So oversubscribed was the April 3 Juilliard School Centennial Gala at Lincoln Center’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater that a number of guests ended up enjoying the concert on screens in the theater’s VIP lounge. Among the attendees were Linda Fierstein, Mary Rodgers, David Judelson, and Barbara Barrie. Between canapés, Barrie told me that being fired from playing Yente in “Fiddler on the Roof” during Alfred Molina’s reign as Tevye had its upside: “I got paid for a whole year.”
Joseph Polisi and Bruce Kovner, respectively the school’s president and chairman, welcomed the black-tie crowd. “It’s great to be back on the stage of my student days,” soprano Renée Fleming said. Accompanied by the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by John Williams, she sang “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca.” Pianist and Juilliard alumnus Emanuel Ax, together with the Juilliard String Quartet, played Johannes Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor. The program also included a goose-bump-eliciting performance by violinist Itzhak Perlman of Williams’s theme from “Schindler’s List,” and an over-the-top Kevin Kline, in the guise of Hamlet, offering advice to students from Juilliard’s drama division. Remarks by Wynton Marsalis, a Juilliard student in the 1980s and now the director of jazz at Lincoln Center, preceded the evening’s pièce de résistance: 13-year-old Chinese-born piano prodigy Peng Peng, who was accompanied by the Williams-led Juilliard Orchestra in a performance of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.
At the post-concert dinner gala, under a huge tent of sky-blue panels erected over the entire plaza in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the 1,000 guests (who helped raise $5.5 million) mingled amid fresh flowers and 550 white spherical lanterns, and feasted on “wild game stew, breast of Cornish hen, duck, pheasant, guinea hen, pearl onions and mushrooms in a classic hunter style sauce flavored with herbes de Provence.” I exchanged greeting with — among others — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and gala co-chairs Dan Lufkin (co-founder of the firm Donaldson Lufkin, & Jenrette, now part of The Equitable) and his wife, Cynthia.
During my chat with composer/conductor Williams — whose 100 film scores include the “Star Wars” trilogy, “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Munich,” and who has received 45 Academy Award nominations, five Oscars, 18 Grammys and more — I told him about my having been in Poland during the war and that his “Schindler’s List” theme always affects me profoundly. I mentioned that several years ago, while at Florida’s Peabody Orlando Hotel, I was surprised to come upon a quartet in the hotel’s lobby that was playing the “Schindler’s List” theme. A modest and gentle man, Williams gave me a hug.
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“Applause for the Golden Boy” was an apt title for the March 27 tribute to Charles Strouse, the Tony Award-winning composer of “Annie,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Applause.” Sponsored by the American Musicals Project at The New-York Historical Society, the event was hosted by Victoria Clark, the Tony Award-winning star of “The Light in the Piazza.” Clark was joined onstage by five stellar song interpreters. The Musical Project’s teacher-training programs expose seventh and eighth graders in New York City public schools to American musical theater. The programs have trained 1,000 teachers and, to date, 20,000 children have been treated to musicals that correspond with state-mandated academic subjects: “Annie” and the Great Depression; “West Side Story” and postwar immigration; “Show Boat” and post Civil War Reconstruction, and “1776” and the Revolutionary War.
“I feel very historical,” Strouse said with glee. “I wrote something… never thought I was writing history.” Among the 20 Strouse gems highlighted that evening were “She Sees Who I Am” from “Marty” (lyrics by Lee Adams), and from the musical “Rags,” the number “Children of the Wind,” which contains evocative lyrics that include “Hiding from the Cossacks…. We made it to Danzig” (lyrics: Stephen Schwartz). Strouse also wrote the score for “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” a 1968 film about an Amish girl who accidentally lands in a burlesque house and allegedly invents the striptease. Though a valid aspect of American cultural history, understandably it is not suitable for the American Musical Project.
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After the Strouse tribute I went to Shun Lee West restaurant, near Lincoln Center. At a large, round table sat a group of young men with spiked hair, tattoos, chains and earrings. “Must be musicians,” guessed my daughter, Karen. She discovered they were an alternative rock band from Dallas, Texas, called The Vanished, in town with Columbia Records executives to prepare a showcase with another label. Suddenly an emissary from a booth brought greetings: “Seymour Stein would like to see you guys.” Their manager, Ronnie Raphael, told the table, “He’s a legend in the music business!” When Stein joined the band members at their table, I introduced myself. “The Forverts!” he exclaimed, and then began to wax nostalgic. “Ah, that rotogravure section, the ‘brown pages’ I used to read at my grandmother’s.” Unexpectedly he put his arm around my shoulder and — with the Texans, Chinese waiters and diners looking on — belted out “Mayn Yidishe Mame!” I joined in!
Chairman and cofounder of Sire Records, a Warner Bros. label, Stein called me a few days ago. “I discovered Madonna, the Pretenders, K.D. Lang, Bare Naked Ladies” and others. “I grew up in [Brooklyn’s] Coney Island…. My parents came from Galizia [in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Poland]. My mother was in the Italian food business. My father was very Orthodox; He would put Scotch tape on the light [switches] so we would not make a mistake. On Saturday, when I came home from shul, I had a portable radio so I could [secretly] listen to [the TV program] ‘Your Hit Parade.’ When I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, I read, by heart, my bar mitzvah speech in Hebrew! I told them it’s 50 years since my bar mitzvah. Everybody was shocked!” (On the phone he again recited part of the speech in Hebrew.) For each name in the music business that I mentioned, Stein had a story. Here’s one: “Elton John is godfather to one of my daughters.”