Review: NY Pops Celebrates a Birthday and Brings Out the Stars to Honor Alan Menken
By Megan Wrappe, Contributing Writer, May 2, 2018
On Monday, April 30th, The New York Pops celebrated a milestone with its 35th Birthday Gala which also honored the composer most closely associated with the Disney franchise — Alan Menken. To say that it was an unforgetable night is not really doing it justice.
The opening number provided various snippets of Disney songs from Menken’s well-known catalog, giving a taste of what was to come. This was followed by one of his lesser-known works, but nonetheless a classic. Broadway veterans Corey Cott and Kerry Butler performed the showstopping number “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors, which Menken co-wrote with Howard Ashman, his longtime writing partner who passed away in 1991.
After this, the Disney extravaganza began.
First up was Jodi Benson, the original voice of Ariel from the animated classic The Little Mermaid performing her singature number “Part of Your World” dressed, naturally, in a glittery blue/green dress with mesh skirt sections looking like mermaid fins. Benson’s voice was almost identical to how she sounded in the film, which premiered in 1989, which is remarkable unto itself. Next up was the amazing Harvey Fierstein performing the villainous number “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” also from The Little Mermaid. Anyone who has seen Fierstein on stage, film, or TV, knows his style is quite unique, and tonight was no exception, wearing Ursula’s signature “purple” in his shirt color and holding the microphone as if he had fins.
Next up was Disney classic Aladdin, originally an animated feature and now a long-running Broadway show, featuring Adam Jacobs, the original Aladdin from Broadway, performing the poignant “Proud of Your Boy.” Though the song had been cut from the original film, Menken restored it in the stage version, and it is now a well-known hit. Following this sweet ballad was the ever energetic James Monroe Iglehart reprising his role of the incredible, magical Genie to perform “Never Had a Friend Like Me.” In his inimitable style, Iglehart glided and danced all over the stage with a gusto that is rarely equaled.
The next number, however, took my breath away. When Judy Kuhn, the original voice of Pocahontas, began singing her signature song “Colors of the Wind,” all you could do was sit and let the chills wash over you. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was represented through the talent of Michael Arden, who originated the role of Quasimodo in the stage version. His voice was beautiful as the orchestra swelled behind him, making me hope that this Disney show will eventually find its way to a Broadway stage sometime in the near future.
Conductor Steve Reineke announced that they had been able to reunite three of the four original Muses from the film Hercules, with Cheryl Freeman, Roz Ryan, Vaneese Thomas, and Lillias White (the fourth member, LaChanze, is currently starring as Donna Summer in Summer, The Musical on Broadway) to sing the hit, “Zero to Hero.” The energy these ladies brought to the stage was infectious as they danced to the gospel beat while the crowd enthusiastically sang along. And as hard as that was to follow, somehow Roger Bart, the original voice of Hercules did as he sang his iconic number, “Go the Distance.”
Moving back to his theatre roots, The Pops featured some of Menken’s non-Disney Broadway scores. Few people know that he lent his talents to Sister Act back in 2011, but his work helped earn the leading actress, Patina Miller, a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Dolores Van Cartier (originally played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film). Miller reprised her role with an electric performance of “Fabulous, Baby.”
Menken also penned numbers for Broadway’s A Bronx Tale, with Nick Cordero providing a moving performance of “One of the Great Ones.” Rounding out his Broadway hits, veteran Ashley Brown performed ‘High Times, Hard Times” from the cult classic Newsies, with some help from the Children of the Ronald McDonald House New York, who all seemed to have a ball on stage. The Kids on Stage Students also had their moment in the spotlight singing the energetic “Seize the Day,” also from Newsies. It was so moving, I wanted to get out of my seat and go sell some papers to anger Mr. Pulitzer!
Next up, Broadway’s original Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Susan Egan, sang “Home,” which was followed up by Menken himself sitting down at the piano to play a medley of his own tunes. He easily breezed through “A Whole New World” (Aladdin), “How Does She Know” (Enchanted), “I’ve Got a Dream” (Tangled) and “Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid). To hear the creator himself playing and singing his own songs was almost a religious experience.
After finishing his set, Menken was joined on stage by Pops conductor Steve Reineke. There were no more songs listed on the program, but it didn’t quite feel that the evening had come to a satisfactory conclusion. This is when Reineke said, “We have a surprise for you Alan, and we hope that you’ll play one more song for us. Please welcome, Angela Lansbury.” And right on cue, the elegant Dame Angela Lansbury floated onto the stage to sing the iconic title song from Beauty and the Beast which she performed beautifully, complete with her line “Off to the cupboard now Chip, it’s past your bedtime.”
Closing out this special evening, and continuing the Beauty and the Beast thematic programming, was the showstopping “Be Our Guest.” It was so wonderful to see all the stars who had made the evening so memorable coming together for this last hurrah honoring the talents of Alan Menken. Happy Birthday, New York Pops, and here’s to many more celebrations in the future.
The New York Pops 35th Birthday Gala at Carnegie Hall on April 30, 2018. Steven Reineke, Music Director and Conductor. Alan Menken, honoree. Guest artists: Michael Arden, Roger Bart, Jodi Benson, Ashley Brown, Kerry Butler, Corey Cott, Nick Cordero, Susan Egan, Harvey Fierstein, Cheryl Freeman, James Monroe Iglehart, Adam Jacobs, Judy Kuhn, Angela Lansbury, Patina Miller, Roz Ryan, Vaneese Thomas, Lillias White, Kids On Stage Students, Children of Ronald McDonald House New York, The Camp Broadway Kids Ensemble.
Cover: Alan Menken with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall; photo: Juliana Crawford.