Show celebrates 100 years of great show tunes

Brian Mackey

When Neil Berg was planning his Broadway revue, he knew his target audience.

“I would think of my mother and her friends — people who went to see theater but weren’t in theater,” Berg said in a recent telephone interview.

“What would happen was, I would put a song list together of songs I thought they would enjoy, instead of necessarily what I wanted to do.”

On Saturday night, “Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway” is bringing some of musical theater’s greatest hits to Sangamon Auditorium on the campus of the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“When we go out and do one of our concerts, it’s almost like a rock concert for the older generation — these were all the songs they grew up (with) and were popular and they loved,” Berg said.

But with an inclusive aesthetic, Berg tries to appeal to younger audiences as well. In addition to classics from “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man,” recent set lists have included songs from “Rent” and the Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out.”

That way, Berg said, younger people get an education in Broadway history and older members of the audience get to hear what’s new.

“People get to compare, right there in one night: what stacks up, where did it change, why did it change?”

“100 Years of Broadway” is a concert — there are no sets or costumes. Berg described it as “MTV Unplugged for the Broadway generation,” referring to the television program in which musicians scale back from arena shows in order to tell stories and play songs for an intimate studio audience.

“We try and give it the vitality of a rock ’n’ roll concert. The energy and the electricity and passion (are) very high because we want to include the audience and not put up our noses and say” — here Berg broke into a mock aristocratic accent — “‘Oh, we’re Broadway stars. Come listen to this song from 1922.’ It’s not that at all. It’s more like, ‘Hey, we’re in my living room, we’re having a party, you’re invited, the best singers in the world just happen to be here and they’re my buddies. Let’s have fun.’”

A life in music was not a foregone conclusion for Berg, 44, who majored in English in college and was a serious baseball player. To earn walking-around money, he performed at a piano bar near his school.

When he got out of college, Berg decided to pursue both Broadway and rock ’n’ roll dreams. Because of his show-tune skills, he was asked to play a lot of charity benefits. As a young man just beginning to make his way in the world, he had a lot of time on his hands, and was soon organizing the shows.

“I was the one creating the song list; I’m dealing with major stars of Broadway and television,” Berg said. “From doing all these different benefits, people saw and loved the shows. Finally, I got asked if I would do it for private events.”

Starting in churches, temples and schools, his show was eventually playing before major corporate and charity events. He said the show went public about four years ago.

Berg said that, as a composer, singers thought of him as more of a colleague than a “piranha” producer.

“I would get people that I trusted and liked, but it turns out that these people are now some of the biggest stars on Broadway,” Berg said.

In addition to the touring variety show, Berg is at work on the score for the upcoming musical “Grumpy Old Men,” based on the 1993 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Berg said Saturday’s five-person cast consists of singers reprising some of their own Broadway performances, including:

--Charles Bergell, who has starred in “Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita” and “Les Miserables.”

--Erick Buckley, who has starred in “The Full Monty,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.”

--Rita Harvey, who has played Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

--Andrea Rivette, who has starred in “Miss Saigon” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”

--Danny Zolli, who has performed one of the lead roles in more performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” than anyone else in history.

'“If you like Broadway, you’re going to flip over this show,” Berg said. “And if you don’t like Broadway, you’re still going to flip over this show. … It’s like seeing 40 of your favorite Broadway shows without the dialogue.”

Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587

Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway

* When

8 p.m. Saturday

* Where

Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Springfield

* Tickets

$48, $43; available at the Sangamon Auditorium ticket office, by calling 206-6160 or (800) 207-6960, or at