‘A Broadway Celebration’ (in the East Room of the White House)

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Who’d pass it up? Only the most radical of the radical-right, I guess, as only they would presumably consider the arts as threatening to their worldview.

For the rest of us, meanwhile, it’s irresistible not to think about and wish we’d been invited to the event back in July in the East Room called A Broadway Celebration: In Performance at the White House. Originally live-streamed, an edited version of the event airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide. It marks the fifth of the “In Performance at the White House” programs thus far during President Obama’s term.

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WETA kindly offered a screener to the Clyde Fitch Report, and we’re pleased to report some highly opportunistic viewing.

Let’s first get the politics out of the way, shall we? With our national politics rapidly descending from sparring sport to bloody brawl, at least one thing remains sacrosanct: the dignity, the majesty, of the presidential office. If you’re asked to perform for the president, whoever he or she may be, you leave your politics at the door. At A Broadway Celebration, but for the occasional, noticeably gentle jab by master of ceremonies Nathan Lane, the politics were indeed on the soft side. This isn’t the White House Correspondents Dinner, nor should it be.

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The performance itself has the curious quality of making you wish you were in the East Room yet glad to be elsewhere. For the room itself it is not what one would call terribly welcoming to performance. It measures 79 feet by 36 feet and 9 inches; which at over 2,800 square feet sounds tremendous. Watching the program, however, one begins to realize that there really are 200 people crammed in there, including the President, the First Lady, their children and the First Lady’s mother in the front row, so for the performers the experience must be fairly bizarre. PBS has been posting some cool behind-the-scenes video (George C. Wolfe directed the event itself), and Lane succinctly sets the scene:

With the idea of any president, much less our formidable and embattled one, in one’s lap, it’s no wonder some of the performances rode perilously close to the shoulder. Putting aside the news stories about Elaine Stritch expressing the desire to “get drunk” with America’s chief executive, the legendary actress kicked off the show with a first-melancholy, then-triumphant “Broadway Baby,” each tone suited to her legendary scrappy persona. Her reprise toward the end of the night, however, was another Sondheim classic, “I’m Still Here,” and Stritch fumbled the lyrics badly. The more she went up, the more she turned self-pugilist, fighting valiantly just to save herself — which, when you really think about it, is the essence of the song. Painful as it may have been to watch — and who knows if they knew the difference — the Obamas looked compassionate, and that is perfectly fine compensation right there.

The event had been live-streamed; the broadcast version only includes some of President Obama’s remarks. You get the feeling he’d actually have orated more had someone crafted something more soaring to say. That fact aside, I do think this passage is particularly meaningful to those of us championing the arts:

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…there’s nothing quite like the power and the passion of Broadway music. At its heart, it’s the power of a story — of love and of heartbreak; of joy and sorrow; singing witches; dancing ogres. Musicals carry us to a different time and place, but in the end, they also teach us a little bit of something about ourselves. It’s one of the few genres of music that can inspire the same passion in an 8-year-old that it can in an 80-year old — and make them both want to get up and dance. It transcends musical tastes, from opera and classical to rock and hip-hop. And whether we want to admit it or not, we all have the lyrics to a few Broadway songs stuck in our heads.

And at such close, close proximity, the Obamas probably had little choice to but walk away humming from the event. If there was any doubt about it, the sound design assured otherwise. For example, Idina Menzel, looking ravishing, went about “Defying Gravity” with so much amplification they heard her on Alpha Centauri. Then again, Menzel is the queen of money notes, and any and all federal revenue ought to be welcomed with open arms.

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Chad Kimball, still on Broadway giving a dose of Memphis, imbued his performance of the song “Memphis Lives in Me” with such aplomb and such completeness that I thought the song was arguably more powerful on my TV than when I saw the show live. And nothing, nothing I tell you, will prep you for what Audra McDonald does with Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him,” which isn’t from a Broadway show and won’t diminish Betty Hutton’s great take on the song but is gorgeously rendered nonetheless. Given its placement in the evening, it also a welcome uplift. (Side note: if McDonald really wants to take our breath away, she could segue from “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” directly into “If You Hadn’t, But You Did” from Two on the Aisle, then interpolate them mercilessly. I know, I know, maybe it wouldn’t have been a great song choice before the president — the song is sung by a character who has just shot her husband — but for pure technical wizardry, probably only McDonald could pull it off.

And there were also several performances that prized subtly as well as virtuosity, beginning with Brian D’Arcy James’ swell “Blue Skies” (a little more coin for the Irving Berlin estate, thank you) and Tonya Pinkins’ shuttling “Gonna Pass Me a Law” from Caroline, or Change from howl to harrowing to honorable in the span of a precious few minutes.

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Still other performances were, alas, confounding. Karen Olivo and a passel of performers from West Side Story (Yanira Marin, Shina Ann Morris and Jennifer Sanchez) were all sexed up singing “America,” but the song, with its sassy ‘tude toward America and Puerto Rico, appeared to leave President Obama blithely amused more than solidly entertained. You can’t alienate the Hispanic vote, you know. And while Lane and D’Arcy James were inspired singing “Free” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, you have to wonder how a song sung by the slave Pseudolus really goes down with our first black (all right, biracial) president.

If irony is in, then I have to comment on how the appearance of 12-year-old Assata Alston, who immediately followed Stritch at the top of the show, came to be. For me, the song choice was downright odd. Something about a 12-year-old girl singing “Gimme, Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie struck me as inappropriate: “Gimme, gimme that thing called love/I crave it/Gimme, gimme that thing called love/I’ll brave it”; “Here I am, St. Valentine/My bags are packed, I’m first in line/Aphrodite, don’t forget me/Romeo and Juliet me”? Really?

Oh well, they grow up quickly these days. That was evident when the Youth Ensemble from Joy of Motion Dance Center and Duke Ellington School of the Arts — plus Danielle Arci and Constantine Rousouli — declared “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray. Watch the video below, celebrate Broadway, and let your cares fly free. (By the way, a comment from director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell in the video below is spot-on.)

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