Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SURPRISE! Happy Birthday, Dear Phil

If he wasn’t surprised, he sure did a good job of acting as if he were. When Phil Hall walked into the second floor dining room at Sardi’s Sunday and the close to 30 of us luck enough to call him friend shouted “Surprise,” tears welled in his eyes. It was a great start to a lively celebration of his 60th birthday, which actually won’t occur until Friday, when he will be in Paris.

Nobody deserves these good times more than Phil, a gifted composer, playwright and singer. We met in 2007 when I interviewed him about his play with music, Matthew Passion. We’ve been friends ever since. The room was full of people with similar stories. To meet Phil is to become his friend. He’s one of the kindest-hearted people I know.

Karen Arlington, a friend and performer in the singing group he founded and directs, The Philhallmonics, arranged most of the gathering, plotting for two months with the assistance of actor Jeremy Michael and fellow Philhallmonic singer Rachael Robbins.

For an especially appropriate touch, considering we were celebrating in Sardi’s, Rachael had commissioned the artist Age to draw a caricature of Phil, which during the time of the brunch hung on a pillar at the famed showbiz restaurant before heading home to Phil’s apartment.

Theatre folk came and went. Broadway favorite Melissa Errico, a voice student of Phil’s, arrived midway through the festivities with her 3 1/2-year-old twins, Diana and Juliette McEnroe, and joined the guest of honor table, at which I was fortunate to be sitting. (That’s me in the black dress clapping behind Phil in the photo.)

This being a Sunday afternoon in the theatre district, others left early to make their matinees performances-- Tommar Wilson and Michael James Scott headed for The Book of Mormon and George Dvorsky to Closer Than Ever.

Jazz pianist Dan Furman played throughout the afternoon. After brunch he was joined by the voices of some of the women in Phil’s life. Melissa sang “a nice little Irish song by two Jewish intellectuals,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” She asked the twins to be her backup singers but they declined, being more interested in the chicken fingers and fries the waiter had brought them since they arrived after brunch was served.

“They’re going to go to bed because I sing this at night,” she joked.

Several Philhallmonics serenaded the birthday guy as well. Mary Anne Prevost sang “I Wake Up in the Morning Feeling Fine,” Linda Sue Moshier sang “The Music That Makes Me Dance ,” Dolly Ellen Friedman presented “Razzle Dazzle,” Rachael Robbins “Roxie” and Arlington “Love Is Here to Stay,”

Two Philhallmonics wrote their own words to hits. Lenore Fuerstman’s contribution was a rewriting of “Mame,” to which we chimed in with Phil’s name replacing Mame’s. It was fun. Here’s a sampling:

“You mention stars, who’s played with a few?
“Phyllis, Nanette, and Angela, too!
“From humble roots in Durham, amazing what a worldly life you’ve led!
“Hand-holding countless ladies has put a couple gray hairs on your head!
“So now we celebrate your big day,
“We’re here cause Karen said she would pay,
“Your smile, your sense of humor, your talent and your sweetness and your heart,
“These are the things we love in you,
“There isn’t much that you can’t do,
“We’re all your fans you know it’s true,
 “Your music’s inspirational
“Your coaching’s educational,
“We think you’re just sensational,
 “Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il, Phi-il!”

Diana Silva gave her spin to “Second Hand Rose” with “Happy Birthday, Phil Hall:”

“So Happy Birthday, Phil Hall.
“We love you, Phil,
“There’s no one else like you,
“Unsurpassed in your skill,
“Even when you play your ol’ piana,
“You’re the best of our songbook Americana.
“We sing from our hearts,
“Thanks to you, Maestro Phil.
“You teach us how to belt perfectly,
“Singing from my belly, I’m now deeper than before.
“Just like Franco Corelli I can access my core.
“Phil, you’re a wiz.
“Yes, you’re the best in the biz.
“So Happy Birthday Phil to you,
“Phil from Seventh Avenue ….Nu?”

Diana is one of my favorite Philhallmonics. I’ve seen her in three of the group’s concerts and she always stands out with the intensity of her presence and the emotional rendering of each song she solos. I got to meet her before Phil arrived and tell her that.

“As soon as I spoke to him on the phone I knew I would like him,” she said, explaining that he had been recommended to her when she was looking for a vocal teacher to guide her from the Early Music she was used to singing into popular music. “He helps you get out something that is deeper. You feel very vulnerable and that’s the place to be. He’s so encouraging. He gives you 300 percent.”

And on Sunday, we got to give a little of that encouragement and love back to him. Happy Birthday, Phil!

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