Songwriter Harold Arlen’s life to be told in song at Saturday concert

Published 12:18 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2015

If you’re even somewhat familiar with the Great American Songbook — that collection of songs written in the early 20th century — then you’ll recognize a few titles such as “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Get Happy” and “That Old Black Magic.”

But you might not necessarily know the name of the composer, which was Harold Arlen, who lived from 1905 to 1986. If his name still doesn’t cause bells to ring, then likely you know Arlen’s arguably most famous song, “Over the Rainbow,” which was used in the 1939 movie adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Those compositions and many, many more served as the inspiration for “The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen,” which will be presented on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 p.m., in the Southampton High School auditorium. The show is the first in the new series offered by the Franklin-Southampton Concert Association.

One of the cast members and producers of this show is Kyle Henry, who spoke in a phone interview about Arlen.

“We’re telling the story of Harold Arlen through his songs. There are no leads; this is more of an ensemble type of show,” Henry said. “It’s more of a revue show.”

Originally, it was begun on Off-Broadway and written by George Bugatti. Edmund Gaynes and Sam Arlen, the composer’s son, were also involved with the original production.

“Our creative director had seen it and decided it would be something that could be re-created and produced across the country,” Henry said. “People can expect a lot of great songs they didn’t realize were written by Harold Arlen.”

Many is the time he’s seen audience members light up when they heard a song they knew, but didn’t recognize the name.

Though Henry could not recall the source of the quote, he remembered that one of Arlen’s peers reportedly said of him that he “wasn’t as famous, but better than all of them.”

“We work with a number of musical arrangers,” Henry said of the show. “There’s lot of fun energy. Great solo and ensemble moments.”

Of course, “Over the Rainbow” — “something everyone knows and loves” — will be performed.

In addition to the songs, photographs and private videos that Arlen took during the filming will also be shown.

For Henry, participation as a cast member is a return to his roots as an actor and singer. He grew up in a small town with little opportunity for either. Henry didn’t think of acting then as “a legitimate career.” But that changed in college. Once he saw the opportunities in regional theater and theme parks, for example, Henry realized he could make “a viable living, a career path. I never looked back.”

After the first 20 or so years in this field, Henry sought something more stable, as put it, and got an opportunity to work for Matt Davenport Productions in Nashville, Tennessee.

As a producer for “Wonderful Wizard,” Henry’s involved in all facets ranging from script-writing and lighting design to choreography. With a director, they “make all those things happen and created a cohesive package. A shared vision of what the show should sound and look like,” he said.

After the creative aspects are attended to, Henry also deals with the logistics of taking the show across the country; booking, traveling, set-up and accommodations.

The stage director for “Wonderful Wizard” is the aforementioned Matt Davenport, who at one time was himself an entertainer traveling on the road. But that later changed for him starting 1989.

“Basically, I got some opportunities to create and writing some original programming. I found my true calling,” Davenport said. “I started with one job, and as things progressed, dozens and dozens developed into a company. Now we employ 13 full-time people. We get 600-plus people who want to audition for us. Thirty to 40 are chosen and tour America.”

He added that the company is about to go into two Christmas shows on the General Jackson showboat.

Henry mentioned he also would be involved with that during a break from the Arlen story.

Davenport confirmed that the Harold Arlen Foundation allowed his company to put its own treatment, while maintaining the integrity of the original show.

“Getting rights [to shows] is always challenging, but the foundation knew the reputation of Live on Stage, and that definitely helps,” he said. “It’s a tremendous, talented cast of signers and actors. I’m really pleased with their talent and vocal levels.”

Membership in the concert association is $50 for adults for seven shows; students pay $10. At the door, adults pay $30 and students pay $10.

For ticket information, call Rowe at 653-2498 or Bill Vick at 653-2892.