfect show for what was shaping up to be a unique decade. Maybe they were a bit ahead of their time. “Way ahead of our time,” laughed Jones. “Our opening was punctuated not only by the snores of sleeping audience members, but also by such comments as “I don't understand it!' and ‘What the hell was that?' And then came the reviews!""They weren't money notices," exclaimed Schmidt.Jones says they weren't that bad. For the most part, they were. So much so, that he spent the better part of the wee hours with an escape to Central Park, drinking heavily and throwing up. Then, as now, hopes were high for an excellent notice from the all- important Times reviewer; then the much-respected Brooks Atkinson, known to love innovative theater. He wrote: "Two acts are one too many to sustain the delightful tone of the first. [It's] the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures."The days after the opening were rocky. The Fantasticks appeared doomed.However, even critics puzzled by the musical praised the cast and Baker's staging. “We were up and running,” tendered Schmidt, “but it was far from ‘Hurrah.’ We couldn’t even fill 150 seats. We bled for nine weeks. It was a miracle Lore didn’t close the show." Claims Jones, "It was amazing that we had a second night, much less that we were able to run that first week with hardly any audience. What had we done wrong? What had we done right? Of the handful of people involved, no two of us remember it quite the same. That goes for Harvey and I, and we were there; and have been answering questions about it for over fifty years."Even at then-Off Broadway prices of $2.95, $3.95 and $4.95, Gardner says, "audiences were sparse. Sometimes we played to ten and twenty people. It got so bad that Lore suspended performances and took the show to East Hampton. We generated enough word of mouth there to assure some kind of life back on Sullivan Street."Thanks to excellent outer critics' reviews and word-of-mouth from the hipsters who
loved the show and, most importantly, the gradual exposure songs from the show received on TV, The Fantasticks went on to have quite a life. Indeed, by its third year it was an established hit, with avid fans returning again and again. It remained a must-see for years, was declared “a sleeper success” by Time, and proved very popular during the height of the Asian tourist invasion. Noto's 50 original investors received a 35% return on their $16,500 total investment. One investor only put in cash because he was guilt-ridden for sleeping through the dress rehearsal. A profitable snooze. Schmidt was later to say part of the show’s success was due to "the story being universal. It radiates a timeless sweetness and sunniness."As a result of his fantastic reviews, Orbach was Broadway-bound in 1961 as the lead in David Merrick's production of Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart’s Carnival, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion.
In 1986, The Fantasticks almost closed when Noto became ill. "When the closing notice was placed in the Times," reported Schmidt, "there were protests. Calls and letters poured in from around the world. We were saved when Lore's friend Don Thompson stepped in to take over until he recovered. Within a week, performances were sold out.”In addition to setting a world record in New York, The Fantasticks gave performances at the White House. According to Jones, the show was been seen by ten presidents. It also established record runs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and many other cities. It played London and was translated into over 20 languages. Four years after closing, Jones directed the 2006 revival [and often stepped into the cast, again, as Henry]. It starred Santino Fontana, Sara Jean Ford, and, as El Gallo, Burke Moses. “Except for a bit of political correctness to address some controversy over the usage of the word ‘rape,’” states Jones, “not much attempt was made to change the show. It was pretty much as it was when running Off Broadway for 42 years. The songs still had the magical ability to soar.”
Photos by Lapacazo Sandoval
The Oscars® are marking their 90th celebration which will air live on Sunday, March 4, on ABC. Producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd return along with 10 key members of the production team.
“This team brings more than 90 years of combined Oscars telecast experience,” said De Luca and Todd. “Collaborating with them as we celebrate the 90th year of the Oscars is both fitting and thrilling.”
Academy governor Jeffrey Kurland, event producer Cheryl Cecchetto and master chef Wolfgang Puck return to create the Governors Ball, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official post-Oscar celebration which immediately follows.
On March 1st the annual Governors Ball’s preview gives the media an opportunity to taste the food, wine, and spirits that will be served to the ball’s 1,500 invited guests which includes Oscar winners and nominees, show presenters and other telecast participants.
A showman himself, Puck will set the stage with a Governors Ball menu pairing Hollywood glamour with culinary whimsy. There are always new menu items but Puck’s signature dishes such as smoked salmon Oscars, chicken pot pie with shaved black truffles, and baked macaroni and cheese, will return, and having tasted them all, it’s a winning combination for the palette.
The pastry team offers innovative and playful desserts served at multiple dessert stations including the ultimate dessert buffet featuring Puck’s sought-after 24-karat-gold chocolate Oscars. Wolfgang Puck Catering team will direct more than 900 event staff through the evening’s intricately detailed logistics to deliver guests a true restaurant-style hospitality experience.
The Governors Ball will take place in the Ray Dolby Ballroom on the top level of the Hollywood & Highland Center immediately following the Oscar telecast.
This year’s best-original-song Academy Award category is absolutely packed with haunting melodies and invigorating performers making this section one the highlights of the live Academy Awards telecast. Nominated this year is Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s sweet lullaby Remember Me from “Coco”; Sufjan Stevens’s indie-folk song Mystery of Love from “Call Me by Your Name”; Mary J. Blige’s powerful R&B ballad Mighty River from “Mudbound;” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s uplifting pop song This Is Me from “The Greatest Showman”; and Diane Warren and Common’s soul anthem Stand Up for Something from “Marshall.”
According to several articles and social media, the paring of Diane Warren with Common began by chance on an airplane, where the iconic Warren sang the chorus of Stand Up for Something in Common. As reported the direct-to-the-point songstress said, “I never want to waste an opportunity,” and the 61-year-young Warren didn’t miss this opportunity to pair with 45-year-old Common.
Common credits his mother for planting the Oscar seed idea inside his creative and fertile mind. It’s an endearing quote and one that touched me deeply because my very own dear and departed mothers’ dream was that I cover the Oscars an event we both cherished during my childhood. The Oscars in a word was our “Superbowl” and a mother-and-daughter bonding event which formed some of my very best childhood memories.
Says Oscar winner Common: “My mother said to me, ‘You, a little black kid from the South Side of Chicago, you’re going to the Oscars . . . Think about that.’ I would never have thought.”
The year that he and John Legend took home an Oscar I was there front-and-center inside the winner's room where I asked both of them just what they loved about being storytellers. To listen to their answers you can go to YoutTube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0e9QAtlLVE and fast forward to @5:41/10.13.
Please follow me @lapacazo and on Instagram.
The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and will be broadcast live on the ABC Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT and will be televised in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.
Olivier and Tony Award winner, “Disney princess,” recording artist, and international concert star Lea Salonga has returned to Broadway in the breathtakingly imaginative revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, set on a Caribbean island “at the mercy of the wind and sea” with the lure of tropical and voodoo rhythms..
Lea’s birthday on February 22 will mark 40 years in show business. In her return to Broadway in the one-act musical, based on a novel by Rosa Guy, which tells of the unbridled joy of first romance, hope and faith, and the inevitable broken heart. In addition to and myths, there’s a telling sub-plot on class bias. And there are gods: God of Water, Mother of the Earth, Demon of Death. Salonga makes an enviable transition from a poor villager named Erzulie to becoming the Goddess of Love.
Lead producer Ken Davenport notes, “Lea is a Disney princess and Tony and Olivier actress, not to mention an inspiration to people, especially young girls, around the world. Her voice is what love sounds like, so when [director] Michael [Arden] and I were looking for a Goddess of Love, we didn’t have to think too long. She is the perfect choice!” Arden first bonded with Salonga when they were cast in a concert of Ahrens/Flaherty’s Ragtime in 2013 at Alice Tully Hall.
Salonga has high praise for her co-stars, which include golden-voiced Tony-nominee Philip Boykin (Crown in 2012’s Porgy and Bess revival) and marvelous Kenita R. Miller [who become Ti Moune’s guardians]; and megabelter Alex Newell [Mother of the Earth].
In a casting coup, similar to Salonga’s, Hailey Kilgore, 18, as Ti Moune, the show’s lead, segues from a mere orphaned human [involved in a bittersweet love triangle] to a goddess. She was cast at the last minute right out of acting school after months of talent searching. “It’s a real Cinderella story,” states Lea. “She’s from Oregon, where Hailey did her first equity role at 12. It’s a thrill to watch her. She’s a raw talent with a terrific learning curve.”
Salonga says the composers’ musical deserves an intimate setting, “so Circle in the Square is ideal.” But don’t come expecting a copycat of the original. Except for new arrangements, there’s nothing that’ll remind you of it. “When you enter, you feel you’ve left New York City for the tropics. The design is a great way to tell this enchanting story. There’s a different rhythm with movement and dance from beginning to end and a beautiful visual language.” [The 1990 premiere Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon moved to the Booth Theatre, where it ran 469 performances.]
Dane Laffrey’s set design is at once idyllic and stark. Audiences meet the cast as they recover from a hurricane. Tropical breeze sift across a lagoon. On the sandy beach, as tropical breezes drift across a lagoon, the islanders go about picking up their lives again. There’s a huge, defunct truck, fallen utility pole, an overturned boat, a hungry goat, storm debris of all kind.
Though you’d never know it from their sound, the show only has five band members. However, much of the music is provided by the cast, who pick up broken glass and items displaced by the storm and create instruments. You might also catch Salonga on percussion.
Lea explains that performing in the round delivers a new dimension to the story as the cast, often going into the audience, draw members into the story. But there are challenges: “You have to favor everybody 360 degrees. You can’t be still for too long or three-fourths of the audience won’t see you.”
Lighting for a show in the round can also be a challenge. To avoid light glaring into cast members faces as well as the audience, multiple award-winning lighting pros Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have lighted with banks of overhead light grids.
Lea particularly enjoys the pre-show routine of the company onstage to clean up their ravaged town. “We’re all over passing the baton from one to the other. It’s serious, but we have fun -- especially when I spot people I know out there and get to play a little. It’s a great way to get rid of pre-show jitters.”
Stardom: From Manila to the West End and Broadway
At 17, Lea Salonga was plucked from hundreds of talented hopefuls auditioning for Cameron Mackintosh and director Nicholas Hytner for the coveted role of Vietnamese war orphan Kim in Claude-Michel Schónberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr.’s Miss Saigon.
Lea could never forget her last call back in Manila when she sang again for Mackintosh, Hytner, Schónberg, and Boublil. How could she perceive what was about to transpire – and change her life forever? Arriving beautiful and calm, she casually asked Schónberg for his autograph on a promotion sheet from Les Misèrables. In a sheer moment of inevitability, no mere pianist accompanied her. As Schónberg played, the team hung over the piano on every word as if history was in the making. Salonga came prepared. She sang the poignant “Sun and Moon,” with the composer singing the role of Chris. It was magic. When she finished, they’d found their Kim.
She may have arrived an unknown to London but, “I was far from a greenhorn.” Lea had been performing since age seven, and had her first album at 10. "We peddled my music, going from music store to music store. It didn’t happen overnight. What does? Then, the orders were coming in – more than we ever imagined."
With best-selling records, she had the name recognition to host her own TV variety show, Love, Lea. She played concerts to Filipino fans on the West Coast. On home stages, she was cast in The King and I, the lead in Annie, and one of the tots in The Sound of Music. The shows were presented in English which, because of the World War II American occupation, has become the country’s second language [the first in urban areas, such as Manila].
In Miss Saigon, Salonga received her first kisses. “One of my Chrises said he had to have his lips replaced every week after I was done with him, but that’s not true. He exaggerates, but I admit that all my Chrises were good kissers.”
The show brought critical acclaim. Suddenly, she was “The Pride of the Philippines” and a national treasure. However, “nothing prepared me for overnight stardom. There was a lot of hard work, and pressure. What could compare to opening a major musical on London’s West End; then, performing before the Queen of England? But I was disciplined, thanks to the theater back home. The culture shock was the big thing. I had my Mom with me. Still, homesickness set in.”
Lea and co-star Jonathan Pryce captured Oliver Awards, “I never thought I’d win,” she states. “The competition was tough: Elaine Page and Judy Kuhn. I was a fan of both. It was a nail-biter. I was flabbergasted. It took days before it all set in. Heading to New York and Broadway, there was some fear. I’d heard stories of how fast-faced and notorious it could be. But the minute I stepped off the plane I knew it was where I belonged. I didn’t have a life, however. I did the show, took my bows, and went home to bed." More acclaim, and a Tony for her and Pryce followed.
Lea credits her mother Ligaya [Joy] for guiding her down the right career and life paths. "Mother never heard the word ‘impossible.’ She shaped my determination to succeed at what I wanted to do, and helped turn me into a strong-willed person. I believed I had talent, and was ready to go for it, but Mom kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to make sure you really have it.’"
Her parents, long separated, stressed the importance of education. "Mom told me it was something no one could take away, that it would shape the way I look at things. I also learned that intelligence wasn’t everything. If you want to succeed, preparation and perseverance are important."
After high school, she briefly attended college, studying pre-med. Before music became her main goal, Salonga wanted to be a dermatologist, which might account for her ageless beauty and flawless complexion. In 1991, People chose her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. In the Philippines, she was bestowed the rank of Commander, their highest civilian honor.
"I’m blessed," she said. "I’m Asian, but the youth gene runs in my family. I’m in a great business, doing what I love to do. It doesn’t feel like work, so there’s little stress. Travel can be drudgery, but that’s a fact of life in today’s world." She adds that she’s very faithful to a daily workout regime.
Following Broadway roles in Miss Saigon and Les Misèrables, Disney came calling. She did the vocals for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Mulan’s title character.
In addition to Lea and husband Robert Charles Chien’s magnificent home in Manila, the couple maintain a residence in New York.
Remembering her mother’s dictate, she took time off to continue her studies, tackling philosophy and European history at Fordham. However, she never stopped singing. She starred in the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. She somehow found time to star in an Asian tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
In 2012, she co-starred at San Diego’s Old Globe in Allegiance, about the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941 following Pearl Harbor. It won local Best Musical honors, and broke box office records. She had a four-and-a-half month Broadway run. Lea returned to Manila to play Grizabella in Cats. Here, she’s done two sell-out engagements at posh Café Carlyle, sold out Town Hall, and had two engagements at 54 Below. More recently, back home, she did Fun Home.
Daughter Nicole, 11, may follow in Mama’s footsteps. Performing in school plays since age five, she’s a violinist in the school orchestra and under scholarship at Kids Act Philippines. She’s also appeared solo at some concerts. Recently, she wrapped playing Alice in the Manila production of Matilda. Lea not only took off six performances [announced well in advance] to be there but took to Twitter to congratulate her.
With her mentoring spot in the Philippines on The Voice, writing a newspaper column, concert schedule, and being a mom, how did she find time to return to Broadway in Once On This Island, where she’s set to play into June. “You carve out the time, especially when it’s something you want to do,” explains Salonga. “The show is a longtime favorite. When asked, I couldn’t see any way of passing the opportunity by.”
Here, with the weather changing from day to day, how does she stay healthy?
“You can try, but if there’re people in the cast or audience who’re sick, and there always are, with the all of us in close proximity, you’re bound to catch something. No matter how many multi-vitamins and Vitamin C I take, you’ll get sick. It happens when you’re fatigued and lack sleep. But she show must go on. I arrive at the theatre early, vocalize an hour, do make-up, and go out. When the adrenaline hits, you forget almost everything.”
Lea travels much of the year, and, when possible, has Nic along. “My goal is to be the best representative of my country as I can be. I stay out of trouble! Don’t think I don’t have fun, but I keep my nose clean.”
With all that travel, is it difficult to keep a marriage together? “It’s only difficult if the two of you have no idea what you’re in for. From the beginning, I’ve had nothing but Rob’s blessing and encouragement. He told me, ‘You’re in a position to inspire people. I’d never take that away from you.’ I married the right guy!”
Visit www.onceonthisisland.com for tickets and more information.
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