May 12, 2021

What makes a classic?

The word “classic” is thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean to call something a classic? In musical theater, does the term automatically conjure images of showgirls in a perfect kickline? Or perhaps a group of revolutionaries waving a flag? Or even the image of a man in a mask, far beneath an opulent opera house? There’s a reason so many different songs, shows, and even eras of musical theater are called classic.

“A ‘classic’ is something that even if you’ve never heard it before, it feels familiar, and even if you’ve heard it 1000 times, it still feels new,” says Artistic Administrator Cory Lippiello, the mastermind behind Lyric’s upcoming musical theater concert The New Classics: Songs from the New Golden Age of Musical Theater. Lippiello revealed the details of how this concert came together, how it was cast, and how it represents the best of past and present Broadway.

Norm Lewis, musical director David Chase, and cellist Calum Cook from the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a cozy corner of the historic Civic Theatre, a part of the Lyric Opera House since 1993.

Historically speaking, the “classics” come from the Golden Age of musical theater in the 1940s and 1950s, which featured beautiful melodies, a larger orchestra, and lush vocal lines that sound best when sung by classically trained voices. Showstoppers from this era are known for their poetic lyrics, exciting rhythms, and catchy chord progressions. Even though many recent musicals have skewed toward a pop, rock, or even hip-hop style, others have retained some of the hallmarks of that previous era. 

When Lyric canceled its mainstage 2020/21 Season, that also meant canceling Lyric’s annual grand-scale musical theater production at the end of the season. “We have a wonderful audience for our musicals and when we were reimagining this season, we wanted to make sure that we created something special just for them,” says Lippiello. After researching how other companies and organizations were putting on virtual musical-theater presentations with Broadway’s David Chase, the music director of The New Classics, Lippiello and Chase decided on a mixed-bill concert anchored at the Lyric Opera House with a few guest artists in other locations. But as for the repertoire? “Lyric is well known for grand scale productions of both operas and musicals; classics from the Golden Age Broadway look and sound amazing on our mainstage,” says Lippiello. “But given the Covid restrictions, we had to create something very different. In the end we built a special small cabaret stage that would allow for safe social distancing, but that also captures the feeling of a more intimate club venue. We thought this would be the perfect time to explore some newer musical-theater compositions that feature some of the same classic elements that make the Golden Age so special, but that maybe would be less likely to receive a fully mounted production in our larger theater.”

Music director and pianist David Chase during the taping of The New Classics.

It takes a certain kind of voice, or rather a certain kind of training, to sing musical-theater classics. “There’s a specific kind of vocalism associated with the Golden Age, where the artists of the time often had classical training and a broad vocal range  it wasn’t all belting, all the time!” says Lippiello. She and Chase kept this in mind when they began the casting conversations for this type of presentation. First to their minds? Norm Lewis, who was supposed to make his Lyric debut in 42nd Street in the spring of 2020 before the show was canceled due to the pandemic. “Norm is one of our great Broadway stars, and you’ll hear why. He uses all the colors of his voice so expressively. And it’s quite special to hear him singing a signature song like “Stars” from Les Misérables as if he was singing it for the first time,” says Lippiello. Nikki Renée Daniels and Gavin Creel joined Lewis in Chicago for the recording, bringing their own star qualities. “Gavin’s interpretations are magic and his magnetism is palpable. When we recorded 'How Glory Goes' from Floyd Collins, everyone in the room was mesmerized. And Nikki has such a lovely legit soprano and sympathetic presence that made it possible for us to do songs like 'How Could I Ever Know' from The Secret Garden that really are quite operatic.” Chase and Lippiello then got to work making a list of composers and songs, running their ideas by the artists to get their input, hearing which “classics” were their favorites or which songs they’d like to introduce to the Lyric audience. “There were so many amazing songs to choose from, we couldn’t even begin to include all the pieces we loved  the concert would have been four hours long! Our hope is that audiences will hear a few of their favorites, and also discover some beautiful new songs,” says Lippiello.

Nikki Renée Daniels on the set of The New Classics.

Added to the mix are some familiar Lyric faces singing some unexpected repertory: Amanda Castro, Lyric’s high-kicking Anita in West Side Story, will be tapping from her New York City roof in a number from Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party. Jenn Gambatese, who wowed Lyric audiences as Maria in The Sound of Music and Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, embodies a 1920s jazz baby in an 11 o’clock number from Thoroughly Modern Millie. Jo Lampert, who shared her powerful voice as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, takes a song from The Band’s Visit to new places. And Heath Saunders makes a leap from Jesus to Lady Thiang from The King and I.

Lippiello wanted the concert cast to be able to sing from their strengths, and also to surprise audiences, inspired by the popular Broadway Cares “Broadway Backwards” and MCC's “Miscast” concerts that have been shared and made popular online. “We wanted to play with casting a bit,” said Lippiello. “Some artists might be singing something you wouldn’t necessarily expect, and that is part of what makes this opportunity so exciting. Another mark of a classic is that it supports different interpretations and reinventions. We are constantly finding new things in these songs as our artists bring their own perspectives to these great tunes.”

Heath Saunders and Jo Lampert as Jesus and Mary Magdelene in Lyric's 2017/18 Season production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Finally, with a brand-new cabaret stage, Big Foot Media on board to film, and with talent from members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, all the elements for this concert came together. Lippiello’s hope is that audiences of The New Classics will find something personal to take away from the virtual concert, even within the universality of the messages. “Many of these songs are about love and loss, moving forward through transitions with hope, reflecting and looking ahead, which I think will resonate with people everywhere,” says Lippiello. “Collaborating with David Chase and these remarkable artists has been a very bright spot in this unusual year. I always think of Lyric as presenting the world’s great voices, no matter what genre. And great voices can help guide us to new places.”

Save the date for The New Classics: Songs from the New Golden Age of Musical Theater on June 10 and learn more about the concert at

Now streaming

The New Classics: Songs from the New Golden Age of Musical Theater

The New Classics: Songs from the New Golden Age of Musical Theater

Take a seat, fire up your biggest screen, and experience a star-studded virtual cabaret featuring some of your favorite Broadway and Lyric voices in the comfort of your own home this June with The New Classics: Songs from the New Golden Age of Musical Theater.

Header image: Gavin Creel, David Chase, members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and Big Foot Media during the filming of The New Classics. Credit: Kyle Flubacker

Other images: Kyle Flubacker, Todd Rosenberg