HSO, Goodspeed Celebrating Tony's Best Musicals

For a change, an orchestra playing lively show tunes will not be in a pit, invisible to the audience. The musicians instead will be the main attraction on Saturday, Feb. 20, when the "Hartford Symphony Orchestra and Goodspeed Celebrate the Best of Broadway" at The Bushnell in Hartford.

This is not the first time the 72-year-old HSO and the East Haddam-based musical theater have joined forces for a concert of show tunes. It is, however — according Goodspeed Resident Music Director Michael O'Flaherty, who's conducting Saturday's show — "the first one that's not an anniversary." Three years ago, for instance, there was a symphony event to honor 50 years of the Goodspeed.

Actually, Saturday's show, which begins at 7:30 p.m., is an anniversary of sorts. O'Flaherty has been with Goodspeed for 25 years. And the general theme of the evening is "70 years of Tony-Award-winning music," (though that number should be 67).

All the music in the concert comes from shows that won the Tony Award for best musical. It's a prize that the Tonys weren't awarding until 1949, so don't expect songs from "Oklahoma!" or "Girl Crazy," but the concert does celebrate right up to the present day, with "The Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," which premiered at Hartford Stage in 2012 and won the best musical Tony for 2014.

The symphony and the theater's pit orchestra have occasionally had musicians in common. One is the versatile jazz drummer and orchestral timpanist Gene Bozzi, whom O'Flaherty credits as the "impetus" for the HSO and Goodspeed's 2013 collaboration.

"But this," the conductor declares, "is a completely different program." It will feature a diverse mix of tunes from famous Broadway musicals, some of which have been staged at Goodspeed.

Among the Goodspeed shows, selections include "A Little Night Music" (which Darko Tresnjak, now at Hartford Stage, directed for the theater in 2001) and "Guys and Dolls" (done just last season), plus a number from "Bye Bye Birdie," which the theater will be producing in June.

The concert will give audiences a chance to appreciate the finale from "Les Miserables" for its musical qualities alone, without the considerable baggage of that show's convoluted plot and grand set design.

The HSO and Goodspeed collaboration is also an opportunity to see performers who've graced the Goodspeed stage stretch a bit, doing songs by characters they haven't played before, from a variety of shows in a wide range of styles.

O'Flaherty, who helped pick the guest vocalists for the show, describes them as "people we're particularly fond of."

They include Gizel Jiménez, who was in last year's premiere of "The Theory of Relativity" at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester and is about to play Princess Anna in the new stage version of "Frozen" in California; Conor Ryan, who played Jean-Michel in "La Cage aux Folles" at the Goodspeed Opera House last season, co-starred in "john & jen" off-Broadway and was in "Cinderella" on Broadway; Tony Sheldon, who was Horace Vandergelder in the Goodspeed's "Hello, Dolly!" and Bernadette in the Broadway and touring productions of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"; and Laurie Wells, from the Goodspeed productions of "42nd Street" and "City of Angels" and national tours of "Sing for Your Shakespeare" and "Mamma Mia."

Besides the four featured vocalists, singers from the Hartt School will sing some ensemble numbers, such as the lively "The Telephone Hour" from "Bye Bye Birdie," "Fugue for Tinhorns" from "Guys and Dolls," and "Take Me or Leave Me" from "Rent." Not all the selections have lyrics: the orchestra will be playing some overtures and dance pieces as well. There are no sets or costumes, but there may be some fancy lighting effects.

Regarding his role as conductor for the event, O'Flaherty is not accustomed to brandishing a baton.

"I don't conduct with a stick," he said. "I've never done a stick show at the Goodspeed."

That's because he's usually playing keyboards, the foundation of many a small theater orchestra.

"I'm always having to play and conduct at the same time," he said.

The Goodspeed has room for just more than a dozen musicians in its orchestra pit. Most modern Broadway scores are orchestrated for a couple of dozen players. The HSO has more than five dozen members, apparently a fun challenge for an orchestrator and arranger.

"In most cases, we're using the original Broadway orchestrations, but we have to beef them up from 25 to 62," O'Flaherty said.

Among the special delights: "If we're thinking of programming harp parts on a synthesizer, that's crazy — we have a live harp!" he said.

THE HARTFORD SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND GOODSPEED CELEBRATE THE BEST OF BROADWAY is performed 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, in Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $19 to $66, $10 for students; $25 tickets are available for patrons age 40 and under. Information: 860-987-5900 and hartfordsymphony.org.

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