Duke University Alumni Magazine

Who Could Ask For Anything More?
Rob Fisher
by Joan Oleck

The maestro: Fisher conducts Louisiana Purchase "presentation" in Carnegie Hall
Fisher has this passion about bringing old musicals back from the dead. Not just conducting musicians but researching their original instrumental scores right down to the last nuance: at Duke twenty-five years ago, at regional theatres, and on Broadway in the years since.

he fund-raising gala at New York's City Center theater complex last March 31 seemed at first like any other: middle-aged men uncomfortably restrained in black tie, women checking out each other's gowns, diners digging into Salmon Napoleon and chocolate souffle. The flicker of candles, the sparkle of diamonds -- there are a thousand nights like it each year in the Naked City. But this night, things really began to hum. Major City Center funder Paul Newman worked the crowd with his wife and City Center board member Joanne Woodward. Alec Baldwin boisterously outbid everyone at the auction for tickets to the Broadway hit Chicago once co-host (and Chicago star) James Naughton threw in a backstage tour of the chorines' dressing room, And at least a few of the rich and famous surely swallowed hard when co-host Rosie O'Donnell called one donor "a cheap f --" for his chintzy offering. The man quickly coughed up more.

     Still, the gala's high point had already occurred, if you ask Rob Fisher '74, one of two honorees that evening. Fisher, who was being recognized for his work as a conductor and musical director at City Center, the not-for-profit "people's theater" Fiorello LaGuardia founded in 1943, was pleased, of course, at the accolade. He was gratified by the applause..

     But what really floored Fisher -- a guy who's kept his cool conducting thirty-piece orchestras before audiences of 2,500 at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center; who's taken the stage, unruffled, alongside artists like Sting and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Garrison Keillor and Michael Tilson Thomas; who's put together Broadway-worthy musicals in under a month -- what really got Fisher's blood racing was the personal tribute paid him by his two heroes.

     There they were on stage -- composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, creators of those fabulous musicals Cabaret and Chicago (and, recently, Steel Pier). There they were, jauntily grinning down at Fisher and letting loose with a special ditty they'd written just for him.

(To the tune of All That Jazz):

"He's the man that makes the beat go on, and I suppose you heard he's got a big baton And that's the reason all composers rely on our boy, Rob."

     Oh, sure, it would have been a kick for anyone who loves musical theater. But for Fisher, it was something more: "I was completely stunned," recalls the slender, forty-four-year- old pianist with the tortoise-shell spectacles and shock of graying hair, "I was in junior high when I mode my first trip to New York and saw Cabaret, and I never got over it, And now here they were, singing lyrics they'd written just for me. It was staggering,"

     It was also, well, fate. Because Fisher has this passion about bringing old musicals back from the dead. Not just: conducting the musicians but researching their original instrumental scores right down to the last nuance. He's done it with Kander and Ebb's work; and he's done it with just about everyone else's -- at Duke twenty-five years ago, at regional theaters and on Broadway in the years since. These days he's doing it for City Center's annual Encores! series of great American musicals in concert, which this year revived the warmly received trio Sweet Adeline, The Boys From Syracuse, and Promises, Promises. There was theater talk of Promises heading for Broadway, just as the Encores! revival of Chicago -- now a monster hit -- had a year ago. And Fisher is accordingly receiving some heady attention: a lengthy profile in The New York Times, a slew of invitations to conduct musical retrospectives at places like Carnegie Hall, a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Achievement Off Broadway.

     So why this particular theatrical segment -- old musicals? Fisher is not sure himself. "That's something I wonder about all the time because it's been lifelong," he says earnestly, But of course he has his reasons, like the one he gave The Times: "I was born retro." And while those who are politically correct may view these old musicals as irrelevant to today's ponderous issues -- as naive, even embarrassing -- Fisher demurs. "I think there'll always be enough of us -- if you want to call it old-fashioned, you can -- who will love the idea of bursting into song," he says. "I think it is a feeling that everybody has and I think it's a feeling we all enjoy seeing represented in front of us. And I think there will always be a way to do that that people will connect to," Evidently, the musical archeologist role Fisher's carved out is his personal mission to preserve what's uniquely American. He's got it in his gut to share those great tunes, those heart wrenching lyrics:

"It's very clear Our love is here to stay Not for a year, But ever and a day"
-- Ira Gershwin/George Gershewin

     In any case, those two hours on a darkened stage will occasionally move the rest of us hard-nosed cynics to get up and dance. And maybe that's what Fisher is about, too: helping us remember a time when people were hopeful, when everyone wore a hat, and Rodgers &. Hart and Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote the best damned "silly love songs" ever:

"If they asked me, I could write a book About the way you walk and whisper and look."
-- Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart

     This feeling -- of a tune and lyrics that sent people out of theaters humming under their breath -- was in motion again last March following an Encores! performance of Promises, Promises. As the theater cleared, Manhattanites exited with bits of the hit "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" wedged in their brains:

"What do you get when you kiss a guy? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia; After you do, he'll never phone ya; I'll never fall in love again."
-- Burt Bacharach/Hal David

     Reviews were enthusiastic for Fisher and artistic director Rob Marshall's revival of the 1968 Broadway musical, despite raised eyebrows about the dated feel of its gyrating go-go girls, its tolerance of sexual harassment, its fun but sugary doo-wah sound. Encores! after all revives old musicals, warts and all.

     Based on the Billy Wilder film The Apartment, Promises is the story of low-level executive Chuck Baxter, who climbs the corporate ladder by loaning out his Manhattan apartment for his bosses' trysts, then falls hard for sweet co-worker Fran Kubelik, who is herself in love with The Wrong Guy, Critics reserved special praise for the charming "I'll Never Fall in Love" duet in the second act sung by stars Martin Short and Kerry O'Malley '91. Their characters have just realized they've been wronged by the evil Mr. Sheldrake (Terrence Mann) and that neither needs empty office affairs or pickups like barfly Marge (Christine Baranski, in a show-stopping cameo). There is romantic tension in the air, and nothing to be done about it but launch into the wistful tune Dionne Warwick made famous.

Encore: rehearsing for the Promises, Promises revival, with Martin Short
Photo: Stan Honda

     What underscored that wistfulness last March, following the rowdiness of the show's other numbers, were the sounds of a harp, two guitars, and a bass backing the singers. Here, archivist Fisher, as usual, recreated the song precisely as it had been performed in 1968, throwing out only what didn't work, the on-stage guitar played by the 1968 "Fran," (It distracted from the song, Fisher decided.) Next, he searched out the harp book, because he'd heard one on the old recording: "We spent a lot of time and money reconstructing the harp book because I wanted the audience to have a harp if the harp is supposed to be there."

     After weeks of searching musty boxes from the Manhattan rental house that licenses Promises, Fisher found a partial copy from a Norwegian production. And that was only one of Fisher's many archeological digs, "With every show there's usually a bunch of material that's not what they send out to people who rent the show," he says, "That's what I want to see." The orchestra books from the 1929 production of Sweet Adeline, for instance: "They're still red," Fisher reports with a sly smile, "The spots on the music." These are the deceased mosquitoes from the summer night in 1930 when Adeline played St. Louis after leaving New York. "After that production, [the orchestra books] were boxed up, and as far as I can tell, the box was never opened again until the mid-Seventies," Fisher says.

     The score for Adeline needed cleaning and repairs; the one for Boys From Syracuse, the final Encores! revival this season, required a full-time researcher working on it six months. "I end up doing all-nighters cutting and pasting and cleaning and erasing," Fisher says. And his work continues: He has his eye on bigger restorations like St. Louis Woman (Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer, 1946), for which only the published sheet music and a script exist, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz, 1951). No one alive remembers how St. Louis Woman went. For A Tree Grows, there's a piano score and thirty minutes of recording. "We'd have to transcribe the orchestrations from the record and extrapolate from there," Fisher says, That takes big money.

     One advantage of the Chicago success has been more donations to Fisher's venture. Money people are starting to get what it's about, what it means that Encores! players hold script books in hand and deliver their lines into standing, not body, mikes, "We want to reinforce the idea of a 'presentation,' " instead of a full Broadway performance, Fisher says. To this end, his handpicked Coffee Club orchestra members also sit smack in the middle of center stage on a podium, rather than in the pit. Fisher himself is so prominent that Anne Reinking handed him her gun in Chicago and Martin Short hugged him once his Promises character realized true love. This positioning also reduces audience expectations for sets and staging, After all, Fisher & Company cast these shows, rehearse them, and present them (five performances) in less than a month, Budgets are. one-tenth of a Broadway show.

     But since Chicago traveled to the Great White Way, a new parlor game has theatrical types speculating which Encores! show will next be crowned, This doesn't sit well with Fisher, who notes that City Center gets none of those profits. Also, "It does create pressure to give these shows enough production value that your imagination doesn't have to work too hard to think of how a full production would be," he says. "I don't want to sound negative; [Promises] is a fun show and more people should get to see it. But it's not what we're about."

     Poor Rob Fisher -- he's a victim of his own success. Here he's gone and created a viable theatrical enterprise, plumbed an American art form in a way that's refreshingly removed from the often shallow commercial revivals of dollar-conscious Broadway. And, still, he has to explain his mission.

     At least the critics and his colleagues understand, "He's like velvet," Promises star Terrence Mann (the Beast in Beauty and the Beast and Javert in Les Miserables) said of Fisher at the stage door after the show. "He's like velvet because [his musical direction] is classy and accessible, and he's so smooth and calm. It makes you calm." The Times' Stephen Holden has written that Fisher and his Coffee Club Orchestra "have found the pulse of the music and delivered exquisitely textured performances that recapture the glorious sound of old-time Broadway pit orchestras." Curmudgeon John Simon of New York magazine raves about every move Fisher makes. And composer John Kander, quoted in The Times, has praised Fisher's "unerring instinct for the musical truth of a situation." Kander added his special admiration for Fisher's understanding of Chicago's music, which he called "Twenties jazz" filtered through today's consciousness.

     "It's hard to get an orchestra to believe that those dotted eighth notes are really dotted eighth notes," Kander said. "But Rob was dedicated to getting that feeling. He has an unerring instinct for the musical truth of a situation."

     Judith Daykin, president and executive director of City Center, says meanwhile of Encores!: "What we try to do is create the sound that those [composers] wanted us to hear. ...We try to go back to the original as close as we can approximate it, and without Rob I don't know how we would achieve this, because it's his vision and perseverance and knowledge that make that happen."

     Daykin first hired Fisher in 1987 for a gala commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of George Gershwin's death, But that's getting ahead of Fisher's career, which essentially began in Norfolk, Virginia, with the little piano prodigy impressing the fifth-grade girls with his mastery of Deep Purple. Not that era's hit parade version but one from the 1930s that "had lots of fast, tricky things in it."

     Fisher is darned good at playing tricky things on the piano. The middle of three sons of a shipyard executive and his wife, Fisher caught the old-time bug early from a ukelele- playing grandfather and banjo-playing uncle, plus an aunt who played stride piano. When he wasn't crabbing in nearby tictil estuaries, little Rob was at Aunt Sally's knee observing, "I was six or seven, and I was having her show me how you do that," says Fisher. "I didn't appreciate that it was a special talent until I was an adult." In junior high, seeing Cabaret on Broadway, he thought, "This is something I need to do." By high school he had mastered Rhapsody in Blue.

     None of which, of course, explains Fisher's botany major at Duke, But, music, he believed, was "not a reliable idea for a career." The problem was, music kept calling. So Fisher ran lights for Little Mary Sunshine freshman year and, sophomore year, secured his first musical director's job, for Cabaret. Those were the pioneer days for Duke student theater. Holly Brubach '75, a fellow Hoof 'n' Horn theater club alum, now fashion editor for The New York Times Magazine, recalls the Union basement theater. "The [stage] entrances and exits were through a window, and there was a little ramp of stairs outside the window. You had to crawl out into the yard and run around to the other side of the stage. It was insane."

     Determined not to spend his summers in the Norfolk Shipyard, Fisher honed his musical skills at the Mill Mountain Playhouse in Roanoke, Virginia, then returned senior year to direct Anything Goes, which Brubach choreographed. Even then, Fisher was a maniac for capturing precise details; Rick Waln'74 remembers him staying up all night to build a poster board Eiffel Tower prop for Cabaret. "Rob damn near killed himself,"Waln recalls, Fisher himself remembers Bunking genetics for Duke theatricals.

     Not that college was all serious, Fisher and Waln once egged on a mass "streak" across East Quad, and sneaked up to the top of the chapel, where Fisher played "The Stripper" on the carillon. The duo expected arrest; they wound up on network news,

     Mostly, though, the Hoof 'n' Horn crowd lived for the footlights. "We sacrificed probably more than we should our educational goals," Waln says. "It's interesting, He learned to do exactly what's he doing now and it's served him well, as we all can see."

     Subsequent years brought Fisher more musical work. "No one was hiring me to do anything botanical and they haven't yet," he laughs. He was a guest artist for Duke, a pianist for New York's Public Theater, a musical educator in Roanoke, and musical director for Mill Mountain summers. At American University, he earned his master's in music and first experienced conducting. His Broadway debut was playing piano with the show A History of the American Film. In 1978 came his biggest break yet: putting together a George Gershwin eightieth birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. "I was twenty-six and had been in New York only a few months. I had never been to Carnegie Hall and I was on stage at Carnegie Hall playing the piano for [jazz pianist] Dick Hyman."

     More Broadway followed along with musical revivals at theaters like the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, the Arena in Washington, and Lamb's Theater in New York. Then came the 1987 call from Judith Daykin for the Gershwin gala at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Fisher stepped in for Michael Tilson Thomas, "It gave me a confidence I didn't have before because I felt I could play with the big kids now," Fisher says. He remembers schmoozing in the wings with Leonard Bernstein and accompanying Barshynikov at rehearsals.

     His star was rising. In the spring of 1989, he conducted two Gershwin evenings at the Library of Congress and collaborated with Sting on Threepenny Opera at Broadway's Lunt Theater. A theater connection had also gotten him a plum job as musical director for Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company of the Air; that summer, at Keillor's urging, Fisher founded his Coffee Club Orchestra, (In notes to one of the group's albums, Keillor observed: "What's great about them is not only the fact of their existence, but also the swing, the feeling, the knockout style they bring to their work.... They play ancient jazz as if their Packard were parked out back, as if swing were the coming rage.") In 1992, as Keillor was preparing to leave New York, came another job of- fer from Daykin -- musical director for Encores!

     That first season,1994, Fisher and Kathleen Marshall staged Fiorello, Allegro, and Lady in the Dark, They've turned in three revivals a year since. And Fisher has also found time to conduct Patti LuPone with the National Symphony; to guest-conduct the New York City Opera and the symphonies of Seattle, Atlanta, and Colorado; to complete sixteen recordings; and to take the revival Louisiana Purchase to Carnegie Hall.

     Brubach calls him "the most overextended person I know." No wonder. Fisher, who remains a bachelor, says, a tad regretfully, "I'm married to my music." But he draws his personal strength from his deep friendships.

     When Brubach was cajoled into tap dancing for the eightieth birthday party of an old publishing world friend and mentor -- with Carol Charming and Joel Grey in the audience -- Fisher stopped everything to arrange the piano piece, even working in a stop-time chorus and strains of"Happy Birthday," practicing with Brubach during her lunch hours in a decrepit West Side studio. Brubach calls him "one of the greatest human beings on Earth." Others' descriptives include "kind," "calm," "supportive." And ambidextrous at all things musical.

     Last year and this year, Fisher has maintained his breakneck pace, taking Chicago first to Broadway, then Washington, supervising its cast album and appearances at the Inaugural Gala and on Letterman, and pulling off two more successful Encores! seasons. He also conducted an Ira Gershwin at 100 celebration at Carnegie Hall last December, broadcast nationally. He is particularly proud of the latter. After all, the Gershwins, like Kander and Ebb, are pillars of the songs Fisher adheres to. "I love the intersection of the music and the relationship or the feeling of where the play is going. When those two use each other well, so that they're both stronger for the other, it's just the best.

     Back in the Thirties and Forties when so many of these songs were written,"The craftsmanship was especially high," Fisher says. "I think there really was a Golden Age of songwriting with the use of melody and harmony. Something like 'They Can't Take That Away from Me' is so much more subtle a love song than 'I Love You, Baby, I Love You Baby.' I would call some of those Sixties songs we love so much 'silly love songs,' They're much sillier lyrics than some of the lyrics we're talking about, which I think are much more complex and subtle and reveal much more." In the PBS tape of Ira at 100, Vic Damone croons "Embraceable You," Rosemary Clooney interprets "A Foggy Day (In London Town)," and Michael Feinstein captures "They Can't Take That Away from Me":

"The way you wear your hat The way you sip your tea The memory of all that No, no they can't take that away from me."

     Fisher himself is removed from the artists, his tuxoeded back to the audience. But really, he's in the center of things there in the dark, guiding the beat, waving his arms, imploring his musicians for more. And though you can't see it, he's probably got a big smile on his face, After all, he's doing what he loves best: listening to, appreciating, and elevating for us all those wonderful old, silly, magical love songs.                

Oleck is a free-lance writer living in New York.

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