Our final subscription concert is set for March 17. It’s called The Art of Pleasure, a show I first devised at Wolf Trap and later repeated in Long Island. This time it will come out of our collaboration with Caramoor’s Vocal Rising Stars program, an annual art song zen-retreat in Katonah. I’ve just completed casting, and am extremely happy with the quartet of singers. I can’t go public with that info just yet, but you’re going to flip, I promise you.
We are living through tumultuous, abrasive times, and I thought we all could use a reminder of life’s potential for sweetness and fulfillment. The program is wide-ranging, from Catalan art song to Tom Lehrer, from Rachmaninoff to The Kinks. Act I deals with romance, the delights of the seaside in the summertime, the restorative powers of sleep and dreams. Then Act II goes into guilty pleasures—those secret drives you might not want your parents to know about.
The program ends with a song by Michael John LaChiusa called “Heaven,” taken from one of his unproduced musicals. Composer/lyricist LaChiusa has written a slew of off-Broadway shows, including “First Lady Suite,” “Hello Again,” and “Queen of the Mist,” as well as two that played on the Great White Way, “Marie Christine” and “Wild Party.” His work may be a bit too arty for the mass appeal of “Les Miz,” but he is prized by some of our greatest exponents of musical theater including Audra McDonald and Mary Testa. It was Mary who brought me today’s song. Programming our recent gala in celebration of NYFOS’ 30th anniversary, I asked her to sing a contemporary song that she thought would still be around in 30 years. “Heaven” was her suggestion, and I fell for it instantly. I’ll be happy to keep this song alive for three more decades.
Mary Testa, with orchestration by Michael Starobin
Helloooooo spring! Hello sunshine, budding trees, my impending sneeze, and a fresh “spring” in my step. When I was asked by NYFOS to contribute to Song of the Week, I immediately knew my theme and what song to start with. To kickstart my Spring-themed Song of the Day, I bring you composer William Finn’s closing number from his musical, A New Brain. After all, “Heart and Music make a song!”
The Art of Pleasure ends with a section simply called “Peace.” The centerpiece is an unpublished song by Michael John LaChiusa entitled “Heaven,” which I first heard on Mary Testa’s album, Have Faith. When I was programming NYFOS’s 30th anniversary gala, all the songs had to have a “30” connection—for example, something I first played 30 years ago, or something that premiered 30 years ago, or something written in 1930. We also got a few songs by Sondheim, born in 1930. To vary the approach, I asked Mary to sing a song she felt would be a classic in 30 years. She sent me three possibilities. I listened to all of them and made a beeline for “Heaven.”
I met Michael John at the very beginning of his career, when his music tended to be all dots and dashes, written in a pointillist, conversational, Morse Code style. His musical theater scores have warmed up a great deal since those early days, while gaining in complexity and compositional depth. “Heaven” is from a revue called Hotel L’Amour. The songs in it, I believe, were either cut from past musicals or destined for projects that LaChiusa abandoned. Whatever its provenance, it never fails to move me. It’s been fascinating to go from Mary Testa’s salt-of-the-earth belt to Zoie Reams’ cultured mezzo-soprano. “Heaven” happily embraces both kinds of singing, stopping time and giving us all hope.
Artist of the Month features Broadway veteran Mary Testa. She is a two-time Tony Award nominee, for performances in revivals of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town (1998) and 42nd Street (2001). Ms. Testa will appear in NYFOS’s upcoming gala 30! on March 26 at Carnegie Hall.
You’ve been singing with NYFOS for over ten years. How did you first get involved with the organization?
I think Steven Blier asked me to do a gala. I think that is how I started.
You’ve been performing on Broadway for almost 4 decades. How has the industry changed since you began your career? What’s remained consistent?
I don’t really think it has changed too much. What has changed is the pay scale. It has gone down. What has remained consistent is the fact that an actor is always out of a job, and always has to get another one when a show is over.
To what do you credit your ability to sustain your career over the years? How do you take care of yourself to ensure that you are able to perform at your best night after night?
I enjoy doing all kinds of things, and I am constantly involved in readings, benefits, etc, so I am always working my craft. And I really enjoy working in different mediums, concert, television, film, plays and musicals, so that keeps one very fresh. I have had to perform many times when I am very ill, so I am not always 100%. But you just do the best you can in any situation.
You’ve appeared in revivals as well as originated roles in new musicals. Is there anything different about your approach to material with a history versus brand new projects?
I don’t think there is. I think I approach everything the same. I work from the inside out. I find the similarities between me and a character, then I build from there.
Do you seek inspiration from past performances of certain roles or actively avoid their influence as you craft your interpretation?
I never watch someone else do a role that I am doing. I don’t find that helpful at all.
What projects are you most excited about at the moment and why?
I am very excited about the fall. I cannot say what I am doing, because casting has not been announced yet, but it is a project I have been involved with for 3 years.
Are there any popular musicians of today that you listen to or who you think are doing interesting work?
I am a very big fan of Michael John La Chiusa, and have been very fortunate to do 5 of his shows. I love working with him, and his music to me is genius. And I love and miss Prince. And I must admit, I love everything that Missy Elliot does.
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
Television music. Sorry.
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
Hanging with my dog, hanging with friends, shopping, etc. regular stuff.
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? Is there anything about this particular form that is significant to you?
Song to me is monologue. You must be able to make sense, and make music at the same time. Love it.
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
Right now, it is “Lush Life”.
“Sing for Your Supper”, a Rodgers and Hart trio from The Boys from Syracuse is irresistibly goofy, especially when it’s done so enthusiastically by world class singers. I couldn’t decide who did it better—the Broadway stars Rebecca Luker, Audra McDonald and Mary Testa or the opera legends Frederica von Stade, Marilyn Horne and Renee Fleming. The former is not the best sound in the world, but clearly, all of them were having a wonderful time. So, I have included them both and you get to choose. A lot of its glory comes from the vocal arrangement by Hugh Martin, who was also a composer. He deserves a credit. Eighty plus years after he wrote that arrangement, everyone still uses it.
“Two short years” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ted Chapin introduced me to this song, I believe, many years ago. Just the most absolutely perfect, wise and complete lyric I have ever sung:
Two short years
Are not much time
In the age of an infinite world.
Two short years
Are two quick trips
That a small, dizzy planet has twirled.
But the days on a planet
Can be filled with strife
And joy and love and tears,
And a girl on a planet
Lives a lot of life in two short years.
Thrills and cheers
And chills and fears
Overlap in a flying montage.
Crowd each day
Then melt away
In the wake of a waning mirage.
But a dream often lingers
Like a lovely chime
That echoes in your ears,
And a dream on a planet
Lives along, long time
After two short years.
Ed. note: We have not been able to find a recording of this song to share with you. It was originally written for their musical Allegro, but was cut. Clearly, Mary Testa needs to record it! Until that happens, we’ve decided to toss this to you, our Song of the Day readers. Anyone able to send us a link to a recording of “Two Short Years,” wins a pair of tickets to hear Mary Testa in Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel on November 1 or 3. (Limited to the first 5 people to respond.) Don’t know where to find this song? Buy your tickets today:
Tuesday, November 1 >
Thursday, November 3 >
“The Fall,” the finale of Queen of the Mist. I am biased, because this musical was written for me, but I cannot listen to it without crying buckets. Queen is by Michael John LaChiusa, and as far as I am concerned, he is a genius.
“Sometimes It Snows in April.” Prince. My heart broke the day Prince died. Such a genius. This is another wise, sad song. I love it so much, it is on my album, Have Faith with Micheal Starobin. (Shameless plug).
And here’s my take with Michael Starobin:
Tony Bennett singing “Here’s That Rainy Day” by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. Nobody loves a sad song more than me. Exquisite. And nobody does what Tony Bennett does. Nobody.
“Daybreak” by Adam Guettel from Floyd Collins. I must have listened to this at least 800 times. To my ear, it is a spectacularly sad song, which I love, and Christopher Innvar and Jason Danieley’s performances are heartbreaking.
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