Charlie Rosen’s Broadway Big Band

October 20, 2014

Charlie Rosen's Broadway Big BandIn this one-off performance at 54 Below, young artists from New York’s musical theatre community teamed up with director Max Friedman, bassist/bandleader Charlie Rosen, and Rosen’s large ensemble of musicians (counting Rosen, 18 were listed in the program, though I somehow never managed to count that many together onstage at one time). The show offered songs from Broadway shows ranging from 1937’s Babes in Arms to the upcoming Honeymoon in Vegas. While many lovely musical moments occurred throughout the evening, the show suggested that it’s a tricky proposition having Broadway performers take on the role of swing-era band singers, and then presenting the whole thing in a relatively intimate cabaret club—a place where piano, bass, and drums ordinarily comprise the default instrumental mix. Even if the sound person amplifies singers to the hilt, they’re still in danger of being overwhelmed when competing with 18 musicians in a small room.

Rosen’s band got off to a blazing start with a jazzy rendition of the overture from Funny Girl (which, along with its counterparts from Gypsy and Candide, has frequently been hailed as among the finest Broadway overtures ever). Rosen and company segued into “I’m the Greatest Star,” also from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s Funny Girl score. While singer Julia Mattison relied a bit too heavily on the patented Streisand inflections in the first part of the song, she ended it with rip-roaring vocals of her own stamp.

So far, so good. But next up was a driving version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” from Company, featuring Ben Fankhauser as vocalist. I’ve heard this song on countless occasions in the four-and-a-half decades of its existence, and I’ve savored Sondheim’s lyrics every time. But here his words (and Fankauser’s performance) were largely swallowed up by the band. The arrangement nevertheless had its attractions. I appreciated the extended instrumental conclusion, in which the song’s familiar rolling vamp was accentuated with a vigorous drum solo from Bryan Carter.

The evening continued with a series of alternating highs and lows. The singer with the happiest results was Matt Doyle, who sang two Rodgers and Hart selections: a bossa-nova-inflected “Where or When” and a smooth “Glad to Be Unhappy” (with a pleasing bass solo spot for Rosen). In part, Doyle’s success can be attributed to the fact that Rosen’s arrangements for these ballads were relatively quiet and allowed some breathing space for the vocalist. But, also, I sensed that Doyle understands what it takes to be a singer with a big band: that maybe you need to think of yourself not as the main event—not as a singing actor being accompanied by musicians—but, rather, as the lead instrument in an ensemble. By blending in so effortlessly, Doyle—paradoxically—stood out.

Daniel Breaker sang “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and, much like Fankhauser, ran into some difficulty in foregrounding Sondheim’s lyrics. He returned later, however, with a very successful turn on “Chandelier” (Sia Furler, Jesse Shatkin), which spotlighted his exuberant yet easygoing showmanship. Though “Chandelier” was the one song in the evening not taken from a stage production, Breaker and Rosen made it something of an 11  o’clock number.

Margo Seibert delivered a tender take on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” but struggled to be heard on Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s “Old Devil Moon.” The most unfortunate turn of all was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which Fankhauser drenched in cascades of pointless melisma. Laura Osnes’s single number, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “Lost in the Stars,” sounded fine, though it didn’t really capture the “where’d God go?” anguish central to Anderson’s lyric.

A special guest was composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, who performed two of his own compositions, including Honeymoon in Vegas‘s “When You Say Vegas,” which seemed partly a celebration and partly a send-up of Sin City vulgarity. Brown adopted the persona of a crude and crusty lounge lizard, and the number came off well.

Rosen, it turns out, has written some of the orchestrations for Broadway’s Vegas. He’s a very showy musician. At this gig he took center stage and primary focus. His bandstand persona is that of a so-nerdy-he’s-cool hipster. He invests what he does with touches of smart-alecky retro irony. For instance, when he took the vocal lead on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” he punched out the words “sweetnin’ water” as “sweetnin’ WAHH-TUHH,” as though he were channeling Lena Horne through inverted commas. One may or may not be drawn to such cheekiness. To my mind, “Anyplace” turned out to be a fun turn, although Rosen twice sang the wrong lyric, substituting “the spirit moves” for “the going proves.” In any case, I suspect Honeymoon in Vegas may be a good fit for him, if his orchestrations manage to lampoon the Las Vegas showroom sound and still come off as invigorating—and if they’re not so brassy and brash that they smother Brown’s lyrics. It’s definitely a good thing that the Nederlander Theatre is considerably roomier than 54 Below.

54 Below  –  October 16


About the Author

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in and, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.