On Sept. 19, 1981, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel — both M.O.T. — reunited on stage in Central Park in New York after being a harmoniously gifted duo no longer for about a decade.
The 21-song setlist spanned about 90 minutes and covered some of their biggest hits, from “Mrs. Robinson” to “Homeward Bound” to, of course, “The Sounds of Silence.”
On April 24 at 7 p.m. in the RRazz Room of the Prince Theater, Lee Lessack and Johnny Rodgers will bring that entire setlist to life in order as part of their “Live in Central Park [Revisited]: Simon & Garfunkel” tour.
An Upper Dublin High School alumnus, Lessack grew up in Dresher, attending Temple Sinai. He grew up in a musical home, as his mother performed with what became Opera Philadelphia, and his grandmother was a concert singer.
He caught the “theater bug” as a kid.
“I was kind of surrounded by it,” he said. “When I was little — maybe 5 or 6 years old — she would, if the opera needed kids as extras, she would bring my sister and I along for the ride.”
He was in a production of The King and I and played one of the young sons of the king. Soon after, he was cast in a three-month long production of the musical with a dinner theater in Downingtown. There, he shared the stage with the Philadelphian actress Andrea McArdle, who was cast in the original production of Annie during this time.
This love for singing and performing has clearly stuck with him, although Simon and Garfunkel are definitely a departure from Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The show came about after Johnny Rodgers, the Simon to Lessack’s Garfunkel, suggested performing together.
Lessack first met Rodgers when the latter was performing at a Chicago jazz club. From there, Rodgers joined Lessack for an album of duets Lessack was releasing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his record label, LML Music.
For the album, In Good Company, Lessack recorded 17 duets with artists and singers who were famous in the theater community. He was looking for people who were more well known than him to give the album some star power, he said.
He recorded duets with Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Godspell and Wicked), Maureen McGovern, Susan Egan, Ann Hampton Callaway and more — all of whom surprised Lessack by agreeing to be on the album.
“So after I had eight or 10 people that certainly would elevate the name value of the recording, I then went to another seven people that I felt had the voices of angels,” Lessack said.
Enter Johnny Rodgers.
Rodgers has performed on Broadway and done several vocal recordings. He’s worked with Billy Joel, Liza Minnelli and Judy Collins and done his own award-winning songwriting.
“It was sort of a full-circle project, and Johnny Rodgers had a band and they had this great easy sound,” Lessack said. “I thought that would a be a unifying accompaniment since I’m recording with 17 different voices. So we worked together on that project, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Rodgers called Lessack a few years ago and suggested doing a show together.
“He said, ‘What do you think about a Simon and Garfunkel tribute?’” Lessack recalled. Lessack has done similar tribute concerts to artists such as Barbra Streisand, Andrea Bocelli and Frank Sinatra. “I said, ‘I like it, but I need something with more of a hook than that.’ And I thought, ‘Well, what if we were able to recreate the actual setlist from Central Park?’”
That concert was a noteworthy one to emulate because of its significance with Simon and Garfunkel’s history. A free benefit concert, the performance was broadcast on TV — it still sometimes plays today on PBS stations — and brought together people who had grown up with their music.
Lessack and Rodgers’ rendition won’t involve them dressing up as Simon and Garfunkel or acting as them — just singing.
“We’re not trying to impersonate them,” Lessack emphasized. “We’re just recreating that moment in time, and it’s so much fun.”
The music is something different for Lessack, who remembered that this concert happened the year he was graduating high school and that it was his parents’ music.
Accustomed to performing the Great American Songbook and theater pieces, Lessack has enjoyed expanding his range.
Rodgers and Lessack recorded the tracks last October, but this is their first time touring with the performance.
“I listen to them a lot more now,” Lessack said. “Their harmonies are really incredible. That’s really fun to perform.”
Though, of course, as many of the audiences who have come to see the shows so far are already familiar with the music, Lessack is focused on making sure he gets all the words right, he laughed.
Getting to know the music has helped Lessack see why Simon and Garfunkel’s music remains timeless.
“It’s so lyrically driven,” he said. “The way they wrote, and the stories and the imagery that they’ve created. There’s so many colors to it, so it’s fun. It’s a ride from beginning to end.”
His favorite track is “The Sounds of Silence.”
“It’s our finale, and literally the band starts playing the intro and the audience screams,” he said. “It evokes such a moment for people. It’s a very different energy than anything I’ve done before.”
Lessack is excited for the Philadelphia performance because it will be his first in his hometown — he has performed in New Hope and other places around the area, but hasn’t returned to the city.
One of the biggest differences Lessack has noticed in this performance is that with past tributes such as ones he’s done for Johnny Mercer, he researched stories and facts about the artist to share with the audience. He and Rodgers haven’t done that for Simon and Garfunkel, mostly because, as Lessack learned, they didn’t need to do so.
“I realized that the star of this concert is the setlist — it’s the music,” he said. “My job is to get out of the way and just let that flow through.”
Tickets are $37 in advance and $42 on day of show.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740