I wish I were prescient enough that I could claim to have spotted and admired Liz Callaway in the chorus of Merrily We Roll Along. However, I became a fan two years later in the fall of 1983 when the A Stephen Sondheim Evening recording came out and I played that album over and over. That was followed by her fabulous cameo moment in the Follies in Concert video. And of course there were the great performances in Miss Saigon, Baby, not to mention the hundreds of Grizabellas that she sang.
In the cabaret world, there has been the incredible collaboration with her sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, not only producing the monumental Sibling Revelry recording, but also the amazing holiday song “God Bless My Family.”
I was fortunate to get an interview with Liz Callaway while she was here for the Sondheim at 80 concert with the National Symphony Orchestra:
1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.
There’s probably many I could choose that are pretty special. One that comes to mind … it was at Avery Fisher Hall, a big benefit. A “who’s-who” of Broadway people, it was a number of years ago and I sang “The Story Goes On.” There was a huge orchestra and a huge choir and it started with, I think, David Shire at the piano, and this gorgeous hundred-person chorus of Broadway singers started singing “Starting here, starting now…” and it wend into “da Da DA DA” and I came out and sang “The Story Goes On” and it was just one of those… it was like one of those magical moments. The orchestra was incredible. It was an orchestration that David Shire did for the event, and I re-recorded “The Story Goes On” for my own album, I used this orchestration. And it was something about David being there and the chorus and the audience reaction, it was just one of those… That was like a perfect moment !
2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Well, I’m learning a song to sing on Monday ! I’m learning so much music now. And I’m doing Broadway By the Year on Monday, and I’m singing ”If He Walked Into My Life Again” from Mame which I’ve never sung before. And I came home on Monday night from San Francisco, and Tuesday I went by the rehearsal studio and we figured out what I was gonna do and what key and I got a piano track for it and I had to leave and come to DC. I’ve listened to it and that’s something I’m working on today. And I don’t know quite what I’m doing with that, not to mention the lyrics, but I’m doing it in three days. That is something very new that… I’ll take a stab at it ! It’s a great song. It’s a really fabulous song, I love the song but that would definitely be one that I haven’t mastered yet. I don’t expect that I will “master” it by Monday, but I hope I will do a good version of it. Frequently you learn a song to do once, then maybe later on, maybe a year from now or five years from now I’ll go back and sing it and work on it more, but this will be an initial stab at it….
I’m always afraid to listen to live recordings that I’ve done because there’s nothing I can do to change it, and I don’t want to be disappointed in how I’ve done something so I won’t listen. I did a recording a few years back – Bill Finn did an album (Infitinite Joy); we did a live concert at Joe’s Pub and I did a couple of songs for him on this CD. And I remember talking to him and he was, “So what did you think?” “Bill, actually I haven’t listened to it yet?” “Well, why not” “Bill, actually I listened to most of it, but not to my own stuff because I’m afraid !” And he was like, “What ! You have to go listen to it!” So eventually I did listen to it and it was, you know, very nice. But live recordings are scary!
3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?
Calling it a “marriage” is very, very true ! Well, you have to listen to each other and you have to trust each other and you have to be open to each other’s suggestions. A lot of it is just having respect for each other.
Alex (Rybeck) and I have worked together a very long time and he’s a genius as far as I’m concerned. And I love to help with arrangements and do arrangements. I play very little piano, but I hear things in my head. And he somehow is able, when I try to describe something…, he can somehow understand what I’m getting at. And because we’ve worked together for so long, we have a shorthand. I trust him and he has such great instincts and it’s such a pleasure… And we don’t always agree on everything but we certainly respect each other.
In terms of working with a surrogate. You know, there’s a lot of wonderful pianists out there and I’ll show someone the music; I’ll give them the recording. I’ve worked with some people who are very good, but the thing with Alex is I never have to think about it. I never have to think about what someone is playing. We just have this telepathic connection while we’re performing together. You can’t have that with another pianist ! Some pianists are extremely sensitive and you feel you’re on the same page and that’s lovely, but it’s never like being with Alex. And I’m going to be performing in Australia in June and unfortunately I can’t bring Alex with me. But I understand that the trio I’m supposed to be working with is fantastic, but I do wish he could be there !
4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
I don’t know if I could answer that because I don’t know if I have “triggers” of things, and probably, if I did, I would want to keep it a secret. I like to be a little more organic, in the moment. I don’t usually think in those terms.
5. How do you deal with being a brand?
A brand? I’ve never thought of myself as a brand !
I can honestly say that I’ve never thought of myself as that – that I’ve never though of myself in terms of that ! I don’t know if I completely understand that, or if I necessarily agree with it.
It’s interesting. I’ve always thought of myself as extrememly original and unlike anyone else, for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s a good thing. (It’s not always a good thing.) But that’s sort of who I am. And actually I think in many ways, not so much in a show like what I did last night, but let’s say you’re coming to see just me, there is a great deal of myself in how I perform. And it’s not necessarily all that different from who I am. I don’t really do the “And NOW, I’m the DIVA! And this is my dah, dah, dah, dah, dah…” If anything, I strive to, when I have a performance, to give as much of myself as possible, because I think it’s a little scary and rather exhausting ! Do you know what I mean ? To have it be, in addition to hearing songs, hopefully sung well, and a good performance. But that it’s also you’re spending an evening with me as if we were having dinner or going out for coffee. That it would be just the same. So I actually don’t necessarily think in terms of a persona, as a brand. And I don’t think of it as technical like that.
I certainly realize that this is a business. And if I think of it as a business it’s more tastefiul for me because I really dislike self-promotion, which is a necessary evil. But I don’t love pushing myself out there. I’m a more modest person than that. I don’t love that. And I don’t require that to make me a happy person. But I know the business of music and that you have to sell yourself. It definitely is a business and if I think of myself as a business it’s not so distasteful to me. But, I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question. But that’s not how I think of myself….
I have discovered that the easiest part of this business is the actual doing of the show. It’s all the preparation leading up to it. It’s the travel. I always say, “I do the show for free, they pay me to travel.” I play a lot of tennis (it’s a big passion of mine)… I was playing one afternoon and I was talking to this guy, he knows what I do, and I was saying that I was so stressed, I left the house after sending a million e-mails and getting things set up for all these gigs and I told him I was kind of stressed because I had so much to do. And he said, “You mean, you don’t just show up and sing?” … I thought this was hilarious. He was not in the business, but anyone who reads your blog is going to know that there’s so much that goes into this kind of work.
+1 You are the current great epitome of that clarion Broadway belt. How do you manage to push through your range so seamlessly and how do you decide in terms of mixing versus flipping?
You know, it’s funny you should ask this ! Last night, I finally got up the courage to watch Seth Rudetsky’s deconstruction from the original cast album of Baby and “The Story Goes On” and when I would mix … and it was absolutely hilarious ! So much of it for me, I don’t think about it, it just comes naturally for me. Occasionally I might go, “Do I want to belt this or do I need to mix this?”
I actually don’t belt as high as a lot of singers do. I’m also very protective of my voice. I probably could belt higher than I do, but I just don’t want to strain my voice. It’s not worth it to me. And sometimes I think when you sing in a mix, to my ear there’s something more emotional about it than a belt. I don’t know, it’s just a feeling that I get when I’m singing. And there’s something more … there’s more emotion that comes out sometimes. But I don’t sit there and go, “All right, coming up here is this passage …” I just kind of sing it and it just ends up where it comes out in my voice.
But I don’t love vocal showing off. And sometimes I feel like it can be people are applauding… like if you watch American Idol (which I rarely do, that’s not my idea of a fun hour’s television)… but if you watch that, sometimes the audience is applauding the technical aspect. It’s like the equivalent of the audience applauding the set when they go to a Broadway show or a special effect. And I like the story. That to me is what’s important. So if a singer moves you, and they’re singing a lyric, and it’s touching and moving, that’s what I love. I don’t love, “Oh, wow ! Listen to what they can do !” That to me is not what singing is about. I can go “Wow, is that impressive” but it doesn’t move me. So a lot of my singing is just how I sing naturally. So I’m not great at explaining how I mix, the technical aspect of it, because it’s just how I do it.