Yes, yes, I know it’s spelled “batten.” Trust me on this. It’s a bit of a journey, but hopefully interesting and entertaining along the way until we get to the main point.
Back in 2013, I wrote an article here about the musical Barnum, and mentioned that the treat for me in the video I embedded from its Tony Awards performance was how the clip included a chorus member named Sophie Schwab.
I went to Northwestern when she was there, both of us in the School of Speech (she in theater, me in Radio, TV, & Film), though we never met at the school. (I did meet her later in Los Angeles, though incredibly briefly, more on that later.)
Far more notable to me during my Northwestern years is that she had also been the school's majorette in the marching band and had won many awards as a baton twirler. Now, saying someone was a majorette might have little meaning to most people, but saying that Sophie Schwab twirled a baton was like saying Picasso drew. So let me put this in perspective:
I began going to Northwestern football games with my dad from the time I was eight, but my dad had season tickets to Northwestern games for 51 years. And of all the baton twirlers he saw (and he saw A LOT over 51 seasons), Sophie Schwab was his favorite. No one came close. Indeed, in his 90s, he not only still talked about her with wistful admiration (she was always "Little Sophie"), but of all the others he saw over half-a-century she was the only majorette he even remembered. During my years at Northwestern I often would leave the student section to sit with him, and he always looked forward to seeing “Sophie” arrive, we both did. But he especially adored watching her, she was that good (no, really) and with such personality and charm leading 100 band members down the field. She wasn't just a twirler, she was absolutely remarkable. (In an interview I later came across about her in Barnum, she said that she could never remember dropping the baton during a performance – however she didn't mean a performance of Barnum, but any performance she had ever done, whether while marching or in a competition or on stage. From what little you can see in that Tony clip, her boundless skill is clear. I remember, too, reading about reviews of Barnum that singled out this small, talented performer tossing the baton -- not a few spins like you’d probably expect from a Broadway actress, but throwing the baton high above the proscenium arch, so far it was out of sight of the audience, doing a somersault or spin and catching it without a miss. Ever.)
Not shockingly, beyond her skills as an actress, it was her baton twirling that clinched her being hired for the show. How great was she? Lyricist Michael Stewart even changed a line in the song “Come Follow the Band” to refer to her -- “See the pretty lady toss that baton high, ain't she cute as a daisy?”
As I said, you can see what I’m talking about in that video I’d posted with the Barnum article back in 2013, but I’ll embed the video alone here for easier viewing. She comes in from the far left of the screen at the 1:28 mark. And you can hear the new lyric as she sends the baton soaring into the sky. Keep in mind, she did this every night. Without a drop --
(Side note: The video continues for a while after the song finishes at 3:30. Feel free to keep watching Jim Dale's solo number, or stop and come back here.)
We now bump up the story to two years ago.
I’d written an article several years ago about the Harnick and Bock show, She Loves Me, which I titled “The Great Movie Musical That Never Was.” And in 2020, a fellow named David Rosen came across it, and we began exchanging detailed notes about the show and musicals in general, eventually getting around to Frank Loesser’s show The Most Happy Fella. He mentioned that his wife was an actress and had done that show, presented by a well-regarded off-Broadway theater. Her name struck a chord, though I couldn’t place it. In a subsequent note of our conversation, we returned to She Loves Me, and he offhandedly commented that his wife had done that musical at -- Northwestern. Wait, hmmm, hold on, Northwestern, actress, musicals, something familiar, Sophie Hayden was her name…wait, I think that’s…that’s…Sophie Schwab!!!
And so it was. As amazed as I was, I said I was about to blow his mind by explaining I’d not only gone to school with her and written about Barnum, and embedded a video of it, but also singled out his wife in the video and wrote about her and her baton twirling, and even briefly crossed paths with her once! And yes, his mind was blown.
And he got to pass along the wonderful story about how she got hired for Barnum – not just in the chorus, but also as understudy for the female lead, who was…Glenn Close. He was a talent agent at the time, and had become a couple with Sophie. I’ll let him explain the story – again, keeping in mind that the producers were just looking for the most basic juggling skills for an actress and having NO IDEA what they were in for, auditioning an actress who was also one of the, literally, great majorettes in the country. David wrote:
“I got her an audition for Charity Barnum, which she aced, but Glenn Close had already been hired so they considered Soph for understudy. So they asked if she "had any circus skills" ie juggling, etc. She said, sure, I can juggle three fire batons. She said they laughed, and said to come back. Well the rest is history. And she came back, lit three batons up and kicked butt. Needless to say it was impressive. So she ended up in the chorus and understudied Charity. Also, the line in Come Follow the Band..."See the pretty lady toss that baton high" wasn't in the original score. : ) Being a stage door Johnny, I saw the show like 25 times! I still think its one of the best underrated musicals of all time.”
I can only imagine the producers laughing to themselves when this actress said she could juggle three fire batons, and only wish I was there to see their boggled amazement at what she could actually do, sending the fire batons flying all over the place amid somersaults. (After all, you saw part of her stage performance in the link above.)
What also became more clear as my exchanges with David Rosen continued was that while I knew Sophie Hayden had continued with acting (which relates to the play I saw her in, in Los Angeles – more on that soon…), I didn’t realize how substantively. And that the off-Broadway theater behind The Most Happy Fella was actually a Broadway production, which got nominated for Best Revival, had a cast album released – and she wasn’t just in it, but starred as the female lead, ‘Rosabella’…and got a Tony nomination for Best Performance for a Leading Actress in a Musical.
And though there’s more to this story coming in a moment, here first is a video of Sophie Hayden with Spiro Malas at the 1992 Tony Awards singing “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance.”
And as a bonus from the show’s original cast album, here she is singing her big, soaring ballad, “Somebody, Somewhere.”
Oh, and one other thing to bring this full circle -- The Most Happy Fella was one of my father's absolutely favorite musicals. He would have been utterly overjoyed by this. That his favorite "Sophie" starred in the revival on Broadway. And got a Tony nomination. Even without a baton.
Which finally brings us to what prompted me to write all this. This is the point. (Not that all that which came before isn't a joy...)
Around 1983, the Goodman Theater in Chicago had the weird idea to do Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors as a mad sort of circus production with The Flying Karamazov Brothers (a joyously wonderful troupe I’d seen at the periodically-mentioned here Ravinia Musical Festival). It eventually went to Broadway in 1987 and then toured the country, where it played in Los Angeles. It was staged at UCLA, as I recall, near where I lived. And loving the Flying Karamazov Brothers as I did, I anxiously got tickets – not having any idea who this “Sophie Hayden” was in the cast, until I read the actors’ biographies. And I realized, “It’s Sophie Schwab!!!” (Which is why the name “Sophie Hayden” was vaguely familiar to me when her husband mentioned it.)
In fact, she’d been in the original Goodman Theater production. As the New York Times critic Mel Gussow (who had seen the original production) wrote when the show was on Broadway –
“Sets, lights and breakaway costumes are by the same creative hands. But there have been a few minor changes on the road to the Beaumont,” he noted. “Sophie Schwab, still delightful as Adriana (wife to Antipholus), has changed her stage name to Sophie Hayden…”
And then later added – “Ms. Hayden, Gina Leishman (as her sister) and a few others have a genuine affinity for the Shakespearean language. On the other hand - as I said in my original review from Chicago - as classical actors, the Karamazovs are not about to challenge the Royal Shakespeare Company. But can Ian McKellen juggle?
“The Karamazovs use juggling as a comic instrument and for punctuation. In this production, the juggling is infectious, or, if you will, catching. Everyone does it,” Gussow noted. “Just as the Karamazovs use tenpins to make a point, Ms. Hayden twirls her baton, which could be regarded as singular form of juggling. For example, when she is angry, she swings her baton as if it were a machete.”
When the show played in Los Angeles, I anxiously went, thought it was an utter joy, was pleased to see that Sophie Schwab – er, sorry, Hayden, was in it and wonderful – and then waited around afterwards as the actors left to finally say hi after all these years. It wasn’t much, we briefly talked about Northwestern, marching bands, my dad’s joy from her, and that was it.
But the point of all this here was her performance in that show. The whole evening was wildly entertaining, filled of course with much juggling and every bit of vaudeville shtick you could imagine. And as it went on, all I could think was -- with all this vaudeville circus clowning, they just have to include her baton twirling. Have to. And I kept waiting and waiting. Surely they would do something. And then, at last, there came a moment in the show when the character of ‘Adriana’ walks out on stage, and -- and -- and she's holding…a big stick. And I quickly sat up, because I knew. Okay, this was it. The audience was about to be knocked for a loop. They just think she’s holding a stick. But oh, noooo, that’s not a stick. That is a baton. Trust me, folks. That -- is -- a -- baton.
The scene began normally. Keep in mind, too, that at this point this was an actress who the audience had seen as an actress simply doing Shakespeare for two hours -- doing it with great humor, of course, but there was no reason to expect anything different by now. And then, at first, there was a nice, fast spin and flip behind her back, and the crowd gave a very-surprised laugh and was politely appreciative. Whoa, that was unexpected, an actress learned to twirl the baton a bit, how nice. Well-done. No, no, I thought, oh, no, you folks haven’t seen anything yet. And then…yes, it built, and Sophie got to do her stuff. And built some more. And more. And all the while, the audience became almost silent, partly holding their breath, partly not sure what was coming and not wanting to miss the next twirl. Until finally, they at last broke into huge cheers. It's one thing to see a baton twirler in a musical about the circus. But in Shakespeare, while doing dialogue and then...during a soliloquy, a baton flying all over the place, and with acrobatics??!! No, the audience really wasn't expecting it. Well, okay, I was...
And after all this long tale here with diversions and details, even that tale is just background, because it brings us to the main point and the treat to prove it all, even more so than the wonderful Barnum video.
Because, you see, that Flying Karamazov Brothers production of Comedy of Errors was done for television. With, of course, Sophie Hayden. And even better, in one of my treasured finds, the video of the full show is actually online! I downloaded it, and then fast-forwarded through the show in order to find The Scene -- and have edited it down here. And you get to see that I wasn't lying.
This is the main point. This is Tony-nominee Sophie Schwab Hayden doing Shakespeare, no doubt as intended. But at the very least, as only she can. Every night. Without dropping the baton, ever.
This is a wonderful video. The text throughout the video explains it, though since your attention will likely want to be on the performance, it can be a little distracting. Also, with the limitations of Twitter, I think it can use a bit more clarification.
Lisette Oropressa is an acclaimed Cuban-American soprano who has performed around the world as such houses as the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, Opera National de Paris, Royal Covent Garden and more. She was giving a solo recital at the Verdi Festival in Parma, Italy in early December, a month ago when she sang her fourth encore at the end of the concert, an aria called “Sempe libera” (Always Free), sung by the character ‘Violetta’ from Verdi’s La Traviata. It’s a somewhat odd selection to sing at a solo recital because as wonderful a piece as it is for a soprano, it’s not a pure aria since there is a male tenor part in the middle of it. And because there is a tenor part, but there was no tenor on stage – or anyone else on stage for that matter to help out – there was a silence during that part of the number. However, an Chinese opera student Liu Jianwei studying in Italy was in the audience and recognized how awkward this was and filled in.
What’s so good about this video is not just him quickly joining in, is Ms. Oropressa being totally shocked when he does so unexpectedly and then, rather than offended by him singing the missing part, has a clearly appreciative reaction throughout.
One note: her initial “ohhhh” is actually written into Verdi’s score – so while she’s not reacting to the young man right there, she is singing with him. Everything else is clearly pure reaction.
As the video notes, the young man went backstage afterwards to apologize, but she was so gracious she took a picture with him and gave him her autograph. The video shows the photo, so there’s no need to post it here.
(More properly, from the very little research I did about this, it is a “cabaletta,” which is a two-part musical form, though used as an aria since the bulk of the selection is for one performer.)
My only “complaint” is that the video cuts off before the end, so we don’t get to hear the full piece or audience reaction. But what we do get is a joyful experience.
Afterwards, when the video of this went viral, Li posted publicly about it, explaining in his own video that “I stood up to sing because Lisette Oropesa is a musician I love very much and I happened to have learned this opera before.” He added, though, that “It is definitely not something worthy of pride, nor something worthy of being advocated. Please don’t interrupt singers when they are singing on stage. It’s impolite behavior. Don’t imitate me and I will never do this again in the future.”
But once was pretty darn good. And most definitely good enough.
As a bonus, for those who do want to hear the whole thing, here is Lisette Oropressa again singing this same Violetta’s cabaletta, “Sempre libera,” at Madrid's Teatro Real in July, 2020. So, as you can see, she’s the real deal – making her reaction above all the more endearing. The portion shown in the solo recital video starts here around the 1:50. You’ll hear the tenor part sung off-stage as she listens to the distant voice and then sings with it – including her “Ohhhh.” And we do get the audience roars here, so you can only imagine what they were during that “joint performance.”
Okay, so this isn't particularly unknown, given that it's Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But what the heck, it's a great, uncommon video that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus made only a few years ago under the baton of Riccardo Muti. (They pretty much never release full videos, but this was funded as a special memorial tribute, which the video explains.)
The whole thing is glorious, but If you only want to celebrate the season with the Ode to Joy section, that comes in at the 52:12 mark, and you can just jump directly to it.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had it first concert last week after over a year-and-a-half. They've tried to fill in the spaces with a pretty aggressive and interesting online presence, but it's not the same as being at Symphony Center.
Its Music Director Riccardo Mutii addressed the audience with impromptu comments before the concert began. He explained that since English wasn't his first language, it was difficult to express all his thoughts on the occasion, which is why he didn't want to write anything down and wanted to speak more from the heart. If he did so this superbly, talking about arts and culture and what it all does for society and, most interestingly, how society is impacted when its missing, I can only imagine what he'd say in Italian. It wasn't patting "fine arts" on the back, but noting all aspects of culture, and -- more specifically -- explaining movingly why it had impact. His off-the-cuff words started out low-key, and then built into something far more moving that I suspect people there expected.
I thought he deserved today's opening spot.
I've written in the past about my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek, who's a terrific artist in Chicago. Among other things, she's worked with the Special Olympics -- who are based in Chicago -- even to the point of being commissioned to design their 50th anniversary poster. I've also noted the three fiberglass horses she was commissioned to create for the city to honor fallen policemen, one horse of which was on display outside of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.
It turns out that the Special Olympics is introducing a new program, where they feature artwork from their athletes shown side-by-side with professional art. The CBS-TV affiliate in Chicago, WBBM, did a report on this, and the Special Olympics asked Diana to speak on behalf of it.
(I think this could lead to a spin-off series, an artist who solves crimes as a hobby, finding patterns that lead her to the culprits, accompanied by her sidekick cat, Banksy.)
So, okay, yes, I'm biased. In either event, I can now refer to her as my artist cousin Diana Leviton Gondek as Seen on CBS News. And so, we take you now to our correspondent in the Windy City.
After going a while without an "IneterMISSION" podcast from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, they appear back up to speed, and here's another.
This week, as they describe, "Six CSO musicians describe the power of sharing music with audiences of all ages, while working with a commitment for unified impact. As they also anticipate the return of live concerts again, each also describes the timeless power of the orchestra to connect with listeners."
What I also love about these podcasts -- and sets them apart from many, I think -- is that they also post links to full versions of all the snippets of music that play through the show.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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