Pulitzers Play Little Rock: A CHORUS LINE on the UALR stage

IMG_0274In April 1975 A Chorus Line premiered Off Broadway before transferring to Broadway in July 1975. In 1976, it became only the fifth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Whereas the composer of the first musical to win the Pulitzer was not honored (apparently because he only wrote music, not actual words), with A Chorus Line’s citation, the Pulitzers recognized not only librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyricist Edward Kleban, and composer Marvin Hamlisch, but also Michael Bennett who conceived the project and steered its development.

In October 1985, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock became one of the first non-professional organizations to ever perform  A Chorus Line.  The theatre department was planning on producing Chicago, but dropped that show when rights for A Chorus Line became available.  (Chicago was on Broadway at the same time as A Chorus Line and was often overshadowed by it.)

In preparation for the show, UALR (as it was then known) conducted a dance workshop in August 1985 conducted by alum Kerry Kennedy, who had appeared in the national and international tours of the show.  After the workshop, auditions were held and the rehearsal process started.

Many familiar names in the Little Rock theatre scene from the 1970s to the present were involved in A Chorus Line.  The production was directed by Carolyn Curry, choreographed by Dot Callanen, and music directed by Lori Loree.  Jay Jagim provided the scenic and lighting design, while Joy Breckenridge was costume designer.

The cast was led by Tom Crone as Zach, the director of the show within the show, and Janet Ford as Cassie.  Other performers included Lee Borchert, Sara Cole, Missy Cook, Greg Donaldson, Jo Bocage Few, Dennis Glasscock, Leslie Hall (who joined the cast two weeks before opening), John Hartman, William R Holloway, Shawn Lynnette Jackson, Traci Presley, Joey Stocks, Allison Streepey, Joe Terry, Kevin Trippe, and Scarlet White.

Rounding out the company were Paula A. Barr, Kelly Bascue, Melanie Cameron, Caran Curry, Leigh Anne Embrey, James Finch, Tijuana McKnight, Leah McSpadden, Rick Riley, Karissa Rushing, and Curtis B. Tate.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.


Rock the Oscars: Marvin Hamlisch

marvin-hamlisch376x283.ashxComposer-conductor-arranger-pianist Marvin Hamlisch was a multi-hyphenate.  He also was an early EGOT winner (back when it was more difficult to accomplish this feat because there were fewer categories in all four awards).

Hamlisch visited Little Rock numerous times throughout his careers.  In 1996, he performed at Wildwood Park during the first season of the Lucy Lockett Cabe Festival Theatre.  He soloed with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in January 2000 performing many of his works for film and a few for stage.

In 2006, he returned to the ASO to perform with Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz and the latter duo recreated their roles from the Hamlisch-Neil Simon-Carole Bayer Sager musical They’re Playing Our Song.  His final visit to Little Rock was in 2011. He was performing in Conway but shopped in Little Rock for clothes when his luggage stayed in Chicago.

Over his career, Hamlisch was nominated for twelve Oscars.  He won three at the 1974 ceremony. They were Best Song for “The Way We Were” from the film of the same name (shared with Alan and Marilyn Bergman), Best Score for The Way We Were and Best Adaptation Score for The Sting.  The latter heavily featured music by former Little Rock resident Scott Joplin.


Robinson Center Redux- January

WAVW LR Jan65Since Robinson Center Music Hall is closed for renovations and restoration, this year the Culture Vulture will take a monthly look back at some of the featured attractions which have played there.  This month looks at January of years ending in “0” and “5.”

As noted earlier on the blog, even before the February 1940 opening of the music hall, the lover level exhibition hall was playing host to events including basketball games.

By 1945, things were well underway on both levels. Buddy Johnson & his Orchestra were playing a dance for African Americans in the lower level on January 10. Upstairs events ranged from a lecture on Christian Science (January 7), a play Good Night Ladies (January 17), a lecture by Dr. Emil Ludwig on Germany after World War II, and Paul Draper & Larry Adler in concert (January 23).

In 1950, Tallulah Bankhead starred in a revival of Private Lives (January 13), a Passion Play booked it for over a week (January 21 – 28) and a double-header of Shakespeare plays held court on January 30. Margaret Webster’s Shakespeare Company played The Taming of the Shrew in the afternoon and Julius Caesar in the evening. Also that month the Arkansas State Symphony (a forerunner to today’s Arkansas Symphony Orchestra) gave a concert on the 17th.

A highlight of 1955 was a women’s wrestling match on January 4 in the lower level.

In 1960, two theatrical productions were presented. On January 8 & 9, Odd Man In was presented “pre-Broadway” (it didn’t make it). Much more successful was the national tour of My Fair Lady from January 18 through 23.

Though Little Rock native Ben Piazza had helped develop the play, he wasn’t in the cast when the national tour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? played Robinson on Januayr 25, 1965.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robinson was at a crossroads.  Many performers wanted to play at larger spaces (such as Barton Coliseum) or smaller venues (such as churches or the UALR recital hall).  In 1970, the Happy Goodman Family gave a concert on January 21.  Five years later they returned on January 10, 1975 in a concert with Vestel Goodman. The next night, Johnny Paycheck was in concert.  On January 21, 1975, Robert Alda headlined a tour of The Sunshine Boys.

Orchestra concerts dominated most January offerings from 1980 onward.  On January 27, 1980, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave a concert at Robinson. In 1985, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra presented concerts (January 19 & 20) with Misha Dichter, pianist.  January 1990 saw the ASO with Stephen Burns, trumpet on January 20 & 21.

In 1995, the ASO performed Rimsky-Korskaov’s Scheherazade on January 13 & 14.  Composer, pianist and conductor Marvin Hamlisch highlighted a concert with the ASO on January 22 in 2000. Earlier in the month the ASO performed Der Freischatz on the 15 & 16th.  The day before Hamlisch, the Martins were in concert.

2005 highlights included the ASO with Elmer Oliveira, violinist (Jan 15 & 16), the ASO Side by Side concert (where Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra musicians and ASO musicians perform together) on January 29 and the ASO Family Series: Secrets of the Orchestra on January 30.  The Irish dance spectacular Riverdance played Robinson from January 17 through 19.

Five years ago, Ron “Tater Salad” White performed his stand-up at Robinson on January 8, 2010. Later that month the ASO offered Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto on January 16 & 17. The 2010 ASO Side by Side concert was on January 30.  On January 20 the Shen Yun Chinese cultural performance took place in Robinson.

ROCKing the TONYS – Marvin Hamlisch

marvin-hamlisch376x283.ashxRock the TonysMarvin Hamlisch

Little Rock connection: Appeared with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra at Robinson Center Music Hall. One of his appearances was conducting a concert version of the Tony nominated musical They’re Playing Our Song.

Tony Awards connection: Won a Tony Award for composing A Chorus Line.  Also nominated for Sweet Smell of Success.  Appeared as a presenter at the 1982, 1993, 2002 and 2007 Tony ceremonies.