At the Keys: Michele Brourman

October 11, 2009

Michele_BrourmanThe multi-talented Michele Brourman is not only a terrific keyboard whiz, but she’s also composed one of the great cabaret standards (My Favorite Year)  and produced one of the best cabaret CDs ever (Dixie Carter Sings John Wallowitch Live at the Carlyle).  More biographical info about Michele Brourman.

In addition to her appearance with Amanda McBroom at Wolf Trap (11/14) and the master class here in DC (11/15) , she aked that I mention her other immediate projects:

  • One – November 9th, in New York, we’ll be presenting a 12-minute musical that I wrote with Sheilah Rae – as part of the Festival of Short Plays being presented by the League of Professional Theatre Women at the Cherry Lane Theatre.    It will feature Randy Graff. 
  • Two – In mid-December, I will be going to Tucson where I’ll do two nights performing my own songs at the Invisible Theatre in Tucson, an amazing venue run by the brilliant Susan Claassen, who is also the main cabaret impresario in that town. 
  • Three – in late February – I’ll be doing a thrilling evening of all my own songs – with Special Guest Artists TBA – under the auspices of the New York Theatre Barn. It will be at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. 
  • I’ll also be playing for Wendy Lane Bailey at the Metropolitan Room Feb. 26 & 27 – in a gorgeous new, break-through show for Wendy. 

1. By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink. How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

OK, well first of all you can lose “travel agent, ”without a doubt!

Where to begin? I started playing the piano when I was about three, singing whole songs when I was two-and-a-half. … When I was five or six, I was the family accompanist. We would spend evenings… if my Dad was home from work he’d pull out the Cole Porter book or the Rodgers and Hammerstein book, or his favorite, Frank Sinatra songs, and I would sit at the piano and play. I would perform for company. My mother would wait until nobody was around and she would want me to play so she could sing her favorite Cole Porter songs or Judy Garland songs. My Mom did a bang-up job of Stormy Weather. And they had beautiful voices, my parents. They sang in harmony magnificently. (It was kind of the only thing they did harmoniously, but they did that really beautifully.)

My father had been a songwriter, but only for this one short interval in his life… He was in the Air Force in World War II and his plane was shot down in a mission over Germany. And (he was imprisoned) as a POW – during the fourteen months, he wrote songs.

Like in my family, it was in the gene pool. When I was in utero, we lived with my father’s parents, and my dad’s youngest brother (my dad was the ninth of twelve children) was studying to be a concert violinist and became a conductor. So prior to my birth and immediately after, I spent hours listening to my Uncle Jack practice the violin. It’s just there, it’s in my body.

When I play the piano, it is just an extension of me. Writing is extremely natural. It is a gift that I was given. It isn’t a thing that I’ve earned. I’ve cultivated it; I’ve practiced; I’ve studied; I’ve paid a lot of attention to it. It’s my passion and my love so I’ve given myself to it a lot, but it was a gift.

2. Who have your major musical influences been?

Ravel, Chopin and Beethoven and Eric Satie. And then it was everything; I was like a sponge. I would go to sleep when I was eleven. You know my parents gave me a record player (I’m really dating myself) but it was one of those little hi-fi things that you could stack LPs on. So I would go to sleep, and on the stack might be Stravinski’s Rite of Spring, and West Side Story, and Showboat, and Finnian’s Rainbow…. It was eclectic. But there was a lot of classical and a lot of musical theater, and a lot of what we now lovingly call “The Great American Songbook.” And that was really what I was playing and singing and doing as I was growing up. And that’s what I was writing early on.

…. I first heard Joni Mitchell and went “Oh, my god! Oh, my god! Oh, my god!” And James Taylor, and Laura Nyro, and Carole King – the whole singer/songwriter generation. … So those were important influences, too the marvelous, kind-of unique, individual spokespersons.

3. What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

There was a night when I was at Eighty-Eights and I remember my dad, a cousin, his aunt, and a bunch of people that I knew and loved…. That really happened a couple of times. It’s a really interesting thing – there’s something about having someone who you passionately love in your audience. I heard Carol Channing say that. She says when she performs, always in her imagination puts in her audience one person who unconditionally loves her. And she said you’ll know if you picked the wrong person cause it won’t work.

Last year I played at the Metropolitan Room. And my son Luke who was twenty-one was in New York, cause he was out to perform with a band that he’s playing with. And he was there, and he was sitting there with my nephew and my singing teacher, Chloe, my beloved teacher who’s ninety-one. All there in the audience, in the room. It changes things! It got funny: I wrote a song that’s filthy. It’s all about Chinese food and sex. And I got two lines into it and just stopped dead, couldn’t remember the words, and finally said (to the audience), “Listen, I’m so sorry, but my son is sitting right in front of me and he’s twenty-one, and he’s never heard his mother talk dirty this way.” And I had to just re-group. And I started the song again, and he was very cool. And I’m sure he’s heard far worse in song lyrics than anything I could possibly conceive of. …

But there have been times I’ve been playing with Amanda or Dixie Carter, who are both intensely musical singers, so musical. And you know by the way they’re singing with you, that they are responding to me as much as I’m responding to them. I’m not following them; they’re not following me. But we’re dancing together. And there are moments in those situations that become really transcendent.

4. What can a performer do to establish rapport with you? What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

I think that a performer who believes that it’s a really one-sided relationship makes me really roll my eyes, and I’m not good with those people. I haven’t really encountered many, frankly. But the few that I have, it’s rather shocking. You know, it’s sort of like playing into a wall. There’s nothing there coming back at you. The great singers, they’re involved with you, in the music in the moment.

My apprentice years in Chaicago (I gradualted from Northwestern), and I did some graduate studies there, and I was kind of just groping a little bit. So for almost three years, I played in saloons in Chicago. I played six hours a night. Saturday nights the clubs could stay open an extra hour, so I played seven hours. Sometimes I’d play solo, and sometimes I’d play with a band. I’d have a trio or quartet, and sometimes if I had a trio or quartet it was a little frustrating at a certain level because I couldn’t spin some things I’d want to spin, so I’d do a cocktail hour or something solo, then play sing-along, then play with my band for six more hours. … And the most important thing I learned is that you’re “in that moment.” You’re alive “in that moment.” You’re not playing something to duplicate. We made the rule that we wouldn’t play the same song ever twice the same way—it was the opposite of trying to recapture something. It was really, really trying to make every moment alive. We’d shift keys; we’d change meters; we’d shift tempos. We’d do all kinds of things but it was always … how elastic could a song be?, how elastic could you be?, all fresh and in the moment.

5. Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

I prefer not to have any music with me. A list, and what key it’s in.

First of all, I take in a lot better through my ears, and far more than through my eyes. I don’t like to use music. And when I have to, I do – if something’s new and I’m not 100% sure of it.

But I like to get off the page.

The funny thing is, I used to go on with a list and not even the keys, but then I started realizing that if I know something, I play it in any key, it doesn’t matter to me. I just hear the interval content. I never think, “It’s a G.” I just know where I’m going. So I’ve been known to start things in the wrong key. So I have to have a key list. I have to look at it. Apart from that, I don’t want anything.

6. What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

For me, I define cabaret as “personal theater,” the definition of it. It’s a big, broad definition that can mean an awful lot of things. But one thing that I believe it has to be, and I’m coming from the standpoint of the artist — not from the business (side) and what we need in terms of venues or lighting or anything like that. It needs to be personal; it needs to be alive; it needs to be dangerous. I’ve met singers who say to me, “I want to do this song because I want everyone to know that I have a three octave range.” And I just kind of look at them and go, “Who cares? I have a Steinway.” No one needs to know it’s a Steinway. They need to know what I’m playing on the Steinway.

So for me, the most important need in cabaret is that it has to be relevant. It has to be exciting. It needs to be that individual. It can’t be a duplication of anything else. Because then nothing matters. There is no audience. Nobody wants to come to that – go sit and pay $50 for an evening of being bored.

+1 In a field where the biggest out-front stars are women, there are very few women at the keys. In fact, you were the first female music director in the seven-year history of the Cabaret Conference at Yale. Do you have any idea why this is. Or any thoughts on this?

I feel I have some thoughts.

First of all, let’s just make the observation that, you know, when little kids are growing up, I betcha little girls take piano lessons more than boys. By the time we go to college though … Northwestern, by the way, I was the only female composition major in the undergraduate music school. It’s a big department! I was the only one, and they did their best to intimidate me. They succeeded quite well. I came out of the school feeling like no confidence at all about myself as a composer. And I think women, not just musicians, but universally – Gloria Steinem wrote a book called Revolution from Within and I read a sentence that made me weep – she said (and I’m paraphrasing) – “a huge amount of women come out of college with their self-esteem destroyed.” Why that is, I don’t know. And maybe it’s less true now.

So there’s that. It takes a certain confidence and a belief in your judgement to be somebody’s musical director, to say “No, no, no, you don’t want to sing it in that key. C’mon, let’s take it down.” Or “let’s try this slow.” I mean it’s partially that.

There’s so many women artists in the field. And so many women artists hold the belief that they have to have a man at the keyboard because it implies a certain sexual chemistry. I find that a little bit surprising. I mean, I kind of get it, but really? … So men don’t have the need to have a woman behind the keyboard to make the same implication, right?

I can’t tell you the reason. It shocks me. It’s shocked me for a long time. I was so surprised when I got to Yale and found that I was told that I was the first woman MD (musical director). I sort of knew that, because who do you see? Who? How many women are out there?

There’s not a lot of us, and I think that part of the reason is that there are so many “divas” who believe that they should have a masculine energy at the piano. But I don’t know. I just don’t know.

At the Keys: Jeffrey D. Harris

April 11, 2009
Jeffrey D. Harris -- at the keys -- with Maureen McGovern

Jeffrey D. Harris -- at the keys -- with Maureen McGovern

Jeffrey D. Harris is currently music directing for the show A Long and Winding Road starring Maureen McGovern at Arena.  (It plays through Sunday evening and is terrific!)

Like many, I was first introduced to Harris’s work on McGovern’s Another Woman in Love CD, arranging and playing.  He has also composed the music for a number of classic McGovern tunes including Why Can’t I Forget?, and The Same Moon.

1.      By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

I, primarily …, my head is the composer head.  And I’ve been composing a lot less over the last two years, which is a source of consternation for me, for a variety of reasons.  But I still see everything as more of a composer, and I trained more as a composer, but I’ve always worked as a pianist… I’ve always worked on everything.  And there was one point in my life where I had an agent who said “you’re getting to be too known as a musical director, you need to just be a composer if you want to get a show on Broadway.” 

And so I tried for a while just to be a composer, and it was the worst thing I ever did.  For some reason, I need all those things I did – all those things I do – exactly what you just mentioned (except the business part).  I need all those things to work together for me to get any of it done.  Even if I’m writing, I still need to be working as a pianist, I still need to be working as an orchestrator, I do a lot of conducting.  So I sort of come at things from a composer’s standpoint.  And I think it forms what I do as a pianist because there’s a lot of pianists who are very much “piano players” – they play all over the keys and it’s all about pianistics, and for me, the piano just happens to be the instrument I play to make the music.

2.      Who have your major musical influences been?

An eclectic bunch.  I wanted to be Burt Bachrach in the worst way – and so he was one of those people who did everything we just mentioned.  And when I was growing up and was ten, eleven years old – that was really the time he was at his height and I’d watch his special on TV and he’d sit at the piano, and he was conducting, and he was playing, and he had written the orchestrations of the song, and he would actually sing a little bit (which I also do).  And that to me, that was it!  So I also go toward those kind of people that do it all, the Andre Previns, the Leonard Bernsteins.

So I love those people, but aside from them I’ve also been influenced classically by the American 20th Century composers – Barber, Ned Rorem.  I was a composition major in college so I went through all that and was writing serious music for a little bit.  And I love Copeland, and I love a lot of the 20th Century British composers like Vaughn Williams and Finzi and some of those people.  But then in the pop music world, I loved Jimmy Webb; I love Michel LeGrand.  And then I have a big jazz influence.  So it’s really eclectic.  And I tend to go for really obscure people.  I always go for the really obscure ones, not the typical ones.  So instead of Oscar Peterson, I really like the pianist named Roger Kellaway.  I did love Bill Evans; he was a big influence on me as a pianist.  

(Later in the interview)

I also love Randy Newman, who you can put on that list.  And I didn’t list any theater composers like Sondheim and Richard Rodgers.

3.      What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

I can think of two.  One’s very funny.  Actually two are very funny and I have one more serious moment.

The two really funny moments are I played at the White House twice and once was with Karen Akers.  We were playing and she was so nervous that she skipped over an entire section of the song.  And she skipped a section and modulated where there was no modulation.  And we’re playing for the president of the United States!  And I didn’t have what she was doing on the music.  I literally had to fly by the seat of my pants and start to go where it was that she was, and make up the new key.  And we got through it well enough that when I mentioned it to her afterwards, as we were meeting like the President of Poland and the President, and I said, “What happened?”  And she said… “There was no modulation and I just modulated with you,” and she just couldn’t believe it.  So that was fun… Always things like that, but when it happens at the White House on the White House Steinway piano!  That’s something.

And another that’s really silly, if you’ll indulge me, because I love to tell this story.  When I was first starting out in my career I was working … (with) Jack Jones and he used to tell this ridiculous joke.  He’d tell it every night.  And he recorded it on a live album, so already people have heard the joke.  For years, but he would still tell the joke… He’d say, “I was working in this club and I said to the club owner, ‘This piano is terrible. I can’t work on this piano. And my pianist is unhappy.’ And the club manager says, ‘Whaddaya mean, we just had it painted!'”  Right?  So, we’re working down in Puerto Rico and I’m like 22 years old with Jack and we’re with a big band and we’re playing and we just finish the end of the show and just as I cut off the band, he just starts to walk off.  I cut off the band, and the back leg of the grand piano collapses, and the piano comes crashing down – and you cannot believe how loud it is.  And he comes running back onstage after it happens and he goes, “How can that have happened – he just had it painted!”  That was one of my favorite moments – those are the two funny ones.  

And I actually think, to tell you the truth (I know this sounds like I’m selling the show), but I’m really having a wonderful time right now doing this show now with Maureen.  Because I have so much to do with it.  I’ve worked with Maureen since I graduated from college.  It was the first job I ever had and we worked together on and off…. And when I’ve worked with her, I’ve maybe done half the arrangements and Mike Renzi did the other half or someone else.  But now I suddenly have everything to do with this show, and it’s very much musically from my point of view.  So that’s very satisfying.

 4.      What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

I don’t know quite how to answer that,… but the first thing I go to is that because I started working with Maureen McGovern right out of college, in a way it spoiled me for working with every other singer.  Because she is, as a musician, the perfect musician.  And she sings perfectly in tune, as you know.  And her time is perfect.  Her diction is perfect.  She’s not the kind of singer where she brings this very odd, quirky personality to the song (which I also appreciate in singers), but she is for me as a pianist and for me as a composer (because she’s recorded 15 or 16 of my songs), she’s the perfect instrument.  So whenever I deal with other singers, and I’ve worked with a lot of other singers, it’s always frustrating, because I literally can’t understand why can’t you do that ?  I get frustrated because I’m so used to that.  And because I’ve worked with Maureen so long, I haven’t worked with a lot of other singers, hand-holding them and teaching them note-by-note.  She literally comes in totally prepared, basically perfect from the get-go.

I mean her whole life is about singing.  So I was used to that.  I come in, she’s perfect, we find it, we’re done.  And then I’ll work with singers who are not such good musicians, and it’s frustrating and I’m not so good in that way.  I’m not a “coach” and so I’ve been very spoiled.  Lucky!  But very spoiled my whole life.

5.      Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

I do both.  It depends, it depends.  It really changes.  I don’t know if it’s on a whim.  Sometimes I’ll do taped pages, open accordion style with the (piano) rack down.  But then when I do more theatrical things – and you know I do a lot of shows.  A lot of Broadway shows, I was just the associate musical director of Gypsy with Patti LuPone – and on shows like that I’ll organize things.  Even at Gypsy, they had it accordion style, but I chose to do the hole punch, put it in a binder, and just do it that way.  For some reason, when I get in a show, and even now with Maureen it’s this one-woman show, it’s theatrical – I’m back to the binder.  When I’m doing something, more jazz oriented, I go back to the rack down, accordion style open flat.

6.      What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

Greatest need in the world of cabaret? 

I think better musicianship.  When I go hear a lot of singers, when I go hear singers in cabarets and things I’m shocked sometimes not only of the quality of the singing but the quality of the piano, of the musical directing.  And I think musicians are getting so good these days – I mean we’re all spoiled with recordings and computers and all that that everything’s just getting to a higher level.

And sometimes it’s… Although I know cabaret is where you try out things so sometimes it’s a little, you’re going by the seat of your pants.  But sometimes cabaret – you know I hate to tell you this because you’re so into cabaret and I’m not, I’m not really into cabaret.  I much more enjoy concerts and I enjoy recordings and I enjoy theater.  And when I go to cabaret I’m often disappointed because I don’t think it’s on a very high level, and at least for me, I’m interested in the musicianship.  And maybe that’s not where you find it.  There are things in cabaret that are really fun but it doesn’t interest me like going to hear some great… like going to hear Keith Jarrett play piano.  But that’s just a quirky little thing… I have a very narrow, little world I live in, I’m afraid.

+1 Generally, when expanding a concert like this for a “theatrical” presentation, the instinct would be to add musicians and expand the band.  Could you please discuss the decision to keep the show to a piano, and how your work had to change, if at all, to go from a cabaret to a more theatrical interpretation?

It has.  Just tempo-wise. I’ve had to bump things up because theatrically things do not work as well when they’re at “concert” tempo.  I think you can luxuriate in a concert and just close your eyes and listen to the music, but in a theater piece, everything has to have that, that forward motion to it.  That’s why I think the greatest theater conductor is Paul Gemigniani, and … everything’s got a little push to it.  When you sit back too far on it, like a jazz musician would, on stage it does not work.  I tried it and it just doesn’t work.  So tempo-wise everything’s being pushed, just a little bit.

I think as far as the musicians largely it was financial.  I think Maureen’s hope, maybe, is that this could go to Off-Broadway or Broadway, or certainly Off-Broadway, and if there was a budget, certainly we could add musicians.  I think we’re still in the development stage here, and I think if we had orchestrations to worry about it would certainly be prohibitive.  And suddenly she’s got the right show at the right time, at a time when the economy is poor, and suddenly theaters seem to be very interested in a one-person show.  Particularly with just a pianist.  And … having said all that, I think there’s something very special that people seem to get from just Maureen and I together.  I think because we’ve spent thirty years together, almost. 

( Photo by Eric Antoniou)

At the Keys: Michael Lavine

March 22, 2009
Michael Lavine surrounded by "the" collection

Michael Lavine surrounded by "the" collection

Michael Lavine is probably beswt known for having the largest private collection of Broadway sheet music, which he is amazingly generous to make available as a resource for people who are trying to track down obscure songs.  As a matter of fact, shortly after I arrived, he was fielding an urgent request from Sutton Foster.  Lavine is one of the most notable coaches in New York for musical theater professionals and is also an active music director.  A signature Lavine event is the Flopz ‘n Cutz series of concerts featuring Broadway starts singing songs cut from successful shows or featured in flop musicals.

Michael Lavine’s official Web site.

1.  By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

I’d rather be music directing more than I do. I’d rather be conducting.  I don’t pursue it.  I don’t send out resumes to theater companies because I make a living as a vocal coach — meaning working with singers on the selection of material for auditions.  And the part that I enjoy the most – the acting of material.  People always come to me saying, “Oh, you have all this music and I need some new songs for auditions.”  And I say that’s fine and I talk to them.  And sometimes they don’t come back for a long time and then out of the blue I’ll hear from them.  I like it when they come back and I’m able to have them stand right where you’re sitting.  And I’m able to have them work on a song and say, “You know what, I don’t believe you.  You had your eyes closed.” …

I talk a lot about smiles and I say your smile is one of your biggest assets, but I’ll often look up at their smile and I go, “You know, I don’t buy that smile.  This character would not be smiling.” Or smiles often mask insecurity or nervousness.  Or often I feel you haven’t earned this smile.  So I love working on the acting of the songs.  By my work as a vocal coach keeps me the most busy when I’m in New York City, being, as you say, able to do many different things as a pianist and everything that encompasses at the time…

2.  Who have your major musical influences been?

Stephen Sondheim and Charles Strouse.  Stephen Schwartz.  I didn’t listen to pianists growing up.  More to Broadway cast albums.

3.  What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

These Flopz ‘n Cutz concerts that I’m doing because I get to get together with a plethora of wonderful Broadway performers that I’ve always wanted to work with.  I’m choosing material for them and they’re singing what I want them to sing.  And I’m up there talking to the audience, singing a little myself, and I ——— them and it’s for my peers.  I probably enjoy that as much as I enjoy anything.

4.  What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

Since I’m so into acting, when they’re really acting a song, sometimes I have my back to them, and I don’t even see them, but I can tell they’ve totally connected to the material and it’s great when they can sing, too.  When I just feel that they are embodying the character and I just feel that they GET IT, often without even looking at them.  I was running a song from Christina (which is a musical by ABBA) for Alice Ripley and she was standing right behind me and I had chills and goosebumps.  So it wasn’t even about the acting as much, (no, she was auditioning for two things and it was that and Lestat, so it was actually a Lestat song) and it was just these chilling notes that were this close to my ear.  And we finished the song and she said “Can we run that again?” and I was like “Yeeeesss.”  That was chilling!  That was very exciting, a really good memory! 

But when I get somebody who is not the caliber of Alice, doing some amazing job, but I’m like, they embodied the character of the song… when I see somebody make a big stride as an actor more than as a singer or they come back to me after a year when I haven’t seen them and it’s clear they’ve done their work with a voice teacher, and they didn’t have, they didn’t have Es and they’re suddenly singing G Sharps as a man, and I’m like, “You don’t have that note, how did you sing that note?”  And they say, “I’ve been working.” 

And another thrill I have Is walking down a theater, past a theater and seeing somebody’s name (who I coached)… I had a friend who was in Cats named Bethany Samuelson and she said, “I have a friend, a high school kid in Philadelphia.  It’s his dream to be in Cats and he’s gonna come to New York.  Can I send him to you? He’s gonna come for a day just to work with you.  Is that all right?”  So I said “All right.” And this wide-eyed, cute kid and (he) dreamed to be in Cats, and he worked very, very hard and the following year I’m walking pas the theater and I see his name on the board outside the Winter Garden.  Christopher Gattelli!  Oh, my God!  Little did I know he would then become one of the premier Broadway directors / choreographers around.  Christopher Gattelli, I knew him when he was a kid before college.  I just feel so proud, so thrilled. ..

5.  Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

Excellent question. It comes up all the time with my students.  Personally, I like it in a book because I like to snoop during an audition and say- “Oh, you have this song, can I get a copy of that?”  But that said, I’ve done every Flopz ‘n Cutz concert with each song individually Scotch taped together and then throw it down, new song. This is the first show I’m going to do with an actual binder because other musical directors have said to me, “Oh, my God, it’s so much easier with a binder.”  And I steadfastly refused to do that, not really for any reason, but that’s how I grew up. 

However, when they tape, I want to make sure the music is taped the correct way.  People at Michigan… use masking tape and worse than masking tape, …(they) go vertically rather than horizontally and it will never lie flat on any piano.  And pianists, they see the masking tape and say “Michigan, right?” and (the former students) say “Right!” and we’re praying that the music will lie flat on the piano.  I say, not only do you Scotch tape, but you don’t go vertically, rather go horizontally: little piece at the top, little piece at the middle, little piece at the bottom, it will lie flat on the piano.  If you’re worried about the tape breaking, put two pieces on.  It’ll never break.  … I (also) like it as a book, either with or without the sleeves.  But if you get the sleeves, be sure to get the non-glare ones. 

6.  What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?+1.  As the acute observer of the DC cabaret scene that you are, what do you feel people need to do to try to make things more successful?


+1 What are the biggest mistakes that people make in choosing material for themselves? 

Choosing material that’s not them, or who they are.  Choosing material that is too negative, too loser-y.  Not presenting them as we want to see them in the show.  Worrying too much about how they’re going to sound, not what they’re saying in the song, in the lyric. 

I think it’s very important to remember that singing in musical theater is acting on pitch and that you do what you do as if it’s a monologue and there happens to be a pitch … (People) are so worried about showing us their high “Qs,” and we’d much rather hear, see who they are. …

 (People should be) thinking that if they were sitting behind a table — picking somebody like them that they were going to pay 1500 dollars a week to — and say, “So, tell me something about yourself”  …Then they read, “Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky, maybe this time he’ll stay.”  I’m like “loser, wah, wah”  These are the kind of things I think about constantly.  (Especially) after auditions go a day or after two days of LOSER ballads – the only time I ever sing a ballad first in an audition is when it’s specifically, when the call says “Please prepare a dramatic ballad.”  Most audition notices say bring in an uptempo and a ballad, and I think they really mean: an UPTEMPO and a ballad.  I mean, for most casting directors, ballad is like a dirty word.  It’s like “I guess we have to hear the ballad now.”  I mean the highest praise is if I’m behind the table and somebody does something particularly remarkable and I’m like, “Did you see that?  I love them!  I can’t wait to work with them! He’s going to be so much fun to have around!” rather than “Wow, what a great voice!”  … Usually we’re sitting behind a table thinking “I want to work with you because you are a ______ man.”  (I want to ) hear (the answer) in the lyrics of your song.  So I think it’s important when I’m proposing songs for people or they’re finding songs on their own, they find songs that are active rather than passive.  Not loser songs … Songs that let us know who they are.


At the Keys: James R. Fitzpatrick

November 14, 2007

jamesheadshot.jpgJames Fitzpatrick is one of the local DC scene’s great cabaret assets.  He most recently music-directed Sally Martin’s CD and Corcoran concert.  And he’ll be playing her concert with Mary Stout at Indigo on December 8th .

The Official Bio

James R. Fitzpatrick has worked as musical director with Broadway performers Mary Stout, Ray Roderick, and Betsy Morgan.  He has also accompanied a variety of celebrities including Norma Zimmer, Dottie West, Grandpa Jones and Ramona, Roy Acuff, Boxing Champion Joe Frazier, and television and film artists Robert Urich, Deborah Tranelli, Harry Murphy, Carol Mansel, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.  He music directed Cabaret revues at The Speakeasy in Sydney, Australia.  He was a founding member of ”Gonzo Theatre”, the comedy revue company in Nashville that gave rise to the Ernest films with Jim Varney.  He has written shows for Opryland Productions, appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, and even did a stint on “Hee Haw”.  Closer to home, he has music directed shows for Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre and the Prince Theatre in Chestertown, MD.  Currently he serves as music director for several Cabaret artists in DC including Sally Martin, Byron Jones and Will Heim.  The City of Annapolis recently commissioned him to write an oratorio in celebration of that city’s 300th anniversary.  The resulting work, “The Chartered Course” will be premiered in Annapolis in 2008. 

The Interview

1.  By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

I am very happy to define myself as a music director; someone whose responsibility it is to attend to all of the musical facets of making a good show.  From the selection of material, to adaptation and arrangement, to composition, to accompaniment, to vocal coaching, to either stage directing or working closely with a stage director; it is all part and parcel of what I do. 

If I am working on a book show, I want to make sure that each note and phrase in some way relates to the characters, movement, and dramatic intent onstage.  If I am working with a Cabaret artist, I want to make sure that each song, phrase, and accompaniment work together concordantly with the interpretation of the text by the singer.  I look to be a true colleague, accountable for ensuring that when music happens, it meets the needs of the show, the singer, and most importantly, the audience. 

That being said, my ticket into all of this was the fact I am an old hack piano player who learned to improvise at an early age.

2.  Who have your major musical influences been?

As a child, I fell in love with all of those big MGM musicals and the old Warner films.  From there, I developed a taste for dramatic movie scores as well.  Directors Buzby Berkley and Vincent Minnelli, and film composers Alfred Newman, Bernard Hermann, Ernst Korngold, Max Steiner, and Elmer Bernstein all inspired me.

My father was a Baptist minister, so I was expected to play the piano at every church service.  He was a great admirer of improvisation, so he encouraged me to experiment with my hymn playing.  He also took me to concerts by Harry Belafonte, to operas, and to musicals.  My mother loved Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong.  And we watched a lot of great performers from the musical stage and vaudeville when they made their appearances on television shows like Jack Benny, Perry Como, Dinah Shore, and the like in the 1950’s and early 60’s.

I had every intention of becoming a serious composer when events transpired that took me to Sydney, Australia for three years.  To earn my living there, I began playing the piano in pubs and for charitable events.  The requests that came were either for old British Music Hall songs like “Knees Up Mother Brown” or songs from the Great American Song Book.  I came to appreciate American Jazz and the music of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin while living in Sydney.

When I came back to the States, I wound up in Nashville for six years and played music of all sorts there.  To this very day, one of my favorite cabaret shows to play is Sharon Ellzey’s “Hank, Patsy, Willie and Friends.”  I think Country Music is under-used in cabaret shows.  Some great material lies untapped there.

Now I am completely smitten with Adam Guettel’s writing and Nellie McKay.  Oh…and Stephen Merritt.  And those guys who write the stuff for Flight of the Conchords! That is absolutely great music, full of wit and sophistication. 

3.  What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

One day many years ago, I went to visit a friend of mine who was working backstage on a rather forgettable play called something like “Do You Turn Somersaults?”  We were going to have a quick bite to eat between the matinee and the evening show.  When I asked for him at the stage door, I was told to wait for him in the green room.  There was a grand piano in the room and I sat down and started playing “My Funny Valentine.” 

Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard this incredible voice singing along.  I looked up and it was Mary Martin.  She asked me to play “My Romance” and then “Where or When” and we continued going through songs for about a half hour.  We had a lovely chat.  She gave me much encouragement and many pointers.  So, my performance for a party of one, a musical legend and brilliant star, remains my most unforgettable moment at the keyboard.

But I cannot let this moment pass without mentioning the incredible high I experienced with Sally Martin performing “Another Time, Another Place” at the Corcoran.  That was a grand night.  And I had a music director’s dream show in Annapolis with the “I Love a Piano Gala.”  Broadway performer Mary Stout headlined with local talent like Kim-Scott Miller, Byron Jones, Katherine Osborne, Robert Tudor, Bobb Robinson, Sally Martin, Barbara Papendorp and Gilly Conklin (who knocked the ball out of the park with “Some People”). That show was thrilling for the audience and for every performer who participated.

4.  What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

I figure that most of us come to work to do a good job.  We all have musical strengths and weaknesses.  I may be a better fit for this performer or that set of material but I will do my best to provide good support to any artist I work with.  And I have not encountered any musical director in DC who is not equally committed to excellence.  And I have been fortunate to work with wonderful singers who approach work with the same set of values. 

When singers and musical directors begin collaborations with respect for each other, we can put our egos aside and be open to innovative ideas and suggestions.  And when we are willing to let go of our pre-conceptions for the good of the show, the audience usually winds up having a better entertainment experience as a result. 

But there are some people who have a mistaken impression that being a performing artist will address their deep-seated emotional problems.  These are the ones who like to boost their own egos by diminishing everyone around them. I once worked with a well-known but insecure performer who asked me to coach and accompany for an important audition.  This person then rejected every suggestion I made about repertoire or performance, chose inappropriate audition pieces and told the auditors that the reason why the audition wasn’t going well was because of my limited skills as a pianist. I have never established good rapport with those who are using cabaret as a substitute for psychotherapy.  They simply won’t let me (or anyone) honestly work with them as a collaborator and their performances ultimately don’t ring true.

5.  Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

I’ve done both.  Now I tend towards binders, just to be organized and for ease of transport.  Occasionally, I still need to use taped pages for a particular song just to avoid difficult page turns at key moments.

6.  What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

The identification of Cabaret as an art form has had both positive and negative effects.  On the positive side, it now gives us a name for what we do.  It used to be that people were simply entertainers who had an act they used in supper clubs or at special events.  Now we are artists of a specific type.  This allows for support organizations like the Cabaret Network to develop and prosper.  

On the negative side, for so many years the word “Cabaret” was used indiscriminately as a catch all-phrase to cover any kind of performance art that didn’t fit neatly into a category.  And since much of that performance art did not focus on the “art” of performance, the name now carries a lot of freight.  I heard one person refer to Cabaret as “jazz without the musicianship.”  That infuriated me. But I have to admit that for many people, the word “Cabaret” calls up images of older artists grabbing at the last straws of a career by performing old show tunes and mining a lot of material that could be called “precious.”  And there is still a significant percentage of the population who confuse the art form with the musical of the same name.

So the world of Cabaret today is in desperate need of a national marketing campaign that clearly explains to the public that Cabaret is entertainment with a capital “E”.  It is also art that is accessible and enjoyable, with a variety of music sung by performers who deliver the words with meaning and the melodies with great voices and musicianship.

Internally to the art form, I think some Cabaret artists choose their material in order to be thought of favorably by others in the field. I believe that they would do better by concentrating on the old-fashioned notion of leaving an audience entertained.  Audiences go to the theatre or to Cabaret more for diversion or entertainment than to experience art.  So the balancing act is how to include pieces of artful music performed in artful ways with songs that are entertaining and accessible.  Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive, but tilt too much one way and the show becomes too rarefied to generate audience interest (except among die-hard fans).  Tilt too much the other way and the show lacks depth and becomes background music.

+1.  As the acute observer of the DC cabaret scene that you are, what do you feel people need to do to try to make things more successful?

DC Cabaret suffers from so many of the same challenges that afflict all of the arts.  There are too few opportunities for artists.  So for many, their skills are not being improved by regular performance.  To really understand how to work an audience, you have to be able to perform night after night and perfect your techniques.  And this is not to knock those wonderful Cabaret Open Mics that the Cabaret Network offers.  Thank God for those!  But performing only for other Cabaret artists does not provide a young or new artist the understanding of how to read and work a paying audience.     

But even for established Cabaret performers, there is no good economic model in place at restaurants and clubs in DC.  As a result, most Cabaret gets done at theatres or church concert series.   I personally think Cabaret goes down best with food and beverage and maybe even a little dancing.  We need club owners with vision to insert Cabaret into their evening’s line up.  And we need to find a way to pay the performers a reasonable wage.  Why invest in a career that will not provide you with a decent living?

Somehow DC Cabaret performers need to work with the DC business community, arts community, meeting planners and booking agents to develop a strong marketing plan for the art form and a win-win economic model that can be widely implemented.  Then they must convince venue owners, the press, and audiences alike to support Cabaret. Wouldn’t it be great if DC had a Cabaret District with live music of all types filling clubs and restaurants? 

I have to mention that I am very excited about Indigo, the new cabaret venture at the Atlas Theatre.  It may prove to be just the model we need in the city.

For those Cabaret performers in DC who are trying to make a go of it, additionally they face the perpetual problem of territorial behavior within the Cabaret community; be it an artist claiming the rights to a song as “hers” or “his” simply because he or she is the first to perform it in the area or some performers disparaging other worthy talent in the name of holding the art form to some mythical set of standards.  For the art form to grow and prosper, we need  entrance level events for audiences and performers.  We also need high-end experiences for those who come to love the art. A full mix of styles, professional experience, and programming are a sign of a healthy art form.  Every successful show by one performer at ANY level actually opens up opportunities for other performers at all levels.

At the Keys: Shelly Markham

November 3, 2007

Shelly Markham is probably now best known as Andrea Marcovicci’s music director.*   Not only does he play all her concerts, he has served as arranger and producer for her recent CDs including Here, There, and Everywhere; Andrea Sings Astaire, and Kurt Weill in America.  Other performers he has played for include Lanie Kazan, Michael Feinstein, Margaret Whiting, Nell Carter, Ann Jillian, Gogi Grant, Julie Wilson, Chad Mitchell, Carol Lawrence, Elaine Stritch, and Bonnie Franklin.

He is also an amazing songwriter.  Songs of his are included in the long-running revue Naked Boys Singing.  With lyricist Judith Viorst he has written the show Love and Shrimp as well as children’s musicals based on her Alexander books.  The song The Sweetest of Nights from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-God, Very Bad Day should be in every cabaret singer’s repertoire — it is the perfect “occasion” song for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, anything; it has been recorded by Karen Mason, Andrea Marcovicci, Nancy Dussault, and Markham.  His new musical Too Old for the Chorus has completed runs in San Diego and Los Angeles.

*This video features Shelly playing for Andrea.

Markham is also one of the master teachers in the Perry-Mansfield Art of Cabaret workshop

1) By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

I have always enjoyed musical direction.  Because it pairs me with talented people….be it singers, choreographers, composers, or arrangers.  It’s a very specific creative process, and it involves reinventing songs and defining the way you look at a lyric or a dance or a scene in a show or on a cabaret stage.  It’s something I have always noticed:  the great arranging done behind Judy Garland, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand…the great dance arrangers who made shows fly on Broadway, the marvelous conducting that made shows exciting and very current.  It’s always going to be a part of my career (at least if Andrea has her way…).  It’s almost as though I feel it’s part of my personality.

2) Who have your major musical influences been? 

Certainly they’re all over the place.  As songwriters, probably Harold Arlen as far as a classic writer, but also Elton John, Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach figure in there too as pop writers.  I was always a huge fan of Peter Matz as an arranger and he did indeed help me when I first came to LA.  I never stop learning….I found a new bass player in LA for Andrea’s last Rodgers & Hart recording session, Kevin Axt, and we did some amazing things together.  So there’s always an influence from somewhere that helps keep music alive for me.

3) What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had? 

Three come to mind.  Certainly a concert that I did at Lincoln Center many years ago at the Kool Jazz Festival with Margaret Whiting, where I played with the legendary bass player, Milt Hinton.  It was tremendously exciting.  They rolled three grand pianos out there for me to choose from….  Also the concert I did with Nell Carter with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams.  We closed with an orchestral version of B.B. King’s TAKE ME HOME with background singing by a 130 voice Harlam church choir…. And also Andrea’s concert that I got to conduct and play at Town Hall this past spring.  Very magical…. I feel I am very lucky to do what I do.

4) What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

Rapport comes from doing the work.  Learning the words when they have to be learned, coming in with ideas, not being afraid to try something new or open your mind to a different way of approaching something, and not waiting too late to start rehearsing….particularly if you have a lot of new songs in a show.  Rushing puts a lot of pressure on both a musical director and a performer.

I roll my eyes when I am not listened to or at least acknowledged.  Some performers are very resistant to change of any sort.  And my creativity is kind of part of who I am.  Also, each pianist is different.  Some people want exactly what their last keyboard player did.  I do that in many cases, but if I think something can be made better, I am probably going to say so.  And some people get uptight about that.  I also like to find a performer’s sense of humor.  If they truly don’t have one, then it makes it harder.

5) Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

It depends.  If it’s outdoors, then sometimes a binder is better.  But since I like to read ahead, I will always prefer taped pages.  And then you can put any tempo markings or actual changes on the page (in pencil, please!) without struggling to get it out of the plastic.  A great help…

6)  What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

I think the greatest need in cabaret is simply for more rooms.  I personally believe that the line between cabaret and jazz is shrinking….and that it is a healthy thing.  Pop singers and writers like Curtis Steigers are also adept at telling stories to an audience.  Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook and Polly Bergen were all singer/actresses similar to Andrea and all deserve the luxury of venues that work for jazz singers as well as cabaret performers.  And the concert circuit should certainly embrace everyone.  I think cabaret should be honored for the true hybrid that it is.  The best of the Broadway and concert stage mixed with the intimacy of a small room with very focused lights and an emphasis on interpretation mixed with good musicianship.  That’s the ideal in my book….  

+1) Your songs “And We Call it Home” and “The Sweetest of Nights” are two of the most amazingly sophisticated and profound songs I know, yet both appeared in children’s musicals.  Any thoughts of writing for that genre as opposed to other songwriting?

Songwriting knows no age. (Don’t forget OVER THE RAINBOW and many wonderful Disney songs were written to a universal audience, including some very young children).  A good song should work all the way down to someone very young.  And kids are a tough barometer.  If a song is too romantic, does not speak in their language or in some way is not accessible to them, they talk and snicker, or just go to the bathroom.  They’re not subtle at all in their likes and dislikes.  They truly let you know.  And that’s always a good thing to learn.

At the Keys: Alex Rybeck

October 9, 2007

(IMHO, music directors are woefully underappreciated in the world of cabaret.  So I’ll be running profiles of some of the best around.  Like the Diva 5+1 feature, I’ll be asking music directors a set of standardized questions and one specific one.)

Alex Rybeck is one of the top music directors working in cabaret today and I’m thrilled that he took the time to be interviewed!

Here’s his official bio:

ALEX RYBECK is a pianist, arranger, composer, and musical director, well-known for his work in theater, cabaret, and on recordings. Broadway credits include MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (directed by Hal Prince) and GRAND HOTEL (directed by Tommy Tune). He also conducted the New York workshop and San Diego world premiere of WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW, winning personal praise from Burt Bacharach.

Off-Broadway shows include WINGS (Public Theater) and REALLY ROSIE (directed by Patricia Birch). Winner of the 2005 Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Award, he has worked in Manhattan’s premiere concert halls and cabaret venues, including Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Algonquin’s Oak Room, Feinstein’s, the Carlyle, and The Russian Tea Room, to mention a few. He has toured nationally and internationally as well, and has appeared on PBS several times (including “Great Performances”).

Among the many stars of Broadway and cabaret he has worked with are Tommy Tune, Eartha Kitt, The McGuire Sisters, Michael Feinstein, Faith Prince, Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, Donna McKechnie, Debbie Gravitte, Karen Mason, Lee Roy Reams, Tovah Feldshuh, Amanda McBroom, Marni Nixon (“The Voice of Hollywood”), Jason Graae, Jeff Harnar, Australia’s David Campbell, Craig Rubano, Anna Bergman, Rita Gardner, Metropolitan Opera diva Roberta Peters, and the legendary Kitty Carlisle Hart.

Among numerous CD’s: “Sibling Revelry” (Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway); three solo albums by Liz Callaway; five solo albums by Jeff Harnar; “Leap of Faith” (Faith Prince); “Try to Remember” (Rita Gardner); “Change Partners” and “Finishing the Act” (Craig Rubano); “Leading Men Don’t Dance” (Ron Raines and others); and a soon-to-be-released album by Victoria Clark (Tony-winner for THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA).  Original songs include “What a Funny Boy He Is”, recorded by Nancy LaMott. 

A graduate of Oberlin College and NYU, he was taught and mentored by Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Comden & Green. He is a member of ASCAP and The Dramatists Guild.

Here’s the interview

1.     By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career? 

I primarily define myself as a composer-arranger, pianist, and musical director.
Musical directing (for singers’ cabaret acts and CD’s) is currently the most prominent aspect of my career — what I spend the most time doing, and what I am best known for.

2.     Who have your major musical influences been? 

Major musical influences (as a composer): Burt Bacharach, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jimmy Webb, R&B, classical music, Broadway cast albums, movie soundtracks, operetta, standards. Grew up listening to Top 40 radio in the Sixties, so there were multiple musical influences: Motown, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, The Beatles and “The British invasion”, Jose Feliciano, The 5th Dimension, Aretha, Lou Rawls, Philly soul, Carole King, Laura Nyro, etc.
I was (and still am) shamefully ignorant about rock and jazz.
In terms of influences in cabaret work (ie, other musical directors): Brian Lasser, William Roy, Charles DeForrest and Wally Harper (among others) for their creativity, sensitivity, humor and intelligence. Basically, every pianist I listen to influences me either positively or negatively (I learn from what I like and what I don’t like).
Brian Lasser (Karen Mason’s musical partner for 17 years) was a major role model when I first began working in NYC in the early 80’s

3.     What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

Memorable performances are those that either go exceptionally well, or those that go horribly awry.

In the first category would be performances of “Sibling Revelry” (with Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway) some years ago in Houston and Seattle, where the audiences were so wildly, overpoweringly enthusiastic, from our entrance to the final bows, we felt like rock stars.

By contrast, we did “Sibling Revelry” in Cannes, France, during a heat wave. There was NO air conditioning, and we were on stage under hot lights! People were leaving in droves, those remaining fainted from the heat, and we cut our 60-minute show down to 10 minutes.

Also in the “horror story” category would be a benefit performance in Tampa with one of my favorite Broadway girl singers.The presenters did everything in their power to sabotage us: the tables were decorated with tall centerpieces that blocked a view of the stage; the stage itself was set far back to make room for a dance floor; our voice-and-piano set was preceeded by a LOUD 8-piece dance band featuring a girl singer; not only did this have the effect of making our set feel somewhat underpowered, but the audience was asked to stop dancing and sit down to listen to us;
a dessert buffet was set up in the back of the house, so we performed for people milling around and talking; one member of the audience actually interupted the show to apologize to the singer for the audience’s talking! (this occured while I was vamping the intro to the next song!); and the final slap — the dance band was told to return to the stage and set up their instruments during my singer’s final ballad.

4.     What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

Best way to establish a warm and friendly rapport with me is to write me a check for 25 million dollars.

Best way to jeapardize our relationship is to NOT write me check for 25 million dollars.

But seriously …
A rapport between a singer and a musical director is largely a combination of chemistry (both personal and musical). I don’t know that there’s anything one can “do” to effect such a rapport. But like all good relationships, a good collaboration is based on respect and honesty. Over time, with luck, the result is trust. And for me personally, I find humor to be important. I have worked successfully with people who do not have a sense of humor. But given all the setbacks and difficulties and just plain weirdnesses one faces in a performance career (see #3 above), a sense of humor is essential for my sanity, and I respond to people who can make me laugh. (And who sing on pitch).

 5.      Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

If a song is 4 pages or less, taping the pages together so they lie flat on the music stand is fine. For songs that run longer than 4 pages, I prefer the music in a binder.  Also, if you’re going to use plastic page protectors, use the kind that’s “matte”, not glossy. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to read music through the reflected glare of lights.

6.     What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

The greatest need in cabaret today is probably media coverage. It is very difficult to get newspaper critics to attend cabaret. And TV coverage is virtually nonexistent.
Unfortunately, in our culture, if something is not seen on TV, it doesn’t exist. But a magazine like Cabaret Scenes is helpful, as are websites and blogs like this one.
Thanks for the chance to discuss these issues!

+1 You have a special gift for making humor work musically — Sharon McNight has said that you have “funny fingers.”  Any thoughts on “playing funny”?

“Funny Fingers”… I wonder whether Sharon meant “funny/strange” or “Funny/haha”.  🙂

Gee… I don’t think of what I do with comedy material as “being funny”. The most important thing a pianist can do when accompanying a comedy number (ie, a lyric that is full of punch lines), and this was drummed into my head by Julie Wilson, is to get out of the way! Literally, DO NOT PLAY when a punch line is delivered. If a lyric is to land, it must be heard. Beyond that, yes, there are musical things which can help and abet a funny lyric. But those are the same devices that would help and abet ANY lyric — sensitivity to what is being said, why it is being said, how it is being said.I think of an arrangement as a movie score — the “movie” is the story being told by the singer, projected on the minds of the audience. The accompaniment should be married to the singer’s vision, which ideally should be derived from the lyrics.Sometimes, you can tell a joke musically. In Jeff Harnar’s act and CD, “The 1959 Broadway Songbook”, we put together a medley of marriage songs. The accompaniment is “borrowed” from Sondheim’s “Not Getting Married Today”, over which Jeff sings marriage-related songs like “Get Me to the Church On Time” from MY FAIR LADY or “Don’t Marry Me” from FLOWER DRUM SONG. So it’s just another layer — something which some listeners will pick up on, others won’t.I think most comedians (musical or otherwise) would say that the essence of comedy isn’t “trying to be funny”, but being truthful. I once worked with Jean Stapleton on a song — “There Are Fairies At the Bottom of My Garden” — a turn-of-the-century parlor song, popularized by Bea Lillie. Stapleton was worried she couldn’t “make it funny”. I suggested we look at the lyric as very serious, and play it as such.  The result was funny — because she played the truth.And sometimes, you experiment with an idea, believing it should be funny, and you never solve it. Faith Prince and I thought it would be hilarious to open her act with “The Party’s Over”. But after you sing the first line (which would hopefully garner a laugh), where do you go with it? A good comedy song has to keep sustaining and topping itself. Of course, sometimes you don’t need to do a whole song — in which case you end up with a “bit”. And “bits” can be terrific — Jason Graae and most smart performers have built a huge repertoire of them.One of the biggest laughs I ever heard in a theater: Julie Kurnitz, who performed in an evening of cabaret turns at Town Hall, came out and sang just the opening line of the verse to Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”: “My story is much too sad to be told…” — and then she exited!

At the Keys: Vamp ‘Til Ready

October 8, 2007

They usually get paid first.  That’s how important music directors are to cabaret.

A brilliant singer accompanied by a so-so music director will sound much, much worse than a so-so singer with a brilliant music director (MD).

In this karaoke world, outsiders to cabaret may think that MDs are just automatons who put what’s on a page of music into the piano to give the singer something to sing to.  But they couldn’t be more wrong.

Here are just some of the many things MDs do as a matter of course:

  • Adapt songs to the needs/talents of the singers that they are working with.  They make sure singers are singing in the songs in keys suited to their voices, creating musical lines that complement the singers’ abilities and storytelling goals.

  • Figure out how to bridge material so that the audience is not unintentionally shocked by material transitions.

  • Often MDs will introduce musical ideas to an audience that pave the way for the singer to make a musical point.  They also provide music at the top of the show before a singer even comes on to create a mood where the audience is receptive to the singer.  And they create the final mood as the singer leaves the stage (at least for the run-off).

  • MDs often introduce the singer to the audience and are the ones who often get stuck singing difficult harmony lines.

  • MDs work with singers to structure shows.  They often recommend songs for the performer to do, and track down music (or lift it off recordings) that the performer can’t find.

  • MDs have a hyper-awareness during the show so that glitches don’t become train wrecks – often re-shaping arrangements on the fly or feeding singers lyrics.  (Once I saw Alex Rybeck play for a singer who jumped to the wrong lyric in On My Own.  It was amazing to watch him – I knew that in a nanosecond Alex had plans A, B, and C ready to roll depending what the singer did.)

  • They have to often work as a contractor for side players and be the liaison from the team of musicians to the performer.

  •  And they often fulfill roles as recording engineer, travel manager, restaurant booker, bodyguard, and shrink for their singers.

While it is no surprise to cabaret aficionados that music directors, especially top ones, are amazing talents, I think their role has been woefully unappreciated.  And they have been woefully underpublicized.

To correct that, this At the Keys feature will provide interviews with some of the great music directors on the scene and provide some appreciations for those that have passed on.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Miyazaki Cabaret Report is pleased to present… At the Keys.”