Diva 5+1: Judy Kuhn

June 4, 2010

Serious PlaygroundI wish I could claim that I became enamoured of Judy Kuhn when seeing the original out-of-town tryout of Les Miz at the Kennedy Center; sadly I missed that occasion.  But the two performances that really made me a fan were a bootleg of a concert she did with Stephen Schwartz and her amazing work in the show Rags.  Other credits for Kuhn include the US premier of Chess, the Kennedy Center production of Passion, and being the singing voice of Pocahantas.  She has two great solo CDs of songs by Jule Styne and Laura Nyro and seems to be a staple of every major concert event featuring Broadway singers.

Washington audiences still have another week to see her in Sycamore Trees at Signature.

1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.

What do you mean by “perfect” ? I mean, there ain’t no such thing as “perfect”

… Well, I suppose I’ve been lucky because there’ve been things I’ve been a part of that have been extraordinary.

I suppose the first thing that comes to mind, actually, is the production I did in Washington of Passion, which Eric Schaeffer directed. And, you know, it was just the perfect combination of a brilliant, brilliantly written piece, as we can all agree by the greatest music theater artist of our time, of the last half century, plus a perfect cast, brilliant direction, brilliant design. There isn’t anything I would have changed about that experience, except perhaps the fact that we only did fifteen performances and I would have liked to have run it for a while….

On the cabaret or the concert side (I guess I don’t really think of myself as a “cabaret” person), I did recently a tribute to the late, great Laura Nyro, which I premiered at the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center, in the Allen Room. And it was one of those things that I worked very hard on with my music director and arranger Jeffrey Klitz. And we worked very hard. Really, it was just a labor of love. And I was so nervous that night – I had no idea what anybody would think of it, or who would be interested in Laura Nyro. And that room ! I don’t know if you know that room but it is so perfect and beautiful and perfect for Laura Nyro who was a New Yorker. (She) loved New York, wrote about New York, and to have that as a backdrop ! That night was so special for me; it went so well. I felt so… It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. And at the end of the show the audience leapt to their feet, and I thought, “Wow!” I mean, what else could you ask for !

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?

I don’t know if I have an answer to that question…. The only thing I can think of that I’ve been struggling with is what songs I want to sing next, ‘cause I want to put a new evening together and I’ve been … struggling with the fact that there are so many I want to sing ! Trying to figure out how to put them together in an evening.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

That’s such a “cabaret artist” question that I don’t consider myself. I’ve really only put together two evenings, with the same person (Jeffrey Klitz) who I adore… I suppose what I’ve loved about working with him is that he’s a great collaborator, he really kind of gets me, he’s very helpful to me. He understands my insecurities and my strengths. He’s a really good arranger but also great collaborator when I have my own ideas about a song. I tend to be very word-focused and he’s very… style-driven. So we have a really good marriage in that way, that I can talk about what the song means to me, and he can translate that into musical ideas.…

In the theater… the great (music directors) ones are the ones that listen and really breathe with you. When the person in the pit isn’t breathing with you, you can never really be together.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

One image ? … No, because I work from song to song and each song to me is like its own little play. And I approach each song like “who’s speaking in the song?” or “is it me speaking in the song?” and “what situation,” and “who am I speaking to?”, and all of that ! So whatever comes up for me in exploring a song, whether it’s a sense memory thing or a person I’m talking to … It varies from song to song.

5. How do you deal with being a brand?

(Laughing) Am I ? I didn’t know I was !!! What is my brand? I don’t know what my brand is ! I don’t like to think of myself as a brand. I think of myself as an actor, so I can be seen in lots of different ways. I guess I used to be thought of as “the ingénue” but I’m certainly not that anymore (that was many years ago). I don’t know ! I don’t know what the brand is so I can’t really speak to it !

+1 How do your concert and your theater work influence each other ?

That’s a good question. Hmmm… You know, it took me a lot of years to have confidence to do concert work. I didn’t like the idea of just being me in front of a microphone and feel the pressure of “entertaining” as opposed to just taking on another character and working in an ensemble and being directed and being an interpreter in that way instead of just being me. But I think the kind of vulnerability that goes along with doing concert work – to me that is the most vulnerable I can be onstage – has kind of helped me bring that more into the work I do in a theater piece, and in a way feel more comfortable even still in someone else’s skin when I’m taking on another character.

And certainly the work I’ve done as an actor has influenced enormously what concert work I do… Because I don’t really think of acting and singing as being anything different. I mean you’re speaking somebody’s words; you’re interpreting somebody’s words whether it’s set to music or not. It to me requires the same kind of craft or concentration. So that I’ve brought into the concert work I’ve done. I don’t care about sounding pretty – it’s a nice bonus if I do – but I care about communicating words and thoughts !

Diva 5+1: Liz Callaway

May 12, 2010

I wish I were prescient enough that I could claim to have spotted and admired Liz Callaway in the chorus of Merrily We Roll Along.  However, I became a fan two years later in the fall of 1983 when the A Stephen Sondheim Evening recording came out and I played that album over and over.  That was followed by her fabulous cameo moment in the Follies in Concert video.  And of course there were the great performances in Miss Saigon, Baby, not to mention the hundreds of Grizabellas that she sang.

In the cabaret world, there has been the incredible collaboration with her sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, not only producing the monumental Sibling Revelry recording, but also the amazing holiday song “God Bless My Family.”

I was fortunate to get an interview with Liz Callaway while she was here for the Sondheim at 80 concert with the National Symphony Orchestra:

1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.

There’s probably many I could choose that are pretty special. One that comes to mind … it was at Avery Fisher Hall, a big benefit. A “who’s-who” of Broadway people, it was a number of years ago and I sang “The Story Goes On.” There was a huge orchestra and a huge choir and it started with, I think, David Shire at the piano, and this gorgeous hundred-person chorus of Broadway singers started singing “Starting here, starting now…” and it wend into “da Da DA DA” and I came out and sang “The Story Goes On” and it was just one of those… it was like one of those magical moments. The orchestra was incredible. It was an orchestration that David Shire did for the event, and I re-recorded “The Story Goes On” for my own album, I used this orchestration. And it was something about David being there and the chorus and the audience reaction, it was just one of those… That was like a perfect moment !

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?

Well, I’m learning a song to sing on Monday ! I’m learning so much music now. And I’m doing Broadway By the Year on Monday, and I’m singing ”If He Walked Into My Life Again” from Mame which I’ve never sung before. And I came home on Monday night from San Francisco, and Tuesday I went by the rehearsal studio and we figured out what I was gonna do and what key and I got a piano track for it and I had to leave and come to DC. I’ve listened to it and that’s something I’m working on today. And I don’t know quite what I’m doing with that, not to mention the lyrics, but I’m doing it in three days. That is something very new that… I’ll take a stab at it ! It’s a great song. It’s a really fabulous song, I love the song but that would definitely be one that I haven’t mastered yet. I don’t expect that I will “master” it by Monday, but I hope I will do a good version of it. Frequently you learn a song to do once, then maybe later on, maybe a year from now or five years from now I’ll go back and sing it and work on it more, but this will be an initial stab at it….

I’m always afraid to listen to live recordings that I’ve done because there’s nothing I can do to change it, and I don’t want to be disappointed in how I’ve done something so I won’t listen. I did a recording a few years back – Bill Finn did an album (Infitinite Joy); we did a live concert at Joe’s Pub and I did a couple of songs for him on this CD. And I remember talking to him and he was, “So what did you think?” “Bill, actually I haven’t listened to it yet?” “Well, why not” “Bill, actually I listened to most of it, but not to my own stuff because I’m afraid !” And he was like, “What ! You have to go listen to it!” So eventually I did listen to it and it was, you know, very nice. But live recordings are scary!

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

Calling it a “marriage” is very, very true ! Well, you have to listen to each other and you have to trust each other and you have to be open to each other’s suggestions. A lot of it is just having respect for each other.

Alex (Rybeck) and I have worked together a very long time and he’s a genius as far as I’m concerned. And I love to help with arrangements and do arrangements. I play very little piano, but I hear things in my head. And he somehow is able, when I try to describe something…, he can somehow understand what I’m getting at. And because we’ve worked together for so long, we have a shorthand. I trust him and he has such great instincts and it’s such a pleasure… And we don’t always agree on everything but we certainly respect each other.

In terms of working with a surrogate. You know, there’s a lot of wonderful pianists out there and I’ll show someone the music; I’ll give them the recording. I’ve worked with some people who are very good, but the thing with Alex is I never have to think about it. I never have to think about what someone is playing. We just have this telepathic connection while we’re performing together. You can’t have that with another pianist ! Some pianists are extremely sensitive and you feel you’re on the same page and that’s lovely, but it’s never like being with Alex. And I’m going to be performing in Australia in June and unfortunately I can’t bring Alex with me. But I understand that the trio I’m supposed to be working with is fantastic, but I do wish he could be there !

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

I don’t know if I could answer that because I don’t know if I have “triggers” of things, and probably, if I did, I would want to keep it a secret. I like to be a little more organic, in the moment. I don’t usually think in those terms.

5. How do you deal with being a brand?

A brand? I’ve never thought of myself as a brand !

I can honestly say that I’ve never thought of myself as that – that I’ve never though of myself in terms of that ! I don’t know if I completely understand that, or if I necessarily agree with it.

It’s interesting. I’ve always thought of myself as extrememly original and unlike anyone else, for better or for worse. Sometimes it’s a good thing. (It’s not always a good thing.) But that’s sort of who I am. And actually I think in many ways, not so much in a show like what I did last night, but let’s say you’re coming to see just me, there is a great deal of myself in how I perform. And it’s not necessarily all that different from who I am. I don’t really do the “And NOW, I’m the DIVA! And this is my dah, dah, dah, dah, dah…” If anything, I strive to, when I have a performance, to give as much of myself as possible, because I think it’s a little scary and rather exhausting ! Do you know what I mean ? To have it be, in addition to hearing songs, hopefully sung well, and a good performance. But that it’s also you’re spending an evening with me as if we were having dinner or going out for coffee. That it would be just the same. So I actually don’t necessarily think in terms of a persona, as a brand. And I don’t think of it as technical like that.

I certainly realize that this is a business. And if I think of it as a business it’s more tastefiul for me because I really dislike self-promotion, which is a necessary evil. But I don’t love pushing myself out there. I’m a more modest person than that. I don’t love that. And I don’t require that to make me a happy person. But I know the business of music and that you have to sell yourself. It definitely is a business and if I think of myself as a business it’s not so distasteful to me. But, I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question. But that’s not how I think of myself….

I have discovered that the easiest part of this business is the actual doing of the show. It’s all the preparation leading up to it. It’s the travel. I always say, “I do the show for free, they pay me to travel.” I play a lot of tennis (it’s a big passion of mine)… I was playing one afternoon and I was talking to this guy, he knows what I do, and I was saying that I was so stressed, I left the house after sending a million e-mails and getting things set up for all these gigs and I told him I was kind of stressed because I had so much to do. And he said, “You mean, you don’t just show up and sing?” … I thought this was hilarious. He was not in the business, but anyone who reads your blog is going to know that there’s so much that goes into this kind of work.

+1 You are the current great epitome of that clarion Broadway belt. How do you manage to push through your range so seamlessly and how do you decide in terms of mixing versus flipping?

You know, it’s funny you should ask this ! Last night, I finally got up the courage to watch Seth Rudetsky’s deconstruction from the original cast album of Baby and “The Story Goes On” and when I would mix … and it was absolutely hilarious ! So much of it for me, I don’t think about it, it just comes naturally for me. Occasionally I might go, “Do I want to belt this or do I need to mix this?”

I actually don’t belt as high as a lot of singers do. I’m also very protective of my voice. I probably could belt higher than I do, but I just don’t want to strain my voice. It’s not worth it to me. And sometimes I think when you sing in a mix, to my ear there’s something more emotional about it than a belt. I don’t know, it’s just a feeling that I get when I’m singing. And there’s something more … there’s more emotion that comes out sometimes. But I don’t sit there and go, “All right, coming up here is this passage …” I just kind of sing it and it just ends up where it comes out in my voice.

But I don’t love vocal showing off. And sometimes I feel like it can be people are applauding… like if you watch American Idol (which I rarely do, that’s not my idea of a fun hour’s television)… but if you watch that, sometimes the audience is applauding the technical aspect. It’s like the equivalent of the audience applauding the set when they go to a Broadway show or a special effect. And I like the story. That to me is what’s important. So if a singer moves you, and they’re singing a lyric, and it’s touching and moving, that’s what I love. I don’t love, “Oh, wow ! Listen to what they can do !” That to me is not what singing is about. I can go “Wow, is that impressive” but it doesn’t move me. So a lot of my singing is just how I sing naturally. So I’m not great at explaining how I mix, the technical aspect of it, because it’s just how I do it.

Diva 5+1: Julia Murney

September 20, 2009

 julia murney

Julia Murney is one of the most in-demand musical theater actresses going today.  Notable career highlights include the tour and the Broadway run of Wicked as well as the Off-Broadway show The Wild Party, where she introduced the amazing Raise the Roof.

D.C. cabaret audiences can thank Murney everytime they hear a local performer do a song by Susan Werner, since it was Murney’s mention of the song on her Jeff Blumenkrantz podcast that inspired my interest in Werner’s work and subsequent dissemination.

imnotwaitingMurney is one of the amazing cast of the show First You Dream, a tribute to the music of Kander and Ebb, currently at  Signature Theater. (Don’t dawdle, the show only runs through September 27th!)  And she has a terrific CD, I’m Not Waiting.

1.  Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.

There have been moments when, just sort of everything clicks and you’re feeling well and the audience is digging it.  I’ve had it a few times during Wicked.  I’ve had it  the first performance that we did (I think it was the first preview performance) of The Wild Party where the thing that you’re not sure you’re going to be able to pull off comes to fruition.  And the people you’re doing it for all respond in a kind manner.  And that’s pretty amazing.  It doesn’t necessarily matter if the audience is of 2,000 or even 2.  Because, I will say the most recent I can think of is when we ran through the show I’m doing here at the Signature for the first time. When we did the whole thing and we did it for John Kander, we were just in a room and it was for John and a few of the technical people and I said “If we never did this show again, I would be happy.” Cause we did it for John, and I do not have enough words to describe this man.  He is just so magnificent and so kind and made us feel like we had honored his work.  And so if it’s an audience of two or an audience of two thousand, it doesn’t entirely make a difference. 

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet?

Hmmmm, let’s see.  Certainly the songs —  I would say, in this show because it’s the one I’m on right now —  there are a few of them!  Just last night, I took a poll after the show, saying, “OK, I have a poll for you guys (throughout the cast) – so you get out on stage and you start singing a song that’s kind of quiet (i.e. I do this song from The Act called The Money Tree) and I have a giant piece of phlegm on my vocal chords.  And what do you do?”  It’s quiet… there’s no time for me to go “Ach-chem” to get it out of there… It’s a very interesting thing, because my phlegm holds on.  (I’m sure this is really what your people want to hear!)  My phlegm … when it gets kicking, is really quite muscular.  So that one, it wasn’t my best Money Tree last night, let’s say.

But songs like that – When I did Wicked for a year and a half and constantly was in a battle with the big songs in that show.  More so, The Wizard and I simply because it’s the first one out of the gate, and it’s not a warm-up.  It’s a full-out assault, and some nights you just nailed it and I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I meant to do!” and some nights I’m just “Oooh, I’m sorry, would you all like your money back?”  To answer your question, the most recent would be The Money Tree and I would say perhaps I wrestled it to the ground a few evenings and a few nights it’s done the same to me!

… I did a concert at Feinstein’s in New York this spring, …and I sang Maria from West Side Story, and I will say  that I give props to any tenor who has to sing that song !  It is a hard song!  And as a female I had never attempted to sing it before.  It is a killer song !  … And people look at a song like The Wizard and I and go, “Oh, it’s just FUN and BELTING !” And no, it takes just a little bit of doing to figure it out.  It doesn’t just lie there and let you ride, you have to figure it out!

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

I would say that the key to making a marriage work between a singer and an MD is not unlike making a marriage work in real life — communication !  You have to feel free to say your desires and you have to be open enough to shut your mouth and listen to them, and then find your mid-line.  I’ve been really lucky and gotten to work with some amazing music directors.  David Loud is our music director on the First You Dream concert.  And he’s… I’ve known him for years and years, and he is a treat beyond treats.  And he knows what he wants, but he doesn’t bully you into it.  He also knows what John wants, because he’s worked with John Kander for so long, so you trust that what he’s bringing you – and John will tell you for his own self, when he hears it – but you can trust what he’s bringing you is John’s philosophy, if you can call it that.  And David is so open, and there’s also a part of David… in one of the songs in the show he’s like, “Oh, oh, what if you go up to that really high note?” and I’m “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.  That might happen in a recording, but it’s not gonna happen eight shows a week, not on your life!”  But his arrangements are so stunning.  And as a singer he’s an inspiring conductor.  And wonderful guy called Jon Kalbfleisch is our conductor here, but he (David Loud) would conduct us in all the rehearsals in New York and his face just becomes so beautiful and ethereal and you (think), “Oh, he wants that ethereal floaty sound” and you all go into a harmony chord that is so reflective of what is in his heart, and that’s really cool. 

And I got to work with Stepheh Oremus, and  he’s the music supervisor of Wicked (and he did All Shook Up and Avenue Q) and before he was fancy he  did The Wild Party.  So, I’ve known him from way long ago and he’s a treat and he’s a real rocker.  And Tom Kitt is a dreamboat of a human and of a musician.  So I’ve been super, super lucky.

But I do think you have to communicate and it’s taken me a long time to feel brave enough to say what I want.  Because my initial reaction, every time I learn a song for the first time is “I can’t do that.”  Every single time.  Sometimes I’m proven correct.  Most times I’m just freaking out.  Sometimes they just play psychologist as much as they play the piano.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

 I find — I remember even college — I remember a teacher saying… one of our students got up and sang Empty Chairs at Empty Tables from Les Miz and brought up an image for himself that was so intense that he crossed over and couldn’t sing anymore.  And he was gone… Bringing things in the direct sight-lines of your life may be difficult if you can’t control them, cause you’re not any good to anyone if you’re just crying, and you can’t sing.  Cause I can’t cry and sing at the same time, really.  Some people have that little mechanism to go all crazy.  So it’s more… I try to take images from my life, and take the blurry outsides of them so I’m not looking straight inside the image, so I can control it a little more.

Although there is in First You Dream, in the top of Act II, there’s this trio that David Loud … put together for the women called At the Movies… (Isn’t that beautiful, and aaaah, we love singing it.)  And so every night for that I’m watching a different movie, and that’s kind of fun.  (One) night, because Patrick Swayze passed, I watched Dirty Dancing.  But last night I watched Groundhog’s Day.  I have no reason why … Before Act II starts, I don’t go “Tonight, I’m gonna watch…”I just sit down there, and whatever image comes up first, that movie wins… It’s pretty random, but it’s fun.

5.How do you deal with being a brand?

That’s a tricky question, I will say.  I don’t know how much of a “brand” I am.  I know there’s maybe 27 fans out there who care about what I’m up to.  But being in a show like Wicked, which is an extraordinary thing, much bigger than itself now, certainly makes you much more of a brand than when you started.  And I vacillate between wanting to be out there and not wanting to be seen, in a way.  And Heidi Blickenstaff is in my show and she was saying “Sometimes I don’t want anybody to look at me” which is an odd statement coming from an actor, but I knew exactly what she was talking about. 

For five years I had one Website page that said “currently under construction.”  And that was a lie.  There was no construction.  I would just think, “Oh, god.  I don’t want to make a Web site!  Who cares? What am I going to put in there?  Oh, she’s doing another benefit??!!”   It was just silly. 

And then I spoke to a few people and we talked about the notion of being able to somewhat control your own image which is difficult in this era of bootlegging and YouTube and all of this stuff.  And it came to a point where I was even asked to do some concerts and people would ask “Do you have any tape of you singing, any live tape?” and I would say, “Yeah, you can go to YouTube, but if you don’t like the first thing you see please keep on clicking cause there are 500 things.”  And I tell you what, some of the things that are posted up there, are awful, awful.  I’m sick, my voice is busted.  Whatever it is.  And it’s disturbing.  Frankly it’s disturbing that the kids (I call them “the kids” frankly for lack of anything better to call them)… the people who post them don’t care.  And what they don’t care to absorb that what they’re taping isn’t meant to be taped.  It’s not staged to be taped, it’s not lit to be taped, and you’re not supposed to see just this two-minute clip.  You’re supposed to see it as part of this whole theatrical experience.  And I think there are a lot of things that you don’t pick up on when you’re sitting in an audience, that obviously, if you peruse the same clip over and over and over again, you’re going to pick out. 

And it’s hard, on the one hand, brandwise, to get back to your question – I never would have received fan letters from people in Croatia, which I have.  Amazing!  And people in Singapore.  And people in Australia.  That’s because of YouTube, plain and simple. … But it’s also hard because for me the key to YouTube (because I check YouTube to see what has gone up there) and it is illegal.  My position on it is I know it’s gonna be done but you’d better hide that light (on the recording device) because if I see the light, I’m gonna try to bust you.  If I don’t see the light, then I don’t know.  We came out last night at the top of the show and as soon as we came out after the first number we all looked at each other said “did you see that?”  And it wasn’t a camera.  We had house management go check and it was someone’s Blackberry in their shirt pocket and there’s a light on it.  It blinks intermittently.  But it’s distracting. And it’s distracting when you’re walking – you saw our set – when you’re walking down a steep staircase.   Or it’s distracting when you’re trying to remember all your lyrics.  I don’t know how many times I went up in the levitator during Wicked at the end of Act I and I would see 3 or 4 cell phones flip open because it was time to record the girl going up in the levitator.  And oh, come on, I can see you!  It’s a pitch black house and a bright blue light, and I can see you.  That part is hard.  To be distracted by it …

And the trick with YouTube is not to go to the comments section.  Because as lovely as some people can be, Wow, some of them can be so mean.  And I’m not unaware of a lot of the mean things that are said.  And it’s hard.  I don’t have a rhinoceros skin.  I’m not more confident than anybody else.  I’m certainly not any more confident than some 17 year old who’s judging me from wherever he lives.  And it’s hard.  You want to go, “Oh dude, c’mon, be nice.”

+1 You’ve done a lot of workshops of new shows and have introduced a lot of material.  What tips do you have about working with songwriters and being the first performance of material?

Well, I think it’s a combination thing of letting them hear what it is they’ve written and giving them the chance to hear where it works and where it doesn’t.  But also within that I’ve had some times, and I’ve certainly gotten better at this since years have gone by, where something will be written in a key that is exceedingly high, and I just don’t sing like that.  I don’t want to sing like that anymore.  It’s too high – the children can do that.  Leave that for the kids.  … So I’ll say so.  And I have to say that any writer worth their salt will listen to a singer going “This is too much.”  It sort of falls into the category of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”  Can I high-mix you an F? Yeah!  Do people want to hear that?  Not over and over and over again!  Yes, there is a faction of people – my agent all the time – I’m like, “I don’t want to sing all the …” (and the agent interrupts) “But I want you to!”

It’s hard!  Wicked took a toll on me physically for all the joy that it brought me – and it did bring me a great deal of joy and I loved … doing that show can be so rewarding, and the cast was awesome and the crew was fabulous – but it also took such a mental toll on me and my health and stuff.   That after singing that for a while it’s like “Oh, gosh, I’m exhausted!” And one week of rest is not going to fix it! 

This Kander and Ebb show is a real bear, especially for the women to sing.  And that’s how they wrote.  They wrote for the women to just let loose.  And it’s that combo platter!  It’s very similar to Wicked.  I love Stephen Schwartz; I’ve known Stephen Schwartz for years; and I wanted to make him proud; I wanted to make him pleased.  In the same way that I want to make John Kander pleased.  John Kander!  Because he’s fancy-pants.  Because he’s the grandfather you want! I’d marry him.

So at the same time you’re trying to figure out how to negotiate your way through a show so you can do it eight times a week.  And how to do it healthfully and intelligently.  But you also want to be able to just let it rip.  So it’s a constant negotiation!

Diva 5*+1: Lina Koutrakos

September 17, 2009


OK, Lina Koutrakos is one of the most 360-degree talents in the cabaret world.  As a performer she straddles the worlds of rock and cabaret, maintaining both a long-standing cabaret partnership with pianist Rick Jensen as well as fronting a separate rock group.  Moreover she is one of the most in-demand cabaret directors in the country (forget just New York).  As a teacher she is a fixture nationally, not only conducting three regular New York series, but teaching regularly in New York, St. Louis, Chicago with drop-in appearances in other luckly cities (DC and Las Vegas this year).  Oh yeah, she’s also a songwriter whose song Bury Me Deep just won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Gospel/Inspirational category.

And that only scratches the surface of this magnificent performer.  Hope this interview gives you more!

And if you don’t have her amazing recent CD/DVD of The Low Country, why not?

Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.

There’s many “perfect cabaret experiences” that I’ve had.  First of all, I’m a director, so I see the nuts and bolts of every cabaret show when I’m sitting in an audience….Since I am a director I enjoy seeing the nuts and bolts of a cabaret show, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – I like it.  But then what happens is that as a singer and director in the audience, by the third or fourth song all of sudden… we’re at the end of the show and I realized I stopped seeing the nuts and bolts.  That is a rare and perfect cabaret experience for me.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet?

Okay, I think it just came up in the last few days.  We’re just starting to learn some new songs, Rick (Jensen) and I cause we’re going to do a new show in St. Louis and we’re going to do a show at Davenport’s in Chicago and then in October we’re debuting at the M bar in Hollywood, California.  So that show’s going to be a very important hybrid of everything we do.  So we’re just trying to look at new material for it as well as old stuff.  So I don’t know, I think I’ve nailed everything I’m already up to.  Oh golly, I think I’m stumped.

Okay, this is odd, we’re taking a look at, I think it’s George Harrison, the Beatles’s While My Guitar Gently Sleeps.  And Rick keeps playing it like an old Billie Holliday song.  We’re both taking a look at it as though it were just a comment on the world, but blue.  And it’s funny, when Rick, who I’m lucky enough to work with, arranges something, or even pop music, and takes it and takes out all the pop clichés and really breaks down the lyric, too.  “I look at you sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps…”   What the hell does that mean?  But you know what?  It means plenty – so here we go! And no, I have not won yet.  But it’s a very exciting challenge!

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

Okay.  Well first of all, I’ve been very lucky.  I’ve had two cabaret musical director “marriages.”  My first “marriage” was a long one, about twenty years, with Dick Gallagher.  We got “married” young, so we found our way together.  I think it benefited both of us to work out our singer/musical director stumbles together.  He went on to play for Patti LuPone quite exclusively.  And I heard that just the other day, I believe she was at the Kennedy Center, and she just dedicated, yet again, over three years after his death her show to him.  So he certainly knew what he was doing. 

And I ended up working, while exclusively with Dick doing my shows and arrangement, I ended up just doing piano bars to make a living.  So four nights a week I was with a different piano player.  What I know is that they stretched the hell out of me, which is great!  Look, I don’t know, but when you’re young and certainly when you’re a girl tjhere;s a little bit of magic about your musical director.  You know, your faux lover until you find one of your own; and he’s making music with you.  As important or more important than someone making love to me.  So, it was a big, big, thing.  And every time I’d go to a piano bar four nights a week, and I didn’t get to sing with Dick (which felt like I was getting into a bathtub, it’s so comfortable and exciting) – hell, it’s everything you want in a lover. 

And there were the people who were stretching me at the piano … and there was a kid (we were all kids then) who played on Saturday night and wrote his own music, and his name was Rick Jensen.  And there was another guy who stretched me a whole other direction, and his name was Chris Marlowe.  I think what happened too, was that we had two seconds in piano bars to talk to each other. You’d run up and hand a piece of music like “Natural Woman” to Chris Marlowe and he’d go, “you just want this the regular way?”  And I’d say, “even more gospel-ly, if you can, and there’s this key change.”  So I think the idea of not having a lot of time and being in front of a live audience really got me over my fear of talking to musical directors.  I used to think that I didn’t have a right to tell them what I wanted or speak to them on their level because I was not a trained musician.  But these guys were so great and so interested in the collaborative dance that I absolutely got carte blanche from them years ago to explain to them anything any way I wanted.  Then it’s like an improv… you throw an emotional and musical ball back and forth. 

Now I’m exclusively in the cabaret world, not in the pop/rock world; I have lots of different musicians, wonderful piano players.  But when I’m doing my shows, creating “Torch” or doing cabaret things, I work with the man I teach with most of the time, Rick Jensen.  And he is my, uh, second “husband”; I’m probably his second or third “wife” (if that’s how you want to talk about it).  We’ve known each other in and out of the pop world, clubs, directing other people’s shows, and just as friends and family.  We both lost Nancy (LaMott) together, and all that stuff.  So we have a language together that doesn’t need words.  And when we need words we both love them so much as songwriters, we throw them around with great, matched ease, if you will.  It’s thrilling. 

So don’t be afraid.  What you have to say as a singer is incredibly valid, especially in cabaret because your interpretation of what you’re going to do is the key to everything with the piano player.  And most of the men in New York City who do this for real and get accolades for it, they are phenomenally interested in this back and forth (That was a lot,huh?)

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

Well, the first thing I was going to say is “anger.”

Yeah, it’s funny because I’m not an angry singer or performer, I would never say that about myself.  I would say “dramatic” if I was going to lean toward that, or “passionate,” even.  But I wouldn’t say anger.  But anger is an easy one.  And I often use it with students when I can’t really get them to understand subtle connections which I am so happy to be able to do now.  I mean the subtleties of how I get sense memories now is fantastic, may it never end.  May I continue to  discover them all.  I even discover some in front of an audience; it’s just so much fun.

But the easy one and the first one that’s easy to get to is anger.  It’s also a tough one to get to.  Especially as women, we don’t have a natural permission to be angry in front of people.  We’re supposed to still be “ladies.”  We don’t get angry.  But to spotlight it and do it front of people takes a lot of guts.  But I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and I like that sort of thing, and I’m Greek, so it all comes very easily to me. 

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

Boy, I’m not going to be popular here. 

The realistic one?  It needs a little bit of more light shined on it because there ought to be more cabaret rooms in more cities and people should to know what cabaret is, first of all.  There is a need to get what we do out to the general public.  It is a very valid and very rooted art form and a lot of people, especially if I’m travelling a lot more now out of town — if I’m not with the local city’s that I’m in cabaret community, they think cabaret is a host of different things.  Even if they get past that it’s a strip club, it’s an old woman in a boa singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” period.  Or they think it’s, unfortunately because Mr. Simon Cowell who up until this year would snarl and say “Oh, that’s so cabaret,” he really helped alienate the entire pop world.  And I’m a rock and roll singer with a very valid rock and roll band, singing in really very valid rock and roll clubs.  It is not a cabaret act when I sing my own music.  And the ONLY reason I think that I am good at doing that authentically is because I learned how to it naked at the piano and my own feelings.  So I think one pressing need is to educate the general public about cabaret.  And how great it is to see somebody up close like that.  Metaphoriacally as well as physically.

And the other pressing need which I’m not going to be too popular for, is we really have to stop touting mediocrity in cabaret as greatness.  That’s really pissing me off.  The bar has to be set a little higher amongst us.  And I don’t mean to say that the people who are in it should stop being in it.  They should learn the craft of it.  And obviously I have a vested interest because I teach the craft, and hopefully I keep practicing what I preach. 

I think the bar for cabaret should be set higher and we should stop touting mediocrity in cabaret as greatness.  Which goes hand-in-hand with the pressing need of alerting the rest of the world to this artform.  If we keep touting mediocrity, then it’s no wonder that Simon Cowell (sneers) at us.

6. How do you deal with being a brand?

I like it.  I like it.  I’ve always like it.  Which is why I’ve always straddled both the cabaret world and the rock and roll world.  I like it and I think I like it because I truly believe at this point in my life, my brand is “authenticity.”  So it works for me because I get to be spotlighted for who I am on purspose.  And I’ve always like that.  I’ve always wanted everybody to take a look at me.  I think it’s very, very intelligent of God that he blessed me with some chops because I wouldn’t be in the spotlight without any talent.  But I like it; it’s what I always wanted.  I’ve always wanted to be a rich and famous pop star my whole life, so the idea that I’m a teeny bit branded makes me feel like I’ve arrived at a piece of my goal.  And I think the good news is that I’m not twenty years old when this sort of thing starts to happen to me, so I’m happy that the brand is that I’m for real.  I like being on stage almost more than being anywhere else, and I’m comfortable with almost anybody, anywhere.  But the truth is, onstage, I’m very much myself.  I’m almost more myself than I am anywhere else.  At the very least, I am the best parts of myself and it’s a wonderful place to be!  So I kinda dig it, as long as I keep what I do on-stage as real as possible.  It would be exhausting if it were a “persona.”  I don’t like seeing it in people on the cabaret stage and I would sure as hell hate doing it.

+1 It fascinates me that somebody that I first saw as a “Southern rock chick” is one of the top directors for Porter, Gershwin and all this Broadway material.  So how does the one influence the other?

I came into the city to be a rock star.  I wanted to be, you know, rich and famous, and I was always a pop person.  The only musical I ever paid attention to as a kid was The Sound of Music.  And after that I grew up and I was only interested in was Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley.  Aretha Franklin, okay Motown, and definitely electric guitar rock and roll.  And I wanted to come in and become more Janis Joplin than anybody else.  I had a band when I first moved into the city.  I worked three jobs, I cleaned office buildings in the middle of the night, I waitressed, and I had a 9 to 5 job to pay my band’s cab fare.  I did really well for somebody in New York City that didn’t know their ass from their elbow.  But Dick Gallagher at the piano, and he was also a cabaret person, and that’s when I needed to start making a living in the piano bars.  I started hearing songs from musicals and I knew the American songbook because of my parents, they would listen to Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra (and Frank covered the gamut, you know?).  So I knew these things, I knew every pop song and who wrote every one.  So I’m working in the piano bars and every time I’d hear a song, I’d go to the piano player and say, “Who wrote that?  “Who wrote that?”  Mostly for me, the people I ran to the piano for were Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.  I started falling in love with these things, and I always had a lot of respect for them because I knew them inside-out since being a kid.  And I had to make a living. And I had to sing.  And because I couldn’t afford the band anymore.  I was hungry.  And Dick Gallagher and I started arranging pop tunes.,  I think we could have been one of the first to get on the map arranging pop tunes with just a piano and a vocalist.  And I wont he Best Female Vocalist of the Year award from MAC a long, long time ago and that sort of solidified that I was OK to be doing the pop. So I think I kept both going.  And my dream was always to write my own music and sing the Southern rock that I grew up with (I was a Navy brat, I grew up mostly down South.)  And then I started getting a lot of notoriety and reviews in cabaret – the world was a lot smaller than the big pop/rock world, and I rose to the topof it pretty quickly. 

One day Dick Gallagher said to me, “Honey, you’re doing a lot of this pop stuff.  You just won an award.  Why don’t you start to teach?”  And I cried for two hours because all I heard in my head was “those who do, do, those who can’t teach.”  And I was mortified.  But I realize that now when I stand in front of a plugged in audience of sold out crowds at B.B. Kings or the Mohegan Sun or the Bottom Line, or Joe’s Pub, the reason I am riveting as a center stage singer with six plugged-in screaming guitars, et cetera is because I have learned how to do this with just a piano.  I have learned to find my feelings, to couple it to the music to relate to the audience, and to put it anywhere.  And since it’s something that excites the shit out of me, I teach because I need to pass it forward.  And every time I tell somebody something, I learn more and I can’t wait to get out there again.

It’s like, look, are you going to get dressed up and go to a black tie affair, or are you going to wear your jeans and go hiking?  I like them both, I can do them both, and I’m SO tired of the idea in my youth that it used to be that I couldn’t tell the rockers I’m a cabaret person and I couldn’t let the cabaret people know I was a rocker. You know what?  I’m old, time is ticking.  I’m not apologizing for being able to do a lot of things.  And I’m really grateful for the opportunity to do them well.

*OK, technically it’s now “6+1” since I’ve added a new question to the line-up.

Diva 5+1: Ute Lemper

May 29, 2009


 Ute Lemper has just released her new CD, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow.  New York audiences have two upcoming opportunities to see her: Monday June 8th she’ll be doing a sing-and-sign at Barnes and Noble and Tuesday June 9th she’ll be in concert at Le Poisson Rouge.  Well-heeled Washingtonians can catch her this weekend as one of the attactions Friday, June 5th at the Washington National Opera Ball.

I first encountered Lemper’s work more than 20 years ago when Fred Lee played the Westwind track from her first Kurt Weil CD.  I remember being struck by the fascinating combination of a very modern, idiosyncratic vocal against a traditional lush track.  In a completely different side of her work, I saw her on Broadway in Chicago, playing Velma against Karen Ziemba’s Roxie.  Lemper has become one of the most fascianting concert artists, conquering a wide range of materials, styles, and venues.  (Lemper’s official bio follows at the end of the interview.)

1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.
I would have to describe a venue, probably. I would probably say that Joe’s Pub down here in New York is one of the most original situations to perform in. … It’s the audience that makes a cabaret experience. You have to have an audience which is ready to play, ready to go crazy with you, ready to be provoked, ready to be teased. And the Downtown New York audience at Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater is absolutely ready to do that. More than any other audiences. They’re definitely not conservative, they’re not frightened. They’re intellectuals, gays, students… Actually they’re people of all ages, but they’re very loose, very open and interested in this repertoire I’m representing – the European songbook of cabaret. So I would say Joe’s Pub is really the best of the cabaret audiences. (later) Just the whole thing that they’re there planted on these couches in front of you and putting their feet up… And it’s just like “You’re relaxed down there; I’m relaxed on stage. Let’s go for it; let’s party.”
But it doesn’t mean that it is my favorite performance situation. I actually love to be on a big stage, on a symphony stage or a large theatrical stage with at least eight hundred to a thousand people in the audience, and actually present the music in a bit more official way than in a very small cabaret situation.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Struggling with? Well, if I would struggle with a song, I probably wouldn’t want to perform it, because only if you really master the song, if you own it and fall into it and lose yourself, are you ready to perform it.
I don’t know. Songs that I would struggle with are probably a lot of musicals songs. Anything where you would have to project the voice and sing beautifully. I don’t know; I can’t do that. All I can do is interpret and take people on an emotional ride, I guess. Yes, I do have a voice on top of it, but it doesn’t mean it’s all about the voice. That I never like, if it’s all about the voice. It’s about the soul of it.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a somebody new, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

First of all, I don’t have a “musical director.” I am the “musical director.”
But I do have a very committed band around me with a lot of creative input, of course. It’s a very collective situation in our band. Or with my pianist. But really, at the end of the day… I am guiding through the musical vision.
To answer the other question, to change musician is a very terrible thing because so many details you’re used to and you worked on over the years and years. To start working with somebody else is a super-big change, but of course it is possible.
The hardest chair to replace is the pianist chair, and then I’m torn in between choosing a jazz pianist or a classical pianist. Because my repertoire is so diverse that some music I need an open improvisatory-crafted pianist; and on other stuff I need a pianist who can really sight-read and play (these) complicated chords and has a more classical approach. But then on top of all of it they need to accompany a singer. That means go with my breathing. I don’t want to go with their (breathing)… but go with my breathing. That is a complicated chair to fill. It takes time.
So, you know, I’ve gone to many pianists and I love very much the guy I have now, Vana Gierig. I’ve worked with him about five years now, and definitely it took us about a year, more than a year, to really grow together, and we’re having a fantastic ride. Hopefully he’ll stay with me.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

I would say that one is lucky to be a performer with music, because the music transports you right away into it.  I think it’s harder to do it like an actor where you have to really create it out of nothing, inside yourself.  But the music is the launching pad.  You know, the chords, the glory of the melodic journey just takes you into it and helps you.  No way, it’s not a struggle at all.  You start a song and the first chord goes down and you’re already into this magical universe. 

Just forget about the technical singing, too.  You just gotta go for it. That’s why in my heart I feel I’m more a musician than I want to be an actor.  You know I did both, and I combine both, but really it’s the music that takes all the restrictions off my chest and I totally let loose through the music. 

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

I would say to be a little more political and daring.  I mean it shouldn’t be just an entertainment dessert factory to sing to the people in the old-style dame/diva way.  But I think it should definitely have an edge to it, and comment and bring in what’s happening today.  Not in a specific way but in an open, political way.  It can be provocative and it can be criticizing and it can be outrageous, but yet it has to stay truthful.  I don’t like it too much if it becomes more… if it becomes a parody, farce.  For me it’s the fine line, really, between truth and play. 

(Speaking of her new CD) I’m trying to go that fine line, because it’s more a contemporary CD, but with that combination of entertainment and truth and a little bit political and at the same time open about life and love.  It’s the fine line between the seriousness and the play. Yeah.

+1 As an artist, you seem to be constantly growing and tackling new challenges. How do you decide what’s next?

Oh, I just let things come to me.  I can’t make it up myself…. There are so many things happening in my life.  It depends on the people I work with.  … I am suddenly inspired. 

Or here, I suddenly have a challenge that I have to perform in a poetry festival, you know, and that makes me study the entire poetry of Charles Bukowski and then I start.  OK, I read the books and then I suddenly feel that there could be wonderful songs made out of this.  And then I work with my partner, other musicians.  It’s the collaborations, the other people, the inspirations, the day-to-day work that opens new doors and you start to walk into new places and you catch fire.  And you want to make it great. 

I don’t really have my future much planned out, but it’s the things I’m working on right now and those I want to do over the next year, two years, and a couple of new projects possible and dreams I want to follow up.  But basically I’m living my dream, and I’m trying to stay open for… I know very well what I don’t want to do. … I don’t necessarily want to go back into a musical, a Broadway show like this.  I really want to take on the more difficult projects (and it can be very difficult to be on Broadway, I don’t want to say that).  But what I do want to say is the more uncommercial projects. 

Ute Lemper’s Bio

 Ute Lemper’s career is vast and varied. She has made her mark on the stage, in films, in concert and as a unique recording artist. She has been universally praised for her interpretations of Berlin Cabaret Songs, the works of Kurt Weill and French chanson and for her portrayals on Broadway, in Paris and in London’s West End. She will release her new album Ute Lemper: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, May 5, 2009. The album is unique to Ute’s body of work as she composed all of the songs on the album.  She was born in Munster, Germany and completed her studies at The Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna.
 Her professional debut on the musical stage was in the original Vienna production of Cats in the roles of Grizabella and Bombalurina. She went on to play Peter Pan in Peter Pan (Berlin) and Sally Bowles in Jerome Savary’s Cabaret (Paris) for which she received the Moliere Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She played Lola in The Blue Angel (Berlin) and Maurice Bejart created a ballet for her, La Mort Subite (Paris). Ute also appeared in many Weill Revues with the Pina Bausch Tanztheater, and she created the part of Velma Kelly in London’s production of CHICAGO in the West End, for which she was honored with the Laurence Olivier Award, and moved to the Broadway production after one year.
 Ute Lemper’s solo concerts, which include Kurt Weill’s Recital, Illusions, City of Strangers and Berlin Cabaret Evening have been produced in prestigious venues throughout the world. Her symphony concerts include The Seven Deadly Sins, Songs from Kurt Weill, Songbook (Michael Nyman) and Songs from Piaf and Dietrich with the symphony orchestras of London, Israel, Boston, Hollywood, San Francisco, Berlin The Paris Radio Symphony Orchestra, The Illusions Orchestra (Bruno Fontaine) and the Michael Nyman Band (Michael Nyman). She also appeared in Folksongs with the Luciano Berio Orchestra (Luciano Berio) and with The Matrix Ensemble (Robert Ziegler) performing Berlin Cabaret Songs.
 Her celebrated recordings for DECCA include Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (Vols. I and II),Three Penny Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins, Mahogonny Songspiel, Prospero’s Books (Michael Nyman), Songbook (Michael Nyman/Paul Celan), Illusions (Piaf/Dietrich), City of Strangers (Prever/Sondheim) and Berlin Cabaret Songs (German and English versions). She was named Billboard Magazine’s Crossover Artist of the Year for 1993-1994. Her latest release on Decca are But One Day, (March, 2003), which features new arrangements of Weill, Brel, Piazolla, Heymann and Eisler songs, as well as the first recordings of her own compositions, for which she wrote both lyrics and music.
 In early 2000 Decca/Universal Music released Punishing Kiss, featuring new songs composed for her by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Nick Cave. She has also recorded Crimes of the Heart, Life is a Cabaret and Ute Lemper Live for CBS Records and for POLYDOR, Espace Indecent, Nuits Etranges and She Has a Heart.Recently she recorded a Live album and a Live DVD at the Carlyle, one of New York’s hottest Cabaret stages. It was released worldwide on DRG/ Koch records and EDEL\records in Europe.
 All That Jazz/The Best of Ute Lemper, which features highlights from her illustrious career to date was released in 1998. It accompanied her playing Velma Kelly in the London production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago for which she received the 1998 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. After nine months in London’s West End Ms. Lemper made her Broadway debut in September 1998. A major highlight of her eight months American engagement in Chicago was starring with Chita Rivera in the Las Vegas premiere in March 1999.
 In film, her many credits include L’Autrichienne (Pierre Granier-Deferre), Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway), Moscow Parade (Ivan Dikhovichni), Pret a Porter (Robert Altman), Bogus (Norman Jewison) and the most recent releases, Combat de Fauves (Benoit Lamy), A River Made to Drown In (James Merendino) and Appetite (George Milton). She has appeared on television in Rage/Outrage, The Dreyfus Affair (Arte), Tales from the Crypt (HBO), Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (Bravo), Illusions (Granada), Songbook (Volker Scholendorff), The Wall (Rogers Waters) and The Look of Love (Gillina Lynn).
Ms. Lemper currently lives in New York with her three children, Max, Stella and Julian.

Diva 5+1: Tommy Tune

January 21, 2009

Photo courtesy of Strathmore

Tommy Tune brings his new semi-autobiographical show Steps in Time to Strathmore Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, featuring the Manhattan Rhythm Kings. 

Talk about someone who deserves teh term “legend.”*  Not only has Tune turned out incredible performances in shows such as Seesaw, Busker Alley, and Bye Bye, Birdie, he has directed theatrical landmarks such as Nine and Cloud 9.  In all, he has won nine Tony Awards in four different categories.

It was a thrill to be able to interview him, and I am very pleased that he is the inaugural male performer for this blog’s “Diva 5+1” series.

1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.
Well the perfect performance is one that you’re so into that you don’t remember it, and it occasionally happens. You can’t will it to happen, but you can ask for it. But then you also ask for the happy accident, whatever that might be, because that’s what we have that people who work on film don’t have. We are out there and it has to go on, whatever happens. So you always ask for the “happy accident” so the audience knows that you really are live and you really are up there and you are using — just like them– breathing the same air, experiencing the same moments together, while you’re in that big room together.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Yeah! It’s my opening number, I don’t have it right yet, but I’m working on it. It’s a song that Cy Coleman wrote called “Hey There, Good Times.” …It’s a very difficult song to sing and it’s got a lot of words and it moves very fast. But the lyrics of this song, which are by Michael Stewart, are so right for our times right now! … Those are just the right words for the right time… It’s the right song, but it’s gonna take me a while to master it, but this whole show’s gonna take me a year to master. You never really master it, you just keep working toward the next performance. Each performance is a student of the last performance; so you just keep improving, otherwise you go stale.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work?
Michael Viagi has been with me for 33 years. We have a real symbiotic relationship. (There’s) give and take and I respect him and he respects me and then he breathes with me! We’re like the Corsican Brothers, he just breathes with me. He also plays the piano for the show — he did the arrangements. I don’t know, it’s like we’re one. We are one out there. I value him. He’s immensely valuable to us and to the show.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
Oh my god, I go through thousands of those. Every song is underpinned with a piece of my existence. Every phrase! There’s something, there’s a personal attachment. That’s why I chose those songs. It shifts slightly, but it starts getting lined up. That’s what I have to bring to a song besides singing the notes properly and singing the rhythms properly and getting the right words and the right intonation and all that technical stuff. It’s the underpinning of the song is what makes it live.

5. At what point do you add the choreography?
Some of the things are just pure choreography, just pure dancing. That’s from the beginning. (But) the staging I really leave ‘til last because the main thing is to get the emotional arc of it down right and to move to how this song moves to that song moves to that song. And then there’s no relationship between that song and that song which gives it an energy like “What’s that? That’s a change.” You know, you have to keep pulling all the stops out and figuring that out. And then I leave some places where I don’t know what I’m going to say so it lives, it’s not a pat piece. It varies.

+1 As someone who has notably worked with and befriended a number of strong-willed female performers, any tips on the care and handling of divas?
Oh, yes — LOVE them! All they want to do is be LOVED! It’s that simple, Michael, because all of it – ALL-is an expression of love. That’s all it is. That’s a big one, but that’s the truth of it!

*Don’t take my word for it, just ask the Blackglama mink people:

Tommy Tune by expandableone.

Diva 5+1: Margie Seides

October 11, 2008

Washington DC was fortunate in the last century to have Margie Seides appearing regularly in town.  Although she has moved to New York, she is returning to perform at Blues Alley, Tuesday, 14 October.  I feel very lucky  that she has consented to do an interview for this blog:

1.  Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.

I did my show at Signature Theater. The morning of the show I woke up with a temperature of 103. Right before I went on stage I threw up twice. It was the best show I ever did—wasn’t nervous—-wasn’t listening to myself—-I was exactly in the moment all the way through—a perfect cabaret experience. 

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet?

Many of my songs are very wordy and intense. My Husband and I Decided To Take A Car Trip Through New England is one of them. It’s a very theatrical song (kind of a little 3 character play) and I struggle to find the arc while staying in the moment, remembering the lyrics and not rushing frantically towards the end so I can get it over with. I love the song but I’m always worrying about screwing it up. I can’t say that I’ve won the battle yet, and not sure that I ever will. In a way a little bit of a struggle keeps me on my toes while I sing it—-a good thing!!

Paul Trueblood and Margie Seides

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

Paul Trueblood and I really do have a cabaret marriage. We’ve been working together for almost 12 years and we adore each other!! Like any marriage the key to making it work is communication and dedication to the offspring (in this case, the show). Paul is a particularly important part of my show. Aside from the music there is a lot of bantering that goes on between us. I’ve never had to do the show with anyone else but I think one thing that might be important regarding working with a surrogate would be to have a book that is exceptionally clear around both music and patter.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?


There is a moment right before I fall asleep at night that feels particularly delicious. It’s kind of on the edge of conscious and unconscious where I am absolutely relaxed and comfortable. I often conjure up that image as I perform. It helps keep me relaxed and grounded. 

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

The most pressing need the world of cabaret has today is to keep both the public and performers passionate for the art form. In this very technical world the intimacy of cabaret is something we must treasure and nurture.

+1  As someone who is a trained therapist, other than the 50-minute timeframe, what other links to do see between psychology and cabaret?

Certainly communication with the audience /patient is a similarity. On the other hand, with a show it is I who does all the work. In therapy I talk less and the patient talks more. Empathy is a big similarity—In order to connect with an audience or patient you must be able to sense their mood. That is key!!!

Margy Seides, psychotherapist, life coach and singer/comedienne has maintained both a hospital and private practice in the areas of schizophrenia, personality disorder, substance abuse and cardiac illness. In 1991, Ms. Seides was a recipient of the Washington Psychoanalytic Foundation Research Prize. Ms. Seides has been performing her one woman show for the past 11 years in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, where she appears regularly at the legendary Blue’s Alley. She has been active in the fight against AIDS and has given benefit performances in New York (G.M.H.C.), Philadelphia (A.S.I.A.C.) and Washington, DC (Food for Friends).Ms. Seides was a 1997 Eugene O’Neil Cabaret Symposium Fellow, and a 2004 Yale Cabaret Symposium Fellow. This past summer she was chosen as one of seven participants from across the country to participate in a weeklong performance workshop at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Ms.Seides lives in New York City.

Diva 5+1: Sally Martin

September 10, 2008
DC’s Sally Martin has had quite a year: she’s released a terrific CD, Another Time, Another Place and has had great concerts at the Corcoran, the Corner Store, and the Lyceum.  Next month she appears at the German Embassy and Germano’s in Baltimore.
And we are fortunate that she agreed to do an interview for this blog!
1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.
A “perfect” cabaret experience was last year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art—the CD release concert for my new album”Another Time, Another Place,” with James R. Fitzpatrick, my musical director, and Deborah Brudvig on cello. I felt completely “in the moment” throughout the show and even though I’d felt extremely pressured and stressed ahead of time to finish the album, when that night arrived we really took our time and just celebrated the music, and James’ great arrangements! Both James and Deb are a joy to work with.

But I’ll add a word on “perfect” cabaret experiences– sometimes, even when all the elements are in place, something doesn’t quite click and the magic doesn’t quite happen. Conversely, unexpected elements can come together and surprise you. Last February James and I did our “Parisian Valentine” show at “The Corner Store” on Capitol Hill, a small art gallery and concert space run by artist Kris Swanson and her husband Roy Mustelier, both great community arts patrons.I’d never performed there before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. We worked with only a keyboard; the place was jam-packed with people on narrow seats, but there was just something about our mood, the audience, the material, and all of Kris and Roy’s efforts with lighting and sound that just produced a perfect blast of an evening.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet?
Both James and I struggled for over a year on our interpretation of “America” by Paul Simon, on the new album. We performed it several times before we recorded it, but the final version only emerged in the recording studio– a completely different, jazzier feel than how we had been doing it it, but one with more urgency, more of a political undertone. I’m very happy with it now– and it’s been picked up by XM radio!

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?   For the past four years, James Fitzpatrick and I have been collaborating very closely.  We co-produced the new album, and he was like a steady beam of light guiding me through the process. He’s a great friend, fabulous arranger, and has an instinctive feel for how to program a show– he’s absolutely brilliant at that. The keys to making it work–trust, respect, and clarity.  Trust– that there’s a mutual emotional and artistic commitment to the collaboration and making it work; respect for each other’s ideas and feelings and being comfortable enough to say which ideas you like and which you don’t. Clarity– as in a regular marriage, you both need to be clear about the financial side of things and your professional expectations, and be able to talk about that.


When I work with someone else,  the watchword for me is preparation before I rehearse. I try to organize the music and arrangements as much as I possibly can, get it to the pianist ahead of time, and before we start rehearsing, go over what we want to accomplish in rehearsal and what’s the highest priority. I also try and be open to the new pianist’s different styles and riffs and new ideas in the context of my arrangements, which can make it a positive collaboration. It’s also important to be somewhat flexible with your repertoire so you can add or take away songs in a show in a way that uses the surrogate’s strengths best.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

Images of my two children. For a while in one of my shows I sang “My Best Girl” from “Mame”, addressing one verse to my daughter and one to my son, and I used to teeter on the brink of tears every time I sang it. But that’s the place you’ve got to go even though it’s scary.  So thinking of them is an instant emotional touchstone for me.

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

Cabaret faces the same needs that every type of live entertainment faces in this electronic world– building new audiences; continually upgrading the marketing and finding new channels; finding venue owners who are interested in more than just making a buck. I think it’s great that many theatres have added cabaret series, though we need to get the message across to theatres that cabaret is more than just individual songs “acted” and belted out by musical theatre performers. Cabaret is a narrative; an arc; a window into the performer‘s essence that the audience can then relate back to itself (but not so much of a window that it’s a self-indulgent form of therapy. ) Its beauty is that it can encompass so many styles if done well, but then that can also be its weakness– that it can be endlessly redefined until people don’t know what it is anymore.

+1 I know you’ve been teaching/coaching a lot recently.  How has that impacted your performing?
I’ve been teaching for several years now — both vocal technique and interpretation. It’s been a revelation to me– I love it. I love the challenge each individual student presents and how rewarding it can be to help them rediscover a voice they didn’t know they had or haven’t used in a long time. For more experienced singers, I love the give-and take of working on interpretation.  I learn from every student. My own teachers over the years have run the gamut from absolutely terrible to fantastic, so I’m hyper-aware of my responsibility as a teacher. In teaching you have to break down all the elements of singing and presentation and interpretation in order to explain them; that in turn makes me more able to do that with myself and it’s made me a more consistent and empowered performer.

Sally Martin photo by Paul Kline.

Diva 5+1: Mary Foster Conklin

August 29, 2008

Mary Foster Conklin has had a career as varied as cabaret itself.  She started as a punk-rocker/classical actress in the late ’70s and has been evolving since.  (The official bio follows below).

I was really blown away by her recent CD, Blues for Breakfast, a tribute to the songwriter Matt Dennis (Angel Eyes / Let’s Get Away From It All). 

 She’ll be featured in this year’s Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention and is at work on a new show to premier in early 2009.  And she has a MySpace page.  And she still graciously made time to do an interview!!! 


1.  Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.

For me, a “perfect” cabaret experience includes the following:  a juicy theme, clean execution with solid musicianship, an element of surprise, and some element of risk.

This summer I reprised Mirrors Revisited, an evening of theatre songs by rock and roll composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that I’ve presented several times over the last few years.  The songs are dark and dramatic, musically challenging, rich in story and really run the gamut as far as musical styles.  Rather than working within the confines of the original arrangements, my music director and I were exploring new directions to take the music, which required input from all the musicians involved.  I had also added songs to the evening which still needed to be integrated into the existing program.  Fortunately the planets lined up and the show went really well.  There were no train wrecks and the musicians allowed me to take everyone on a wonderful journey.  We did the show in August and I was relieved that people came out to see it and they really got it.  It’s wonderful to be able to work on material that you’ve sat with for a while because it’s really a part of you.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet?

I always keep a pile of material that I tinker with, but I see it more as a process than a battle. Songs are sort of like clothing that either fit or they don’t.  I’m coming off a few years of singing solely one composer, so it’s been a challenge to once again open myself up to new material, especially blues and pop.  I try to stay open and allow myself the permission to explore a new piece.  I think it was Margaret Whiting who said you had to do a song in performance at least three times before you knew whether or not it was right for you and I agree with that.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

While I believe that marriage is monogamous, I feel that in music it’s important to have multiple partners in order to stay flexible and in the moment.  I work with both piano and guitar as my main instrument and each has its own set of challenges.  The key to any successful musical partnership is solid preparation, clear communication and mutual respect.  Really know your music and be prepared to read down a chart for a new pianist.  Know what tempos you like and how to get there.  When I work with musicians in California, I usually mail recordings of the songs that include metronome signatures.  At a certain point in my career, it became essential that I know how to read music and be able bang out the chords in my arrangements – even learn how to write out my own lead sheets, which made it much easier to work with different musicians, because I had learned to speak their language. 

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

Everybody’s process is different as far as what works to bring a song to life.  For me, if I can summon up a sense of the place where the song is, that’s enough to center me.  There’s a number from the Mirrors show about the murder of Ramon Navarro that describes his apartment in great detail.  I had a loved one die at home, so I usually focus on remembering the carpet and I’m there.

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

Artists and club owners need to work more aggressively to present and promote programs that showcase interesting cabaret.  The best example I can think of was the idea that Lennie Watts hatched a few years ago of people singing their favorite record albums called Under the Covers.  I ended up going out to see a lot of people I wouldn’t have normally seen and was fascinated by the choices that were made.  That particular program offered a good mix of standards and contemporary music, which also helped attract more people who were less cabaret-friendly.

+1  Could you please share some thoughts on your mission to mine some of the more obscure gems of the cabaret repertoire? And how do you manage the audience when you are presenting programs packed with songs that most don’t know?

It was never my intention to become such a music geek, but it’s becoming harder and harder to locate sheet music to much of what is the Great American Songbook and even some well known pop composers.  My whole Matt Dennis project began because I’d called one of his publishers for a lead sheet and got some clueless person who said “Well, if Sinatra didn’t record it, why should we even have it on file?”  Since then, I’ve made a point of including at least one lesser known tune in all of my shows because this music is fast disappearing and needs to be heard.  As far as presenting programs of obscure songs, you have to try to size up your audience ahead of time, because you don’t want the evening to come off like homework or medicine.  I’ve found that it’s helpful to mix and match with more familiar material and to use patter to set up the lesser known tunes, like a disk jockey.

                                                                  *     *      *

MARY FOSTER CONKLIN has appeared in theatres and clubs in the metropolitan New York area and throughout the United States and Canada.  A New Jersey native who came to New York to pursue acting, she ended up working more as a vocalist.  Her transformation from actor to jazz singer began when she joined drummer/composer Art Lillard’s 16-piece Heavenly Band and her song selections naturally shifted from show tunes to blues, Latin and bebop. 

As a leader, her choice of songs has always been an eclectic mix of contemporary material and standards, with  a hybrid sound that combines straight ahead jazz with traditional pop and cabaret.  She also has a passion for discovering lesser known standards.  Her recent recording, Blues For Breakfast – Remembering Matt Dennis (Rhombus Records) is a collection of songs by the late Matt Dennis, best known for his hits “Angel Eyes” and “Violets for your Furs”. This award winning album is a culmination of three years research which began at the Library of Congress and has since been performed on both coasts, to critical acclaim. The CD has been hailed by the press as “delightfully dramatic” (Jazz Times) “a work of art and heart” (powerlineblog.com), and “an overdue reminder of the honored place of Matt Dennis in American music” (Jazz Society of Oregon). 

Conklin’s talents have earned her a place on the stages of The Metropolitan Room, Sweet Rhythm and The Iridium in New York, The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, and The Cultural Center and Park West in Chicago.  She has been praised by The New York Times as “a highly creative singer whose style blends cabaret and jazz so thoroughly as to defy any easy categorization,” and was awarded a MAC Award for Jazz Vocalist by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs in 1999.  Her debut CD, Crazy Eyes, was listed as one of the ten best CDs of 1998 by In Theatre Magazine, and won a Bistro Award presented by Backstage Magazine for Outstanding RecordingHer second recording, You’d Be Paradise, was released in September 2001 and was a jazz bestseller for two years on www.CDBaby.com.  Visit Mary’s website at www.maryfosterconklin.com for more info.

Diva 5+1: Barb Jungr

May 11, 2008

Barb Jungr is one of Britain’s top cabaret artists.  Her impressive bio includes a slew of major appearances, recordings, and even writing lyrics for an adaptation of The Jungle Book.

She had a highly-touted run in January at the Metropolitan Room: “A tragic clown, Ms. Jungr, wearing a goofy grin, wove humor and high drama into an emotional roller coaster ride that had me laughing out loud one minute and gasping at her theatrical bravura the next.” (Stephen Holden in the NY Times).

For those who missed her, she’ll be returning in September:

4th, 5th, and 6th and 11th, 12th and 13th, and 18th, 19th and 20th Thurs, Fri and Saturday New York, ‘No Regrets, The Remarkable Barb Jungr’ accompanied by Charlie Giordano, The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22, NYC, NY. 10010, (212) 206-0440, www.metropolitanroom.com, all shows at 7:30

1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.

Last July (2007) at the esteemed, respected and wonderful Almeida Theatre in Islington was a perfect experience for me. So was the Metropolitan Room in January of this year – both for very different reasons.  The Almeida in London was one of those occasions when every single note and word of every single song and introduction was perfect. My musicians’ solos were superb in every case – it was as though we were touched by something beyond us, everything was glorious, and the audience loved it all. The funny stuff got big laughs, and the sad stuff got tears, and there were cheers and a standing ovation and a dressing room full of flowers and an after show party at some friends’ house around the corner. It felt as though the whole night was blessed, somehow. The Metropolitan Room in New York in January was very different but perfect in another way. It was a Thursday, and it had rained heavily all day, I had gotten soaked through twice through to the skin, and arrived at the club feeling very much less than good. The audience came in and they must have been soaked through, too, because the atmosphere in the room was low. Instead of doing my usual cheery intros I drifted into a space where I sang from the deep well of my sad heart, and spoke to the audience from there, and suddenly I realised they were all with me, in this deep tunnel, and we played and sang from right inside, and the audience came along and stayed with us and Charlie Giordano played as though his life depended on it and we emerged, all of us, at the end of the show, into a new space which was warm and lovely, and safe. Two completely different, but both in their ways, perfect experiences.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet? 

I never really struggle with songs. If they aren’t coming I leave them alone. Years and years of writing and working have taught me that the ones that won’t come don’t come and struggling doesn’t change that. Last year I had to learn a concert of contemporary classical music written for me by the hugely famous  and very wonderful British composer, Mark Antony Turnage and I had to hire a repetiteur to help me learn the work, and it was a joy, it was hard, but it was wonderful, and I always knew it would work even though the journey was arduous. But some years ago I wanted to sing ‘Who know where the time goes’ by the sadly now deceased and absolutely great and deeply under rated British singer Sandy Denny and it just wouldn’t sing for me. I have friends who’ve done great versions of it since, but for me it never went anywhere.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?   

I prefer the term accompanist to musical director because that never properly represents my processes. It isn’t the way I work. I increasingly do my own arrangements then I work with my musicians and the arrangements grow from that soil. Then we write them out, Each person I play with uses the charts as a map, on which I usually want them to walk pretty freely – to improvise solos and to allow the songs to breathe every single time we play them. Its a more ‘jazz’ way of working I suspect. And I work with a variety of brilliant musicians worldwide, in America the superb Charlie Giordano, in Australia with a wonderful musician called Matthew Carey and in the UK my first call accompanist and often co-arranger is the brilliant pianist Jenny Carr alongside the legendary ‘acid jazz’ organist and harmonica player Jessica Lauren. 

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

Every song has its own panorama. Each time I sing a song it must be entered as if new, for the first time, it must retain its freshness and if I were to fix on an image that would freeze that process.

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

The world of cabaret needs recognition as a real musical direction with radio and television celebrating the best of it. In Australia there is a cabaret festival in Adelaide which is a wonderful celebration of all aspects of the form from the conservative to the fringes, and it has caused the work of ‘cabaret’ to have respect as a real genre in that country. In the UK cabaret is almost a dirty word, and participants of it regarded as somehow less musical than those say in jazz or world or traditional music. If the form is to survive, it needs to be expansive and recognised, and it needs champions and elevation to the art form that at its best can rival every other musical, singing genre.

+1a. As a major European cabaret performer, is there anything about the New York cabaret scene that surprises you?

Surprises me? I am happy to see a city where cabaret still is celebrated and where there are venues and audiences for the music who understand the form. And it’s lovely to find other performers all of whom have very unique ways of working and whose repertoires are exciting. I absolutely adore Krisine Zbornik and when I saw her show I almost had to be carried out I was hurting so much from laughing at the bravado and wit of it.

+1b. My own London cabaret experiences haven’t gone much past Pizza on the Park, so what should cabaret fans visiting London know in order to find great cabaret experiences?

Toughie this one, because we don’t any longer have any dedicated cabaret spaces – Pizza on the Park closed last year. You will find some cabaret at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho in Dean Street and also at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – in other words the singers who cross into jazz like myself, and Ian Shaw, are there. Then there is still the Jermyn Street Theatre, which does have runs of artists like Fascinating Aida, and visiting American artists. It’s a much smaller scene than in New York, I am sad to say. There are a couple of smaller places, but its a rare old prawn out here, circuit wise.

+1c.I once heard that in Europe “cabaret” usually involves someone removing their clothing and that the term one should really use is “in concert.”  Is this true?

Fascinating! And sort of, yes, cabaret can have a variety of not so great meanings over here. I think of myself as a concert artist and prefer the term ‘singer’ to pretty much everything else. When it comes down to it – all the terms are limiting, aren’t they?