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’Defying Gravity’ - New York City Opera’s Spring Gala

Originally Posted: May 03, 2011

Ann Hampton Callaway, Stephen Schwartz, Raul Esparza, Kristin Chenoweth, and Victor Garber. (Adriel Reboh)

New York City - It made sense. "Defying Gravity," the spring benefit gala for New York City Opera in the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, honored Long Island's Stephen Schwartz. After all, he's the composer and lyricist whose name has been attached to a few Broadway hits - "Godspell," "Pippin," "The Magic Show" and the current mega-hit "Wicked" - as well as a new American opera "Séance on A Wet Afternoon." Under the leadership of the late Beverly Sills, the spring season at City Opera has incorporated musical comedy in its repertoire. Schwartz was the perfect combination - Broadway, films, television and opera.

'Séance,' directed by the composer's son Scott Schwartz, happened to have had its New York premiere two days earlier at Lincoln Center. The opera was based on Bryan Forbes' 1964 English suspense film starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley, who was nominated for an Oscar.

A pre-performance cocktail party in the theater foyer preceded the 80-minute City Opera gala entertainment, a celebration of some of Schwartz's songs.

There were some unusual highlights to the party. First, Danny Meyer's Union Square Catering provided the tempting hors d'oeuvres. Usually, Restaurant Associates caters Lincoln Center events. Meyer's Union Square Events will also host the VIP Café at Central Park Conservancy's "Taste of Summer" on June 1.

Second, the crowd was decidedly a hodgepodge of opera supporters, music theater buffs and Stephen Schwartz friends and fans. Scattered throughout the great foyer were Jonathan Sheffer, conductor; Amy Fine Collins, the most glamorous woman there and Isaac Mizrahi, looking like a down market fashion designer.

New York City Opera is one of the jewels in the City's Cultural Crown. It was founded in 1943 as City Center Opera Company. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called it "The People's Opera," because it was a home for young singers and composers and opera offered at relatively reasonable prices.

At one time, opera singers had to go to Europe to establish themselves. There are at least 3,500 singers whose careers City Opera helped launch including, José Carreras, Phyllis Curtin, David Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Lauren Flanigan, Elizabeth Futral, Renée Fleming, Jerry Hadley, Catherine Malfitano, Bejun Mehta, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Gianna Rolandi, Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle, Tatiana Troyanos and Carol Vaness.

In 1966, City Opera moved into Lincoln Center and was renamed, New York City Opera. It continued with its goal to make opera financially accessible to wide audience as well as bringing the public exciting new works and compelling, fresh interpretations of classics, while acting as a champion for American composers and performers.

The company has presented 29 world premieres as well as 61 U.S. or New York premieres. Through its annual VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab, City Opera generates future repertoire by presenting free, public readings of previously un-produced works performed by the City Opera soloists, orchestra and chorus.

In addition to producing opera, the organization has extensive education and outreach programs. City Opera provides arts-in-education programs to 4,000 students in some thirty schools. In short, it's easy to be a fan. Reason alone to support the company.

The Spring Benefit Co-chairs were David and Julia Koch and Charles R. Wall. Honorary Chairs were Davis Stone and Marc Platt. Vice-Chairmen were Angela A. Chao, ,strong>Frieda and Roy Furman, Sylvia Golden, ,strong>Lynn J. Loacker, Mark and Lorry Newhouse, Christopher Barley MD, Svetlana and Herbert M. Wachtell.

City Opera is all about music. And, there was music. Schwartz's songs could not have been heard to better advantage. The stage was filled with the large, New York City Opera orchestra under the leadership of conductor Steven Osgood.

Unlike Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim, two other composer/lyricists, Schwartz does not have a large catalog of recognizable songs. What separates him from the other two talents? He is credited with being one of the songwriters who brought rock music into Broadway musicals. For the past 10 plus years, Schwartz has been a guiding light of the ASCAP workshop, both east and west coasts, for young theater composers and lyricists.

Interestingly, the credit for much of the success of two shows Schwartz wrote has been given to others. Bob Fosse, the genius director/choreographer, is generally celebrated for turning "Pippin" into a 1944-performance hit by imposing his concept on the musical. Fosse also created the first national television commercial for the show, which also sold tickets. "Pippin" had two familiar songs, "Magic To Do" and "Corner of the Sky," which were performed at the benefit. And, it is Doug Henning's incredible illusions that get the nod for driving "The Magic Show" to 1,920 performances.

For the first 15 minutes of the gala show, there were sound problems that plagued Raúl Esparaza and Victor Garber. They opened the entertainment with songs from "Godspell" and "Pippin." Garber reminded the audience that he played Jesus in the film version of "Godspell."

Kristin Chenoweth delivered several of the evening's highlights, "Popular," a song she introduced in "Wicked" and the wistful "Lion Tamer" from "The Magic Show."

Esparaza had a solo moment of success, when he sang, "Defying Gravity," Elphaba's anthem from "Wicked." He and Chenoweth performed "Just Because It's Magic," a duet from the television musical "Geppetto." There was acknowledgement of Schwartz's collaboration with Alan Menken for Disney with the lyrics to "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," garnering two Academy Awards. He also wrote the music and lyrics to "Prince of Egypt," his third Academy Award.

Ann Hampton Callaway got her shining moment singing "Meadowlark," a quasi-aria from "The Baker's Wife." The musical had a short run in London and a rocky, never-to-make-Broadway, six-month national tour.

Lauren Flanigan and Todd Wilander starring in "Séance on a Wet Afternoon," Schwartz's first opera, offered two musical highlights. The opera had its world debut in Los Angeles in 2009 and its New York premiere two days before the benefit gala.

Most of the tribute to Schwartz moved as smoothly as the mechanical gears on the "Wicked" stage set. However, there were a few genuine sparks. Chenoweth injected the evening with its only un-mechanical moments, the first time when she shared the stage with Esparza. He confessed that when he settled in New York, he was out of work for six months. She asked, "What's that like?" The second human moment came when the four Broadway performers returned to sing "For Good," from "Wicked." When Chenoweth, looking at Schwartz, sang the lines, "But I know I'm who I am today/Because I knew you" she choked up.

As befits a tribute, the evening was punctuated with lots of applause. It was hard to determine if it was for the songs, the performers or both.

Among the opera and musical theater fans were Princess Alexandra of Greece, Princess Marina of Greece, playwright Marsha Norman, composer and arranger Jeanine Tresori, City Opera's General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel, Gilles Bensimon, Hamish Bowles, Nell Campbell, Mary Sharp Cronson, producer Ken Davenport, Natural History Museum's Peter Lyden, Liz and Jeff Peek and fashion's Robert Verdi.


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