Monday, November 3, 2014

Fred Barton: An American Showstopper!

Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!
Dr. Seuss

Hope you had a great Halloween night and are enjoying the first days of November.
 Today, I celebrate a man who thirty years ago became the toast of the town in a one-man/woman musical he wrote called Miss Gulch Returns! An endearingly demented look at the woman on the bicycle who tormented little Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it was clearly a show for the ages. There is an interesting common thread among many of my generation in the theatre. It is called the ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM!
Fred Barton's mother grew up outside of New York and was a theatre goer as his grandmother was before her.
He grew up in a household full of original Broadway Cast Albums. On Sundays, they were allowed to listen to one all the way through, all eight kids!

Every once in a while, his mother would be doing some work around the house and she would pull out a cast album. Fred would listen to it as well and suddenly became an expert in Broadway musicals.

He ran to the piano and started to play the tunes by ear. There is a lot of music that is not and was not available at the time. Shows were done at school as they pretty much are done at most schools around the country. 
The difference and final thing that pulled Fred in was that he got an offer for summer stock after his first year at college. Forty dollars a week minus eight dollars for the room at a terrific summer theatre called Theatre By The Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island.
I also did a summer stock production there!
The producer there was Tommy Brent who was a longtime theater producer best known for bringing summer stock plays and musicals to the Theater by the Sea, a historic Rhode Island institution he helped preserve. He quickly caught on that Fred had that sixth sense. Fred became an assistant there for the next two years. There, he met the most brilliantly, fascinating, good looking, funny, emotionally in touch people that he had ever met in his life, namely, these theatre people from New York. Fred said, "That's for me!"
What has compelled him to stay in the business?
He says that is something everyone in the business asks themselves every day. Everyone should have a "Plan B".

No artist wishes to just work. Fred always told his parents that if it was a nightmare or if it fell apart, he would always go to "Plan B". He never knew what the "Plan B" was, but he stayed in because he loves it, and he never has had that much trouble getting work and staying in it.
He has been through every phase, now. He came to New York, and starting in musical theatre at a wonderful theatre that no longer exists, The Equity Library Theatre.
From there, he jumped right into the cabaret world with a show called Forbidden Broadway, which played two nights in November of 1981. Forbidden Broadway was a one-piano show.... two singers. (Then it expanded to one piano, four people, which it's been ever since.)You know what happened to that! It turned into a thirty year thing.
Fred didn't stay with it thirty years he is proud to say. That sort of put him on the map as they used to say in the old days. From there, he went and did Broadway shows. He was conducting on Broadway when he was twenty seven years old and doing National tours.
At that time, he started getting television composing work.

Fred then went to Hollywood and studied film composing with Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, and all the rest of them. Fred got the real deal. David Raksin, the legend. Fred studied with all of them and came back to New York and scored a television show called The Magic School Bus which is still very popular. A whole generation grew up on it. It is still on Netflix.  

He went on to do several other TV shows. He worked in various phases, not always doing what he thought he would start out doing in musical theatre.
Then, and what he has been doing a lot of lately is symphonic orchestrations.
Nora Mae Lyng and Fred Barton in the original Forbidden Broadway
That is his main thing now. It's great because he gets to do "show" music. What these Pops orchestras are looking for all over the country is show music and adaptations of television music and all of the fun stuff that he loves on a very grand scale. Broadway only has, at most, except in very rare occasions, fourteen to eighteen players, sometimes eight, sometimes ten.
In some instances with his symphony orchestras, Fred gets eighty pieces to write for!
As you can see, it has been easy for Fred to stay in the business because the business has stayed with him.
I asked Fred what he does when he needs a little "nonsense" in his life. He LOVES nonsense!
That has always been in his taste, both in musical theatre. "I love Lil Abner!"
He loves the serious stuff, too, but his heart really belongs to the musical COMEDY. Notice the emphasis on the comedy. Nothing makes him happier than a ridiculous musical comedy. He is much more likely to pull out Little Me than A Little Night Music, much as he loves both of them.

Fred hardly does anything for “fun”, because what he does is the fun.  In recent months, he started going to Fire Island. As a result, he fell into the “drag queen” circuit.
He didn’t even know this “world” existed to the extent that it does. Some of them are very accomplished. Now, when he finds these great entertainers, in their own little world, he’ll go see a crazy drag show. He loves the special material.
That is why he loves cabaret AND the type of cabaret he is drawn to.
He is less inclined to hear Barbara Cook sing Sondheim at the Algonquin. He is very inclined to go see Coco
Coco Peru
Peru or Kristine Zbornick and/or Christine Pedi or those that have that “funny bone”. Those are descendents of Judy Holiday of the Reviewers. That whole aspect is where Fred lives. All he wanted to do in New York is come here and hang out with the people who were just going crazy in the cabarets. When he did his OWN cabaret show, he didn’t want to bore everyone with his “biography”, so he turned his biography into what he hoped was a crazy cabaret show. Again, that is what he loved.
Last Spring, Fred did a highly successful concert tribute to Jerry Herman. Last month (October 2014), he did a similar evening celebrating Cy Coleman.
Irving Berlin is next. That concert will be in March 2015. What Fred tries and do is two concerts a year at the Schimmel Center at Pace University. They have given Fred a wonderful home for his show which started at The Metropolitan Room as a cabaret show. The idea is very simple. Great Broadway songs of the old school variety combined with great Broadway entertainers of the old school joined by a great Broadway “band” of the old school. They are ALL top drawer. What Fred tries to do with the two concerts a year (October and March) is pick composers who have a contrast.
Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin has a completely different “profile” than Cy Coleman. 
He tries to do someone on the jazz side and then someone on the other side. Last year, it was Richard Rodgers in the autumn and then the very show “biz-y” Jerry Herman this past March. Irving Berlin, as you know, covers a century of American popular music, so Fred has a challenge in front of him to figure out what “angle” he is going to take. He can’t do it all. He doesn’t like to do just a straight forward retrospective. Now, that this celebration of Cy Coleman has been done, he is thinking about what approach to take with his next concert.
What is it about Irving Berlin that he desires to emphasize?
Last month, The Mabel Mercer Foundation closed its 25th annual Cabaret Convention with a tribute to Irving Berlin. As wonderful as that was, they barely scratched the surface.
Unfortunately, Fred missed that concert. Last month, I also caught the world premier of the stage adaptation of Holiday Inn at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, which, of course, features a score by Irving Berlin. Berlin’s music NEVER goes out of favor and I highly recommend making the trek to Connecticut to see this.
People think they know Irving Berlin, but they don’t. There are so many facets. He wrote some of the most beautiful haunting ballads that have ever been written.
Then, of course, he had the completely fun show business side. There is a fun side that is almost always overlooked because of his gorgeous ballads and his more standard show music. Fred loves The International Rag, Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades; several of the early Twenties songs, he had the Devil in him. One of the best orchestrations for symphony that Fred created is How Deep is the Ocean?  The Indianapolis Symphony assigned it to him for NaTasha Yvette Williams who was in Porgy and Bess and The Color Purple. He had no idea what he was going to do with it but he listened to it and it was so haunting. “It just goes right through you.” It turned out to be the best symphony orchestration he ever did, according to him. It was done again at Carnegie Hall three years ago this month. It was late in Act Two and NaTasha Yvette Williams made it an eleven o’clock number in an evening of all Irving Berlin music with the New York Pops.  The place fell apart. Fred really desires to dig into Irving Berlin and remind people that there’s more there than just the “top ten” that they probably know.
Once Fred sets his mind on the subject of a concert, the first thing he does is create play lists on his computer. He has a “million” CDs.  He has the “best” on his ITunes.
Fred simply listens to those songs by the composer he will be celebrating. Some of them, he hasn’t heard in a million years, even those he knows the songs like the back of his hand. He just listens and sees what grabs him at the moment. He starts with a song list of about one hundred songs. Ultimately, in each concert, he can only do about twenty-five songs.  From that one hundred song list, as he starts to whittle it down, he starts to group the songs, according to not just the basic “idiot proof way”, but what the songs really are. What they mean and what they signify about the composer. The concerts are not just about the music, but also about the composers being celebrated.  All of Fred’s remarks in the concerts are extemporaneous. He just speaks between the numbers to glue it all together to get his points across as to what he desired to communicate regarding the composers.   Throughout the process, the list will tell him, “You do want to do this song. This song no longer belongs.”  From there, he gets it down to fifty. By the time he has a list of fifty songs, THEN, he starts to think “who would be good for this? If they are singing THIS song, then they should be singing THAT one. “Just as it is with the songs, he can only have a certain number of people in each concert. He gives each one a range of material that will balance the show. THAT’S when it gets very challenging…to match performer to material and that’s when he starts to conceive the concert. It also starts to shape the type of concert it will be. What performers are doing what material and what are the contrasts? Then he starts reaching out to performers. The next step is the response of performers. Some decline dues to conflicts. Some sign up right away. That tells him that it is up to the gods to whom he gets. When he has a grip of who is in the concert, that solidifies which of the fifty songs are to be picked for the final list of twenty-five songs.    
The lists tell him where to go. It is like constructing a cabaret act. It is best not to start with a concept or a preconceived notion. Get your songs together and they will tell you what your show is about.
Then you’ve got great songs and a theme emerges from them.
If Fred could change ONE thing about him, he would try and be less of a workaholic. Part of it, is because he has so much work. It is hard not to be a workaholic. It may sound like a bratty thing to say, but it is a very first world problem. He is up to seven or nine in the morning finishing up an orchestration.  He doesn’t see live human beings because these orchestrations are done at home alone. He misses being that guy that was seen gallivanting around town when he was seen around cabarets and going to Cast Party and doing all the fun things that New York has to offer. He hasn’t been to The Cabaret Convention or to see anyone perform lately. He is just locked up with his work. A New Year’s resolution is to try and moderate that. He just can’t stay locked up in a room for the rest of his life. The reason he went into show business, going back to an earlier question of mine, was the people. He didn’t care if he would ever “succeed” as long as he could hang with the people who were trying to.
He DID succeed and now he can’t hang with the people WHO he came here for. He’s got to fix that.
He is also interested in having a serious relationship.  When he came to New York, he had “delusions of grandeur.” He desired the “grand Broadway experience.” Broadway is not what it seems when you are not doing it.
These concerts were really born out of the passing of Tommy Brent, Theatre by the Sea’s artistic producer, who gave Fred his start at age eighteen. When he passed away a few years ago, Fred felt a memorial was in order. Mr. Brent began his work with the theater, in Matunuck, in 1958 and helped save it from demise twice. In 1966, he invested his own money to stop its owner at the time from demolishing it. In 2007, he brokered its sale when
the theater again appeared to be on the verge of demolition.
Mr. Brent was the producer and manager of the theater from 1967 to 1988.
During that time he produced more than 100 musicals and plays, often vying to be the first summer theater to receive the producing rights of Broadway shows. 
He helped introduce up-and-coming performers like Cherry Jones, Tovah Feldshuh, Michael McGrath and Frances Sternhagen in summer productions at the theater, a wood-shingled former barn on six well-manicured acres. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Thomas Brent Cheseldine was born in 1922 in Washington. He started his theater career in Arlington, Va., before decamping for New York in 1941. He arrived with acting aspirations, but within two years he was producing. He worked a variety of theater jobs across the country before settling in coastal Matunuck in the late 1960s.
Fred put together a big show at the theatre in Rhode Island.
Alan Green, Jon Peterson, Stephie DeAngelis and Fred Barton
Fred called everyone who had appeared at the theatre in the past forty years. He put the word out on Facebook. Twenty one entertainers went out and they put together their own Follies.
It was life reflecting art. All of the older selves going back twenty, thirty, forty years to the theatre haunted by their youthful selves. Fred thought, “What are we going to do?” Tommy loved show music, so they put together great band, great entertainers, and great songs.
It was a smash and Fred thought, “Why am I not doing this in New York?”
He started at The Metropolitan Room doing the same thing: great band, great entertainers, and great songs. Pace came to see that and that’s why these concerts are being done at Pace now.
 He was a little disappointed when he caught that brass ring. “It is basically doing a show, but on a bigger scale.”  He had lots of fancy romantic ideas, none of which are grounded in any sense of reality. Fred has always been an idealist. “That is a rough gig and something I would not recommend to anyone in this world.” He never got over that. Is there anyone good enough? Am I good enough? Fred admits that he is one of those contradictory people.    

If Fred could change ONE thing about the profession, what would that be? Fred feels the business has become increasingly “fad driven.” We go through these fads where everything has to be about the same thing. He does regret that. That is one of the reasons why Fred started this concert series at The Metropolitan Room of old time show music which led to the Pace Center concerts. It seemed to Fred as if the rock/pop idiom had completely taken over Broadway. Part of that are the demographics that are driving that with pulling in a younger audience, and all of that, but even up to a couple of years ago, there was always a nostalgic ticket on Broadway. There was Thoroughly Modern Millie or The Drowsy Chaperone or Anything Goes. There was something for us “old time people who love old time musical comedy.”

Much less so in the past few years. The first one in several years is the On the Town revival. Fred misses old time show music. Because it is not in favor now, no one wants to do it, no one feels it will sell.
Fred is not talking just about revivals. He means writing it.

No one is writing it in that idiom. It is still possible.
Fred heard a song from Honeymoon in Vegas  that Jason Robert Brown wrote and he feels that it might be a throwback to what he loves, but everything is now very fad driven and feels very one sided.

He feels that Broadway is not the “big tent” that it was before or has been in the past.
Again, it is too one sided. He thinks that is bad for business and bad for him because he doesn’t like a lot of what he is seeing. Not that it isn’t good; it simply isn’t Fred’s type of thing. Broadway should be a “big tent” just as cabaret is to get a wide variety. It is true on television with reality shows. Those vocal shows which makes Fred sick in which they are brutalizing singers for entertainment; it is ALL very fad driven.

Fred CAN imagine not being in this profession. He was not brought up to be in this profession. He comes from a family of doctors, lawyers, and scientists. He not only was not brought up to be in the business, he was specifically brought up to not be in the business. His mother’s cousin was Paul Desmond, who was a jazz saxophonist who played for Dave Brubeck and who wrote Take Five. They did have a celebrity musician in the family. He knew Fred’s mother quite well. They grew up together.
Because she saw his life style, in and out of hotel rooms…the gigging, “the headaches, the heart aches”, you know the song!, even though Fred showed early signs of a desire to pursue this route, she did not exhibit any pressure.  She was the opposite of a stage mother. She would point out the down side, so Fred grew up thinking that was something NOT to do. It gradually crept up on him, even with four years of college, and summer stock, and an obsession with the theatre.
It took Fred all of that to realize that he should just go to New York and do this.
Fred’s opinion of the business since he began has not changed in a remarkable way, but rather, n a “typical” way.

This is a little “old school” and he is not sure that today’s crop carries the same mentality and sensibility.  Fred and I share a similar sensibility. When we both arrived in New York, we were obsessed with Broadway and the Broadway musical and all the people who did them, as well as the entertainers who were on their way up in the cabaret rooms and the people he was playing auditions for.
He would kneel at the feet of anyone connected.
A janitor who had once swept a Broadway stage, Fred wanted to hear every story.
He hung on to every word of anyone who had ever done ANYTHING connected with the theatre. Fred worshiped it all. Fred, now, has done it all, and admits to being somewhat jaded, although, he is interested in hearing anyone’s story and there are still a lot of stories out there. Fred feels as if that “curiosity” and a little bit of respect for what has come before is lacking.
I agree wholeheartedly.
Fred hears this from a number of his performer friends who are part of our generation. The younger people in the dressing rooms are less interested in what came before and is less familiar with it. A chorus person asked a performer friend of Fred’s the other day, “who is Irving Berlin?” That is seriously unfortunate.

Fred is a little lonely, because he feels, not only about show music, but the entire ethic of those people who could stop a show with a number are now consider a little déclassé. Isn’t it great to have a smashing number that ends on a button. People are a little afraid of the old conventions of musical theatre. They feel it is a little old fashioned.  Sometimes, you just want someone to come out and stop the show. Fred misses that. That is why he calls the series American Showstoppers. Fortunately he has gotten people to do that and do it dependably. He feels he must not  be the only person in New York who loves show music. Fortunately, so far he has been proven right!

Thank you Fred Barton for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!
With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating the first Fifty Years of Hello, Dolly!


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    

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  1. Fred is a treasure. We became friends on Facebook several years ago and I delight in all the fascinating projects that he writes about. I'm so glad that you wrote about him. I learned so much more about this man that I have nothing but respect for. I know that I ended that sentence on a preposition but I don't care!

  2. Everyone who has ever given their life to show business should be so fortunate as to have a profile of them done by Richard Skipper!!!

  3. The composer of "I'm a Bitch!" ;)