By Caldwell Titcomb
Musical talent from Broadway came to the White House on Monday, July 19, to offer a concert for President Obama, his wife and daughters, and an invited audience in the East Room. The event was streamed live on the White House website.
This was the sixth in a series of concerts hosted by the President, who, in introductory remarks, saluted “the power and passion of Broadway.” He spoke especially of the roster of immigrants who had come to our country “with songs in their heart.” He then said, “Let’s put on a show.”
A lineup of singers, celebrated and little known, presented a program of 13 selections. Backing them up was a quartet of instrumentalists: pianist, bassist, guitarist, and drummer.
Starting things off was the formidable Elaine Stritch, now 84, in black garb. She sang “Broadway Baby” from the musical Follies. The rest of the program was hosted by black-suited Nathan Lane, who praised Obama for his skill with words. He proceeded to introduce 12-year-old Assata Alston, wearing a pink and white dress, who sang “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Brian d’Arcy James, appropriately sporting a blue tie, sang the 1926 Irving Berlin standard “Blue Skies.” Later he and Lane teamed up for a duet from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And Chad Kimball sang a number from this year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, “Memphis.” Karen Olivo and three women—in red, orange, yellow, and purple—sang and danced their way through “America” from West Side Story.
Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald offered Frank Loesser’s tongue-twisting “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” from the 1950 movie Let’s Dance. She returned later with a highly contrasting piece, Vernon Duke’s slow and lyrical “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” from Cabin in the Sky (1940).
Tonya Pinkins sang “Gonna Pass Me a Law” from Caroline, or Change. Idina Menzel gave us “Defying Gravity” from the current hit Wicked and came back later to sing the popular “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. For this number she was accompanied at the piano by its composer, Marvin Hamlisch.
Stritch returned and commented that it’s ridiculous for a 40-year-old to sing “I’m Still Here” from Sondheim’s Follies (1971). But when you reach 80 or 81 or 82, it’s quite acceptable, she said. She admitted that the singers were nervous about performing this night, but she plunged into this hymn to longevity and was treated to a standing ovation and loud cheering—the biggest tribute of the evening.
To end the concert about 20 teenagers from the Joy of Motion Dance Center and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts performed “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray. All the concert participants—nervous or not—were fully up to their tasks.
The event will be aired on PBS television at 9 p.m. on October 20.