Rosemary Clooney’s Tender Heart at the Playhouse

It’s a minor miracle that Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman — the creative team behind Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story, opening this week at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park — found each other.

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click to enlarge Mark Friedman and Janet Yates Vogt
Mark Friedman and Janet Yates Vogt

It’s a minor miracle that Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman — the creative team behind Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story, opening this week at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park — found each other.

“We were students at UC,” says Vogt. “I was at CCM, and Mark had a band that needed a pianist.”

He obtained a list of 10 likely candidates from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music’s placement service, but after being rejected by nine of them, Friedman was about to give up.

The 10th candidate gave the same response, but added, “I have a friend across the hall who might be interested.”

That was Vogt.

It was a fortuitous connection for a partnership that’s continued for three decades.

“I was teaching school, Janet was writing greeting cards and teaching piano students,” Friedman says. “We started writing songs and getting a few them published.”

He took time off from school to teach and work in theater, and their creative partnership flourished.

Around 1998 they made a foray into musical theater, adapting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s best-selling 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati gave it a concert staging, and it continued to evolve with workshops and a production by Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company.

First Stage, a children’s theater in Milwaukee, staged that one, then commissioned them to do another “TYA” (Theater for Young Audiences) show, an adaptation of Melinda Long’s children’s story How I Became a Pirate.

“I wasn’t’ sure I wanted to do it,” Vogt says, laughing, “but we did. And now it’s played at 350 or so theaters!”

TYA productions have been their bread-and-butter for more than 15 years — produced from coast-to-coast, with many staged by Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati — but Friedman and Vogt, who jointly compose and write lyrics and scripts, are branching out. Finally, their hometown of Cincinnati will see a “grown-up” work by this pair with a show about Clooney, a Kentucky and Cincinnati singer who had a memorable career as a performer the 1940s and ’50s.

Vogt and Friedman are not married to one another, but their long partnership means they easily start and finish one another’s stories. “We loved Rosemary Clooney separately,” Friedman says. “My parents, in the backyard on Saturday nights, they would play 45s. People danced to Rosie’s songs.”

Vogt picks up the thread. “I was always a pianist, and I accompanied my father who sang songs to my mother like ‘Tenderly,’ ” she says. “These are the songs of our childhood. As longtime fans of her music and as playwrights, it just struck us one day that we should do a show about her.”

Director Kevin Moore at Human Race helped out again, workshopping and producing a one-act show. Word about that reached Blake Robison, the Cincinnati Playhouse’s artistic director, who approached them about including it in the 2014-2015 season.

Partnering with Robison, Vogt and Friedman have expanded the show to two acts, featuring 16 of Clooney’s best-known songs by the likes of Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael and others — including a new number by Vogt and Friedman.

It’s performed by two actors: Susan Haefner portrays Clooney; Michael Marotta is the therapist who counseled her in the late 1960s when she checked into a rehab facility. Their conversations range across her life, and Marotta briefly plays people pivotal in her life.

“Rosie had many, many challenges, and she reinvented herself,” Vogt says.

Friedman adds, “She struggled in her marriage; she struggled with addiction. She had a successful career and then Rock & Roll came in and no one wanted to listen to her anymore, saying her music was passé.”

But she fought back.

Friedman remembers seeing Clooney at a concert in Ault Park in the pouring rain a year or so before her death in 2002. Her vocal range had narrowed, he recalls, “But she could still nail a song. She had a charisma, the ability to interpret a song.”

Why call the show Tenderly, the title of one of her most beloved tunes?

“There is an affection in that word that reflects the way we feel toward her,” Vogt says. “She had a very tender heart. She was kind and warm and welcoming to strangers and to her best friends.”

Through Dec. 28 on the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage, you might come as a stranger, but you’ll leave as one of Rosie’s best friends, thanks to Vogt and Friedman. ©

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