Jeff Harnar returns to London to present his new show The 1959 Broadway Songbook – a celebration of the 21 musicals you could have seen in New York that year, some brand new at the time (The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Flower Drum Song, Fiorello) and some still running from previous seasons (My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Music Man, Bells Are Ringing).
The structure of the show itself sounds intriguing with an homage to the Golden Age of Broadway – a ‘boy meets girl’ narrative, and created around the musical structure of a Broadway show of that era. I just had to ask him about it. Directed by Sara Louise Lazarus, he comes with one of my favourite Music Directors Alex Rybeck.
What got you interested in theatre, particularly musical theatre, and how did you start?
As a child, family friends were in a local production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and had the great good sense to lend me the Original Cast Album before I saw the show so I would know the songs. I was hooked. When I was nine I was cast as Winthrop in The Music Man in the Chicago area and from that landed my first agent. By the time I was ten I had all my union cards and became a working TV commercial jingle singer. Then my voice changed and it’s been an uphill climb ever since!
Were you tempted simply to appear in shows? What led you to cabaret?
I graduated from New York University with a BFA in acting and pursued theatre auditions until I became discouraged and stopped. I discovered Barbara Cook’s cabaret work (having already adored her stage work from the Music Man record). Here was a Broadway talent finding new deeply personal expression in this sublimely intimate art form. Here the music I loved was being celebrated and illuminated in ways entirely different from their presentation in stage shows. Again, I was hooked.
What first brought you to London? How did that come about?
I first came to London with Shauna Hicks (Linda in the Broadway production of Blood Brothers) to perform our I GOT RHYTHM: Mickey & Judy’s Hollywood at Pizza on The Park almost 18 years ago. Subsequently I’ve returned as the host of three seasons of “The American Songbook in London” at The Jermyn Street Theatre and Pizza on the Park. In recent years it’s been Ruth Leon who has devotedly continued my UK presence with engagements at The Crazy Coqs and now this engagement, my debut at The Pheasantry.
This current show sounds most interesting. Tell us about the structure, especially the sections you have labelled with musical terms.
The 1959 Broadway Songbook is a celebration of the 21 musicals one could have seen in New York in 1959, including new shows such as Gypsy, Fiorello, and The Sound of Music, and shows still running such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Bells Are Ringing. Together with Music Director Alex Rybeck, who will be joining me at The Pheasantry, and Director Sara Louise Lazarus, we came up with the concept of touting not only the music, but also the format of the Broadway musical. As such, we have a sung “Overture, “Entr’Acte” and “Curtain Call,” as well as a boy-meets-girl narrative upon which we hang those glorious songs. We even take an “Intermission” where we discuss some of the current events and pop music of 1959. It’s a wildly delightful structure for me as the performer, as the show is weaving its spell on multiple levels, first and foremost, as a set of unforgettable and timeless musical gems.
You direct cabaret, including people I know (Tovah Feldshuh, who taught me the art of cabaret at Yale with Alex Rybeck as Musical Director, Anna Bergman). What sort of things do artists want you to do in the rehearsal room? Simply be an outside eye? Help with the structure/patter/ musical arrangement?
As a Director, for me, the ideal chemistry is a seamless collaboration between the artist, the Music Director and myself to craft the best possible vehicle for the performer. I’m there as a guide, with a mindful eye to the overall shape and tone of the piece. I’ve learned so much about performing in my role as a Director. It’s helped me sharpen my own tool kit: I certainly cannot guide an artist if I’m not actively practicing the very suggestions I’m making to them. And yes, as a Director my fingerprints are on many aspects of a show, from its title, the design of the promotional artwork, every word spoken or sung, the creation and shaping of arrangements, and the staging.
Do you direct full length shows as well?
Anything else you would like to mention or talk about?
I learned the hard way that Oscar Hammerstein had made lyric adjustments for the West End version of 1959’s Flower Drum Song. Alex and I performed our show at a party honoring Elaine Paige in Salt Lake City and in the song Don’t Marry Me I sang the Broadway lyric “They’ll get splinters in their little f- – – – -s,” and watched Elaine burst into hysterics, barely able to recover. From that I learned the West End rewrite is, “They’ll get splinters in their little bottoms.” How I hope to get it right at The Pheasantry!
He had better!
Jeff Harner and Alex Rybeck appear at The Pheasantry Saturday 24th March at 8:30 pm (doors open 7:00pm) and Sunday 25th March at 8:00pm (doors open 6:30pm).