"All we had to say is Holiday Pops, and most of our sales happened in advance," says executive director Steven P. Haines. "It's tough for me to figure out why. . . . You can plan and prepare, but you don't know anything until the box office starts moving."
In Philadelphia, all signs point to a healthy pops public. The budget has more than doubled from about $1.5 million to $3.26 million in the last four years; 81 percent of that is earned through ticket sales. Traditional symphony orchestras are lucky to get half that. Philly Pops is one of only two pops orchestras with a recording contract (Cincinnati Pops is the other).
The fruit of all that success is the sort of ambitious, expensive show the Philly Pops is now mounting: Broadway Showstoppers, opening tomorrow at the Kimmel Center. The show has three Broadway divas - Dee Hoty, Sutton Foster and Donna McKechnie - plus chorus, with orchestrations tailored to a collaboration that won't be seen anywhere else. No canned material. No homogenized touring package.
A Chorus Line star McKechnie, for one, sings "At the Ballet," one of the show's best songs but one completely new to her, plus duets and trios that none of the three have performed together. An inconvenience, for only a handful of shows in Philadelphia?" No. "It's what I love about theater, the ensemble, singing together, blending," McKechnie says. "It makes me cry when I hear people singing in harmony."
What a switch from five years ago, when the Pops was staggering under the weight of uncalculated deficits, cash-flow problems, and an aging, dwindling audience. The situation was freely described as "dire."
Half the seats at the Academy of Music were empty. The orchestra had a full-time staff of two. Its now-defunct presenting organization, the All Star-Forum, was crumbling after the death of impresario Moe Septee. The Pops would have crumbled, too, had concerned corporate leaders not stepped forward and in February 1999 formed the Encore Series, which became the Pops' parent organization.
Are the concerts different, better, now? Fundamentally, no.
Since its formation in 1979, the Pops has been inextricably identified with Peter Nero. Granted, there's more money for guest stars and orchestrations crafted specifically for the occasion. But repertoire still includes old favorites such as the theme from The Pink Panther. The success would seem to be a matter of Philadelphians' discovering something that was there all along. The arrival of aggressive marketer Haines from the Florida Philharmonic in 1999 surely supports that theory. However, maintaining, much less growing, a pops audience is a surprisingly slippery slope.
"Pops audiences are harder to please than classical audiences," Nero says. "People who don't understand what's going on musically tend to go by their gut. It either gets them or not. The people at classical concerts tend to blame themselves rather than the orchestra if it doesn't get them. Pops audiences don't blame themselves."
The pops concert genre has become so open ended that success can be doubly elusive. The three-part Arthur Fiedler Boston Pops formula - light classics, two intermissions, and pop music at the end - died when he did in 1979. Since then, pops concerts have become something like the old Ed Sullivan Show: islands of variety in an increasingly segmented entertainment world.
Programming is radically different from one city to the next. In Cincinnati, where guitar-based pop music of the 1970s had a longer shelf life than in other parts of the country, guest stars are often the likes of Three Dog Night and America. The Los Angeles Philharmonic pops concerts are often assemblages of movie scores by conductor John Mauceri that appeal to brainy movie buffs as well as those just out for a nice night at the Hollywood Bowl. Many pops orchestras have Broadway nights; the New York Pops, which performs at Carnegie Hall a few blocks from Broadway, is more likely to find the players and music director Skitch Henderson dressed for a hoedown. Pops concerts give the public what it wants but isn't getting elsewhere. If there are rules to programming a pops concert, they're vague and few.
An apt place, in other words, for a hybrid talent like Nero, the 69-year-old, Brooklyn-born classical pianist who found his true calling in his talent for improvising on most any tune in most any style. Since the first of his 70 recordings in 1961, he has been a genre-defying figure who appeared on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show when the mainstream TV public wanted a little bit of everything in an hour.
Musicians - high-tone and otherwise - like him. Behind the easygoing stage demeanor is someone who insists on two rehearsals, in contrast to the usual pops-concert fast track of one. Assembling programs requires what he calls "months of agony." That's partly why his concerts never have printed programs: He wants to surprise the audience, but he also likes to change his mind. "I hate to commit it to paper," he says.
That, perhaps, points to Nero's primary strength. It's great that he has decades worth of pops orchestrations in his out-of-town home in Delaware County. But his subliminal appeal lies in the sense of improvisation he brings to nearly everything he does. Even when playing "The Pink Panther," there's a wild, Nero-incited sax solo in the middle that makes it new for each audience. Audiences may not realize they love that, but they do.
In contrast to the emphasis on variety in other pops orchestras, the Philly Pops marketing approach is a model in branding consolidation. The selling point is Nero and the Pops - first, last and always. Even the starriest guests are secondary. To that end, Nero isn't afraid to look a little silly, as he did in his beatific Christmas posters. Ask him about that, and he's bemused by the whole machine: "It's their job to bring them in; my job to keep them coming back."
In the next breath, he admits how much that thought truly intimidates him. "What frightens me most," he says, "is when people come backstage and visit me and say, 'That's the best concert I've ever seen.' How am I going to top this one?"
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or email@example.com.
Peter Nero and the Philly Pops perform tomorrow through Sunday at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.phillypops.com.