Kelli O'Hara and Norm Lewis on Why the New York Pops Is Their Go-To Orchestra | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Kelli O'Hara and Norm Lewis on Why the New York Pops Is Their Go-To Orchestra

Both Broadway stars are performing concerts this season at Carnegie Hall.

Kelli O’Hara

The New York Pops attracts amazing guest artists from the worlds of Broadway, cabaret, and beyond. The largest independent orchestra in the US devoted to popular music, the ensemble has called Carnegie Hall home since its founding 40 years ago, giving dozens of revered vocalists their debuts on the storied stage. 

Kelli O’Hara already had two Tony Award nominations under her belt when she was asked to headline an evening of Broadway show tunes with The New York Pops in 2007. She remembers the experience vividly. “The first time I heard The New York Pops perform I was standing among the musicians, being supported and lifted by their music as I sang my debut Carnegie Hall concert,” she says. “There is something truly magical about being in that space, singing among the ghosts of singers past alongside those incredible musicians. They give singers the experience of their dreams.”

Since that landmark evening, O’Hara—beloved for her performances on Broadway (South Pacific; Kiss Me, Kate; her Tony Award–winning turn in The King and I) and at the Metropolitan Opera (The Merry Widow, Così fan tutte, The Hours)—has become a New York Pops regular and even joined its board of directors. On November 17, she performs her 11th Carnegie Hall concert with the orchestra alongside fellow Broadway star Sutton Foster, who also made her Hall debut thanks to The New York Pops back in 2005.

O’Hara credits Steven Reineke, The New York Pops’ erudite and exuberant music director and conductor, as one of the main reasons she keeps returning. “I have enjoyed all our collaborations, and I am so grateful he continues to invite me to these musical parties,” she says, noting that the group allows artists to tackle genres for which they’re not necessarily famous. While her one-night-only performance with Foster is dedicated to their musical theater careers, in previous New York Pops concerts, O’Hara has used her shimmering soprano on folk songs and Christmas carols. That diversity of material “makes us all better as musicians and listeners,” she says. “And Steven always contributes gorgeous, new orchestrations.”

Norm Lewis, who made his solo Carnegie Hall debut in 2022 with The New York Pops, also cites Reineke as an incomparable collaborator. “He’s more than a conductor,” says the booming Broadway baritone, whose credits include The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Les Misérables, and The Phantom of the Opera. “Steven’s got such a great personality.  He loves to get involved. At our concert last year, he actually sang with me—we did ‘The Confrontation’ from Les Mis. He’s not just standing there waving his arms. He’s someone who’s really in it for you, supporting you.”

Norm Lewis

Like O’Hara, Lewis is a New York Pops board member. Earlier this year, as the stakeholders planned the upcoming season, they discussed potential singers to star in their annual holiday celebration. Meanwhile, for the past seven years, Lewis had been doing his own seasonal songfest at the cabaret club 54 Below, even releasing a Christmas album in 2018. Suddenly, an epiphany hit: The two traditions could become one. So, on December 22 and 23, The New York Pops embarks on “The Best Christmas of All with Norm Lewis."

While the setlist is still being finalized, Lewis says they’re erring on the traditional side, though he promises some surprises. There will be guest stars: some as-yet- to-be-confirmed boldface names as well as young participants in the orchestra’s extensive PopsEd program, which brings music education to underserved New York City public school students. “And I’m always up for a Santa hat or a flashing nose,” Lewis adds. “I might even give out gifts!”

Mainly, he’s eager to celebrate his favorite holiday in a favorite venue. “Carnegie is one of the best halls in the world,” he says. “I’ve always sung these songs with a trio. Now I’ll have 78 musicians behind me. I’m excited to hear this particular music on a grand scale.” It’s not just singers who have been introduced to Carnegie Hall audiences by the orchestra. Before he became the leader of The New York Pops, Reineke made his Carnegie Hall debut as a guest conductor with the ensemble in 2008. “It was their 25th anniversary and it was huge, a monster program,” he recalls. It also turned out to be an unofficial audition to take the reins after the death of founding conductor Skitch Henderson. “I had no idea that I was even being looked at,” he says. “So that started the whole journey for me. My life changed forever.”

Although Reineke is a perfectionist when it comes to the music, he’s known for his playfulness, donning costumes, cracking jokes, and making sure all artists and audiences feel welcome. “I have so much fun when I get to make music with others. I try to make it feel like we’re just presenting a concert in my living room as opposed to at Carnegie Hall,” he says. “It’s not a stuffy environment. It’s very approachable as if we’re all good friends. We’ve always talked about cultivating a family atmosphere with The New York Pops. Skitch and Ruth Henderson, the founders, very much had that sort of mentality about it. That was something I not only didn’t want to lose, but wanted to expand upon. So, we really have kept that feeling that we’re part of a group, a club, a family.”

The New York Pops season continues with a centennial celebration of Rhapsody in Blue on February 9 with additional Gershwin selections performed by Memphis Tony nominee Montego Glover, who made her Carnegie Hall debut with the ensemble in 2010. It ends with a Motown retrospective on March 15, featuring decades of hits by the likes of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Martha and the Vandellas. Fittingly, both vocalists, Bryan Terrell Clark and Valisia LeKae, starred in Motown: The Musical on Broadway and are making their Carnegie Hall debuts with this program.

“I definitely want to keep finding new talent to introduce to Carnegie Hall with The New York Pops,” Reineke says. “To me, the Hall is home—I live just a block and a half away. It’s never lost on me all of the greats who have performed here. I will hit my 100th concert at Carnegie Hall at the opening of next season. That is such an honor and a thrill. Every time I walk on that stage, it is pure magic.”

Learn more about the New York Pops here.

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