Anyone who is familiar with Harry Connick Jr. knows he is a multi-talented man – singer, jazz pianist, composer, conductor/big band leader, actor of stage and screen – both big and small.
Thanks now to a new job he has taken on with Bethlehem’s Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, there is one more title you can add to that impressive resume: teacher/mentor.
Connick is taking on a behind-the-scenes, yet very active role, in producing the first PYT show of the season, The Happy Elf, which is set to open Nov. 30 in The Charles A. Brown Ice House.
First produced as an animated-3D television special, the show is based on a song of the same name, which Connick wrote for his 2003 album, Harry for the Holidays.
Though the stage musical production – featuring music and lyrics by Connick – has been around for a few years, Connick has added new songs and arrangements for the PYT production. He also will be spending some time at rehearsals over the next couple of months, helping the performers get ready for opening night.
On Monday, the New Orleans native spent some time hanging out in the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, talking to local media about his career, his childhood, lessons he has learned and working with Pennsylvania Youth Theatre.
Here are some of the things Connick had to say.
On why he chose to work with the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre:
“There was an enthusiasm there and a lot of ideas that were said … that really made me feel that this would be an ideal place to do it. The idea of PYT kind of cycling kids through the classrooms to the performance back to the classrooms – that’s very dear to me because that’s how I grew up. It’s different than just taking acting classes or just performing. It’s this functional type of educational world where you can do the show at night and then learn about what you did in the classroom. I really dig that.”
On working with kids:
“I can’t wait. It’s really cool. Because kids don’t know who you are. They don’t care. They don’t care about any of that stuff and if they’re there, that means they really want to perform. And I dig that. That sort of transcends age and knowledge about who the people are. You just kind of have this common ground. That’s fun. That’s really cool. I’ve done this show a few times in the past with kids. I grew up in sort of a mentor-student type environment. And so lots of times, I’ll go give master classes or talk to kids. I dig that.”
On his own childhood:
“I had a desire to play and sing from when I was 3. I made my first record when I was 9 years old. Performing in public from a very young age when I was 5 or 6 years old, I just loved it.”
“You could not get me away from the piano … I could not get enough. I didn’t want to play sports. I didn’t want to do my homework. I didn’t want to go to the movies. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
On some of his own humbling experiences:
"I remember one time I worked with George Jones, who is my favorite country singer. He’s a very different talent than the way I work. We were going to do a song. I wrote the song, the words and music and arranged and recorded it for a huge orchestra. He heard it and didn’t like it and I had the session the next day. I didn’t expect that. I expected him to say: ‘Man this is great.’ But he said: ‘I don’t like it.’ And he’s George Jones and he knows a lot more than me about a lot of things. So I went back to my hotel room and re-wrote it and he heard it and said: ‘That I like. Let’s do it.’ And I got in the studio and I got the floor mopped with me as far as being a singer. I got destroyed. I had written the words, the music, played piano, arranged it, orchestrated it, conducted it. He came in and wiped the floor with me. That’s how great he was … You go out of there saying, ‘man I got a lot of growing to do. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.’
"I’m used to that. I’m used to being a 15-year-old and going home crying because your teacher says you should quit because you’re no good. You should maybe think about doing something else … So you go home and practice.”
“This is a great town. Man, everybody’s been cool. I don’t know how small this town is. I assume it’s smaller than New Orleans but people are laid back. I mean Billy [Kounoupis, owner of Billy’s Downtown Diner] brought me coffee. That’s just nice.”