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.

Up Close to Marvin Hamlisch

November 18, 2009

Monday night the Broadway Up Close and Personal series at the Kennedy Center saluted Marvin Hamlisch.  The evening featured an interview with Hamlisch by Michael Kerker of ASCAP and performances of his music.

Hamlisch is quite a raconteur, and obviously has decades of amazing anecdotes.  The most inspiring message he had in the evening is the necessity to keep persevering in one’s chosen endeavors, because you never when the breakthrough is going to come, citing the soft drink creator who gave up after creating “Six-Up.”   

Alex Rybeck provided his typically-superlative music direction for the Liz Callaway, Karen Ziemba, and Kevin Early selections listed below:

  • Liz Callaway
    • The Music and The Mirror
    • Nobody Does It Better
    • The Way We Were
  • Karen Ziemba
    • What I Did For Love
    • Nothing
    • Ice Castles
  • Kevin Early
    • I Cannot Hear the City
    • Fallin’
    • Ordinary Miracles

Liz Callaway at Her Best

October 13, 2009


I’d describe the singing on Liz Callaway’s CD, The Passage of Time, as perfect, but what does perfect mean?  Well, as Ron put it, “The tone is spot on; the diction is flawless; she has perfect control of her instrument; she knows exactly what she’s singing about; and everything is totally motivated.”

This is clearly Liz Callaway’s best solo CD (and almost up there with Sibling Revelry CD with sister Ann Hampton Callaway). The recording contains a well chosen mix of the familiar and new — all with terrific arrangements guided by friend-of-this-blog Alex Rybeck.  She’s also become an amazing storyteller with a very clear point of view.  And that clarion call of a voice is superb. 

This song made me hear the Carly Simon song That’s the Way I Always Hear It Should Be totally fresh.  The medley of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head and Singin’ In the Rain is a total treat.  And the new John Bucchino song Just Another Face is one that I suspect will be showing up in a lot of cabaret acts.  She even made me like Patterns enough to suggest it to someone!

My only quibble with the whole venture is that I wish there could have been more flattering artwork of Callaway chosen, who is much lovelier and more radient than the cover shot.  (Even the picture on the back of the CD is better.)

  1. Nothing to Lose (But Your Heart)

  2. Make Someone Happy/Something Wonderful

  3. Better

  4. Eleanor Rigby

  5. I’m Not That Girl/Just Another Face

  6. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head/Singin’ in the Rain

  7. Children Will Listen

  8. That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be

  9. Patterns

10. Secret O’ Life

11. The Perfect Year/Memory

12. A Child Is Born

13. Being Alive

Stephen Holden on Jason Graae

September 29, 2009

The NYTimes reviews the Crown Prince of Cabaret Comedy, Jason Graae, appearing at the Metropolitan Room supported by Friends-of-This-Blog Wendy Lane Bailey and Alex Rybeck: “A vaudevillian spark plug flashing mischief, Jason Graae did a bit of everything in his show, “Magically Delicious,” at the Metropolitan Room on Saturday. Now 51 and living in Los Angeles, he is a resilient singing clown who has bounced from theater to nightclubs to television to commercials and back, compiling a résumé that serves as a storehouse of zany, lightweight shtick.”

Upcoming: Victoria Clark at the KenCen Dec 6

November 23, 2008

Fifteen Seconds of Grace

One of the concerts I’ve been looking forward to the most this year is Victoria Clark’s appearance at the Kennedy Center December 6 as part of Barbara Cook Presents series.

I’ve found myself with one-degree-of-separation from Clark on several fronts:* Alex Tang was a classmate of hers at Yale, Barry Dennen did Sound of Music with her in St. Louis, Alex Rybeck has played for her frequently.  But in a direct experience, her Fifteen Seconds of Grace was one of my favorite CDs of 2007.  And the Jeff Blumenkrantz podcast with her is charming.

I’m surprised that there are still tix left for the show, so thought you’d like to know now.


*Though it hasn’t helped me get her to do an interview for this blog.

Nelson Pressley on Faith Prince

January 30, 2008

The Virginia native lit up the Barns on Thursday.The Washington Post weighs in on Faith Prince’s recent Wolf Trap concert (featuring Alex Rybeck as music director).

“The cabaret act by the Tony-winning Prince was like a low-key homecoming (she’s from Lynchburg), familiar and chatty as she cracked wise about her showbiz career between numbers that tended toward the comic and sentimental. “

A joke from Alex Rybeck

December 23, 2007

A woman walks into a pet store wanting to buy a songbird.

As she is walking around, she hears a bird singing beautifully and, as if in a trance, she follows the sound. There in a cage is a cheerful songbird happily singing her little heart out.

A sign beneath the cage reads, “One thousand dollars for the pair.”
She looks deeper into the cage and way back she sees this other
haggard bird with its head down, shaking it from left to right.

The clerk came over and the woman asked “How much for just the

“I’m sorry. You’ll have to buy the pair,” says the clerk.

The woman says, “But that other bird is so haggard and looks so
depressed, and he’s hanging his head and shaking it back and
forth. This bird is so happy and singing beautifully. Why do I have
to buy that other bird?”

The clerk replies, “Because he’s the arranger.”

Road Report — Liz Callaway

November 26, 2007

OK – here’s an unflattering admission.  About two years ago, we were waiting for Jason Graae’s show at Helen’s Hideaway to start, when Ron said to me, “There’s a woman at the table behind you, and I swear I know her.”  I snuck a peek at the woman apparently with her husband and teenage son and said, “I don’t think so.  I think she seems familiar because she looks like an older Liz Callaway.”  And then during the show, Jason Graae introduced her from the stage… Oops!!!

So first of all, Liz Callaway looked FABULOUS and ever-youthful for her Metropolitan Room show Saturday night.  Interestingly, she said that this is her first extended solo cabaret run in New York since 1980. 

I found myself unexpectedly thrilled and moved when she launched into the Ahrens and Flaherty “Journey From the Past” that she recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Anastasia.  And she filled an evening with amazingly committed performances with thrilling vocal delivery.  (Note to Stephen Holden – get your head or ears examined.  OK, she’s a big performer.  But c’mon.  I mean come on!  Nobody wants a dialed-down Liz Callaway.  She’s an amazing artist at her peak producing amazing work!)

Alex Rybeck, a great friend to this blog, produced wonderful arrangements and provided amazing musical support, musically rethinking songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone and making a three piece combo sound like a full studio orchestra on Journey to the Past and Meadowlark.

Here’s her set list (which includes 3 of my 10 favorite songs): 

  • Soon As I Get Home / Journey to the Past
  • You Don’t Own Me
  • Make Someone Happy / Something Wonderful
  • Meadowlark
  • I’m Not That Girl / It’s Just Another Face
  • What Do We Do? We Fly!
  • Growing Up
  • Land of Make Believe
  • Didn’t We / MacArthur Park
  • Where Have all the Flowers Gone?
  • There Won’t Be Trumpets
  • Leaving on a Jet Plane
  • Encore: The Story Goes On

Stephen Holden on Liz Callaway

November 24, 2007

Stephen Holden on Liz Callaway’s latest at the Metropolitan Room — “Ms. Callaway, who was accompanied by Alex Rybeck on piano, MaryAnn McSweeney on bass, and Ron Tierno on drums, has a winning personality. But she needs to ration out the big moments.”

I’m seeing the show this Saturday — I’ll let you know what I think.

Alex Rybeck on Bows

October 25, 2007
When I was putting together my piece on bows, I asked several people their opinion.  Alex Rybeck was so generous and insightful that I have to share it whole…

 I agree with you that Thank You’s and Bows need to be figured out and practiced.

The order in which people are thanked should be thought out. In most cases, it should be The Venue (perhaps the owner by name) who booked you, followed by the technical crew (lights, sound), followed by the director (if there is one), and then the musicians who share the stage, ending with the Musical Director. The final thank you should ALWAYS be the audience. (The idea is that the Thank You’s are listed in an ascending order of importance).

One pet peeve I have is when artists speak over the applause as they are introducing their band. Let each musician receive their share of applause, THEN say the next name. It’s also nice when the artist gives FOCUS to the musician being introduced.

When I’m onstage, being introduced, I personally like to acknowledge the artist with a nod when my name is mentioned, then I bow to the audience, and then I return the focus to the artist with another nod. This is clean and feels gracious.

As you have observed, there are many possible ways of bowing, and each artist needs to find which one works best for him/her.

Many newcomers feel embarrassed by applause, and they either act phonily humble (with an expression that seems to say, “Oh, is this applause really for ME? You mean you LIKED me?”), or phonily moved to tears (“This is the most incredible moment of my entire life”) , OR they try to bypass the moment altogther, and barely acknowledge the applause, which reads as “I am really uncomfortable and can’t wait to get on with the next song, or to get offstage, but I can’t tolerate accepting your Thank You”). And that’s what a bow is: it is acknowledging the audience’s Thank You. It needn’t be anything more than a simple, heartfelt, honest reaction to those who are thanking you. But just as the audience is giving you its acknowledgement, you must return it. Your subtext while bowing is, “I’m so glad to have shared this time with you, and I accept your thanks”.

This carries through when you Meet And Greet after the show. This is an important part of the gig! You may be signing your CD’s, or simply meeting people.  Either way, you will be facing people who will want to tell you how much they enjoyed your show. It’s important to give each person your full attention, and accept their feedback as graciously as possible (sometimes people will tell you what they DIDN’T like, and then it’s a real challenge to be gracious!). But, like your bow, it’s a chance to acknowledge their having come to see you, and to connect personally with your fans. (And remember that if someone DOES give you criticism, from THEIR standpoint, they are telling you — albeit at an inopportune time and in a possibly inappropriate fashion — that they care enough about you to offer what they feel is good and important advice to improve your presentation.)

One of the best pieces of advice I heard about criticism: if you hear 50 different opinions from 50 people, you can ignore it; but if you hear the same comment from everybody, then it’s valid and should be paid attention to. (For instance, one person may tell you they hated a particular song choice. That’s just one person’s feeling, and you can’t please everyone. But if a majority of your audience is telling you that this particular song doesn’t work, listen to them! This is true of comments about what you’re wearing, or the lighting, or sound, as well as repertoire).

Sometimes, you can’t rely on people to tell you what doesn’t work, because a lot of people will not feel comfortable being that honest. So you have to develop an inner “applause-o-meter” when you finish a song. Just like a comedian builds a set according to which jokes get the biggest laughs, a singer needs to get a feel for which numbers are the showstoppers, which get a polite hand, and which are met with uncomfortable coughs and/or silence! Some singers are defiant in their relationship with the audience, and feel like they should be able to sing whatever they want, damn the audience response. This is a dangerous attitude, and will eventually result in the lack of HAVING an audience!

This is not to say you can’t experiment, and occasionally throw in a number that’s “risky” — but you have to earn the right (ie, the trust of the audience) to do so. By programming something surefire right before and right after, you can sometimes “get away with” a song that may not always go over.

OK — I’ve rambled on way too long!

I’ve strayed way beyond your initial ponderings on bowing! So be it.

Take care,