We’re so wild about Harry that demand for tickets to Saturday’s concert swamped the Paramount Theatre’s online ticketing system — and the entire server network — on the first day of public sales in early September.
And Harry’s wild about us.
The international superstar has been in Cedar Rapids many, many times — in spirit anyway — playing the lead role in “The Pajama Game” on Broadway from Feb. 23 to June 17, 2006. The Tony-winning musical revolves around romance and turmoil in a fictional Cedar Rapids pajama factory.
“That town — the sound of that city, has such nice memories for me. So I’m excited to go see it, to go there (and) try on some pajamas,” he says by phone on a recent drive into New York City. Connick, 45, has a home there, as well as in New Canaan, Conn., where he lives with his wife and three daughters, ages 16, 15 and 10.
On a more serious note, the New Orleans native says he’s honored to help reopen the Paramount Theatre, back from the brink after the Floods of 2008 slammed down the front doors, rose through the lower levels and filled the auditorium and Hall of Mirrors with 8 to 10 feet of fetid waters. A $35 million renovation has restored the cultural gem to its 1928 sparkle, wrapped around 21st century updates.
“I was told the whole story. My history with flood devastation is something people can relate to there,” Connick says. “Any chance that I get to be a part of a healing or closure for something like that, I love to do it.
“People who have been through a tragedy like that — they just know. They know what it’s like,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to go and celebrate sort of a rebirth of a city.”
His concert is sold out, part of a black-tie gala celebrating the return of music and more to the Paramount hall. He’ll perform with Orchestra Iowa members in the first half, then swing out with his own combo of saxes, trombones, trumpets, bass and drums in the second half.
Connick’s name resonates through so many layers of the performing arts, from his Grammy- and Emmy-winning career as a singer, songwriter and bandleader, to his star turns on Broadway, television and cinema screens and his breakthrough soundtrack for “When Harry Met Sally …”
On screens large and small, he has played a variety of roles from the utterly creepy serial killer role in “Copycat,” with Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter to his romantic leads in “Hope Floats,” “P.S. I Love You,” “New in Town” and as Grace’s dreamboat husband, Dr. Leo Markus, on “Will and Grace.” He’s appeared on “American Idol” and “Law and Order: SVU” — and has a new movie coming out this holiday season, “When Angels Sing.”
For all of the high-profile fame, fortune and glamor, the piano man likes the give and take of live performances. He’s been doing them since age 5, when he played the national anthem at the opening of his father’s campaign office. A district attorney in the Big Easy, Joseph Harry Fowler Connick Sr., and his late wife, Anita, a lawyer, judge and Louisiana Supreme Court justice, also owned a record store.
All that rubbed off on Junior, as he says he’s known in his hometown.
“I feel very comfortable playing in front of an audience,” Connick says. “It’s something I’ve done for 40 years. I really get a great thrill out of it. It’s something that always has a lot of variables and you never really know as a performer, what you’re gonna get, so that’s always fun.
“Occasionally I get to play with musicians from the actual city in which I’m performing. And that’s always fun, too, especially orchestral musicians, because normally, they’re of a very high caliber,” he says. “Without knowing them, you can automatically jump into a kind of communicative world where everybody knows the language, because everybody’s paid their own respective dues. It’s nice to get onstage and share the stage with high-caliber musicians.”
A prodigy, he played his orchestra gig at age 9, when he performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Opus 37 with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. Like many of us, he took piano lessons, except his teachers were R&B stylist James Booker and jazz great Ellis Marsalis, father of Branford and Wynton Marsalis.
Connick’s classical foundation was nurtured at the prestigious Tanglewood and the Manhattan School of Music, where he majored in theory, but another siren song beckoned.
“I always loved jazz,” he says. “When I got to be 18 or 19, I decided that I wanted to spend my time playing jazz. I just liked it better.”
He’s equally well known for covering the Great American Songbook. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Connick’s artistry is the way he takes the classics and makes them sound new and hip, spinning unexpected jazz riffs to everything from Christmas carols to Frank Sinatra swooners.
He lets the music and his inner muse guide him.
“When I orchestrate and arrange them, I just think of what I would like to sing over, then I write the arrangements based on that. All kinds of things start appearing to you — harmonies, rhythms, changing the song form — all these different things. I don’t really have a specific way of going about choosing a different method of interpretation. By virtue of just being myself — I think we all have identities and influences — I just start writing and see where it goes.”
It’s gone all the way to the top of the charts, with 10 number one jazz albums — more than any other U.S. jazz artist — and more than 25 million albums sold worldwide.
As Cedar Rapids rolls out the red carpet all year long for the Paramount’s homecoming celebration, music is a homecoming every day for the celebrated Connick.
“It’s just like coming home,” he says. “I just love playing it and it just lets me go into different places where I feel fulfilled and excited. It’s like an escape. It’s hard to describe.”
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