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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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(Bryce Richter / UW Madison)

Like he never left: Mike Leckrone returns to showbiz with ‘Moments of Happiness’

Legendary showman takes center stage in new Overture production

A moonlit backdrop hung over the stage as guests took their seats to the sounds of gentile jazz through the speakers at the Overture Center. Before them stood a single chair and a microphone accompanied by a simple array of instruments: a piano, a drum set and a cello.

Could this be the setup for a concert? A comedy show? A speech? 

The audience got their answer when the former director of the University of Wisconsin Marching Band Michael Leckrone took the stage in one of his signature sequin outfits to perform “Moments of Happiness,” a show as unique and multi-faceted as the man behind it.

Part standup comedy routine, part jazz cabaret, and part storytelling session, “Moments of Happiness” personifies Leckrone, mixing musical elements like jazz and music theory with flashy showmanship and witty humor as he tells stories of his personal history from childhood to the present. 

“The whole idea was to temper [‘Moments of Happiness’] so that everybody could get something out of the show,” Leckrone told the Daily Cardinal when asked how he would characterize his performance. “A variety show might be the best way to put it.”

Leckrone, 86, hadn’t taken the stage since 2019 when he performed his final Varsity Band Concert with the UW Marching Band, of which he served as director for 50 years prior. Under his leadership, Leckrone brought the band to new heights, developing the organization from near anonymity into one of the premiere marching programs in the country.

It was this life-long devotion to the performing arts and the members of the UW band, Leckrone said, that drew him back to the stage after his time away.

“I miss performing. That’s the quick, short answer. I really missed the interactions with the students,” he said. “That’s one of the things I really like about students; they’re always very lively, and you never know what you’re going to get. That was the fun of what I did for all those years.”

Much of the audience had some prior experience with Leckrone as students, colleagues or fans of the band dating all the way back to his early days at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. He made sure to call out to them during the show, asking for a show of hands from any former band members.

In his performance, Leckrone showcased the many talents that led to his legendary reputation as a showman, cracking frequent jokes with the audience and even taking lead vocals for each selection of jazz and ragtime tunes. Accompanying him was a well-rehearsed trio of jazz players who each had a moment to shine during short solo sections scattered throughout the performance.

Between each selection, Leckrone would share personal anecdotes. He began with stories from his childhood growing up as a musician and talked the audience all the way through his legendary career with the UW Band. While with the Band, Leckrone witnessed the rise of Wisconsin athletics to the national powerhouse it is today.

Of all the Final Four appearances and National Championships he witnessed in his time at UW, one event stands out in his mind above the others.

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“The big moment for me was that first Rose Bowl,” Leckrone said. “That was an event in my mind that’s never really been topped.”

Though he did touch on that 1994 Rose Bowl, Leckrone shared other lesser-known moments from his time with the band like bringing a live elephant named Molly into Camp Randall Stadium on a game day for a circus-themed halftime performance. As Leckrone recalled, the crowd in Camp Randall went wild as the animal approached midfield, only to find that Molly had done “what nervous animals tend to do,” right on the 50 yardline.

Touching on another memory, Leckrone described a prank by the tuba section during the band’s first trip to Lambeau Field in the 1980s. As the section processed around the field for their “tuba tunes” routine, Leckrone found out all too late they had adorned their bells with cardboard letters spelling out “the Bears still suck.” 

Following intermission, Leckrone turned his attention to the crowd, calling for participation as he composed a jazz arrangement on the fly, complete with an improvised solo from a member of the audience.

To close out the show, Leckrone took a moment to acknowledge his late wife Phyllis in a tear-jerking tribute to their 62-year marriage before closing with a chorus of On, Wisconsin! which had the crowd on their feet clapping along.

The effect is a production nothing less than enthralling. It is clear Leckrone has not lost his touch, and it is easy to become transfixed with his intriguing grandfatherly storytelling style. This, combined with his intricate knowledge of music accompanied by the sounds of the jazz trio makes for a delightful evening for all audiences.

And while he has yet to solidify concrete plans, Leckrone admitted he is far from through with performing as more projects are already in the works for future shows.

“[Performing is] exciting, and it’s fun to get all revved up again on my part,” he told the Cardinal. “The one thing I haven’t been is bored.”

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