Nine-Day Wonder

Behind The Scenes At An "Encores" Presentation

A big Broadway musical takes millions of dollars and months to produce. So imagine the problem faced by New York's non-profit City Center.

This year, City Center has begun the ninth season of its remarkable series -"Encores" - revivals of old Broadway musicals. But how do they produce these shows on a shoestring budget? They do it, reports correspondent Scott Pelley, by staging the shows unbelievably fast.

60 Minutes II followed the encore of the 1944 Harold Arlen musical "Bloomer Girl." The play, about a real-life suffragette who fought for equal rights, has a cast of 37, an orchestra of 31, and just nine days to put on a show.

It may be a cliché, but appearing in an "Encores" production can make you a star. Kate Jennings Grant is a talented but largely unknown actress who won the part that every actor in New York dreams of: an "Encores" lead.

"It's so overwhelming," says Grant. "I can't even talk about it. I can't sleep. I've been reading the script every night and have absolutely no social life until this is over. No plans, no phone calls, nothing."

The same realization is hitting Jubilant Sykes, who plays the role of an escaped slave.

A concert singer and opera performer, Sykes has never had a speaking part on the stage. When he went to audition for "Bloomer Girl," his agent forgot to mention that he would have to act.

"I thought basically it was singing," he says. "Basically me singing and maybe introducing the song. I didn't realize it was like lines and acting and..."

Now that the realization has hit, he tries not to think about it.

"Just the moment," he says. "Not the performance, but the rehearsal moment. If I look farther than that, I'm panicked."

Grant is a classically trained singer with a Masters Degree from Julliard. He can act and sing but He can't dance.

"Bloomer Girl" is "Encores'" 23rd revival. One of those previous attempts was a "Chicago," which didn't do that well when it first ran on Broadway more than 25 years ago. But after "Encores" rediscovered it, "Chicago" became a phenomenon that is now running all over the world. Every "Encores" take place at the City Center in New York. It has a warren of rehearsal halls and a 2,800-seat theater where the audience makes no concessions for staging a show in so short a time.

"Bloomer Girls'" anthem, "The Eagle and Me," is Sykes' big solo, and if he gets it right, it can be a showstopper.

"The fundamental principle of this show is that every human being has a right to have a voice in their own destiny," says director Brad Rouse, who thrusts together 37 strangers and helps them find a way to sing the songs, do the steps, get the lines right without falling apart at the seams.

"It's an adventure and it's such a joy because "Encores" does succeed in getting wonderfully talented people in the entire company," he says. "I mean the company that's assembled for "Bloomer Girl" is superior to any company playing on Broadway right now. It's once in a lifetime. It's all downhill from here."

This is the third "Encores" for choreographer Rob Ashford, who understands that motivating the troops is just as important as teaching them the steps.

"Bloomer Girl" is unusually demanding. It has 18 musical numbers and a 10-minute ballet - affordable to stage because with only five performances everyone is willing to work for scale.

Rob Fisher, musical director of "Encore," who was there at the 1994 beginning and has done 21 shows, sees it as a labor of love.

"It's the only opportunity to hear these scores," he says. "It really tells us where Broadway has come and where it's going."

He thinks Broadway in the old days was, in many ways, better. "There was a period of time when these magnificent composers like Rogers, Gershwin, Porter, Berlin were cranking out show after show with magnificent songs in them. And there's just not that amount of stuff coming out now."

Every player worries there has been too much to learn in too little time. But after just eight days of rehearsal, they're backstage at the City Center Theater with a full house waiting and 30 minutes til the curtain goes up.

Even veteran performers like Grant have butterflies on opening night. "That never goes away," she says.

But before long, it is over. "Bloomer Girl" had just five performances in its run before before it closed. "Encores" next nine-day wonder, "Pajama Game," opens in just a few weeks.