Julian Eaves reviews Liz Callaway and Seth Rudetsky in concert online presented as part of the Seth Rudetsky concert series.
The Seth Concert Series: with Liz Callaway and Seth Rudetsky
Sunday 9th and Monday 10th August 2020
Some years ago, Richard Rodney Bennett – no mean performer himself – declared that the famous New York intimate cabaret scene was, ‘gone…all gone!’. Well, if he were still around, I’m sure he’d be delighted to see that in the hands of people like the great Mr Rudetsky, it’s back and very much alive and kicking. Much more lively than New York theatre, still completely shut-down, although this week we do celebrate – joyously – the arrival of the first ‘outdoor’, Equity-approved and COVID-19-safety-measures-compliant production: a revival of ‘Godspell’, which we later spent a little moment talking about, just before hearing a limpidly ravishing, ‘Beautiful City’ (written for the film). When we had got going, that is….
This is still experimental territory, we should not forget: online, socially distanced cabaret. It’s not an easy gig, and there were some resurgent technical glitches in this edition. Those notwithstanding, however, Seth made sure his guest this week, the deliciously talented Liz Callaway, was smoothly introduced with his usual affable, gentle adoration smoothing the way: this is a man who is totally in love with musical theatre, in a way that is remarkable and amazes the onlooker as he practically seduces you into sharing his passion and commitment. In this show, I think I heard Liz describing him as ‘You’re the brother I never wanted’! Which sounded a little bit like New York sass thinly covering over genuinely heartfelt feeling. And, when her microphone sprang back into life, we got a very upfront and thrilling, ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (Lloyd-Webber/Black). What a perfect choice for an opener this was: Liz has been around for a wee while now, but her voice has not aged a day: the upper register in particular, with fantastic support and a truly sexy vibrato, and then all the way down through it, still makes you catch your breath – it sounds exposed and vulnerable, but passionate and full of drive and ambition. It’s the kind of voice, in other words, that you want to go along with and enjoy an adventure alongside. What’s her secret? ‘I’m very careful about how much I belt,’ she advises. And we all take note of that. (Pamela Myers on the original cast album of ‘Company’ gets a name-check credit for modelling that. So, if you want to crack it, just do what Liz did and listen to that recording over and over and over again, and the technique will be yours.)
Perfect for musical theatre. And an apt reminder of the ‘isolation’ we feel during these days of world-wide theatre closures: her hit from ’13 Days To Broadway’, ‘You, There In The Back Row’, is as good a love-letter to that world as anyone could wish for, a fine, Cy Coleman broadside, full of the tingle of 80s promise and optimism. Although this show follows a now-familiar format in dipping into the guest’s backstory, when the focus gets pulled back onto the music, that’s when the real energy starts to flow. Added to that, few experiences are more enjoyable than watching a singer and pianist work out what to do with a song or even which song to choose, which is precisely what Seth’s freewheeling, easy-going method is all about.
After all, this industry is built upon collaboration, something that is even more important to hang onto in a time when society at large seems to have forgotten and sidelined it. Next up, ‘The Meadowlark’, from Stephen Schwartz’s, ‘The Baker’s Wife’, in a way covers much the same territory, but following an infinitely more complex and unpredictable route. Every bit as good as the musical numbers, though, are the stories that Seth coaxes out of these great singing actors: and in this episode we got an absolute peach recalling the remarkable Broadway debut Liz made, getting TWO clashing offers of new shows by great writers, having an agent start a ‘bidding war’ between them with each vying to keep her in their shows; in the end, she opted for Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s, ‘Merrily We Roll Along’: and then the other show, ‘Gallery’, never opened. ‘Merrily’ only ran for a fortnight on its first run, but it has been – of course – an enduring artistic success. And so has Liz.
She also got ‘Baby’, a Maltby and Shire show that didn’t quite find its feet, despite getting seven Tony Nominations in a really good season (that also included ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ and ‘La Cage Aux Folles’). But it’s got good stuff in it, all about pregnancy. Seth and Liz recreated a scene from it: ‘What Could Be Better?’, an exquisitely crafted duet. As if in answer to that question, to follow we got a number from the now almost forgotten, ‘Brownstone’, an Off-Broadway debut that flopped, sending its writers (Rubins and Larson) running for the hills (or Wall Street and Ohio). Yet, in the hands of Miss Callaway, ‘There Have Been Some Changes Here’ is a total delight: a haunting, romantic and elegantly crafted ballad, which she is still overjoyed to have in her rep folder.
How different ‘The Nanny Named Fran’ is: a joint creation by Liz and sister Ann – quirky, abrupt, angular, and funny. A little ‘something’ thrown in to ruffle the surface of these beautifully calm waters. And that led us to another shattering experience: ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ from ‘Miss Saigon’ (Boublil/Schoenberg). More humane sounded, ‘Tell Me On A Sunday, Please’, the brilliant title song of a show that sounds as if it had been written for her. The great thing about great writers is that you constantly find wonderful new things in their work to love: and here, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black demonstrate, once again, their extraordinary chemistry. So why, you keep wondering, are the very theatres that produce such glorious creativity being kept shut? They’re opening in some places overseas, aren’t they? And in some places, they never closed.
This week there was, as ever, a competition, and a winner: the fabulous voice of Dashira Cortez nailed 60 seconds of the given number, Ahrens and Flaherty’s ‘Journey To The Past’: this led us into a mash-up of that and another great song from the Disney movie, ‘Anastasia’: ‘Once Upon A December’. And then came a REAL gem, a parody of Sondheim’s, ‘Another Hundred People’, recast as ‘Another Hundred Lyrics’ (very ‘Forbidden Broadway’… but these words, niftily moulded to fit exactly where they should, are Lauren Mayer’s, and they are ace!). But our farewells were said to another song from ‘Baby’, ‘The Story Goes On’. Beautifully simple, touching, and absolutely true. No wonder they chose to close that show with a reprise of it. Because, yes, it does. The theatres may still be closed, but – oh, yes – the story does go on.