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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

Making a Wall to Wall

Published on March 13, 2009

Now that the February edition of The Thalia Follies has completed its run (excerpts will be posted here soon in case you missed it, including “The Bailout Boogie,” “Advice to Ruth Madoff,” Barack Obama’s lament “When a Nominee Lies, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Taliban’s Back” to the tune of “My Boyfriend’s Back”), my office is now in high gear with the process of creating this year’s free 12-hour marathon Wall to Wall concert, scheduled for Saturday, May 16th, from 11am to 11pm.

Since we tend to alternate the annual subject of our Wall to Walls between classical composers and musical theatre composers, and since last year’s theme was Wall to Wall Bach (in honor of the 30th anniversary of the first Wall to Wall Bach that gave birth to Symphony Space), we decided to make this year’s show Wall to Wall Broadway, in celebration of the Broadway musical.

I didn’t foresee what a challenge this would be in its own way, different from creating Wall to Wall Sondheim or Wall to Wall Bernstein, not to speak of marathons devoted to Schubert, Haydn, or Stravinsky. The thing is that most of the Wall to Walls devoted to a single composer have offered us a finite body of work available from which to select and fashion a celebration. Even the life-long outputs of very prolific creators of musical theater like Leonard Bernstein or Irving Berlin or Stephen Sondheim, all of whom have had their work prodigiously catalogued, do not have the broad scope of this year’s project: the Broadway musical!

Even if one defines the Broadway musical very narrowly, leaving out early 20th century operetta, leaving out Off Broadway hits like The Fantasticks, leaving out movie musicals, made-for-TV specials, and most foreign imports, there are still hundreds and hundreds of shows and many THOUSANDS of songs that could be eligible for inclusion in the marathon. Hitting the reference books and skimming through Broadway musicals created from the year of 1904 when Irving Berlin wrote “Give My Regards to Broadway” right up to today’s hits like In the Heights, I assembled a base list of songs that couldn’t be left out, songs that ought to be included, and songs that I liked or knew that lots of people liked. There are 386 songs on that list, and even if we average 15 to 20 songs an hour for twelve hours, not counting introductions, applause, intermissions, and a tiny amount of talk, the entire show will only be able to include around 150 songs, nowhere near everything on the list!

So the first major step in conceptualizing the May 16th event has been to face the fact that we’re not going to even attempt to come anywhere near to covering everything. No matter how cleverly my colleagues and I choose songs and arrange them artfully in entertaining segments with variety, contrast, passion, fun, and musical flow, the best reaction we can hope for from the audiences who stream into Symphony Space on May 16th will be, “Oh, that was wonderful, so much great stuff, and beautifully arranged and performed, BUT HOW COME YOU LEFT OUT [FILL IN THE BLANK]???

Now that we have recognized that we are not going to be able to “cover,” or even to sample, the history of the Broadway musical in 12 hours, we actually feel more liberated to choose from this overflowing smorgasbord of musical and lyrical invention some appetizers, some side dishes, and a few main dishes and desserts that we hope will each be delicious and satisfying in their own right, despite the day’s failure to be comprehensive, or the likelihood that we’re leaving out your own personal favorite Broadway tune—or Broadway composer!

Sitting down with Maestro Paul Gemignani, who will conduct our traditional final evening segment from 8 pm to 11 pm—the segment to which we apportion the largest budget of the day (or of the year!) to pay for a real live Broadway orchestra with that unforgettable lush and razzmatazz Broadway musical sound (or at least as lush and razzmatazz as a tightly watched budget in these hard times allows), we confronted the question of how to pick songs. We had decided that the segment would be called “Broadway Musical Classics,” leaving to other parts of the day more specialized or obscure but wonderful repertoire choices, more themes and variations by diverse composers and lyricists.

“Well,” said the maestro, “why don’t we start with you picking three hours of your absolute favorite Broadway musical songs? Then e-mail me that list and I’ll tell you what we can manage in the two orchestra rehearsals we have budgeted. I’ll add my own faves, and then we’ll see what we’ve got.” My list came to 40 songs, which I knew from the start was more than we could do (considering the fact that during the evening orchestral segment of Wall to Wall Sondheim a few years ago, Maestro Gemignani conducted a total of 33 songs, including piano-accompanied songs performed while the orchestra was on its union-required 20-minute break).

To my delight, Maestro Gemignani mostly liked my list, adding a couple of new songs and eliminating a few he didn’t think we could rehearse up to speed in the time available. Our e-mail exchanges have continued to go back and forth refining this playlist, and right now we have about 130 minutes of music during those three evening hours. We are meeting next week again to finalize a running order that will not be chronological, but a discorso musicale that everyone can enjoy, right up to the stirring finale at 10:54 pm. (Three words that must never again be spoken together within the walls of Symphony Space, and certainly not in these hard financial times: “orchestral” and “triple overtime!!”)

More about recruiting samples from currently-running musicals, with plans for performers to run uptown before and after their Saturday matinees on the day of, plus more on casting the singing assignments, matching the singers to the songs, and recruiting always-hard-to-find great tenors, will all be in my next post. Stay tuned!

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