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Veteran ISO Pops stage director preps for 'Anything Goes: In Concert'

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How exactly is a concert version of a musical created? To uncover the man behind the curtain, Examiner.com sought out David Levy, the stage director who also wrote the adaptation for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere symphonic production of “Anything Goes: In Concert.” Under the direction of Principal Pops conductor Jack Everly, the ISO production of the Cole Porter musical, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, will be presented Friday May 9 and Saturday May 10 as part of the Printing Partners Pops Series at Hilbert Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

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The cast of “Anything Goes” features some of the biggest names on Broadway, including Rachel York as Reno Sweeney, Gary Beach as Moonface Martin, Judy Kaye as Evangeline Harcourt and Max von Essen as Billy Crocker.

Levy, a resident of New York City, is a long time writer and artistic consultant for ISO’s annual “Yuletide Celebration,” which he has stage directed over 20 times. In 2013 he adapted a new concert version of the ISO Pops production of “Hairspray,” starring John Waters. He also stage directed other ISO concerts, such as “Irving Berlin: From Rags to Ritzes,” directed by Jack Everly, which played Carnegie Hall.

Levy’s credits include a stage version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” for which he co-authored book and lyrics, and which was produced by The Paper Mill Playhouse and other regional theaters. The winner of seven Drama-Logue Awards for his musical “The Wonder Years” at Los Angeles’ Coronet Theatre, Levy’s other credits include the stage premiere of Cole Porter’s “The Pirate,” for which he co-authored a new book and new lyrics. Currently Levy is working on a musical about the Barry Sisters, Yiddish singers who were popular in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Recently Levy took a break from rehearsals to chat with this writer about “Anything Goes: In Concert” and his long association and history with the ISO.

Tell me about “Anything Goes.”

The show has one of the most beautiful scores ever. Also, we have an incredible cast. Gary Beach did “Hello Dolly” and was Nathan Detroit for us in “Guys and Dolls.” He’s a Tony winner. We also have two time Tony winner Judy Kaye who won for “Phantom of the Opera” and two seasons ago for “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” Ted Keegan, who was with “Phantom of the Opera” for years, has done many shows with us. We use him a lot. That’s the other thing. We have sort of created a company that we can call on and if they are available we use them.

Like a repertory company?

Yes. It’s a repertory company. And the other great thing about that is when you have eight days to rehearse a huge musical that is basically done as a Broadway show with no set and you have people who know how the beast works already it takes you far ahead in the game. Oh, and we have Rachel York as Reno Sweeney. She’s the lead and fantastic.

How do the auditions work?

I am pretty much the creative person. I do have some input in the casting. Ty puts out a call to the agents in New York and we will get maybe 500 submissions for one show. Really unbelievable. He spends time whittling them down and then he brings me in to look at them and decide who we should see in auditions, which are usually held in New York during August.

That response speaks to the reputation of the ISO Pops, does it not?

People want to work for Pops and they want to work for Jack Everly and Ty Johnson (executive producer). One thing that is kind of exciting and thrilling is that so many people have been in so many Broadway shows where you have a pit orchestra of 29 if you are lucky. To see their faces at the first sitzprobe when they hear a 70 or 80-piece symphony orchestra behind them and arrangements and orchestrations that are usually done by scratch, is always a delight.

Tell me about your relationship with Jack and Ty.

Ty and Jack and I sort of work as a triumvirate in planning. We conceive the Pops evenings. Jack picks the music, I write the script and connecting dialogue. They come to New York. We cast it together in New York and then we work together here as a team to rehearse it and that is what’s happening with “Anything Goes” right now which is really exciting. I’m so excited about it.

It’s very rare that we disagree with one another. We are very symbiotic about how things should be done. We have very similar tastes. I think that is a lot of what makes it work. We have similar reference points. We know that Ethel Merman was the last Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly.” It’s funny but things like that tend to bond you. We’ll say things like “Oh we should do a song like this from "How Now Dow Jones,’” a flop from the ‘60s. We all know the score.

How did the Pops concert format come originate?

I believe it was probably Ty’s idea originally and probably Jack’s as well. Did you see “Hello Dolly” and “Hairspray?” They were fully produced. Completely. Everything but the sets. And that’s why we usually have a narrator. Because he’s the person who can come in and say “In Mrs. Levi’s apartment with violet wallpaper…” and kind of paint a picture. In “Hello Dolly” it was Barnaby who was the fantastic James T. Lane. And then of course in “Hairspray” it was John Waters, which was a dream come true for me to work with him.

How do you and Jennifer Ladner, the choreographer, share stage direction responsibilities?

Pretty much Jen stages the heavy dancing musical numbers. I stage all of the book scenes and I do the simpler ballads, for instance, that don’t have a lot of dancing in them. Those are more character staged. I did “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-lovely” and I did about four total but Jen does the bigger numbers like “Anything Goes.”

What do you like the most? Writing or directing?

I like directing but I like to think of myself as a writer. That’s what I really love to do.

Because writing is so solitary, you get the best of both worlds.

Yes and I love it when I come here because it’s like being with family and it is like a repertory company. I love the interaction and working with all these people because I do sit at home many days at my computer and work by myself.

Do you have a special fondness for “Anything Goes?”

I have a special fondness for Cole Porter. Let me put it that way. I was lucky enough to get permission from the Cole Porter estate to write a stage version of “The Pirate,” from the 1948 Judy Garland and Gene Kelley movie, and that was thrilling.

It seems ironic that someone who grew up in Peru, Ind. would compose music that symbolized urbane sophistication.

You are so right. It is a great irony that the farm boy wrote the most sophisticated theatre music of anyone. I think it was his Yale influence and meeting east coast people and wanting so much to be a part of that 1920s and 1930s glitterati. It's an interesting note that his biggest commercial hit was the cowboy song "Don't Fence Me In." A return to his roots?

Why do you think the show has retained its popularity for so many years?

I think it has retained its popularity because it is one of the greatest scores ever written. Almost every song is a standard. I think people coming to our show will respond to these comic and romantic songs sung by a top notch Broadway cast and comic scenes that, although corny, remain extremely funny.

For tickets and information about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Printing Partners Pops Series production of “Anything Goes,” call (317) 639 – 4300 or visit www.IndianapolisSymphony.org.

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