NEW YORK — The song-and-dance hubbub inside New 42nd Street Studios on a recent Thursday looks just like a rehearsal for a full-blown Broadway show. Headliner Norm Lewis makes up mnemonics to help him master the patter of the famed flimflam artist at the center of “The Music Man.” Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller shares a laugh with Rosie O’Donnell, who blows bubbles with her gum. Dancers polish spins and lifts.
Yet this Manhattan-crafted “Music Man” is destined strictly for a six-day run at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater starting Wednesday, part of the new Broadway Center Stage concert series that has rapidly become a hot ticket. The “semi-staged” productions follow the pioneering model of Encores! at New York’s City Center — A-list stars, orchestra onstage — except instead of unearthing overlooked titles, the Kennedy Center’s venture digs straight into Broadway’s hit parade.
The formula has been a success since the Kennedy Center’s first offering less than a year ago. The 1980s cult favorite “Chess,” with music by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice, lured musical theater fans with a cast featuring Karen Olivo, Raúl Esparza, Ruthie Ann Miles and Ramin Karimloo (“the best cast of any musical this season,” read the headline of Washington Post critic Peter Marks’s review). That was rapidly followed by an “In the Heights” with Anthony Ramos, Vanessa Hudgens and input from its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Even before “Chess” was performed last February, this “Music Man” was locked in. In 2017, Jeffrey Finn, the Kennedy Center’s newly hired vice president for theater producing and programming, told Lewis about his intentions for the series. Lewis, 55, has played lots of the big parts, from the masked musical-genius lead in “Phantom of the Opera” (in 2014 becoming the first black actor to play him on Broadway) and Billy Flynn in “Chicago” to King Triton and Javert. When Finn asked whether there was a part Lewis had always wanted to try, the Broadway veteran suggested Harold Hill.
“Done,” Finn replied.
“Actors who have dream roles they won’t necessarily do on Broadway can do this in a short window,” Finn says as the “Music Man” cast rehearses in the next room. “With unbelievable Broadway talent around them.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do this role again,” says Lewis, who throws himself into the rehearsal scenes with an old-school salesman’s pizazz.
The rub, of course, is that for a one-week concert version, everything has to come together fast. The cast rehearses for two weeks in New York — this rainy Thursday morning is Day 4 — then snaps the show together in Washington only a few days before audiences pour in. (Demand for “Music Man” tickets has been so high that it’s the first of these presentations to extend to an eighth show.)
“You have to know that it’s going to be a little chaotic and scary,” O’Donnell, a veteran of the Encores! process, says of the timetable.
“Every day is a week,” says director Marc Bruni, who directed Mueller to her Tony win in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” “You have to come in with a battle plan.”
It’s a concert, and the 19-piece orchestra will be onstage. “I can’t imagine doing a Broadway Center Stage show without the orchestra being visible,” says Finn, whose next selection will be “The Who’s Tommy” in April. “That’s part of the celebration.”
But this won’t be a stark concert view of the “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s 1957 Tony-winning musical (and beloved 1962 film) about glad-handing salesman Harold Hill trying to peddle musical instruments to gullible Iowa families. Paul DePoo has designed a set with an architectural skeleton of turn-of-the-20th-century wooden railings and columns. Amplified by his projections, the design can suggest a town square or the library where Marian — Mueller, as Hill’s inevitable love interest — works. “We want to envelop the cast,” Finn says.
DePoo was called about the show Nov. 20. By Dec. 15, he made his design presentation. For the costumes, Amy Clark started a mere week before rehearsals, gathering clothing from around the country and working from what she calls “a good set of measurements” provided by the actors. Fittings get squeezed in at her studio two blocks away — “It is a bit of a scheduling nightmare,” Clark says — and although there will be a costume change or two, the trick is to get multiple looks out of one outfit. Clark cites Mueller’s costume as Marian: an Edwardian skirt, blouse, vest, jacket and hat, in combinations that will vary from scene to scene.
“You really only have time for one costume to not work,” Clark says, and she means a total of one — not one per actor.
The cast may have scripts in hand; Equity, the actors’ union, has rules about how much work can be imposed on performers who are engaged for only three weeks. In 2008, O’Donnell did the Encores! presentation of the 1920s musical “No, No, Nanette,” and felt hamstrung.
“I was vacuuming, holding my script under my arm while I’m doing my shtick,” she says. O’Donnell hopes to be at least semi-liberated from carrying the book this time around, or as she puts it: “I hope we are able to not if we need to not.”
Performers do indeed dispense with the scripts when that’s the more comfortable route. Audiences have been pleasantly surprised at the polish on the Kennedy Center’s concert presentations so far, with stars such as Megan Hilty in last fall’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” wall-to-wall dancing throughout “In the Heights” and plenty of snazzy 1960s design for last spring’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
But “semi-staged” means what it says, even if the exact degree of design and memorization is fluid from project to project. “We are careful not to say that the Broadway Center Stage is anything other than what it is,” Finn says.
In the rehearsal studio, choreographer Chris Bailey works out a tricky move with two dancers in the song “Marian the Librarian.” Eloise Kropp stands on top of a library table; Bailey guides her through a spin and drop into the arms of Damon Gillespie. Kropp eases through it slowly until she gathers confidence to twirl and flop backward. Gillespie catches her.
“That’ll work!” one impressed voice from the chorus says over the room’s delighted oohs and ahhs.
With songs like “Trouble,” “Gary, Indiana,” “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Shipoopi,” “The Music Man” offers ample chances to dance. Bailey plays traffic cop as his chorus weaves downstage center in a crisscross pattern.
“Just walk it,” he suggests. “This is the crossing spot, right here. He goes, then I go,” Bailey illustrates in rhythm.
“A little flirty thing happening,” Bailey says a bit later, demonstrating a cute soft-shoe while sharing a chair with associate choreographer Beth Crandall, who joins in.
O’Donnell, who produced the Boy George musical “Taboo,” acted in “Grease” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and tirelessly championed Broadway musicals on her 1996-2002 daytime TV show, marvels at the dancers. “He shows them once,” she says, “and they know it.”
The invitation to play Marian’s mom, Mrs. Paroo, was easy for O’Donnell, 56, to accept. “Nothing is more thrilling to me than Broadway,” O’Donnell says. “I’m always open to doing a show. I would do a full production in a minute.” In addition to O’Donnell, the supporting cast includes such New York notables as Mark Linn-Baker, David Pittu, Veanne Cox and John Cariani — caliber that Mueller says “makes you up your game.”
O’Donnell likes the part she has: “It’s small enough that, you know, you don’t have to depend on me to carry a big ballad,” she says. “And I get to listen to these people all day, which is three weeks of bliss.”
“It’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, especially with the syncopated rhythms,” says Lewis, who Bruni calls “the mayor of Broadway” as much for the upbeat leading man’s charm as for his long résumé.
Rehearsing “Trouble,” the patter song that Harold Hill uses to gin up fear in the small Iowa town — and yes, they’ve all discussed current political parallels — Lewis keeps testing his memory with the rapid-fire lyrics. “Can we go a little faster?” he says at one point to pianist Danny Percefull.
Speeding up seems counterintuitive. “Sometimes when you don’t have to think of it, it just goes easier,” Lewis explains a little later. “If you just do it, it’s done.”
It’s all new to Mueller, 35, who’s getting her first taste of the accelerated process. “I think it’s really fun for audiences, because it is that in-between animal,” she says. “There’s an energy to it, because you know not everything is perfect. It’s polished, but it’s also instinctual. You don’t belabor something for weeks and weeks. And we don’t really know each other. You get in a room, and you go, ‘Cool: You’re my new boyfriend, and you’re the mayor of the town.’ You form these relationships very quickly, and everyone’s very game.”
Producing is a different calculation, and Finn guesses that with a cast of 24, plus four children who will join in Washington, as well as designers and associates and running crew, it is taking maybe 75 people to bring this “Music Man” together. That’s typical, and that’s before he accounts for a wide swath of Kennedy Center staffers providing infrastructure that the shows can’t do without.
“Keeping to the schedule, setting boundaries that are realistic, knowing what we need to achieve within the window that we have,” Finn says, ticking off the guardrails. Putting on five of these events so far, has he experienced any heart-stopping moments?
“That I want to share?” Finn says, laughing after a dramatic pause. “I think the only way you motor through these types of experiences is to know that it’s going to work out.”
“It’s the showbiz thing,” Mueller says. “It really is true. We’re all in this together. So let’s all get shot out of a cannon.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW.
Dates: Wednesday-Feb. 11.