Homage to Tony Bennett
In "I Left My Heart," three tenors give their takes on Tony Bennett's hits at the Stackner Cabaret, to open the Milwaukee Rep's 2013-14 season.
Todd Olson, director and co-creator of I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett, told a little story about the subject of his show, which opens Sunday at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret:
“When the ’60s happened, Tony Bennett, like other singers of his sort, went into a crisis. What now? He asked Count Basie what he should do. Basie just said: ‘Why change an apple?'”
So Bennett kept on keeping on, singing standards and the occasional new tune that fit his style. The world came back around to him, and at 87 Bennett plays to packed houses all over the world and his recordings continue to sell.
“During the British Invasion, Tony went to London and knocked everybody out doing what he always did,” Olson said. “He stuck to that songbook. That’s the secret.”
Olson and his creative partner, David Grapes, collaborated on a Frank Sinatra cabaret, My Way, in 1999. That show came on the heels of Sinatra’s death in 1998 and became and instant and enduring hit, with more than 400 productions to date. Then Grapes and Olson faced the question Bennett faced in the ’60s: What now?
Grapes thought Tony Bennett answered that question. Olson wasn’t so sure.
“Sinatra’s life had all this conflict and drama,” Olson said. “It wasn’t that way with Tony. But I just kept listening to his music. I realized there wasn’t much of a story here, but there was music. And the Three Tenors were big then. And I just thought of three tenors singing that music, just the men and the music, and maybe that was enough.”
The show premiered in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2005 at the American Stage Theatre Company, where Olson is artistic director. He and Grapes, now director of the School of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Northern Colorado, got know each other when they both worked at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, in Nashville.
Olson said that their show has a little of Bennett’s life in it, but it’s mainly about the best three singers he could find sitting around the piano, singing the songs Tony sings. In this case, the singers are Eric Jon Mahlum (who will also appear in Les Miserables at the Skylight this season), Andrew M. McMath and Rob Tucker, all three new to the Rep and to this revue. The pianist is Richard Carsey, a familiar figure in Milwaukee as a director, music director, pianist and actor.
The three tenors all have musical theater backgrounds. The bowl-you-over singing musical theater requires — think Phantom of the Opera — is a far cry from Tony Bennett.
“I’ve come to understand how deeply rooted Bennett is in the jazz world,” Olson said. “The thing with musical theater singers is to get them to relax. It’s OK to swing, it’s good to hang back and catch up. Tony sings it straight and then finds the variation. They’re learning the score and then
making it their own, getting it into their bones.
“At auditions, they’re always too loud. I heard Tony sing at Interlochen, at an outdoor stage before 2,500 people. But still, it was like you and Tony in your living room. He so quiet, so intimate. We tell the singers it’s OK to be quiet, it’s OK to be still. The singers in the show are the ones who got it.”
I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett opens at 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25, and runs through Oct. 20 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret. Order tickets o
Vince di Mura (arranger)
Eric Jon Mahlum
Andrew M. McMath
William S. Hindin
Director, Todd Olson
Music Director/Pianist, Richard Carsey
Scenic Designer, Megan Truscott
Costume Designer, Kate McLaughlin
Lighting Designer, Craig Gottschalk
Sound Designer, Erin Paige
Stage Movement Director, Ashlee Edgemon Wasmund
Stage Manager, Melissa Van Swol *
Stage Management Intern, Kimberly Carolus