- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
In 2005 Melissa Errico went to Belgium with French pop composer Michel Legrand to record a batch of slow-paced and intimate songs with a 100-piece orchestra. Shortly after returning home to Manhattan, the critically adored Broadway actress became pregnant with her first child, and the project was put aside.
Six years, three daughters, an album for children and a still-going networking group for new mothers she founded later, “Legrand Affair” - “this masterpiece in the closet,” Errico says - will be released this fall by Ghostlight Records, and previewed tonight at the River Concert Series’ “Grand Finale,” held on the grounds of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
For the final Friday night event of this year’s seven-week season, Errico will sing a couple of selections from “Legrand Affair,” plus some Broadway show tunes, choice covers and originals, while backed by Jeffrey Silberschlag and his Chesapeake Orchestra plus New York jazz pianist Tedd Firth.
The concert and new album is the subject of our conversation today, and Errico, reached on the phone at home in New York, has snuck off to the family’s Honda Odyssey so as not to disrupt her 2-year-old twins’ nap. Her husband, Patrick McEnroe - a former professional tennis player, ESPN commentator, general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association and, yes, brother of John - will soon take their oldest daughter, Victoria, 5, to her riding lesson. Victoria’s jodhpurs, she tells him as he approaches the car, are in her room, in the “second or third shelf to the right.”
A worry develops amidst record-breaking heat: Isn’t it too hot out? Should the lesson have been canceled?
“There is no doubt my whole chemistry and my whole aura has very much changed since motherhood,” she says.
A native of Manhasset in Long Island, N.Y., Errico’s mother is a sculptor; her father is a doctor and Juilliard-trained concert pianist; and her brother is a singer-songwriter. In her teens, Errico, who was blown away by ballerina Natalia Makarova, commuted to dance lessons in Manhattan. Summers were spent at a drama camp.
She graduated from Yale University with degrees in art history and philosophy, despite a break to take part in a touring production of “Les Miserables,” and first appeared on Broadway in a 1993 revival of “My Fair Lady.” At 22, she had emerged as the clear-cut choice among more than 600 actresses who auditioned to play Eliza Doolittle, a role Julie Andrews played at 20 and Christine Andreas played at 24. A New York Times profile of Errico that ran shortly after she earned the part began thusly: “This is a Cinderella story about a Cinderella story.”
Critics took note, and continue to take note, of Errico’s crystal-clear soprano and Victorian beauty. Early on, though, they were also drawn to her athleticism, which stemmed from her early training as a ballerina. (Her performance in “My Fair Lady,” for one, featured somersaults and a balancing act on a headboard.)
“Anyone playing Eliza, of course, can expect to be measured against Julie Andrews,” The Times wrote. “Ms. Errico does not make so fine a fair lady, perhaps. But then I’m not sure Ms. Andrews was ever quite this frisky.”
Subsequent reviews were less irreverent.
In his 1996 review of “One Touch of Venus,” the Times Ben Brantley described Errico as “divine” before going on to write, “Where, you may ask, has Melissa Errico been all our lives?”
By then, Errico had played a part in a movie and had finished a season as a cast member of CBS’ “Central Park West.” By the early 2000s, she had a cabaret show called “New Standards,” for which she sang everything from Cole Porter to Randy Newman.
Audiences continued to clap; critics continued to write kindly (often effusively so). Errico’s steady career, however, has been one marked by versatility more than a defining Broadway role. These days, too, she is happy to temper and balance her career drive with family life. In that sense, the project that eventually produced “Legrand Affair” was a kind of prelude to the start of a new career (though Errico, for the record, has performed on Broadway post-twins).
“I feel like I’m reborn,” she says of her collaborations with symphonies. “It’s a new start. As far as history, I’m only going to carry the wonderful of it. The frustration is only empowerment now.”
Not just another album
Fittingly, “Legrand Affair” really begins in 2002 with “Amour,” the composer’s Broadway debut.
“Amour’s” run only lasted a couple of months. But by the time the Tony Awards came around much of the cast had been nominated, including Errico for Best Actress in a Musical. Legrand, meanwhile, had expressed to Errico his interest in one day recording an album with her, as he has with a rather amazing list of international stars.
“That does not happen very often,” Errico says.
Before they could get started, though, there was “Dracula” on Broadway to contend with. Once that was done, Legrand showed up at Errico’s door, she says, and the project took flight.
Errico started by visiting the libraries of Legrand experts-slash-obsessed fans and putting together an alphabetized binder of his songs. There was no record deal yet and Errico was coming out of a Broadway bomb. Still, Legrand’s commitment to the album was unfazed.
Meeting in Errico’s apartment, with Legrand at piano, they proceeded through the pages in the binder. “He didn’t remember writing 40 percent of those songs,” she recalls. “His whole life flashed before him.”
Legrand preferred the arrangements that allowed Errico to sing softly. He also told her he wanted it to sound “enormous.”
A 100-piece orchestra to be exact.
She thought, “Is this guy crazy?”
On their last day of orchestrating the album, producer Phil Ramone paid a visit. Then, they went to Belgium.
It was in the mixing process that the recording effort ground to a halt. Outside of life changes, Errico says she did not want to proceed with releasing the album until she felt satisfied with her own contribution to it. At the same time, a new phase of her career, collaborating with orchestras, took off. She estimates she has performed with as many as 30 or 40 symphonies around the country.
What is rarer, on the other hand, is for Errico to preview tunes from “Legrand Affair.” That has only happened a few times - and tonight Errico will sing “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.”
Reached on the phone coming out of rehearsal Tuesday, Silberschlag described the songs as “rich and beautiful pieces.”
In previous seasons the River Concert Series has concluded with appearances by Kate Baldwin, who is more of a jazz singer, and Hilary Kole, who is more of a Broadway singer, Silberschlag explained.
Errico, he added, is “both of those things. Her voice is something special residing between both of those singers.”
If you go
St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s River Concert Series will conclude at 7 p.m. with “The Grand Finale,” which will feature singer Broadway singer-actress Melissa Errico. The concert will also offer artistic director Jeffrey Silberschlag’s trumpet performance of a new work composed for him by Corrado Saglietti, and Ravel’s “Daphne et Chloe” Suites. The college’s Townhouse Green will open at 5 p.m., and the free concert starts at 7 p.m. Picnic baskets are allowed. Bring a blanket or chair. The college is in St. Mary’s City.