Jeff Samaha looks back at 50 years of making music

BAY RIDGE — Jeff Samaha has been making beautiful music for 50 years. And he is getting set for a gala concert to celebrate that milestone.

Samaha, the founder of Jeff Samaha Theater Productions, will celebrate his Bay Ridge-based company’s 50th anniversary with two special concerts featuring 100 singers and 20 musicians performing songs from all of the Broadway shows the company has put on over the years, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Les Miserables,” “Hairspray,” “Miss Saigon,” “Ragtime” and “Annie,” as well as pop tunes by Billy Joel, Barry Manilow and ABBA.

Prior to performing Broadway-caliber shows, Samaha’s group was a musical ensemble that performed concerts and sang at street fairs like the Third Avenue Festival.

Tickets are going fast for the two anniversary concerts taking place on Saturday, Oct. 26 and Sunday, Oct. 27, at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, 5800 20th Ave. The Saturday concert is 8 p.m. The curtain goes up on Sunday’s show at 3 p.m.

“It’s going to have an Academy Awards feel to it,” Samaha told the Home Reporter.

Members of Ridge Chorale, a singing troupe Samaha founded five decades ago, will be among the performers and Samaha said he’s looking forward to a musical reunion.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Samaha Theater Productions
Jeff Samaha is excited about his anniversary concerts.

Samaha’s career as an impresario got its start in 1968. “I was the choir director at St. Nicholas Cathedral and I said to myself, ‘I really want to do more popular music,’” he recalled.

He decided to form a musical group, called it Ridge Chorale, and reached out to leaders of the Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church, who agreed to give him rehearsal space. “I told them, ‘If you give me space, I’ll do a concert for you,’” he said.

The first concert took place in February of 1969. The songs included “Love is Blue.”

“I have to find the program from that concert. I know I have it somewhere,” Samaha said. He holds onto concert programs, song sheets, manuscripts and tapes. “I have 300 songs in four bins,” he said.

His group has changed names over the years. It started off as the Ridge Chorale, then became the Jeff Samaha Singers before morphing into the Samaha Vocal Ensemble. The current name is Jeff Samaha Theater Productions.

While the name has changed, Samaha’s commitment to excellence is the same.

“In 2001, we went from doing concerts to becoming a theater company. We did a show called ‘Children of Eden.’ It was right after 9/11 and we wanted to bring a sense of spirituality and togetherness,” Samaha said.

Looking back over the years, Samaha said one of his proudest moments took place in 1978, when the Jeff Samaha Singers performed at a holiday concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. It was part of the Brooklyn Arts Council’s Community Holiday Festival. The concert was televised on NBC.

Photo by Kathy Valentine
Jeff Samaha pointed to the 2013 production of “Les Miserables” as one of the company’s greatest achievements.

“I walked out onstage while the theater was empty and just stood there in awe,” Samaha recalled. At the time, Samaha thought the Lincoln Center concert was the pinnacle of his career. But he had a lot more to give. “We went on for another 40 years,” he said.

Another proud moment came in 2013, when Jeff Samaha Theater Productions performed the full Broadway version of “Les Miserables.”

Samaha had been trying to secure the rights to perform the landmark musical since 1986 to no avail. But in 2013, a year after the film version was released, the producers decided to open up a one-year window to make the rights available to theater companies. “A bunch of us grabbed the rights,” Samaha said.

Bay Ridge theater buffs still talk about the magnificent production. Samaha has fond memories of it, too. “It was the highlight of my career in music,” he said.

Samaha also has a busy career in television news. He is the stage manager of NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and has directed “Dateline.”

Part of his goal as a theater producer is to bring the performing arts to people who might not get the chance to see a Broadway show.

He also likes to encourage local talent. There are performers who have come to audition for a spot in the chorus and have been shocked when Samaha has told them he was casting them in a part. “There are a lot of talented people out there. We help build their self-esteem and confidence,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Samaha Theater Productions
A walk down memory lane. The poster advertises a 1978 concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

The same is true of children. The company has a youth program.

“We did ‘Annie’ last year. We started Summer Stage, a four-week program at Bay Ridge Prep for kids between the ages of seven and 17. We’ve done ‘Fame’ and ‘Into the Woods.’ The teens learn how to perform onstage and how to present themselves,” Samaha said.

Samaha was quick to credit Karen Tadross, his executive producer. “She puts it all together,” he said.

He also praised Kathy Valentine, who was one of his star performers and now directs many of his shows.

Accompanist Ann Rebold has his admiration. “Her dedication to the company is beyond reproach. I always say that I could never do these shows alone. I just surround myself with the best people,” Samaha said.

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