By Glenn McDonald of The News & Observer
While it’s never been officially confirmed, Harry Connick Jr. is clearly the winner of some cosmic genetic jackpot.
Connick, a musical prodigy and world-class jazz pianist, is also a ridiculously gifted singer and actor with movie-star good looks. He even holds a patent for orchestral music display technology.
If the former “American Idol” judge wasn’t so charming, it wouldn’t seem fair.
Well, at least Triangle fans will get to bask in the glow for a minute.
Next weekend, Connick will host the world premiere of his upcoming Broadway show “Harry Connick Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter” at the Durham Performing Arts Center. There will be three shows over Sept. 21 and 22.
The new production — a multimedia celebration of the Cole Porter songbook — is Connick’s latest return to Broadway and his first dedicated deep dive into another artist’s repertoire. He received Tony nominations for his role in “The Pajama Game” and his score for “Thou Shalt Not.” His most recent Broadway stint was in 2011 in “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
Connick conceived and directed the new production featuring personalized interpretations of Porter’s classic songs; think “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You under My Skin” and “In the Still of the Night.” He added various theatrical and film elements plus a company of dancers and an onstage orchestra.
The Durham engagement represents the only planned public performances of the new show before it opens on Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre in December, along with an album (“True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter”) in October and a tour of the show in 2020-21.
Connick spoke with The News & Observer about the new production, Porter’s legacy and the art of giving good advice.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the format and the flavor of the new show?
A: Well, it’s a multimedia event, in that there are all kinds of things going on onstage. There’s improvisation, scripted dialogue, orchestral music, film. It’s kind of a really broad, all-encompassing theatrical experience.
In other words, it’s not just a concert. It’s a real theatrical event, without being, you know, a completely scripted show. It’s an experience built specifically for this music and these songs. It’s actually something I’ve never seen before. And hopefully it’ll give people something they’ve never seen either.
Q: So you’ll have a full orchestra up there on stage, too?
A: Yeah, I think there are 28 musicians, and dancers, and obviously tons and tons of Cole Porter’s music.
The idea, without giving too much away, is to kind of go inside Porter’s head – to take the people on a ride that’s more than just … I sing this song, then I sing this song. It’s more about, what do the songs really mean? How can we take people on journeys based on the lyrics of each specific song? It’s pretty cool, man. I’m excited about it.
Q: So these Durham shows, are these a kind of warm up for the Broadway shows, like a dress rehearsal?
A: This is different in every way, because it’s not technically a full-on Broadway show. But it’s certainly far from a concert, too. So normally with Broadway shows, they’ll open them on the road. They might do that as a way to work through all the technical things you need to work out before it goes to Broadway.
But this show, I don’t really think of it like that. People think a preview show is like a test run, but I guarantee when we go on stage in Durham that first night, it’s gonna be 100 percent there.
Q: Can you talk a little about the origins of this project. How did it begin?
A: Well, it started as as an album, I have a new record company – I’m with Verve Records now – and one of the ideas was to do the Cole Porter songbook, which is something I had never done. I had recorded a bunch of his songs before, but never in a kind of songbook, one-composer album format.
So we recorded the album [“True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter”] and my manager said, “You know, this would be a good opportunity to give the audience something other than a concert.”
I’ve done a million concerts – I love it, it’s my favorite thing to do. But how can we give people the next level experience? How can we use these songs and these incredible lyrics to extract something new? Not that Cole Porter need my help … [laughs].
I started getting an inkling that it would work when a couple of my musicians said, “You know, we’re doing this song, that song – but I never really thought about what the songs meant. Because with Porter, the lyrics drive everything – they drive the tempos, the keys, the grooves. The lyrics are so, so incredible. So I designed everything around that, from the very first note you hear in the overture to what you’re seeing on the big screen.
Q: These songs have endured, some of them, for more than 100 years now. Was Cole Porter always important for you as a songwriter and composer?
A: What’s interesting about this show is that it’s not necessarily a historic perspective on Cole Porter. There are plenty of people who know way more about that than I do. I mean, I’ve read his autobiography, I’ve been to the Yale library (home to the Cole Porter Collection). I’ve done my homework.
But what people need to know is, the songs are being sung from my perspective, from what they mean to me. All of the theatrics around it are based on that. I mean, I’m not taking these far-out interpretations or anything. But when I sing “Love For Sale” or “All of You,” people will definitely know exactly what I’m singing about.
Q: You’ve been at this for more than 40 years now. You’ve played Broadway and, as you say, you’ve done a million concerts. Has fundamental experience of performing – the art of it, playing music for people in real time – has that changed over the years? Does it evolve?
A: Oh, for me it has, for sure. You become – I hesitate to say efficient, because that implies a narrowing of creativity, and it’s not that. But the parameters change.
It’s almost like, if somebody asks you for some advice when you’re 20 years old, that advice is going to change when you’re 50, or when you’re 70. The intent is no less, but the perspective is different. It becomes more concentrated, more fruitful. It gets better, I should hope.
It depends on the night, too [laughs]. If I give a really good show, and the people respond, then we’re all good.
What: “Harry Connick Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter”
When: Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sept. 22 at 1 p.m.
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Tickets: Start at $49.50
Info: 919-680-2787 or dpacnc.com