Kind words from a producer…

January 30, 2009

When the Wind Blows South

Dear Michael,

I meant to write you a few weeks ago.  I was doing a “google” search of Philip’s new CD, WHEN THE WIND BLOWS SOUTH, and came upon your Cabaret Update post.  I just wanted to tell you how much I loved what you wrote.  Every time Philip and I start a new album, we always have an image or a metaphor that guides us.  In this case, it was the notion of distances — between places and between hearts: exactly as you surmised.  I just wanted to say how pleased I was that our underlying “theme” came through!

Best,

Tommy

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Two Great Shows Tomorrow

January 30, 2009

Just a reminder that there are two terrific things to see in town tomorrow afternoon:

Andrea Marcovicci in Reston

Marcovicci brings her Fred Astaire tribute to the Reston Community Center.  3:00pm.

Kennedy Center Millenium Stage Anniversary Celebration

A star-studded concert featuring the work of current theater writers.  Tickets are free but the process is involved.


Road Report: The Sound of Music in Toronto

January 30, 2009

sound-of-music-2

Canada had their own version of the UK reality show that cast the Maria for a revival of the Sound of Music.  I saw the British version of the show a couple of years ago, and got to see the Canadian version here in Toronto.

What I found the most interesting is that the audience in the theater didn’t seem to have the direct relationship with Elicia MacKenzie that the British audience had with their reality show winner / Maria.  Similarly, the audience really didn’t feel on board with the whole show until Do Re Mi in the middle of the first act. 

I was surprised that the veteran actresses playing the nuns were horribly guilty of what Lina Koutrakos would call schmackting.  In the context, it was more surprising that the children were giving genuinely lovely, fresh and organic performances with Megan Nuttal playing Liesl being surprisingly nuanced.

It was also fascinating as I sat there to notice how well constructed the play was.  Similarly, watching the play makes one appreciate how cannily the film team adapted it, so that it became a real movie.  Especially in terms of reassigning several of the songs and adding that somewhat interminable dinner scene.

Of course my favorite songs of the play were cut for the movie, and How Can Love Survive is probably my all-time favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song.  And sitting through this production confirmed  that currently, the role I want to play most of all is Max.  (Thankfully I’m both age-appropriate and still have a couple decades left.)

sound-of-music-1


Fly Me to… Iowa?

January 28, 2009

For those Bart Howard fans and those Iowans (and especially those Iowans who are Bart Howard fans), I received this interesting bit of news:

Hi,

I realize that you live a long way from eastern Iowa, where I’m doing publicity for a cabaret concert, but I thought you might be interested in what’s going on here. I suspect that your site gets visitors from all around the country, and maybe some of them would like to know about how the hometown for composer Bart Howard is working to preserve his legacy.

I have included a blurb at the end of this email. Thanks.
Ron Givens

On the evening of March 7, 2009, an all-star cabaret concert will honor composer Bart (“Fly Me to the Moon”) Howard in his hometown of Burlington, Iowa — a town of 25,000 along the Mississippi River. KT Sullivan, Steve Ross, Allan Harris, and Joyce Breach will be the singers in a benefit gala to raise money for a new archive in Burlington devoted to Howard, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame who wrote more than 300 songs. Rex Reed will be the master of ceremonies. Historian and author James Gavin will give a lecture on Howard and cabaret music. Tickets to the event are $50, and can be purchased by sending a check to Bart Howard Gala Tickets, P.O. Box 583, Burlington, IA 5260l. For more information, call 319-572-6637.


DC Cabaret Intensive Workshop Notes

January 28, 2009

Rick Jensen at the piano works with Lonny Smith -- Photo courtesy of Matt Howe

Rick Jensen at the piano works with Lonny Smith -- Photo courtesy of Matt Howe

Several participants in last weekend’s Cabaret Intensive Workshop taught by Lina Koutrakos and Rick Jensen very generously shared their impressions of their experience.  (And if anyone has anything to add, please freely comment or e-mail me to post a separate blog entry.)

 

Matt Howe

Authenticity.

For me, that was the key to the Cabaret Performance Intensive Workshop I attended January 23, 24, and 25.

Our class was comprised of ten students: Debbie Barber-Eaton, Marilyn Bennett, Christy Frye, Emily Gleichenhaus Everson, Char James-Duguid, Justin Ritchie, Lonny Smith, Christy Trapp, Steve Spar, and myself. Each of us brought our own unique selves to the workshop. Some of us had no singing experience; some of us had gifted singing voices; and some of us needed to “do less”. With Lina Koutrakos teaching us and Rick Jensen at the piano adding his musical two cents (sometimes five cents!), we were all in good and capable hands.

I have taken many theater classes over the years. It’s been my experience that there are usually one or two students whose “baggage” can divert the class and whose resistance to the process thoroughly derails the work being done. Perhaps it was serendipity, but all of the workshop participants dropped the baggage at the door, opened up, and did not fight Lina and Rick. In return, Lina and Rick responded in kind and give us their all. I felt like some true breakthroughs were achieved in the workshop because of the fertile and *safe* atmosphere that was allowed to flourish.

On Friday we jumped right in and everyone sang a song. Lina, responding to whatever level the singer was at, worked on the song. She reminded us that a cabaret performer uses her brains, chops, and heart all at once – you’ve got to make educated decisions about what you’re singing; then your vocal chords have to cooperate; and you must bring the dimension of your heart to a song – otherwise it’s not authentic (there’s that theme again!).

Many of us pleaded guilty to schmacting. That’s Lina’s word for indicating emotions instead of actually expressing them. Schmacting is false “acting”. We raised our eyebrows and squinted our eyes and looked at imaginary trees in an attempt to prove that we were really feeling something deep!

Lina stopped that nonsense whenever she caught one of us “cheating” or using tricks. A great visual metaphor she used was to take the fishing hook and dig down deep … then lower it even deeper. We also talked about walking to the edge of truth and emotion, but not going over the edge.

Tears were shed on Friday. It was very emotional … in a good way. I can’t tell you how moving Christy Frye’s “Better Days” was. Lina suggested Christy sing the song’s verses to specific people from her life – the first verse to a young person, the second verse to an elderly person, and the third verse to herself as a prayer. Christy knocked it out of the ballpark. The lesson was that a “general” point of view does not work as well as breaking the song down into specifics.

And Emily Everson’s comedic song, “Elves”, illustrated that sometimes it is necessary to be specific with a song line-by-line. The comedy of that song worked so much better when Emily sang is “seriously” and specifically.

Another theme raised on the first day was Beginning, Middle, and End. We learned that sometimes, at the beginning of a song, it’s simplest to tell “Just the Facts”.

I got nailed for schmacting when I sang “Isn’t This Better”. The first lines of the song are: “I loved a man. Truly I did. When he would touch me I’d act like a love-hungry kid.” I kept singing “truly” and “love-hungry” very earnestly so that I made sure the audience understood what those words meant to me!! However, the audience knows what “truly” and “love-hungry” means. The first lines are only a set-up to get to the more important part of the song: “Isn’t this better?” And the earnestness and feeling should be saved for the end of the song. Also, since my song had the word “better” repeated thirteen times, Lina challenged me to specifically define “better”. And I found that I actually sang the word differently when I was that specific.

On Saturday we wrote patter – the prepared speech that introduces a song. We performed it for the class and Lina edited it and suggested new lines or ideas. The main thing I learned about this exercise is that you really have to wear two hats when writing patter. The first hat is “creative” – write down everything and don’t second-guess yourself. The second hat is “editorial” – you must distill the patter to its essence and make it specific to your song. Comedy works in threes. And sometimes it helps to run the patter by someone else – but out loud! They need to hear you say it, not read it on a piece of paper.

The Cabaret Intensive Workshop took place in the Indigo Room at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. During the day, we sat around tables and sang with Rick Jensen at the piano. On Saturday night, after a break, the room was transformed into a cabaret space and our instructors took off their “teacher” hats and put on their “performer” hats. Tim Schall, who produced the workshop, sang first. In great voice, Tim – with smart Jensen re-arrangements – showed us how to tackle Cole Porter songs and how to take a pop song like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and make it sound cabaret-fresh and very personal. Lina Koutrakos sang with the same authenticity, command, and honesty that she brought to our workshop sessions. She proved that those who can … teach. It was truly wonderful to experience Lina live and I can’t say enough about “The Heart of the Matter”, her closing song, and the depth she brought to it.

The next morning we deconstructed the show that Lina, Rick, and Tim performed. They were very open to discussing the dynamics that happened on the stage the night before. The wisdom I took away from the dialogue we had with them is that a cabaret show is very much analogous to giving the audience a really well-made scarf that you knitted yourself. The audience maybe even got to sit there and watch you knit! And any flaws in the scarf – if you want to call them flaws – are intrinsically beautiful because you can’t buy a scarf like that at Target, knitted by a machine.

Lina and Rick and Tim hand-crafted a cabaret show for us on the spot (or at least it felt like that.)

The rest of Sunday was spent putting together our own cabaret show, which we were to present to an audience of friends and family that evening. Lina and Rick demonstrated out loud their process of picking an order for the songs. Again, serendipity struck and presented us with an even balance of ballads, up-tempo and comedic songs. (They explained that sometimes this process can be difficult because a show is ballad-heavy.)

Lina went into “drill sergeant” mode as director of our show. After deciding an order, we ran the show with Lina jumping in and directing the songs as well as staging practical things like adjusting the microphone and moving a stool. I must say that I learned much from watching this process. I was able to watch Lina work with eight other students and picked up great tips about staging a cabaret show.

I learned that a seasoned cabaret performer never “takes his hands off” the audience. For example, even when you are lowering a mic stand or taking a sip of water, you must always engage with the audience and not leave them alone.

I learned that a song starts when the pianist’s hands hit the piano! I may not be singing, but I must be engaged. I can use the piano intro as a sense of purpose to sing the song as I walk up to the microphone.

I learned that Pop music (i.e. as opposed to Standards or Broadway tunes) are usually confessional songs, and sometimes stream-of-consciousness or poetic. In a Pop song, a lyric like “someone left the cake out in the rain” can really mean 1,000 different things.

And I learned to let the theme of the cabaret show present itself instead of forcing a theme onto a selection of songs. Sometimes, if you get out of the way and let the lyrics of each song speak to you, a theme will serendipitously present itself.

It was satisfying to see my fellow classmates perform on Sunday night. Everyone did their best work, given their specific level and whatever elements they were concentrating on overcoming or adding to their performance. I felt like growth was made and confidence was gained by everyone.

Mostly, I found myself very moved by the humanness of the whole weekend. Lina told us that there should be no difference between the person who is backstage and the performer who is standing at the microphone. When you walk into the theatrical lighting, you are still yourself, not some über-cabaret singer. Over lunch and dinner breaks I got to know the other participants better. Back in the workshop, I started to see the armor and tricks we used to protect ourselves onstage fall away. And soon, the performer was the person and the person was the performer. And that, to me, was much more interesting – and authentic – to watch. And I am grateful I was able to participate and learn with such an amazing group of people.

Lonny Smith

The workshop proved to me that amazing growth will happen when you humbly, honestly, and realistically take stock of where you are and work from there. No one resisted the process with ego or attitude. And so – in fits, jerks, and leaps – everyone blossomed. Over the weekend, I watched people who did not believe they can sing give deeply felt, truthful, and unspeakably musical performances when they focused on what really mattered. I experienced the difference between tones that were conceived to sound good and the sound that is the only way to express a particular feeling or thought. You can physically feel the difference, and you can observe it in others. Lina and Rick put aside their own values and tastes to give the performer exactly what was needed – comedic punctuation, vocal tips, analysis of the text, or a reminder to just tell the truth. But words can’t really convey what it was like: “journey” and “truth” and “amazing” are simply cliches and shorthand for three days that had to be experienced, not described.

Emily Everson

We talk about the wonderful transformative effect of Lina and Rick on their students…but, in the 5.5 years since I was at Yale, Lina and Rick have become better teachers. They were both, of course, terrific at Yale, but in helping singers up their game in the cabaret intensive workshops, Lina and Rick also upped their game as educators. It was fun to experience a change in myself, watch changes in my fellow students, but also admire the growth that has taken place in Lina and Rick.

Also, it’s worth noting how HARD they WORK! They are ON…giving a thousand percent to everybody, to the process, to the craft…

and, lina did the whole weekend with a roiling infection in one of her teeth…in pain and on muscle relaxers.


Andrea Marcovicci in Reston this Saturday

January 27, 2009

Andrea Sings AstaireThe one, the only, the amazing, the superb Andrea Marcovicci brings her Fred Astaire show to the Reston Community Center this Saturday.  It’s an amazing opportunity to see her without the 3-figure charge of the Algonquin in New York.

Friend-of-this-blog Shelly Markham music directs and Jared Egan (who recently played the Liz Callaway concert at the Kennedy Center) is on bass.


Road Report: Satisfying and Delicious

January 26, 2009

I got to visit the Hammonds Candies factory and shop on this trip, something I’ve never had the time to do before in Denver.

Hammonds Candies is notable for manufacturing pulled sugar candies such as candy canes, lollipops, straws, pillows, etc.

The tour lets people watch as the candy makers boil sugar, pour it onto a cooling table, color and work with it.  I even saw people twisting lollipops.

I always admire people who work in factories and other areas that allow tours.  I would hardly want people witnessing my day at work.  But I think it says a lot about how proud the Hammonds people are about their manufacturing process that the factory is pristine and open for public inspection.

The shop is also an amazing assortment of every sort of sweet, just the thing of childhood wishes (although I didn’t see any edible dishes).