Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell appreciates musical theater talent trained at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
“The road to Broadway comes through Cincinnati,” he says. “It’s totally cool. Sometimes when I’m guest conducting somewhere else, CCM comes up in conversation.”
He’s tapping that impressive talent pool for Broadway Forever, a Cincinnati Pops performance later this month to be streamed online at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23 and repeated the next day at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24. These concerts will be the first Pops Music Hall performances with audiences — just 300 people each day, socially distanced — since Russell conducted American Originals: The Cincinnati Sound in early March 2020.
Russell’s headliner this time will be Cincinnati native Jessica Hendy, who became a Broadway regular soon after her CCM graduation in 1993. She made her Broadway debut as Grizabella in the long-running original production of Cats; she repeated the role in the show’s Broadway revival in 2016-2017 — the only repeat performer from the original. Hendy graduated from Cincinnati’s St. Ursula Academy, which did not have a theater program at the time. During her high school years, she performed in shows at St. Xavier High School as well as local community theaters.
A permanent resident of New York City, she’s back in Cincinnati regularly to visit her parents at their home in Cleves. In fact, during the pandemic, she sheltered with them and her son Beckett for five months. Local theater fans will remember Hendy’s performances at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati in The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2008) and Don’t Make Me Pull This Show Over (2009), as well as her award-winning turn in next to normal in 2011 (reprised in a summer production in 2012).
Making use of the performance vacuum during the pandemic, Hendy has been writing the script for a one-woman, autobiographical musical, With Beckett, about her resilient journey through love and loss that includes the challenges of performing and parenting. Her collaborators are veteran composer Richard Oberacker (another CCM alum, whose recent show, Bandstand, had a Broadway run) and lyricist Robert Taylor; workshops of the show have been staged by Richard Hess, longtime acting and directing professor at CCM. When she’s not performing in concerts — earlier this month she sang with the Detroit Pops — she’s been working with her team to propel the project forward using an IndieGoGo crowdsourcing campaign to fund a full-length concept album.
Also supporting Hendy’s production is Ensemble Theatre’s producing artistic director D. Lynn Meyers as part of the theater’s commitment to creating and debuting new work.
“It’s thrilling to know the concept album for this show will be released this spring,” Meyers says. “We look forward to the day when we can all return to the theater safely and our audiences will be able to experience remarkable stories like With Beckett live.” (Donations to the studio recording IndieGoGo campaign can be made at indiegogo.com/projects/with-beckett#.)
Hendy performed at Music Hall in April 2019 with the Pops and Russell for The Wonderful Music of Oz. That production, featuring music from movies and stage shows, was masterminded by Scott Coulter, another 1993 CCM alum who now runs Spot-On Entertainment in New York City. He and Hendy have a history: After graduating from UC, they rented a truck and drove to New York City together to pursue their theater careers. They shared a fourth-floor, one-bedroom, walk-up apartment, sleeping in bunk beds. Today Coulter and his partner are uncles to Hendy’s son.
Coulter’s personal career has included a lot of cabaret singing, but through Spot-On, he’s provided employment for singers and actors, many with CCM credentials. Russell has come to rely on Coulter.
“He’s created a network of extraordinary young singers,” Russell says. "(Coulter) has such a way about him. He brings people together who love singing and this art form. Every time I work with someone from him, I know this will be an exceptional and inspired performance.”
Coulter has assembled a trio of talent, including Hendy, for Russell’s Broadway Forever concerts. Melvin Tunstall III, a 1998 CCM grad, has performed on Broadway in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, as well as productions in Canada and Europe. Also on the bill is Veronica Stern, currently a CCM senior.
Russell is excited to work with all three, especially when he recalls other young CCM talent who have made their professional debuts with the Cincinnati Pops. In December 2020, the streamed Holiday Pops program featured Nikki Renée Daniels, a star of 10 Broadway productions since graduating from CCM in 2001. As a student, she performed with Russell in the Cincinnati Symphony’s Home for the Holidays concert at the Taft Theatre in 2000.
For this program, Russell will provide Stern her professional debut. In 2020 she was a finalist in “Give My Regards,” Spot-On Arts Academy’s national singing competition conducted virtually. Coulter conceived the program before the pandemic but launched it virtually when it became clear that in-person opportunities would be limited. Young performers can be mentored by professionals. Hendy viewed Stern’s audition video and says she’s excited to perform with the talented young singer. “Her voice is gorgeous,” she says.
Russell’s program will include some memorable Broadway melodies, especially the orchestral piece “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town,” composer Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 Broadway debut. The pandemic has required Russell to be creative with how many musicians can perform, masked and socially distanced, on Music Hall’s stage. “We’ve found a lot of awesome pieces that require a teeny bit smaller orchestra — maybe a bit more like Broadway theaters,” he says, anticipating 35-40 players, about half the usual Pops complement. For the Bernstein piece, Russell is adding a small wind section and a saxophone player: “It’s a Jazz band with strings. Each of Bernstein’s episodes is an absolute jewel.”
With the musicians placed around the stage, some room will be reserved for the singers, who will mostly perform solo — another safety precaution, since singing has been shown to be a potential super-spreader of the coronavirus. Hendy will sing the heart-rending “Memory” from Cats, a song she's performed many times on Broadway. She’ll also perform the rousing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. Admired for her vocal range, Hendy loves to pour all her energy into such numbers. As Amneris, the crafty Pharaoh’s daughter, in the original Broadway production of Aida in 2003-2004, she recalls, “I got to belt my face off, and I had amazing costumes."
Hendy loves opportunities to sing with symphony and pops orchestras.
“I’ll perform whatever they want me to sing,” she says. “Whenever I get a chance to sing with an orchestra, holy cow! I jump at it.”
She appreciates the ebullient Russell’s leadership. “He’s so positive, and he sets the bar really high,” she says. “He’s very fun to work with.”
Tunstall will sing “This Is the Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” from Jersey Boys and, one of Russell’s favorites, “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha.
“There are certain pieces of music that help us all get through hard times, and they are significant for everyone,” Russell says.
All three singers will come together for the last set, which Russell promises will include a finale fitting to evoke the optimism many people yearn for in 2021.
Looking to the future, Hendy has put time and energy into her one-woman show and fundraising for its studio recording. But she’s also making the rounds with orchestra concerts. She’s been part of another Coulter-assembled production, Music of the Knights, which features songs by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John. “I’ve performed it all over, California, Canada, Mexico. It’s a good one,” she says.
She’s proud to be one of those successful CCM alums that John Morris Russell loves to include in his lively Cincinnati Pops concerts.
“It’s great fun to be back in my hometown,” Hendy says. “My family hopes to be able to come to a performance. It’s a ‘bucket list’ thing to come back to Cincinnati and perform — more exciting than anything else I get to do.”
Broadway Forever, performed by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and conducted by John Morris Russell, will be presented at Music Hall on Jan. 23 and 24. For safety reasons, socially distanced seating is limited to 300 for each concert. For tickets, call 513-381-3300 or go to cincinnatisymphony.org. You can also watch the livestream at cincinnatisymphony.org, facebook.com/cincinnatipops or the Pops' YouTube channel.
*An original version of this story said the holiday show was at the Taft Museum not the Taft Theatre. It has since been updated.