The 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.