Category Archives: Entertainment

Feliz Navidad, Santa Baby!

The “06880” tagline is “Where Westport meets the world.”

Turns out, 06880 — and 06883 — are where we meet the Christmas music world too.

The other day in Weston, Susan Feliciano was listening to Songcraft. The popular podcast features chats with the creators of America’s most popular music.

The most recent edition covered Christmas songs. Susan’s husband Jose was the first interview.

The best-selling guitarist/vocalist has been on a sold-out tour of the British Isles since October. So even though Susan knew the back story, it was nice to hear Jose’s voice as he talked about writing the joyful, jangly — and spectacularly successful — “Feliz Navidad” one day in July.

She kept listening.

The next interview was with Phil Springer. That’s when Susan learned something she never knew.

Springer is now 91. Way back in 1953 — more than 60 years ago — he was a Brill Building songwriter, writing for stars like Judy Garland.

His boss asked Springer to work with lyricist Joan Javits on a Christmas song for Eartha Kitt.

“She was the sexiest woman in America,” he told Songcraft.

Springer and Javits spent 2 weekends collaborating on the song — at her father’s Westport home. (Springer did not say who Javits’ father was. But her uncle was Jacob Javits, then a US congressman from New York, later a senator, and now the namesake of a large convention center.)

Their collaboration became what Springer calls “the first sexy Christmas song” (with lyrics like “Santa baby, Slip a sable under the tree, for me … Been an awful good girl … Hurry down the chimney tonight”).

Eartha Kitt’s recording became a huge hit in 1953 — but then disappeared. (Coincidentally, in later years she became a Weston neighbor of Jose and Susan Feliciano.)

“Santa Baby” resurfaced in 1987, when Madonna revived it. Since then it’s been featured in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and recorded by many other female singers.

Today, both “Feliz Navidad” and “Santa Baby” can be heard on every Christmas radio station — and just about every other place — in America.

Including — particularly proudly — Westport and Weston, their spiritual homes.

(Click here for the full Songcraft Christmas show podcast.)

Remembering Ted Simons

Ted Simons’ death this week was a loss to the musical world.

It was a loss to Westport as well.

The 84-year-old longtime resident was a Broadway, television, film and cabaret musical director, composer and arranger. He created shows and films for more than 100 companies, including IBM, GE, Ford and Procter & Gamble.

He composed music for “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Anything Goes.” He worked on the Miss America Pageant, “Hullabaloo,” and TV specials with Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman and Paul Anka.

Simons was a conductor and arranger for Bob Hope, Roberta Peters, the Four  Seasons, Shari Lewis, Leslie Uggams, Julius La Rosa and many others. He was the orchestra leader at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

Ted Simons

But he was just as active in Westport. Never one to turn down a request, he volunteered as musical director and conductor for many school shows, at Greens Farms Academy, and with the Y’s Men’s Hoot Owls singing group.

In 2009 the Senior Center honored him with a lifetime achievement award, for all he’d done for his community.

Buell Neidlinger — who grew up in Westport in the 1940s and ’50s, and is a very accomplished musician in his own right — worked on recording sessions with Simons.

“He was the consummate — maybe the most artistically able — producer/director of what we used to call ‘Big Splash TV,” Neidlinger — who now lives in Washington state — recalls.

“You don’t see those shows much anymore, on account of the expense. Some guys in his position were vicious. But he was the nicest and kindest guy.”

Working on “The Producers” with Simons was, Neidlinger says, “unbridled hilarity. Ted knew just how to respond to Mel Brooks’ constant interrupting joking. He kept everyone laughing Mel liked that! At the same time he kept the music going onto the tape — the producers liked that! It was quite a feat.”

There will be no funeral service. Instead, he asked, “Please sing or play a chorus of George Gershwin’s ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’ in a slow tempo.”

Connect-Us Links Youth With MLK’s Dream

It’s quite a bit early to think about Martin Luther King Day.

Unless you’re Connect-Us.

That’s the Bridgeport-based, Westport-supported organization offering after-school opportunities for youngsters in need.

Connect-Us programs have 3 prongs.

Youth Leadership Team members learn public speaking, community organizing, and related skills. Over 100 young people auditioned for the team’s first talent show, which drew an audience of more than 450 in October.

Connect-Us Youth Leadership Team members promote a recent talent show.

C-U Onstage is a place where young people meet, create, produce performances, and learn to work as an ensemble. For some, it’s the first chance to earn community praise.

Connect-Us Academy is a 14-week series of workshops at companies throughout Fairfield County. Professional mentors — including Westporters Charlie Adams, Arlene Doherty and Deb Sawch — help teenagers learn about finance, law, advertising, retail, health and education administration. Graduates of the program are placed in paid summer internships.

“There’s a state of emergency in Bridgeport,” says Connect-Us executive director Pam Lewis. “The average 9th grader reads at a 4th grade level.”

She is gratified that so many people here “understand that kids need support, in school and after school. This really is Westport and Bridgeport — caring adults and young people — coming together and harnessing our human capital to impact and support entire communities. ”

Board chair Frances Rowland, plus Doherty and Joyce Eldh — live in Westport. Business partners from Westport include Matthew Burris (CFO of Marc Fisher Footwear), Rich Eldh (managing director, Sirius Decisions) and Chris Sawch (partner, Shearwater Creek).

The Connect-Us board of directors.

So about Martin Luther King Day: Connect-Us is sponsoring a special (and free) Klein Auditorium performance. Over 150 children and teenagers — multiracial and economically diverse, from throughout Fairfield County — will sing, dance, and recite poetry and monologues and raps. They’ll also read from letters they write to Dr. King, sharing their own dreams — or (sadly) why they’ve stopped dreaming.

The Klein is an inspiring — and inspired — choice. Dr. King spoke to full houses there twice, in 1961 and ’64.

Four days after his murder, in 1968, an overflow crowd jammed the hall for a memorial service.

Lewis is excited about the upcoming event. 2018 is the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Westport youth — and anyone else — interested in performing should email plewis@connectusct.org.

This is one way to honor Dr. King. It’s also a great way to “connect” with talented youths from nearby neighborhoods, around a common dream.

FUN FACT: Connect-Us is a great name. Not only does it imply connecting “us” and the “US” — but the logo highlights “CT,” as in “connect Connecticut.”

Rockin’ Around The Vimeo Feed

It was the like one of the 1960s Staples High School concerts with the Doors, Yardbirds or regular Byrds: Sorry, sold out!

Fifty years after those legendary shows, a Westport Cinema Initiative showing of a documentary about them left plenty of folks standing in the lobby.

The movie — “The High School That Rocked!” — was a labor of love. Class of ’71 alum Fred Cantor (who somehow managed to miss all of those concerts, back in the day) teamed up with 2014 grad Casey Denton (an Emerson College film major who had a better reason for missing them: He would not be born for another 3 decades).

The resulting story of how the Doors, Cream, Sly & the Family Stone, Yardbirds, Animals and Rascals came to Staples — and what happened when they did — is fascinating and compelling. Also very, very cool.

Last summer’s SRO audience of 300 in Town Hall loved the video. Thousands of others wondered if they could see it too.

Now they can.

Earlier today, Vimeo released “The High School That Rocked!” in the US and Canada, via video on demand. (Click here to stream it now.)

It’s well worth the half hour. And I’d say that even if I was not one of the interviewees.

Though he’s glad the film is now available to all current and former Westporters, Cantor believes there’s a much wider audience out in Vimeo land.

He’s right. You don’t need any connection with Staples to download “The High School That Rocked!” You just have to be a fan of the best music ever.

Of course, if you don’t know anything about Westport, you won’t get the sly reference in the credits at the end.

The film was produced by “Sally’s Record Dept. Productions.”

high-school-that-rocked-poster

 

 

Adam Kaplan’s Bronx Tale

What’s a nice Jewish boy from Westport doing in 2017 with an Italian-American Bronx teenager during the 1960s?

Acting.

On Broadway.

Adam Kaplan — the 2008 Staples High School grad whose post-Players career includes starring roles in “Kinky Boots” and “Newsies” — has a new gig. He recently took over as Calogero, the narrator/lead in “A Bronx Tale.”

It might seem that playing a scrappy Italian city kid is a stretch for a boy from the ‘burbs. (And one who went on to major in musical theater at North Carolina’s Elon University.)

But, he says, his character is “eager, wide-eyed, willing to learn and make something of his life.” Those, Kaplan adds, are traits “any aspiring performer can relate to.”

Adam Kaplan and “A Bronx Tale” dance captain Brittany Conigatti.

The Westporter may no longer be “aspiring.” Following his 2 roles in “Newsies” — plus nearly 40 performances as understudy for lead Jack Kelly — Kaplan moved to Los Angeles for television work.

He had just finished a guest role on ABC’s “Deception” when “Bronx Tale”‘s casting director called. Several whirlwind trips to New York later, he got the job.

Two days later — on October 18 — Kaplan began intensive rehearsals. His first show was November 9.

Joining the cast of an established show is very different from signing on at the start. Rather than discovering elements together with the rest of the cast, Kaplan says, “everyone already has their rhythm. My job is not to disrupt it.”

His goal is to “take the audience on a 2-hour journey, and tell this story truthfully.”

Opening night was special. Family and friends were in the audience. “I walked on stage, and got entrance applause,” Kaplan recalls. “That was sweet!”

It’s been a great gig. Writer Chazz Palminteri — who based the show partly on his own childhood — has been “a great springboard, and very complimentary. He came with a full notebook, ready to take notes about me. But he only had a few.”

As a teenager on the Staples stage, Kaplan always dreamed of Broadway. Now — playing the lead again, in his 2nd show — it all seems “surreal and crazy.”

A few years ago, Kaplan read actors’ interviews on Broadway.com. Now he’s the interviewee. (He also finished 10th in the voting for the site’s Sexiest Man Alive contest.)

A screenshot of Adam Kaplan’s Broadway.com interview.

Broadway, he says with a hint of surprise, “actually is all it’s cracked up to be.” There are perks like singing at a Brooklyn Nets games, and the honor of greeting Westport fans — those he knows, and those he meets for the first time — at the stage door after a show.

Though Kaplan starred in a wide range of Staples Players roles — “Romeo and Juliet,” “Children of Eden,” “Diary of Anne Frank” —  he was never in a rough-and-tumble production like his 2 Broadway hits.

This fall’s Players mainstage was “Newsies.” Unfortunately, the “Bronx Tale” schedule prevented Kaplan from seeing his alma mater’s spectacular rendition.

He saw photos of it, though. He forwarded them along to actors who’d worked on the show with him.

“They were shocked,” Kaplan reports. “They couldn’t believe that was my school, doing it like Broadway.”

That’s quite a Bronx Westport tale.

Justin Paul’s Next Oscar: P.T. Barnum?

2017 was quite a year for Justin Paul.

The 2003 Staples High School grad and his music writing partner, Benj Pasek, won an Oscar for “La La Land”‘s lyrics, and a Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen.”

The year is almost over. But the insanely talented duo have an ace up their sleeve:

P.T. Barnum.

Pasek and Paul contributed 11 original songs to “The Greatest Showman.” The 20th Century Fox film premieres December 20.

The Hollywood Reporter says they’ll be Oscar contenders — along with the likes of “Beauty and the Beast” (by Alan Menken and Tim Rice) and Sara Bareilles’ “Battle of the Sexes.”

Justin Paul at the Oscars.

The other day, Pasek and Paul took time out from rehearsals of Fox TV’s live musical “A Christmas Story” (December 17, with Maya Rudolph and Matthew Broderick — no, they never stop working) to talk to the Reporter.

Asked about “pushing the limits” with Hugh Jackman, Paul said:

We were, of course, intimidated because he’s such a master of musical theater, especially onscreen. But we were also inspired to write for a lead character that will be portrayed by Hugh, with all of his abilities and his vocal range and everything. It gives a songwriter such clear parameters of the playground, and with Hugh, it’s a really big one.

As for lessons learned from “La La Land,” he noted:

We view this as a window of time. Maybe it lasts for a while and maybe it doesn’t. The winds seem to shift sometimes, and we’ve obviously seen periods where people have really embraced musicals and periods where it’s really fallen out. But there are people who aren’t necessarily Broadway fanatics like we are, who still want to see a musical on Christmas with their families.

The former Staples Player and Orphenian star is no longer on stage. He explained:

As for all the [awards season] events, we definitely feel funny getting dressed up for something because we’re intentionally behind the scenes. There’s such a humbling neurosis that goes along with writing because no matter what you’ve done, the next time you go to write a song, you’re standing at a piano and there’s a high probability that you’ve struck out the first time you try, no matter what. That will never change.

(Click here to read the entire Hollywood Reporter interview.)

Anne Hathaway Moves Here?

If you believe the New York Post‘s Page Six, Westport has welcomed a boldface name new neighbor:

Anne Hathaway and husband Adam Shulman are spending Thanksgiving weekend in their brand-new seaside hideaway on the Connecticut shore.

Locals are buzzing that the couple has bought a $2.8 million, 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom home near Compo Beach in tony Westport, Conn. A spy spotted the new neighbors picking up Thanksgiving supplies in a local store.

New neighbors?

The 1920s cottage for the pair — who purchased a $2.55 million Upper West Side apartment last year — is 5,000 square feet built on 1 acre with an AGA range, an outdoor kitchen and “ornamental English gardens,” according to a listing.

Reps didn’t get back to us.

A search of recent real estate transactions did not turn up a sale to either the award-winning actress or her husband. However, Westporters have spotted her around town for a while now.

Meanwhile, here’s my question: Since when is a 5-bedroom, 5-bath house a “cottage”?

Betty Corwin Saves Broadway

Betty Corwin just turned 97.

It’s about time she got some recognition.

Thanks to Observer.com, she has. The site just ran a long story on the Westporter’s many contributions to the arts.

It begins:

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the whole Justice League would be advised to make a place in their number for an authentic hero of the arts. She may look like a mild-mannered, little-old-lady librarian, but, underneath, she’s really Betty Corwin.

Corwin spent 31 years running the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TAFT) at the NYPL for the Performing Arts. It was her idea, in fact, and, for that singular vision, The League of Professional Theatre Women filled Sardi’s Eugenia Room recently to toast the trailblazing Betty and give her a Tiffany bowl for lifetime achievement. Indeed, achievement is the word for it.

A star-studded audience heard Corwin talk about parents who exposed her at an early age to entertainers like Ethel Merman; her marriage to a doctor, raising 3 children here, and “a perfectly contented life as a Broadway-loving civilian.”

But she got an opportunity to do something everyone talked about, but no one had done: film theater.

Betty Corwin

She put an ad in the paper for a cameraman, and hired the cheapest one. They headed to Sheridan Square Playhouse to tape “The Golden Bat.”

Betty recalls, “he sat there in front of his equipment, totally stoned, a haze of smoke over his head. But we got our first show.”

Broadway was more resistant than off-Broadway. The Dramatist Guild and directors and choreographers’ unions came around — after 2 years of wrangling — but stagehands and musicians still refused.

Finally, Betty walked in to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees office. She says:

It was like a scene from “On the Waterfront.” There was this guy with his feet up on the desk, leaning back against the wall, smoking a big cigar. He never asked who I was or what I wanted. He just said, “Yeah?” I said, “I’d like to talk to Dick Nimmo.” I heard him on the intercom say, “Hey, Dick, there’s a pretty lady here to see you,” and Dick Nimmo answered, “Send her right in.” I went in his office and said, “I’m Betty Corwin.”

“He turned purple. Then, I sat down and didn’t get up for over an hour. I told him all the other unions had agreed. I told him all the conditions that were agreed to. I told him we’d never show the tapes to anybody but students, theater professionals and researchers. And the archive wouldn’t be open to the general public. I went on and on until he finally [threw up his hands and] went, “Enough! You’ve convinced me.’”

The last holdout — the musicians’ union — soon folded.

Betty went on to a 3-decade career recording live performances of Broadway productions.

Of course, she couldn’t do it all alone. Early on, she hired a 26-year-old secretary. The woman went on to make her own name: Paula Vogel.

Happy birthday, Betty! And thank you for helping preserve so much Broadway history and lore.

(Click here for the full Observer story. Hat tip: David Grant)

“In Wonderful Westport…”

When technical difficulties prevented a video of 2nd graders singing Westport’s praises from being shown at last night’s swearing-in of town officials, most of the Town Hall audience probably breathed a sigh of relief.

There’s a thin line between cute and cringe-worthy. Very few of the board, commission and RTM members wanted to test it.

But 1st Selectman Jim Marpe had an ace up his sleeve: Suzanne Sherman Propp,  and her Greens Farms Elementary School music students.

The song — which she and the kids wrote, with Cheryl Buck — is catchy and clever. It covers tons of Westport people, places and history. The 2nd graders are not the Vienna Boys’ Choir (for one thing, there are girls), but they carry a tune better than I do.

And the video — produced by Josh Margolis — is first-rate. Newcomers, old-timers and (especially) ex-pats will love the fast-paced photos. (It’s also clever. When the kids sing about famous families and come to “Sherwood,” there’s a shot of the diner.)

So go ahead. Click below. Enjoy the show!

Read All About It: Reid Thompson Makes “Newsies”

When audiences pack the auditorium this weekend for “Newsies” — Staples Players’ eye-popping production of the Tony Award-winning show — they’ll rave about the Broadway-quality singing and dancing.

They’ll give standing ovations for the high-energy pit orchestra. They’ll congratulate directors David Roth and Kerry Long as one of the first high schools in the country to pioneer the musical.

They’ll notice the set, too. But unless they’re intimately involved in theater, they won’t understand how much the scaffolding, backdrops — and over 1,500 newspaper bundles — contribute to “Newsies”‘ success.

There’s a lot going on during Staples Players’ “Newsies” — including the set. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Reid Thompson knows. He’s the Players grad — and professional set designer — who helped bring the New York newsboy strike of 1899 to life in 2017 Westport.

As a student in the mid-1990s, Staples’ art wing was Thompson’s refuge. Legendary tech director Joe Ziegahn asked the budding artist to paint horses for “Carousel.” The rest is theatrical history.

Thompson continued painting for Players’ productions of “West Side Story,” “Runaways” and “The Tempest.”

He trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, Roth and Long asked him to work on summer musical sets at Danbury’s Richter Park.

That led to work with Players shows like “Into the Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Hello, Dolly!” At the same time, Thompson painted Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including “The Lion King,” “42nd Street” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” A 5-year stint painting for the Metropolitan Opera House followed.

Reid Thompson painting “Der Rosenkavilier” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Commuting back to Westport, Thompson moved from painting sets to designing them. He created the jury room cage for Players’ “Twelve Angry Men,” and the illustrated storybook for “Guys and Dolls.”

But Thompson wanted to learn more about set design, so he applied to Yale School of Drama. His Staples portfolio helped gain admission to that very competitive institute. Working there with directors, actors, stage managers and techies, he forged bonds that brought him important New York work (“The King and I,” “Fiddler on the Roof”).

Thompson continued to work with Players, on “Music Man” and — yes — “Fiddler.”

Reid Thompson

Then came “Newsies.”

Beginning last summer, Thompson and the directors talked about period, context and themes. They researched the history of the newsboy strike, its importance to the labor movement and protections for children. They talked about characters.

Thompson looked at historical photos and artwork. Newspaper collages struck a particular chord.

Staples’ huge casts need space to move and jump. Scenery must provide a setting, but flow seamlessly during transitions so audiences are transported into the sweep of the story.

There are other challenges. Can everyone in the audience see the action? Can the singers see the conductor, and vice versa? And of course, what’s the budget?

Thompson set to work using a scale model. He focused on a collage of period newsprint that evokes turn-of-last-century New York: vertical, a bit grimy, sensationalistic. Scaffolding represents tall buildings, and period ironwork.

“Newsies” is a show about kids. Thompson wanted audiences to see their perspective. Thus, much of the set looks upward — “large and overwhelming,” the designer says.

The newsies’ world was black-and-white — literally and metaphorically. Much of the set is too. But when Jack Kelly, the lead character, is in the vaudeville theater, he feels safe. Thompson added vivid colors there.

“That’s Rich,” performed in the theater that Jack Kelly loves. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The stage manager and lighting designer worked from Thompson’s ground plan and drawings.  Technical director Pete DiFranco and student carpenters built sets based on Thompson’s construction drawings. Steelwork was done in a professional shop.

Thompson created the collages himself, using period newsprint sent to a digital printer in Brooklyn.

Large newspapers form a backdrop for “The Bottom Line.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Conceptualizing — then realizing — a show like “Newsies” takes enormous work. Thompson likens it to an architect working with clients and contractors to produce a building.

When we look at buildings, most of us don’t think of the people who designed it. The same with theater sets. Even audience members who admire the design and detail don’t always realize how, say, moving pieces of scenery on and off stage contributes to the flow of the show. Or that the designer pored over hundreds of photos before creating a certain scaffold, then positioned it just so.

“Newsies” has earned a place as one of Players’ most storied productions ever. It will be talked about for years.

Audiences will remember the singing, the dancing and the acting. They may not recall Reid Thompson’s sets.

But without them, this remarkable show would not go on.

(To learn more about Reid Thompson’s work, click here.)