Skip to main content

Jack Viertel's Broadway Lullaby

As artistic director of the Encores series at New York's City Center, Jack Viertel is the go-to guy for one of New York's hottest musical-theater tickets. It's just the latest phase, though, in an impressive theatrical career.

Viertel got his start in the theater as an L.A.-based critic. Once he made the leap to producing — he's now creative director for the Jujamcyn Theaters group — he became instrumental in bringing shows as diverse as M. Butterfly, Jelly's Last Jam, and The Producers to Broadway. He's been closely associated with the plays of August Wilson, as well.

At Encores, Viertel revives vintage Broadway musicals in limited runs; the staging is minimal, and actors read from scripts. But the short runs and the chance to rediscover yesterday's hits helps make Encores a major musical-theater event each season. (The long-running Chicago revival got its start as an Encores presentation.)

The latest Encores, Stairway to Paradise, stars Kristin Chenoweth in an homage to the musical revue; it runs May 10-May 14.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on May 9, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 9, 2007: Interview with Jerry Seinfeld; Interview with Jackie Mason; Interview with Jack Viertel.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jack Viertel, artistic director of New York City
Center's Encores! on his family's theatrical history, his new
revue "Stairway to Paradise," and other previous shows of his

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

The New York City Center Encores! series is a reliable but rare treat for
musical theater fans. It's the theatrical equivalent of a very limited run
collectible. Shows are presented in concert versions, with actors holding
scripts and with minimal staging and scenery and last only five days. But
because these shows are mounted from start to finish in a matter of weeks,
they can attract top talent who are between commitments.

The Encores! staging of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" earlier this season was
brilliant, and a few seasons ago Encores! mounted a revival of "Hair" that
somehow seemed more timely than ever. Beginning tomorrow, the current season
of Encores! concludes with a five-day run of "Stairway to Paradise." It's a
chronological collection of songs from a half-century's worth of Broadway
revues and stars Kristin Chenoweth.

Terry spoke with Jack Viertel, artistic director of the New York City Center's
Encores! series. But before we get to that, let's hear Kristin Chenoweth
singing "If." It's a song from the revue "Two on the Aisle" and until a few
weeks ago was one of the songs considered for "Stairway to Paradise."

(Soundbite of "If")

Ms. KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (Singing) There he goes as usual, my man
Tearing my heart apart
He's made my life a mess
I've got to do this, I guess

Goodbye, Joe
From here I kiss you
Goodbye, Joe
I hope I don't miss you

If you'd been on the square
And had treated me fair and we'd not a tiff
If you had not said I should
Should go and jump right off the nearest cliff
If you had stayed off the make
And you never had taken to coming home stiff
If I had not smelled perfume
With a nasty unfamiliar whiff

I'm going to miss you, baby
It could have been teriff

(Speaking) Well, what's the diff?

(Singing) If you had not had the cheek
To stay out for a week
Saying `Back in a jiff'
If you were not such a two-timing guy

If you weren't
If you hadn't
If you didn't
If you weren't
If you hadn't
If you didn't
But you have
And you were
And you went
And you did
And so goodbye!


(End of soundbite)


Jack Viertel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the basics. What is a

Mr. JACK VIERTEL: Well, revues flourished really from slightly before the
turn of the century up till the 1950s, and they were sort of the equivalent of
what a variety television show became in the 1950s, and that's why they ceased
to be done on Broadway. They were plotless, sketch-driven shows that had
songs frequently contributed by different songwriters, although sometimes one
songwriter wrote the whole score. And they featured stars of the day. In
some cases, they featured bevies of beautiful girls, comedy that was topical
and disposable, and just a big old riotous good time.

GROSS: Is this where the chorus line of beautiful, scantily dressed girls

Mr. VIERTEL: Yes, I think so. I mean, Florenz Ziegfeld was the most famous
producer of revues, and he made a slogan of glorifying the American girl; and
many people associate revues with that sort of stage picture. But there were
many revues that challenged it that were more light-footed and political and
topical and had, you know, jazzier ones than that. But certainly that row of
girls is what you think of when you think of a revue.

GROSS: Why did you want to put together a season of revues for the Encores!

Mr. VIERTEL: Well, 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of Ziegfeld's first
follies, the follies of '07. And that seemed like a good reason to spend a
season celebrating. Encores! is a series that is famous for doing
less-often-heard Broadway musicals, and we'd only done one revue in our
history and no one else was going to spend a whole season thinking about the
revue and about Ziegfeld, so I thought, `Why don't we do that?'

GROSS: So the songs are often just like stand-alone songs just like somebody
will come out and perform the song. They weren't usually part of sketches.
Can you tell us about why you chose a song that was originally from "The
Blackbirds of 1928," which was a revue starring African-American performers
with music by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. There's a song called "Doing
the New Low Down" from there that Bill "Bojangles" Robinson originated. Why
did you choose that song?

Mr. VIERTEL: Well, you know, it's sentimental as well as practical. Many,
many years ago when I was a young teenager, I found in my parents' record
collection a recording called "Great Moments in Show Business," and I think
this was just a compilation of 78 rpm records that had been put on an LP, one
of which was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson doing "Doing the New Lowdown," and I
got sort of fixated on that number and wondered what it was like, and what it
had looked like, and what it was really liked to see that performer who was
considered the world's greatest tap dancer in his prime. And you could hear
him tapping on the record. And it never really occurred to me that I could
get a practical answer to that question.

When we started to put this show together, I said to Jerry Zaks, who was the
director, `There's this song that I've always loved and it's a tap number, but
the problem is we should only do it if we can find a performer who we feel can
justify it, and I don't think it can be a famous performer. I think we have
to find someone who no one really knows but who is such a magical tapper that
it would justify taking this number out of mothballs and hearing it, because
it's such an entertaining number.' And so we went on a search with our casting
director...(unintelligible)...and the choreographer Warren Carlyle and
eventually found someone, a young man named Kendrick Jones, who we think is
possibly, you know, the right person to do this number. And we thought,
`Well, let's take a chance.' So here it is, you know, this number that really
has not been performed publicly in many, many, many years.

GROSS: Well, I wish we could see him doing it, but let's listen to Bill
"Bojangles" Robinson in his recording of "Doing the New Lowdown."

(Soundbite of "Doing the New Lowdown")

Mr. BILL "BOJANGLES" ROBINSON: Listen, good folks

(Singing) It isn't alcohol
No...(unintelligible)...again at all
Thrill me, thrill me with the pep I got
I got a pair of feet
That have found that low down beat
Low down down 'round a spot that's hot
Have no peace
Losing my lease
On living
Here's the how
I'm telling you now
To give in
Make them play that crazy thing again
I got to do that lazy spring again
Hi ho, doing the new low down

Got my feet to misbehaving now
Got a soul that's not for saving now
Hi ho, doing the new low down

That dancing demon
He has my feet in a trance
'Cause when I'm dreaming, folks
I go right into that dance
Once you hear that haunting strain, to wit
I'll be my life you'll go insane to it
Hi ho, doing the new low down

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's one of the songs included in the new Encores! revue "Stairway
to Paradise," and my guest is the artistic director of the Encores! series,
Jack Viertel.

Now, you come from a really interesting theater background. Your grandfather
Jack Shapiro actually built Broadway theaters, including the Mark Hellinger
Theater. So he was an architect?

Mr. VIERTEL: No, he was a builder. He was in the construction business.

GROSS: Oh, he was in the construction business. So did you grow up with him
telling you what makes a good theater?

Mr. VIERTEL: Well, you know, I didn't, because the reason I'm named Jack is
he died a year before I was born in a plane crash.


Mr. VIERTEL: So I never knew him, but my father was in business with him.
My father had written a play when he was a senior in college that was produced
on Broadway in 1937 for a two-week run at what is now the Richard Rogers
Theater, and I never knew my grandpa Jacko, but I heard--you know, he was sort
of a legend in the family, and we would, you know, walking into any one of
those theaters that he had anything to do with, we would certainly spiritually
take our hats off.

And he actually owned a theater briefly that had been the Earl Carroll
Theater. Old Carroll was one of the great revue producers of all time, but he
lost all his money in the Depression, and so my grandfather ended up
inheriting this theater, which he had remodeled for old Carroll, and they
produced a revue there called--well, the French Casino--the theater became
called the French Casino. I don't actually know the name of the revue. It
was sort of a Folie Bergeres on Broadway.

GROSS: So did you spend a lot of time in theaters when you were young?

Mr. VIERTEL: As much as I could. My parents and my grandmother Daisy,
Jack's widow, took me to see "Peter Pan" just before my sixth birthday and
that pretty much ruined my life. I mean, there was no chance that I was going
to be a doctor or a lawyer after that. I just wanted to see "Peter Pan" all
my life...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. VIERTEL: ...and then you know I began going by myself pretty steadily in
the 1962-'63 season when I was 13 years old. I would buy a balcony ticket for
two-fifty, three dollars on Wednesday or Saturday matinee, and I saw
everything that there was to be seen.

BIANCULLI: Jack Viertel, speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break. This


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Jack Viertel. He's the
artistic director of the New York City Center's Encores! series.

GROSS: Before you started producing theater, you were a theater critic. And
you got your first job as a dramaturge after Rocco Landsman, who's the
president of Jujamcyn theater chain, read a review of one of his shows, "Big
River." But from what I understand it was a bad review, a negative review. So
what did he like so much about this review if it was a negative review of his

Mr. VIERTEL: Well, he's an interesting character, and this was not the first
or the last time that something like this had happened with Rocco. In fact, I
think most of the people Rocco has hired to work at Ju Jamsen have said
something mean to him at some time or other that he took seriously. I was the
critic for the Herald-Examiner in Los Angeles, and "Big River" was trying out
on the West Coast, and I wrote a very negative review of it, basically
accusing it of being soft on its own subject matter. It's based on
"Huckleberry Finn," which I thought of as a very tough--lovable but
tough--novel, and the musical, I felt, was, you know, quite bland by
comparison. And I guess the producers agreed and they made some changes in
the show, some significant changes in the show. I can't personally take
responsibility for any of them, and I sometimes think Rocco just used the
review to hit the creative people over the head with. But whatever the case,
he called me on the phone, several years later, and he said, `Do you want to
come work for me?' and I said, `I don't think so,' and he said, `Well, come to
New York and let me seduce you,' and I did and he did.

GROSS: How did he seduce you?

Mr. VIERTEL: At that time, I was working for the Mark Taper Forum in Los
Angeles as the dramaturge. I had given up being a theater critic, and the
Mark Taper Forum had 750 seats in it, I think. And we went to various
theatrical events over the course of a weekend, and at one point he took a
piece of paper out of his pocket and he wrote down the capacity of all of the
Jujamcyn theaters--there are five Jujamcyn theaters--in a column, and on the
other side he wrote down 750. And he said, `Here's how many theatergoers you
can influence a night if you come to work here, and here's how many you can
influence a night if you stay at the Mark Taper,' and eventually he talked me
into it.

And we were having breakfast and we walked out of the Carnegie Deli where we
were having breakfast, and in those days there were telephone booths, and
there were two empty telephone booths, and I said, `Well if we're moving to
New York, I guess I'd better call my wife,' and he said, `Well, that's OK, I
have to call my bookie.' So we each made a phone call and then I came to work
for Jujamcyn.

GROSS: So you came to work as the creative director for the Jujamcyn chain,
and I think part of your responsibility was to find shows worthy of being
produced for those theaters in the chain, and the first play you brought with
you was "M Butterfly," which won the Tony that year for Best Play. How did
you discover it?

Mr. VIERTEL: "M Butterfly" was actually a play that I had in my suitcase
when I came to New York, along with "The Piano Lesson." I brought both those
plays with me from the Taper. We had tried--Gordon Davidson, who was the
artistic director of the Mark Taper and I as the dramaturge--had tried to
commission David Henry Wong to write a play based on the incident that "M
Butterfly" is based on, and we took him to breakfast and we asked him if he
had seen this incident about an ambassador to China who had fallen in love
with a Chinese opera star who turned out to be a spy and then also turned out
to be a man. And we said, `This would make a great play,' and David said, `I
know, I've just written it, but I haven't written it for you. I've written it
for a producer named Stuart Ostrow, and it's going to be done on Broadway.' So
I had the script--he gave me the script to read, but we had no chance to
produce it at the Taper. And then when I came to New York, the first thing I
did was get in contact with Stuart Ostrow and David and say, `I'm here. You
want this play done on Broadway, let's do it.'

GROSS: So is there a moment that stands out as a particularly great thrill
for you seeing something staged that you'd work on from the start?

Mr. VIERTEL: Oh so many. I mean, so many opening nights where you can't
believe how difficult they were to get there and then there they are.
Certainly "The Piano Lesson," which was the first August Wilson play we were
involved in, which also opened the newly-restored Walter Kerr Theater. It's
one of the few nights that I remember where a cast was legitimately called
back from their dressing rooms for an additional curtain call. The opening of
both parts of "Angels in America," which was a mammoth undertaking.

Those things--I mean, I hate to dwell on opening nights because it makes me
sound ridiculously sentimental, but those are culminations of the work.
Certainly "Hairspray" was that way. And in many ways, I have to say, a show
that's been much maligned, although it was very successful, which I was really
largely responsible for, which was "Smokey Joe's Cafe," represented a kind of
dream come true for me. I had wanted to do a show using material from the
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller catalogue for years and years and years, and it
took more than a decade to get it together. And that--although that was
considered sort of a popular entertainment without, you know, great critical
approval, I was very, very proud of it.

GROSS: That was a revue, wasn't it? Bringing us back...

Mr. VIERTEL: It was.

GROSS: the revues that you're doing for Encores! That was a kind of a
rock 'n' roll revue.

Mr. VIERTEL: I guess in some ways you could say it was the first jukebox
musical, a trend that's now much maligned.

GROSS: Right, right. So, you know, you're talking about how much opening
night means to you. Do you have opening night rituals?

Mr. VIERTEL: Not any more, really. When the first part of "Angels in
America" opened at the Walter Kerr theater, we all gathered in the men's room
immediately after the performance to read The New York Times Review--and
we--men and...

GROSS: Aren't you supposed to go to like Sardi's restaurant to do that?

Mr. VIERTEL: Men and women--well, you are, but the men's room was more
convenient, and the press agent had the review in his hand...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VIERTEL: ...and for a few years after that we did that in whatever
theater we were in, and, you know, the women came in, too, but it was sort of
a silly ritual, and I think it's the only one I've ever had.

GROSS: How nervous do you get on opening night?

Mr. VIERTEL: Alarmingly. It's a false thing to be anxious about. You know,
the critics have been there in the preceding days, you already know what you
think about the show. Sometimes the issues are more economic than artistic,
about whether you're going to run or not, but nonetheless there is something
that gets ginned up on opening night, and one might as well participate in it,
I guess.

GROSS: Broadway has kind of reversed directions musically, in the sense that
Broad used to originate the songs that became like hits by jazz musicians and
pop singers, like everybody did the Broadway songs. And now it's kind of the
other way around. Broadway's looking to pop music for a lot of its shows.
You know, like revues of like, your revue, "Smokey Joe's Cafe," or even like
you know, "The Jersey Boys," where all the music is from the Four Seasons.

Mr. VIERTEL: I think that there came a point where Broadway stopped
producing the most inventive popular music in the country. For many, many
years it did. For many years, the Gershwins and Cole Porter and Rodgers and
Hart, even Rodgers and Hammerstein and Frank Loesser were producing the most
exciting pop music anywhere. And then the rock 'n' roll revolution happened,
and the audience moved in that direction, and rock 'n' roll writers started
producing, and rock 'n' roll performers started producing the music that
everyone was excited about. And Broadway did not go there and did not catch
up, and it's just now beginning to catch up, and I think the world simply
shifted away from Broadway.

And you know, it's not surprising because I think in the heyday of Gershwin
and Porter, they were writing for the most lucrative opportunity that they
could find, which was the theater. I don't think that any of them were doing
it because they felt, `I have to write for the theater, I don't care whether I
make any money at it or not.' They were going where the work was. And I think
that the music business as it developed--is in quite a bit of trouble at the
moment, but beginning in the '50s and '60s, and '70s, the work went somewhere
else other than Broadway. Venues on Broadway are two small. The ability to
present work in huge arenas became very possible, and I think the most
inventive writers went, as they always had, to where the work was. It was in
the pop music business, not on Broadway.

GROSS: Encores! produces what's called "in concert productions" so it's not
like the full production with all the costumes and all the dances and all the
sets and--you know, things are very scaled down. Actors often have the script
in their hand, which they may or may not actually need to refer to, but these
productions are done so quickly that they have them there to refer to them if
they need them. What's some of the upside and downside of doing that kind of
scaled-down production?

Mr. VIERTEL: Well, I mean, from a practical point of view, there wouldn't be
enough rehearsal time to do a real production and deal with scenery and
costumes and all of that on the budgets that we have. I think the upside of
it is there's a tremendous kinetic energy to having the actors with scripts in
their hands, having rehearsed for a week, going out there with essentially
their first choice of how to to produce something and saying to the audience,
in effect, `This is not a production of this show. We're kind of hurling this
show at you, like hurling a bouquet of roses at you in some way that will
allow you to experience what it must have been like to see it.' That's a
unique interrelationship between an audience and a performer, and it can be
very, very exciting and thrilling.

The downside is there are many, many things that you can't do that are
intrinsic to what make certain musicals work. Musicals have always been
based, to some degree, on the way scenery moves, the way people look in
clothes, elaborate lighting effects and spectacle, some much more than others,
obviously. And when we choose shows, we often have to cast something aside,
saying simply, `This show is so dependent on its physical life that we won't
be able to do it justice.' And in that case, I think there are things that,
you know, we would love to do that we simply can't do.

GROSS: Do you have any favorite embarrassing moments from Encores!

Mr. VIERTEL: From Encores?

GROSS: ...that you'd like to share, where you didn't have really quite enough
time to rehearse something and...

Mr. VIERTEL: Hm. By and large, there haven't really been any great
embarrassing moments. There have been shows that I wouldn't mind getting back
again to try them again. And one of the interesting things that happens at
Encores! is, because it's rehearsed so quickly and you don't really see it
all in one piece until the audience does, or a few hours before the audience
does, you sometimes discover what the show is at its heart at the last minute,
and you think, `Oh no! I should have done this different. I should have cast
this differently. I should have had a different director or a different look
for it or something that would reveal the heart of it in some way that we've
failed to do here.' So there are entire shows that I wouldn't mind getting a
second crack at, but we've never repeated one yet.

BIANCULLI: Jack Viertel, speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break. This


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Jack Viertel. He's the
artistic director of the New York City Center Encores! series.

GROSS: Now, as part of this season's Encores! series of revues, you staged
Stephen Sondheim's show "Follies," which is a show about people who, when they
were younger, had starred in a revue and they're having a reunion years later.
Did Sondheim work with you on "Follies"? And if so, what are some of the
things that you learned, some of the insights that you got from him?

Mr. VIERTEL: He was very available to us. A lot of the work was done by
e-mail until we were actually in rehearsal. It was interesting, because he's
such a legendary figure that--I've known him only to to shake hands with and
say hello to over the years. I expected a sort of level of demand or
grandness that simply wasn't there at all. He is a completely practical man
of the theater, so that when--he didn't really talk to me very much except
casually, but he did talk to actors very specifically. He's done this show
quite a few times and, of course, he remembers the original very vividly, as I

And he was very, very helpful in trying to strip away the patina of grandness
about "Follies" that has adhered to it over the years. He said to me at one
point, `You know, "I'm Still Here," which is sort of of the most famous anthem
in the show, never stopped the show in the original production. It wasn't a
showstopper, it was just a song, and the tendency that performers have to try
to drive it to be a showstopper is absolutely understandable. They all know
that it's a showstopper, except that it isn't. And he had to find a way, and
I think found a very successful collaboration with Christine Baranski, who was
singing that song, to give her the confidence to let go of the idea that she
had to muscle this song into something that would bring down the house. It
brought down the house because she didn't do that and...

GROSS: I was there so I can attest to that.

Mr. VIERTEL: He's a wonderfully experienced, flexible, you know, theater
professional, who looks at every performer and every moment and says, `How can
this performer make this moment as good as it can be?' It doesn't have to be
the same as anybody else has ever done it, and it was just a pleasure to watch
someone with that depth of experience and patience work with people.

GROSS: Now, our listeners might have picked up on the fact that your throat
is a little sore today. Is this a typical hazard when you're nearing opening

Mr. VIERTEL: I don't know. I think it may just be a stress overload, but I
have had a, you know, flu for the last couple of days, and I hope it won't be
too irritating to people.

GROSS: Not to worry. Have you ever produced a show in a theater that was
built by your grandfather?

Mr. VIERTEL: No, I haven't. You know, my grandfather built two theaters on
Broadway. One of them was owned by the Shubert organization and one of them
is now a church, so that opportunity hasn't come along, alas.

GROSS: It's funny it's a church because I assume your family is Jewish.

Mr. VIERTEL: They are.

GROSS: So you wouldn't have gone there to pray.

Mr. VIERTEL: It's some kind of a universal church. I don't know what it is.
The Mark Hellinger is now something other than the Mark Hellinger.

GROSS: Right. The Mark Hellinger Church.

Mr. VIERTEL: Right.

GROSS: So, one more question. I assume that, after opening night of your new
revue, "Stairway to Paradise," that you're not going to go into the men's room
to read the reviews.

Mr. VIERTEL: No, the review--you know, we're in an interesting pattern here
because "Stairway to Paradise" opens on a Thursday and the review doesn't
really come out till Saturday, so I don't think I could spend that much time
in the men's room.

GROSS: Good point. Jack Viertel. Thank you so much for talking with us and
good luck.

Mr. VIERTEL: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Are you still superstitious? Am I supposed to say good luck?

Mr. VIERTEL: You can say good luck.

GROSS: It's OK to say good luck. Good. OK.

Mr. VIERTEL: I'm anti-superstitious.

GROSS: Well, thank you again.

Mr. VIERTEL: Terry, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Artistic director Jack Viertel, speaking to Terry Gross. His
latest production for the New York City Center Encores! series starring
Kristin Chenoweth in "Stairway to Paradise," opens tomorrow and runs for five

Podcasts of FRESH AIR are available at


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Fresh Air' marks the centennial of Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown

Schulz, who died in 2000, spoke in 1990 about his iconic Peanuts comic strip. Plus, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead talks about pianist Vince Guaraldi, who created the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas.


Mel Brooks says his only regret as a comedian is the jokes he didn't tell

Brooks wrote countless edgy jokes over the years, but he doesn't regret any of them. He calls comedy his "delicious refuge" from the world. His memoir is All About Me! Originally broadcast in 2021.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue