Sophie Tucker in the New York Times

August 30, 2009

Not only is she the last of the red hot Mommas, she’s endured.  Article about Sophie Tucker re-releases in the NYTimes today. 

To the extent that Tucker is remembered today, it is as that big-hatted, big-bellied oldie but-goody. She maintained a busy career into her late 70s, appearing on radio (and hosting her own broadcast, “Sophie Tucker and Her Show”), acting in movie musicals and continuing to make records well into the rock ’n’ roll era. But “Origins of the Red Hot Mama” takes listeners back to Tucker’s prime, reviving a voice heard by few people in the last eight decades.”

A report from St. Louis

August 29, 2009

I met the lovely Jerome* Elliott when we were both participants at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference in 2007, and last summer Jerome participated in the Cabaret Conference at Yale.  He went back to St. Louis again (24 students, teaching staff of Lina Koutrakos, Rick Jensen, Jason Graae, and Alex Rybeck) and was kind enough to send this report about the experience.

Hi Michael,
I’ve been back from St. Louis for nine days and just now am finding the thoughts about it starting to congeal.
First, it is amazing what Tim has accomplished in four years, or rather I should say in the two years since we did the second workshop.  The Thursday night alumni concert, featuring nine St. Louisans who had done cabaret shows this past season, was packed with well over 100 people.  (All events were at Jazz at the Bistro, a nice step up from the church two years ago.)  I was delighted to see how people had progressed since I left them in 2007.  Anna Blair, Ken Haller, Merry Keller, Bob Becherer, Katie McGrath, and Deborah Sharn, in particular, really commanded the stage, as did Jeff Wright from the 2006 workshop.  Merry has climbed mountains in two years, she has a stunning stage presence.  Katie is just pure humanity up there, you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Tim did an amazing new solo show on Friday night, directed by Lina, featuring music by male composers from the 60s, 70s and 80s.  I would never have thought of Tim singing Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” or Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” but he handled them deftly and Rick provided killer arrangements.  (Rick’s playing was stunning all weekend.)  Tim’s concert was perhaps the most poorly attended, maybe 50 or 60 people.  But everyone was quite enthusiastic about it.
Lina and Jason provided us with a thrilling double header on Saturday night, with a surprisingly low turnout as well.  Lina opened.  She did a mixed bag from her repertoire, including a selection of songs from “Torch” as well as one of her original songs.  My favorite by far was her rendition of “My Favorite Year,” very tender and open.  She surprised me by doing “Heart of the Matter” as her closer.  Not the choice, but the arrangement seemed to be the one Rick set for Helene Rogers Smart in 2007!  I remembered it because it had been one of my treasured highlights from our showcase.  I joked about it with Tim afterwards and he winked at me. [Michael’s note — OK.  My take on this is that Lina and Rick generously gave their long-developed ideas about the song to Helene to do when they were working with her.]
Our Sunday showcase was nothing short of the best time I have ever had on stage.  Period.  First, it was jammed to the rafters, easily over 150 people, with the entire balcony filled.  Every one of the 23 students showed amazing progress over the course of the four days. 
12 of us had done the training before, 11 were new, and naturally it was interesting to watch them go through their process over the four days.  A few were of the “I hide behind my great voice” variety; others were unwilling to delve into emotions; and one was just flat out belligerent for three days until he finally got religion.  He’s a young guy, maybe 30, who is a very talented musical theater actor, so of course all his songs were from shows and they were all very polished, but as characters, not as himself.  He pouted all weekend, wouldn’t socialize with any of us in the club at night, and eventually ended up cornering Lina at lunch and breaking into tears.  He just didn’t know that the workshop was going to be so emotionally demanding.  I’ve had several emails from him since about what a watershed moment the training was for him.
I think that’s the one critique I have of all these workshops.  If you’ve never done one — even at the Yale level there were people who hadn’t — the literature/promo materials do not prepare you for what can seem like really blistering criticism.  For example, one of my Yale classmates had one of her voice students accepted at New Haven this year.  She returned to L.A. two weeks ago in pieces.  Apparently, Tovah ripped into her quite viciously at the very first immersion performance and she just didn’t feel safe the rest of the nine days.  Having had that experience myself (half of the Yale faculty HATED my first song, Bill Finn’s “My Dog’s”), I could sympathize with her.  However, I approached it with the POV “hey, Laurel Masse and Tex Arnold are criticizing me, how cool is that?!!!” and I ended up talking to both of them about it later and getting some insight as to why some people might be sensitive about that song.  (But I still sing it.) 
But I digress.  Lina and Rick both remembered exactly where they had left me two years ago (amazing the details they had), and Alex and Jason knew where I had left off last summer.  So they were very frank with me when they thought I was taking a step back, but also very wonderful in getting me to move three steps forward.  Jason, in particular, helped me hone two comic songs to a fine polish.  One of them, “Stupid Things That I Won’t Do,” was my showcase number, and he helped me to find levels that made it skyrocket.  He also suggested I change one lyric in order to make it funnier in a cabaret setting.  I did so, and then blew the next line.  He said it didn’t matter, because he was happy that I got the laugh there.  (Instead of “the only roles I want are roles where I’m performing live in person” he suggested “the only shows I want are shows where I perform in cabaret”, with a gesture to the room.  The room loved it.)
Alex was his usual self, blunt and to the point.  I appreciate that about him.  At one point he might have thought he was being too hard on me and he said “I’m being this picky because you know what I’m talking about.”  I got it. 
I felt safe taking a lot of risks.  I worked on Brel’s “Jackie” and “Marieke,” Finn’s “Anytime,” “Stupid Things,” and for the patter exercise I did “Marry Me A Little”.  Lina was quick to point out re “Anytime” that “this song is trouble Jerome, it has six endings.”  She, of course, is right.  You have to find a different “there” for each “I am there.”
The Monday following the showcase I did a two-hour private session with Lina and Rick at Katie’s house.  This was the place where I had the real sobbing thing that I have seen others experience in workshop but never quite achieved.  Not that I was aiming for it, it just happened!  The emotion came after they had helped me dig really deep into the song “Where I Want to Be” from “Chess” and Rick came up with a roller coaster of an arrangement.  I then sat down and started crying.  Lina said she thought she knew why, and when I told her she was correct:  I just felt so comfortable standing there, in a room with those two, being totally unselfconcious and working on material.  So for me, that was my real breakthrough, knowing that I have achieved a level of self-confidence I never thought possible.
They also suggested new directions for me, away from show tunes, which I’ve pretty much covered.  Rick pointed out that I need to embrace my masculinity more; not that he thinks I am effeminate.  On the contrary, he thinks I have a very strong masculine presence onstage but I like to choose a lot of songs identified with women.  Over two hours they suggested a lot of new material for me — Harry Chapin (love him!), Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, and more.  I think it will be the impetus for my next show.  Oh, and on the spot Rick began to write a song lyric and a melody about a little boy from Atlantic City (where I grew up), and tonight I’m going to transcribe it, add more thoughts, and then send it to him.  New original song, how cool!
Sorry to have babbled so.  They are such warm, generous people.  I know they are getting paid, but I also know their profit margin is slim and that they teach out of genuine love for the art form.  In many ways, St. Louis was more productive for me than Yale.  There is something to be said for having a somewhat more laid-back pace, time to breathe a little, and of course, the total absence of image consultation!
I think next summer I will take a break from cabaret tourism and go lay on a beach somewhere with a drink that has an umbrella in it.  Now there’s a thought:  cabaret workshop in P-Town!
Jerome Elliott  —

* It says something about how deeply ingrained the Sondheim songbook is in me that even though it’s not his profession, every time I think of him, I mentally go, “That’s the lawyer, Jerome.”

The end of an era

August 27, 2009

Here’s the song that’s been going through my mind today.  Sorry I couldn’t find a better version on YouTube.

Moira Danis salutes Petula Clark

August 26, 2009

moiradanis2Moira Danis’s CD, Beautiful Sounds — The Songs of Petula Clark is a canny tribute to the Downtown gal.

Danis offers a well-balanced selection of songs from all aspects of Clark’s career, from those great Tony Hatch songs of the 60’s to Clark’s ventures into the last gasp of movie musicals and her current stage work.  I think Danis does a good job of balancing a tribute to Clark’s sound on tracks such as I Know a Place and injecting her own personality such as her relaxed take on Downtown.  She also devotes considerable time to lesser-known songs, especially those penned by Clark. 

Here are the tracks:

  • Beautiful Sounds
  • I Know A Place
  • Who Am I
  • I Will Follow Him
  • Two Rivers
  • My Love
  • Don’t Sleep in the Subway
  • City of Dreams
  • Look to the Rainbow
  • Fly Away/Tomorrow With Me/You and I
  • You’re the One
  • Now That You’ve Gone
  • Things Bright and Beautiful
  • The Sound of Music
  • Tell Me It’s Not True
  • Getting the Right Thing Wrong
  • Downtown
  • Here For You 

This blonde had more fun !!!

August 22, 2009


I just saw the play Dirty Blond at Signature Theater.  The show tells the story of Jo and Charlie, lovable misfit New Yorkers who meet cute while on pilgrimages to Mae West’s grave and develop a relationship.  Oh, and it also gives a bio of Mae West through their eyes. 

The play is a charmer, and quite a tour de force for Emily Skinner who plays both Jo and Mae West, Hugh Nees as Charlie and a variety of other characters, and J. Fred Shiffman as everyone else.  It is a particular pleasure to see the three actors working as a particularly well-knit ensemble.  Skinner is always a stand-out, and it is particularly pleasurable that this show, although not technically a musical, has enough songs to give the audience the pleasure of Skinner’s singing.  Nees and Shiffman both have stellar moments in the show, and prove themselves adept song-and-dance men.

Jeremey Skidmore’s staging keeps things moving.  But I did find myself getting squirmy by about minute 80 of the intermissionless 105 minute minute show.  I attribute this in large part to the script.  While I found the Mae West scenes interesting, frankly the story of Jo and Charlie ventures into territory that simply elicited tired sighs from me instead of any interest or empathy.  

Also, for me the play is a bit of a victim of timing.  Hmmm…. The courage and passion of a fabulous, self-invented figure inspires a troubled contemporary figure to have the courage to overcome their own challenges.  Plus the vehicle gives a leading lady an opportunity to swan around in an epic, bravura performance.  Having seen Looped about Tallulah Bankhead and Julie and Julia about Julia Child in the last few months, the play felt like déjà vu all over again.

But these quibbles shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  The show is extremely entertaining, beautifully produced with wonderful performances.     So see it before the run ends October 4th.

Abaracadabra it’s CHAWbaret !!!

August 21, 2009

I’m thrilled that Dean Reichard invited me to participate in the next iteration of CHAWbaret, the fundraiser for the Capitol Hill Art’s Workshop!  We had our first rehearsal this week, and I am awestruck by the talents involved — Katherine McCann, Eileen Warner, Deborah Davidson, Dean Reichard, Dorie Hightower, Ron Squeri, and Matt Howe.  All under the terrific music direction of Amy Conley.

Since the show is in October, the theme this year is Magic To Do and it’s great to see the number of interpretations that the artists are providing. And I always love the creative part of the rehearsal process, where so many things are possible!  It’s the magic that starts the magic.*

So mark your calendars for our shows, October 16,17,23,& 24 at CHAW.  And of course I’ll have more dispatches before then!

*Apologies to those who found themselves with elevated blood sugar after that line.

In praise of Free Hand Music and Solero

August 21, 2009

Can the current cabaret performer say enough good things about Free Hand Music and their Solero music viewer?

The site has an amazing library of sheet music available for instant electronic download.  However, the downloads are not delivered via pdf or jpeg but using their Solero music viewer, a mini program that needs to be installed on your computer.  But once the program is installed, not only can you use it to view the sheet music you’ve purchased — but the program will play the music on the page.  Perfect to rehearse to!!!  Not only that, but it has a built-in transposer, that will allow you to transpose it to the key you need.  (Which yu’ve detrmined by having the program play the song…)

OK.  On the downside, the program limits you to actually printing out two copies of the sheet music.  And since the transpositions are done programmatically, they can occasionally come out with certain wacky elements.  But it’s a lot easier to get a music director to review the transposition and correct it than it is to hire someone to transpose a whole song.  (And especially useful when you want to

And the service makes an impressive wealth of songs available.  This spring I was looking for the verse to April Showers, and there it was.  And for two of the songs we are preparing for CHAWbaret, it was fabulous to be able to say to the music director — no problem, we’ll get you the song in the new key!

K.T. Sullivan premiering at the Granite Room

August 21, 2009

The blurb in Playbill Online tells that K.T. Sullivan will be premiering a new show

That, of course, is alwyas pleasant news.  The concept of the show, celebrating songs from the era before the microphone is also very nice.  But the reason that I find this truly exciting is because it heralds the opening of a new space in New York presenting cabaret — The Granite Room at City Hall restaurant in the Wall Street area. 

Let’s just all take a moment to celebrate those visionaries/dreamers that take the plunge and provide us with new venues for this artform.  Thank you, all!

Stephen Holden on Jason Danieley

August 21, 2009

When people ask me to define “cabaret,” I usually say that at its base, it’s anything performed in a cabaret setting.  Jason Danieley (a.k.a. Mr. Marin Mazzie) is a case in point — anywhere else his work with the acoustic band the Frontier Heroes would be bluegrass honky tonk.  But when it’s presented at the Metropolitan Room, it’s “cabaret.” 

Here’s what the NYTimes had to say: “The program demonstrated what might be called the Willie Nelson principle: that most songs can be done in any style, given the appropriate arrangement and instrumentation. Even histrionic arias like the Mario Lanza hit “Be My Love” and the grand Broadway showstoppers “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “As Long as She Needs Me” were successfully bent in humbler directions by being sped up, harmonically simplified and given a steady rhythmic lilt. Through it all, Mr. Danieley remained true to himself, standing confidently astride the distance between rural and urban, classical and folk.”

Amanda McBroom on Jacques Brel

August 20, 2009

I know I’ve said it before, but Amanda McBroom’s tribute to Jacques Brel , Chanson, is the best cabaret CD of the year.  Here’s a video where she explains part of the process that went into making the recording.

And in the joys of Youtube, here’s a clip from her early television career: