During the rehearsals for last year’s NYFOS @ Juilliard show, The Land Where the Good Songs Go, I decided what I wanted to do this year: The Great American Songwriting Teams. There was an abundance of goofy joy in Room 335 as we staged the Jerome Kern/P. G. Wodehouse songs, and I wanted to re-create and build on that dizzying energy. This year’s show offers all the ingredients I seek in my winter projects at Juilliard: a long historical arc, a chance for the cast to participate in the programming, and most of all a treasure trove of showstopping songs.
A celebration of our country’s illustrious creative duos, The Great American Songwriting Teams is a hymn to the iconic ampersands of American popular song: George & Ira Gershwin, Comden & Green, Bock & Harnick, Rodgers & Hart (& Hammerstein), Leiber & Stoller, and many others. The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) has mounted several versions of this show over the years, modifying it each time to suit the abilities of the current group of performers. This season we’ve added some new songs, as well as a new songwriting team: Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, who will be represented by a beautiful number from Once on This Island. We’ll have some famous songs (“You and the Night and the Music,” “Love Potion No. 9”), some best known to Broadway aficionados (“Little Tin Box,” “The Wrong Note Rag”), and some that will be a delightful discovery for our listeners (an unpublished Gershwin gem called “Luckiest Man in the World”).
Popular song is so much fun for audiences and performers that it’s easy to overlook how much students can learn from this material. These songs get right in your face, buttonholing the audience in true New York style.They need moxie: strong, confident delivery of the words, expert comic timing, imagination, and a certain brashness. The Vocal Arts Department is largely devoted to the refinements of opera, oratorio, and art song. The songs in our show redirect our performers’ power and sophistication while cashing in on their classical training. And NYFOS’s shows offer a rare chance for today’s audiences to hear these songs as they were intended to be sung—without microphones.
When it came to casting The Great American Songwriting Teams, I looked for singers with the goods for this material—a strong sense of rhythm, the charm and smarts to deliver vernacular lyrics, and a manageable amount of lunacy. There were a lot of wonderful contenders, and I chose Tiffany Townsend, Kelsey Lauritano, Hannah McDermott, Alex McKissick, James Knight, Aaron Mor, and Theo Hoffman—seven aces. I’ll be continuing my collaboration with director and faculty member Mary Birnbaum, who always astounds me with her command of style and her creative firepower; and I’ll have the superlative master’s pianist Leann Osterkamp (B.M. ’13) at my side to help me rehearse the show.
January is a tough month in New York, but I hope the sweetness and warmth of The Great American Songwriting Teams will bring some much-needed comfort to both performers and audience.