As an epic snowstorm brought New York City to its knees on the night of February 17, 2003, the metropolis shut down. Only a handful of pedestrians braved blizzard-force winds and the mayor urged people to stay home. Many entertainment venues -- including Broadway shows -- cancelled their performances.
But that didn't stop more than 400 diehards from making their way, somehow, to the fourth-season launch of "Broadway By the Year." Conceived and produced for Town Hall By Scott Siegel, the show featured a troupe of veteran stars and rising young talent performing great songs from the musicals of 1925.
Can't name them? You're not alone. But it was quite a night.
The audience cheered tunes from "China Rose," "Naughty Cinderella" and other long-forgotten shows, along with standards like Irving Berlin's "Always," and Siegel livened the evening with wry commentaries about America during the Roaring '20s. When snow began falling from a hole in the roof onto his podium, stagehands moved it to a dryer area. The songs rolled on.
"We've been lucky to have a very loyal group of subscribers over the years, and they know that unpredictable things can happen on stage," said Siegel, who is currently staging his 13th season of shows at Town Hall. "One of the things we continue to do is always allow for the sense of surprise and discovery, in the songs you hear and in the stage performances themselves."
Siegel's high-profile series continues Monday with a salute to the musicals of 1972, and his audience can expect a mixture of tunes from "Pippin" and "Grease," as well as songs from "Sugar," "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope" and other shows waiting to be dusted off and rediscovered. The cast includes Carolee Carmello, a Broadway powerhouse recently seen in "Scandalous;" Carole Demas, who played Sandy in the original "Grease"; Patti Murin from "Lysistrata Jones," Christopher Fitzgerald from "Finian's Rainbow," and others.
For Siegel, a modest, softspoken man, creating these shows is not about dollars and cents. Although he fills Town Hall year after year with one of the Rialto's most beloved series, he's isn't getting rich on "Broadway By the Year." Instead, he's driven by a passion for musical theatre and an almost evangelical desire to educate.
"Most people are upwardly mobile," Siegel jokes, "but my choices, while upwardly entertaining, have usually been downwardly mobile. This life we lead in show business is a high wire act without a financial safety net. But in the end I much prefer to live for the work I do, and hopefully entertain folks along the way."
He keeps 'em laughing. Asked about the commentary he'll use to spice up 1972, Siegel notes "this was the year of the Watergate break-in, as well as the introduction of the Egg McMuffin." An irrepressible archivist, he notes there was actually a 1972 musical based on the bestselling book, "The Selling of the President," and promises to present a great number from that hopelessly obscure show. "When it comes to Broadway," he says, "there's no end to what you can dream up."
These days, Siegel is dreaming big. He'd love to bring "Broadway by the Year" to Los Angeles -- and he's been expanding his Town Hall franchise into popular spin-offs: "Broadway Unplugged" features prime-time belters singing without microphones, the way shows used to be performed; "Broadway Originals" includes stars of original productions revisiting famous numbers; the "Broadway Cabaret Festival" is a three-night series, and "Rising Stars" features graduates from performing arts schools. "The Nightlife Awards" salute the best in local cabaret, jazz and comedy.
More recently, he launched "Broadway Ballyhoo," featuring an ever-changing cast, and "11 0'Clock Numbers at 11 0'Clock," a show in which three dynamic singers -- Scott Coulter, Christina Bianco and Carole J. Bufford -- uncork classic showstoppers, one after another, in a breathtaking, 60-minute performance.
After 13 seasons, Siegel's productions are one of the brightest spots on Town Hall's calendar. Show Business Weekly called them "an invaluable and entertaining jewel in the cabaret crown of New York." Examiner.com dubbed Siegel and his wife, Barbara, "the most underrated show biz impresarios in New York City."
Adds Jim Caruso, host of Birdland's "Cast Party": "I know few producers who love talented people more than Scott. His many events have changed the landscape of New York nightlife, and when the Big Book of Show Business is written, he'll deserve an entire chapter."
It helps, of course, that Broadway by the Year's four annual installments have attracted exceptional talent -- including Sutton Foster, Cheyenne Jackson, Norm Lewis, Alice Ripley, Marc Kudisch, Brian d'Arcy James, Emily Skinner, Stephanie J. Block and Barbara Walsh, to name just a few--and they rarely disappoint.
Memorable moments abound: Several years ago, Kerry O'Malley stopped the show with a searing performance of "Cigarettes, Cigars," from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. Brad Oscar's big-voiced, comic rendition of Herman Hupfeld's "When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba" from the same year drew similar cheers.
But the payoff is not just for the audience. Performers are grateful for the opportunity to cut loose with an obscure gem, or the chance to belt a standard to the rafters without a microphone.
"When I think of Scott Siegel, I think... passionate and persistent," says Carmello. "He pursues singers in a tenacious way, and treats them with care and respect." Adds Christiane Noll: "There's something infectious about watching Scott share his love and knowledge of Broadway history." Skinner calls Siegel "a creative visionary, entrepreneur and a huge appreciator of theatrical talent."
For a guy who never produced anything before Broadway by the Year -- "not even a puppet show in my backyard" -- Siegel makes it look easy. And calling him a renaissance man seems a gross understatement. He and his wife have written 48 books, including "The Encyclopedia of Hollywood." She's chairperson of the Drama Desk Nominating Committee. They're both film, theater and cabaret critics. A literary agent, Scott has hosted the Town Hall Feature Film Seminar Series for 16 years.
"I couldn't possibly draw a straight line in my life connecting all of these dots," said Siegel. "But if there's a thread, it's that I've always loved storytelling. It's all about spinning a yarn - whether it's a book, a song, or a concert of songs. I get to tell the story of American musical theatre in word, song and dance."