As Encores! kicks off its 20th anniversary season, it is going back to its roots with the musical that started it all: Bock & Harnick's Fiorello!, one of only eight musicals to earn a Pulitzer Prize and the first musical Encores! ever produced.
The production also marks the return of a performer who has become somewhat of an Encores! stalwart: Kate Baldwin is returning to the City Center stage after starring in Finian's Rainbow and appearing in Bloomer Girl, Babes In Arms and A Connecticut Yankee to play Thea in the show. And paying her dues has its privileges: After building her reputation with so many productions (and, she allows, thanks to her connection with the lyricist), she did not even need to audition for the part.
"I have a nice friendship with Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for this show," she said during a break in rehearsals on a cold weekend morning. After performing Thea's anthem (or, as Baldwin calls it, her aria) "When Did I Fall in Love?" in a cabaret act, she was offered the role outright- "Which was really fortunate for me, because I was in the throes of doing Giant [at the Public] at the time, which was so all-consuming that I don't know if I would have had the energy and the health to come in," she adds.
Harnick, she continues, is one of the "foremost lyricists ever to have lived, probably one of the foremost who's still alive today." She first met him when she was in college at Northwestern University: "He came to sort of give some bits of wisdom on a production of A Wonderful Life, one of his shows that he wrote with Joe Raposo, when we were doing it my sophomore year of college." A friendship developed over the years, and she later dedicated a cabaret act to him, and he joined her onstage to sing "If I Were a Rich Man."
But even with that kind of support and experience, taking on a role like Thea in a venue like Encores! presents its own challenges. "I have to start with elements of myself, which is what you always do as an actor," Baldwin said of her process. "And then you have to identify the parts that are not like you: She is an immigrant, she is from a northern Italian city, she is working class, she works in a shirtwaist factory, she is striking out on the picket line, and she gets arrested. These are all things that are foreign to me, that I don't know anything about!" As she began developing the role, she studied the history of the time and looked at old photographs to get a sense of place. She even hired a dialect coach to help with the Italian accent.
But the whole production is about going back to the beginning, and that is where Baldwin found her Thea, in the song she had performed years before: ""When Did I Fall in Love?" is such a unique song-I don't think there's any other song that expresses that idea," she said. Songs about falling in love are as old as songwriting itself, but this song is different. "This is, 'This has already happened to me, when did I miss it, how did it start? What was the day, what was the moment that it happened?'... So to me, that song has that sense of what you just did, that forehead-slapping, 'Why didn't I realize it as it was happening?' But the beauty of the song is, it can lend itself to action after that. Now that I know this about myself, what am I going to do about it? What can I do with it, with the time I have left? It's extremely powerful, it's very deep. And it's gold."
After so many Encores! productions, Baldwin is beginning to feel like City Center is her home. "Encores! in 1999 was my very first job in the city," she recalled, looking around the room as some dancers stretched in front of the mirrors. "I was doing Babes in Arms. So it was my very first time in New York City, my very first job...I sat in this corner and watched Erin Dilly, Jessica Stone, Christopher Fitzgerald-who I now call friends-strut their stuff. Encores! is, to me, a wonderful, warm, welcoming place, and I hope it always will be."
And there's one more connection between Fiorello! and Encores!, Baldwin added before returning to her rehearsal: "Fiorello LaGuardia saved City Center. The real man saved it, and he made this building into a performing arts venue. And that's why when Encores! began 20 years ago, they chose to do Fiorello! then as sort of a tribute to him. And this show now is a tribute to him."