At The New York Pops’ Christmas 2014 concert, a young singer by the name of Arlo Hill practically stole the show from Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Morrison; performing a number called “Songs of Freedom: A Celebration of Chanukah”, the baritone’s voice filled Carnegie Hall with astonishing warmth. Lucky for New York audiences, Hill is back onstage in a more permanent way, he’s now part of the ensemble of the iconic The Phantom of the Opera and he’s also doing a month-long (May 7-28) residency at The Metropolitan Room where he’s performing a show called “I’ve Been in Love Before: The Songs and Stories of Frank Loesser”. We had the opportunity to talk to the charming performer about his dream roles, his training and how he came up with a show all about Loesser.
Why do a show of only Frank Loesser songs?
I think it’s funny, Frank Loesser is an example of someone who almost everyone knows their music, but they don’t necessarily know his name. If you’re in the business you probably know his name, people know Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed…, people know songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”, but they don’t know his name. I actually fell into that camp, until a few years ago I did Frank’s first show Where’s Charlie? at Encores, which was a wonderful experience but the name didn’t mean that much to me. I thought the music was cool and then it was total kismet, in class or at auditions, or just randomly I kept hearing all these beautiful songs and realized they had all been written by Loesser. There was something about his music...I think theatre historian Larry Maslon put it really well “it’s the shortest distance from the keyboard to your heart of any songwriter”. I thought I had to do a show with his music, I didn’t originally intend it to be a biographical show, but as I read his stories I realized they needed to be in the show.
When you did The Most Happy Fella was your Loesser fever a big part of who you were?
By that point yes, I’d been working on the Loesser show for a couple of years, and was a Loesser fanatic by all means. The Most Happy Fella is my favorite score of any musical, I just love it, so I was excited to do it at Encores, to sing “Standing on the Corner” was great. It was also cool because Loesser’s widow, Jo Sullivan, who is wonderful and very active in most heavily involved in major performances of Loesser’s work was around a bit so I interviewed her for my show. Also, hearing that score with a 38-piece orchestra, which you never get to hear today and even in 1956 was considered a huge orchestra on Broadway, so hearing those original orchestrations was spectacular! We should bring this show back to Broadway.
Can you talk a bit about how you structured the show? I liked how for example when you were talking about Frank’s divorce, you followed it by singing “Never Will I Marry” and as you talk about him falling in love again you do a playful version of “Asking for Trouble”. Did you find it easy as a performer to connect the songs to what the composer was going through at the time when he wrote them?
You’re right, I’m trying to do something slightly unusual with this show, not to flatter myself but I’m doing something a little bit different in that I do tell the story, but at times I’m in the position of Frank Loesser singing a song about something he was going through. I’ve always been a performer but I haven’t done a lot of writing for the stage in the past, so it was an interesting process, it was exactly as you describe, I had gathered a lot of songs I was interested in, demos and unpublished songs, music from his shows that were never done on Broadway, and as I was reading about him a couple of things just clicked. I saw these lyrics “I’m only asking for trouble each time we kiss, each time I let the warmth of you melt me down, I’m like a child walking right into danger, taking candy from a stranger on the wrong side of town”, and I just thought the story in it was filled with intrigue. His second wife was the leading lady in The Most Happy Fella which his first wife helped cast, and even though his marriage was in trouble he fell in love with this woman, and I just thought the song fit perfectly with this period of his life. Another song which hasn’t been recorded much and is relatively unknown, it goes (sings) “down the stairs, out the door, to the station and far away went my baby…” and I thought it had a nice feel for the end when I talk about Frank’s death and legacy, because I feel he was very unsentimental about himself, he was a very matter of fact person.
Watching you perform the show I kept thinking it was very much like a combination of Judy Garland’s “Born in a Trunk” from A Star is Born and Gene Kelly’s “Fit as a Fiddle” in Singin’ in the Rain. Who were some of the artists who actually inspired this performance?
I don’t think in terms of seeing like a similar thing on the stage, so I wouldn’t cite specific things. I try to hit different styles throughout the show, “Never Will I Marry” for instance was recorded by Barbra Streisand in the best known version, but it has a different feeling than when Anthony Perkins did it in the original show. A lot of the songs I listened to Frank Loesser sing himself, he didn’t have a beautiful voice but he sings them so well in a post-Bob Dylan kind of way, maybe Frank would’ve been able to record and sell his music. You mentioned Judy Garland and I’ve actually being going through a phase of watching her concert clips on YouTube, and there’s probably other influences I’m not even aware of.
You trained with Judith Clurman for five years, what was that like?
She’s a wonderful conductor, she runs Essential Voices the chorus that performs with The New York Pops, she along with Larry Hochman and Brian Stokes Mitchell arranged the Hannukah piece I performed at their December concert. Judith also teaches voice, I met her when I was in Harvard and we’ve worked together on and off ever since.
One of the most heartwarming moments in the show was when you talked about performing The Phantom of the Opera songs for your uncle, and now you’ve come full circle since you’re doing Phantom.
Yeah, Phantom has been going on for almost 28 years, so it’s one of those shows people my age grew up singing not knowing that it’d still be open when we were older, and that I’d have a chance to perform in it. I used to sing songs from it to my classical composer uncle who would turn up his nose at it, although he loved Frank Loesser.
Loesser’s family looked down at him for doing pop songs, did you have a better experience growing up?
I have to say yes, I’m not sure if I’ve been fortunate or unfortunate (laughs) maybe my parents should’ve discouraged me and told me to do something else, but since middle school I decided I wanted to do theatre and my parents were very encouraging. I grew up listening to musicals and my dad and I connect over our love of great musicals, he sent me the Sondheim DVD set. I’ve been lucky to have family who’s been supportive. I think it’s interesting how Frank’s family looked down at his work, especially because his brother was a classical pianist who was the head of piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and that’s what’s kind of at the heart of this show for me, the shift from the idea of high art and pop music, and I think the Great American Songbook and this new idea which Michael Feinstein has been a big proponent of, that all of these songs that were just written as pop songs for the day and age, and weren’t written for the Academy, are now being given their due. The fact that Frank Loesser’s songs are more important now than ever before is an idea I like to hold on to.
If you had to pick three dream musical roles what would they be?
Ooh, I always have trouble with this one, whatever they’ll give me! (Laughs) If I’m gonna do Frank Loesser, actually the Anthony Perkins role in Greenwillow is good, I’d love to be Sky in Guys and Dolls, and also Cornelius in Hello, Dolly! I played that song years ago in high school and I love it. If they ever bring it back to Broadway I want to play Cornelius.
Something that caught my attention reading your resume was that they highlight you can do “extremely good handstands”. When do those come in handy?
(Laughs) That’s my special skill. They haven’t come in handy yet, I’m waiting for someone at an audition room to ask me to do an extremely good handstand, and I would do it, I’d hold it in place for a long time, they’d be impressed and then they would say “well, we don’t really need that in our show, but that was fun”. Probably being “an extremely good dancer” would be a better skill to have, but I’m not, so you know everyone else can dance and I’ll do my handstands.
You can see Arlo Hill in “I’ve Been in Love Before: The Songs and Stories of Frank Loesser” at The Metropolitan Room through May 28.