As the 20th anniversary of the touring1940s musical revue called In the Mood approaches, a certain irony surfaces that is not at all lost on Bud Forrest.
"I always tell people we've lasted longer than the original big band era did," said the revue's pianist, conductor, producer and music director.
What In the Mood has not outlasted, however, is the appeal of that music. The production uses the 13-member String of Pearls Big Band Orchestra. Its duty is to perform fresh arrangements of swing-era favorites by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, the Andrew Sisters and other greats of the period. To that, the revue adds a team of dancers who recreate the waltzes, foxtrots and jitterbugs that represent what audiences added to the music in its heyday.
"The long and short of it is, at the end of the day, we all on the stage look out on the audience and we see the impact this music is still having on people. The sounds and rhythms of the big band with the singers and the dancers trigger, for those that are still around from the period, all these memories because they saw the original bands.
"But then there are the baby boomers that grew up with what their parents were listening to, the big band music. They recall a lot of their own memories. And there are those that have never heard the big bands before, so this is opening their eyes and ears big time."
Nostalgia plays a considerable, and obvious, role in the appeal of a production like In the Mood. But given that it has been touring for just shy of two decades, a question surfaces. How can a production dealing with a historic repertoire sustain its popularity for so long?
The answer is that Forrest continually changes the set list in the production. The most popular of the swing era tunes — the "big hits," so to speak — remain constant. From there, Forrest chooses tunes and arrangements based upon the equally changing lineup of the musicians in the String of Pearls band.
"Every year, we have different musicians and singers, so I try to cater to the talents of those that I hire," Forrest said. "If I have a top-notch lead trumpet player, I may pull out some Harry James music, or some Benny Goodman tunes for a clarinetist. Same with the singers. If they can handle the more demanding sounds of the big band era, we find the right songs for them.
"We always, of course, stay with the iconic numbers — Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Tuxedo Junction and so forth. It's just a matter of me deciding which songs to leave out, really. There is so much material to choose from to fashion into a show because my goal with In the Mood has always been to tell a story without telling a story. The music is the story."
A graduate of the Julliard School of Music, Forrest never envisioned leading a swing-era revue. In essence, though, the music came to him. Following graduation, he became pianist for the Singing Sergeants, the official chorus ensemble of the Air Force. Stints with various bands followed that honed Forrest's skills as a conductor and pianist. By 1988, he organized a tribute show dedicated to the music of the Andrews Sisters. The earliest versions of In the Mood were solidified in 1994 and 1995 as touring USO commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the World War II.
But it was in his earliest schooling that Forrest discovered his love for some of the earliest forms of popular music.
"I'm a classical pianist," he said. "But I had the good fortune before I actually went into the repertory division at Julliard of having a piano teacher with the wherewithal to devote the last 15 minutes of my hour-and-a-lessons to popular music. So I went through the American songbook and he helped me with the chord progressions and all that. The Chopin, the Beethoven and the Bach were on my radar scope as well, but I just gravitated toward musical theater.
"It's hard to project one's future as a teenager, but early on, I made my living doing both classical and popular music. Today, when I get up in the morning, I think to myself how fortunate we are to be doing this. But I also realized I never intended for it to last this long. But now that it has, there is no reason to stop it. This music just rolls on."
IF YOU GO
'In the Mood'
When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 16
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $24.50-$49.50. Available at (859) 233-3535 or through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.