‘The Lost Songs of Broadway: 1980s’ at Signature Theatre by Derek Mong

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Clearly, I was born in the wrong decade. The Lost Songs of Broadway: 1980s at Signature Theatre had me tapping my toes and slapping my thighs all night as three of Signature’s powerhouse performers—Maria Egler (Holiday Follies), Stephen Gregory Smith (Miss Saigon and The Boy Detective Fails), and Nova Y. Payton (Crossing, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray)—took to the ARK stage to deliver some of the strangest and most eclectic songs that were performed on “The Great White Way” back in the 80s.

Maria Egler.
Maria Egler.

The 1980s created some incredible Broadway smash hits, including Les Miserables, Cats, of course, The Phantom of the Opera—which has amazingly remained on Broadway since it opened on Broadway in the 80s. Egler, Smith, and Payton performed a medley of these smash hits to open the evening, featuring the overture to Phantom, “Go Go Go Joseph” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, “Jellicle Cats” from Cats, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from Evita, and “One Day More” from Les Miserables—among others.

The medley was quite the opening, and it showcased both the wide musical variety of the 1980s and the vast musical repertoire of Egler, Smith, and Payton. With musical direction and piano by Joel DeCandio, percussion by Chris DeChiara, and guitar by Steven Walker, the opening number alone is worth the price of admission!

It quickly became clear, however, that, true to its name, this cabaret was not about the extravagant Broadway musicals of the 1980s, but, rather, about its “lost songs” and “smaller gems.” Despite the many flops that were highlighted throughout the evening, including the notorious Carrie which closed after only 5 performances on Broadway, it’s clear that Director Walter Ware III knows what he’s talking about when he says that the 1980s has its share of musical theatre diamonds-in-the-rough.

Stephen Gregory Smith.
Stephen Gregory Smith.

The first “lost song” group number was from the 1989 musical Starmites, which was a Tony-nominated best musical even though it ran for only 60 performances. While bizarre (the plot surrounds a girl named Eleanor who pretends that she is a superhero guardian of Innerspace defending the universe against evil alongside her fellow “Starmites”), the piece was well performed, capturing how bizarre yet entertaining the 1980s could be.

The evening continued with Payton performing a song from Grind (1985)—a musical about an African-American burlesque house in Chicago—called “All Things To One Man.” Payton—who is known widely at Signature for her powerhouse belting in Hairspray and Dreamgirls—gave the piece a soulful edge as she emoted the sensuous lyrics with conviction.

The evening followed with Egler performing a piece from In Trousers, a one-act musical written by William Finn, that was produced in 1979 originally and revived in 1985. Egler’s performance of “I’m Breaking Down” was the perfect combination of musical talent and musical comedy—portraying a down-on-her-luck woman who was struggling with her marriage and was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Egler’s hilarious expression were priceless.

Smith then followed with an upbeat, folky number entitled “Farmer Tan” from Pumpboys and Dinettes, in which he portrays a man who gets the other women at his diner to swoon over him because of his—you guessed it—farmer’s tan. Smith assumed the character perfectly and delivered a performance that was fun and lighthearted.

Payton then took to the stage to sing “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God” from the 1980 musical of the same name. A gospel song featuring harmonies by Egler and Smith, the piece demonstrated why Payton was Effie White in Dreamgirls in Signature’s recent production: the 1980 revival featured Jennifer Holliday in her Broadway debut, who, two years later, would originate the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway.

There are many highlights of the evening for me, but some of the slower, more tender songs during the evening stood out in particular.

Egler performed a solemn song from Rags, whose lyrics were written by Stephen Schwartz, entitled “Children of the Wind” in which an immigrant mother sings about the hardships of immigrant life and wishes that her children could build stable and fruitful lives for themselves and their children. Egler showcased her opera skills in this number, showing that she can not only belt it out with the best of them, but also perform opera with a degree of ease and finesse.

Nova Payton.
Nova Payton.

Payton performed a similarly tender song from Les Miserables, a song that was cut in the Broadway production from the Love Montage of “In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” entitled “I Saw Him Once.” Performed by Cosette in the stage musical, Payton showcased a tender side to her voice, a soprano sound that we usually don’t get to hear from this powerhouse vocalist. Smith himself even mentioned after the performance how he loves to hear Payton sing in her soprano voice, and the audience clearly agreed.

The emotional heavy-hitter of the evening was the encore song, introduced and opened a capella by Smith. The encore piece was from Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens entitled “Heroes All Around,” and reflects the feelings of friends and family members dealing the loss of their family members during the AIDS epidemic. As an encore piece, it was a remarkable turn from the otherwise swinging and over-the-top musical pieces presented throughout the evening, but played an important part in grounding the performance in a concrete historical place and mindset.

Overall, The Lost Songs of Broadway: 1980s was an enjoyable experience that showcased, as Director Ware likes to call it, “the best of the best of the worst.” Be sure to check it out before it closes on Saturday night!

Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.

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The Lost Songs of Broadway: 1980s plays through March 1, 2014 at Signature Theatre—4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online. This Cabaret performance is presented part of the Winter Cabaret Festival at Signature Theatre.