‘Natural’ entertainer: Randy Newman brings showmanship, songbook to Heinz Hall

‘Natural’ entertainer: Randy Newman brings showmanship, songbook to Heinz Hall

Randy Newman (Photo by Pamela Springsteen)
Randy Newman (Photo by Pamela Springsteen)

Bows were lifted to strings with the orchestra and audience members waiting and shifting in their seats. A single moment of anticipation hung, suspended in midair, and then a door to one side of the Heinz Hall stage opened and out strode Randy Newman.

Such is his popularity that more than a few members of the audience leapt to their feet and applauded — a standing ovation before even one note had been sung. During the next two hours of last Thursday’s show, Newman, accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Fawzi Haimor, played some of his biggest pop hits, along with a selection from his film scores. The show was bookended with Newman at the piano, singing often unaccompanied, about everything from love and broken hearts to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Newman was born in Los Angeles in 1948 and has been a professional songwriter since the age of 17, although some from the younger generation may know him better as the composer of the music behind all of the “Toy Story” films as well as many other Disney/Pixar favorites such as “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters Inc.”

Listening to him perform, one is struck by the range of Newman’s talents. The middle of the show saw Newman, not at the piano, but on the conductor’s platform, as he led the orchestra through a selection of his film compositions, including pieces from “The Natural” and “Avalon,” both of which feature sweeping, epic and stirring music. That he is also the writer of a satirical song that features the line, “Putin puttin’ his pants on, one leg at a time” is a bit of a mind-bender.

Impressive too is Newman’s showmanship. Despite the fact that he’s been touring for many years, performing the same songs and telling the same anecdotes and jokes hundreds of times, it doesn’t seem like just patter or as if it bores him at all. And he’s not the only performer of his generation still hitting the road and staying relevant in the cultural consciousness.  “There are more people on the road from the ’60s and ’70s than there are from the ’90s.”

Newman made sure to sing crowd favorites, including “The Great Nations of Europe,”  “Love Story,” “Marie” and “I Miss You,” which he told the crowd was “a love song I wrote for my first wife while married to my second.” During “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” the near reverential silence was such that it was easy to hear Newman’s foot tap along in sync on the stage floor.

The fan favorite “Short People” was played sans orchestra, which Newman joked was “through no fault of their own, and I understand it.” The song caused some angst when it first came out, including a memorable push from the Maryland legislature in 1978 to make it illegal to play on the radio, which failed. However, most people enjoy the satirical bent. (I myself have fond associations with the song, having had it sung to me from elementary school clear through to high school graduation by a dear friend who is 6 feet 1 inch to my just barely 5 feet 4 inches.)

Between songs, Newman told the crowd about his tour around the city earlier in the day, describing Pittsburgh as “really kind of great,” adding that “I like it better than almost any city I’ve been in.” During the finale, he called out to the audience, “I’ll come back,” eliciting cheers and whoops.

The performance closed with Newman singing the classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” after which he returned for an encore performance of “Lonely at the Top” and “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today,” Newman’s most covered song.

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.