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Woman Around Town: Jennifer Sheehan Has a Calling

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The little brown-haired daughter born to Jan and Diane Sheehan almost arrived performing. At 2 ½ she could credibly manage “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” “in the same key most of the time.” Her first recollection of a legitimate musical was the video West Side Story which captivated the impressionable child just north of her being a toddler. (It’s still one of her favorites.) She sang as she played in the backyard, danced in front of the television, and made up shows in which neighborhood kids would participate.

Jennifer was accepted into a regional children’s choir at aged eight, and a year later, joined a children’s theatrical troop that traveled around St. Louis performing a Cole Porter show which necessitated learning thirty—THIRTY—songs! (Memorizing comes naturally). “Some had really kind of scandalous lyrics. I think maybe I had an inkling of what they meant.” Piano lessons began around the same time. At 14 she won a competition which brought her, with other young musicians, to the stage of Carnegie Hall. She played “something by Shostakovich” wearing “a little tea length lavender dress with flowers at the hem.”

Mrs. Sheehan was not a Mama Rose. It was clear Jennifer thrived with every opportunity to participate in theatrical arts. “My parents made sacrifices so I could take all those classes and drove me around to everything.” At her request, dance lessons were integrated into Jennifer’s busy schedule—first ballet, then tap and jazz. “There was not a lot of risqué clothing or booty shaking; no dance moms. It was a nurturing environment.” She also acted at community theater. As Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the fledgling star was backed by a 35 piece orchestra. Oddly enough, she had no conscious ambitions to become a thespian. “No one in my family had ever been in the business. It was, `well, we think she’s good, but we’re not professionals,’” she said.

“My mom read a rave review of vocalist Andrea Marcovicci in a local paper. Neither of us had ever heard of her or, in fact, of cabaret per se. We went to this lovely little jewel box of a theater, the Grandel, with no idea what to expect. There was a small set with red velvet curtains and a backdrop of twinkling stars behind a grand piano. Then, this woman floats across the stage…singing, telling us all these fascinating stories. Even sitting in the balcony, it was as if she spoke just to me.”

After the show, Jennifer stood in line to have a CD autographed. Suddenly Marcovicci looked up and pointing from where she sat exclaimed: “Oh, my God, it’s Evelyn Nesbit, the girl on the red velvet swing!”* “I had very wavy hair and I guess looked a little like her, but I had no idea who Nesbitt was. Andrea said to look her up. I played the CD until it wore out.”

The next year when Marcovicci returned to perform, she offered a master class. Jennifer skipped geometry and went to the theater. “My heart was pounding. I was definitely the youngest person there. Andrea’s a big presence, passionate and very frank. It was intimidating.” The 14 year-old sang “The Way You Look Tonight” (Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields). Marcovicci was sufficiently impressed to invite her backstage. She suggested they stay in touch, encouraged doing research of the American Songbook, “maybe even start putting together your own little show.” The dazzled teenager left with “You have a gift for this” ringing in her ears.

“I met Jennifer when she attended a master class I was giving in her hometown of St. Louis. She was impossibly beautiful and talented and won my heart. I’ve been pleased to direct her in a few of my projects over these years and watch her blossom into this wonderfully self-assured performer! Her voice now is so rich and pure and her taste in music is so intelligent, that I couldn’t be prouder to be considered her mentor.”

Andrea Marcovicci

Two years later, in New York for a second piano competition win, Jennifer went to see Marcovicci at The Algonquin Hotel’s famous Oak Room Supper Club. It was her first experience in a real cabaret setting. At the end of the show, the teenager was asked to perform “The Way You Look Tonight.” Can you imagine?

Her mentor was inspirational. “Surround yourself with the material,” Marcovicci recommended, “Be curious, listen to it, read about it…sing from your heart—as yourself—be honest…Connect. Make it special for your audience. Enable them to come on the journey.”

Anyone familiar with the icon’s work is aware she epitomizes this advice. What did you learn by watching Marcovicci I ask her protégé. “Joy is infectious.”

Back home, Jennifer was admitted to The Opera Theater of St. Louis Young Artist’s Program. “They would pair you with a classical voice teacher and a coach.” Following Marcovicci’s advice, she also started to put together solo shows—for retirement centers and nursing homes. “I got to see how people from that era would receive what was really the soundtrack of their lives.” At an Alzheimer’s Ward, she heard someone softly humming along to her rendition of “I’ll be Seeing You.” (Sammy Fain/Irving Kahn) “It was a woman in a wheelchair with her chin in her chest. As the song went on, the entire room began to hum. A very powerful moment for me. Music has a way of connecting people. It’s spiritual, really, the core of who we are. When other abilities may have left us, it remains.” She learned to perform despite distractions and to relate to an intimate audience.

Jennifer dove into research for her shows. She’d go to the library, take out CDs and follow up by learning the sheet music. Her repertoire broadened appreciably. Still, STILL, she says, it didn’t occur to her to follow what retrospectively seems a clear path, instead considering a psychology major. At 17, she got into both Northwestern and Julliard. Two visits later, she resolved Julliard was “a fit.”

It was something of a dream to live in the Lincoln Center dormitory, to walk outside, stand on the plaza and feel an incipient part of New York’s arts community. As a scholarship student, the Midwesterner fulfilled community fellowship service requirements by performing in hospital wards around the city. “The bent was classical—most classmates were going into the opera arena—but my personal voice teacher had done both opera and musical theater, so he harbored no prejudice. Missing Irving (Berlin) and Oscar (Hammerstein), I was a bit of a black sheep.” Though her major was voice, classes included acting and dance.

While at Julliard, she managed to present a few shows at Danny’s Skylight Room (now closed). This, she thinks, is where the recently deceased Donald Smith, then Executive Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, might’ve heard her. When Marcovicci directed an evening of the foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention, Jennifer was invited to participate with his blessing. From 2005 on, she’s performed at almost every one. Smith was extremely supportive. Jennifer joined the selective legion of aspiring performers whom he stewarded and befriended. “I think he came to every single show at The Metropolitan Room last year understanding the value of having a champion in the audience. That amazingly cherubic face smiling up at you through a show…His belief in me as an artist and a person meant the world to me.”

Jennifer’s first performance paycheck out of school came from appearing as a featured vocalist in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a role she’s played ever since. It was a cattle call. “I think they cut off the line three girls after me.” There were intermittent regional productions of musicals, concert participation, and the usual side jobs. Having had a good cabaret convention experience with musical director/accompanist, James Followel, she solicited a partnership which warmly remains.

In March 2010, the artist once again found herself on the stage of Carnegie Hall, this time at the behest of Michael Feinstein. The speed with which her talent became known to fellow artists was just short of meteoric. This same year she became the first winner of the Noël Coward Foundation’s Cabaret Competition Award. It was time to introduce herself to the general public. Jennifer took her career in her hands as few newcomers are able. She began to put a program together, selected The Metropolitan Room for her debut, and, unusually, sought and received additional backing to make a CD of songs from the as yet unproduced show. You Made Me Love You—Celebrating 100 Years of the Great American Songbook was minted and available by the time she took the stage on West 22nd Street.

The entertainment, authored by Jennifer herself, was a capsulation of her journey through music. I asked whether she was nervous “coming out” in this way. “It’s a very vulnerable position, on stage, exposing parts of yourself you mightn’t ordinarily share with a stranger. Cabaret is intimate. Still, I believed we created an evening that was theatrical, personal, and had an arc. I was very proud of it.” Stephen Holden of The New York Times was among those who agreed writing her a love poem of a review. Jennifer was grateful and relieved. “I could totally wear the artist hat for the rest of the run. No more Facebook invitations.”

Based on critical response, Jennifer was offered three weeks February 2012 at the Algonquin’s venerable Oak Room Supper Club. She’d discovered the room’s history reading up on the American Songbook, nurturing an aspiration to appear there one day which was cemented by attending Marcovicci’s show. “I was thrilled to be asked.” She threw herself into simultaneously preparing a new program and rehearsing for her seasonal Radio City Music Hall appearance. Then, leaving rehearsal one day, she received half a dozen text messages from friends. The Oak Room was closing! “To have come so close…” It’s easy to empathize with her disappointment. Life went on, of course. Jennifer continued to audition for musicals (her other love), to take classes (she keeps her instrument dance ready), and to perform.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before Feinstein’s Supper Club reached out. May 23-25 and May 29-June 2 Jennifer and her trio will premiere I Know a Place: Spend a Night in the Sensational 60′s.

Why the 60s? “It’s another era by which I’m fascinated. I don’t think I was able to appreciate what an exciting time it was when my parents played the music around my house, but now you can watch tv variety shows online, see people’s performances. A whole new generation has the opportunity to fall in love with its incredible diversity.” Jennifer promises a wide variety of material from Burt Bachrach to Bossa Nova and The Beatles including interesting stories about the songs and period.

The Calling

“I feel a responsibility. It’s part of what makes my job challenging. You hear it said that cabaret is an endangered art form. I think if younger people were exposed, they’d get hooked. By the end of my run at The Metropolitan Room, a good percentage of the audience was under 30. I have a love of the masters, but great American songwriting didn’t end in the 50s. I want to introduce both young and seasoned audiences to music they may not know, to shed light on writers and continue the tradition.”

In support, Feinstein’s will offer a lower cover price during Jennifer’s run.

What’s the most satisfying thing about performing cabaret? “It’s a cliché, I know, but when somebody comes up to me after a show and says I’ve lifted them up, taken them away somehow; to know I’ve made people happy…” There’s no doubt Jennifer Sheehan made the right decision about her life’s work. She was, after all, almost born performing.

*Evelyn Nesbit was an American artists’ model and chorus girl, noted for her entanglement in the murder of her ex-lover, architect Stanford White, by her first husband, Harry Kendall Thaw.

All quotes are Jennifer Sheehan.

Photo credit on 60′s poster Elizabeth Wiseman

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: I love Chez Josephine, the music and pretending I’m in Paris. The Campbell Apartment attached to Grand Central. This beautiful old- –I guess it’s more of a lounge—they play old music and serve vintage cocktails. Spice Market down in the Meatpacking District.
Favorite Place to Shop: The Greenmarket in Union Square; the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park and Grand Central Station.
Favorite New York Sight: Bryant Park, especially ice skating there during the holidays. I love it there. Sometimes I even go before shows at Radio City. The Chrysler Building and The Highline.
Favorite New York Moment: The final show at The Metropolitan Room last year. Taking my bow, acknowledging my musicians, the people who helped me. The audience was a wonderful mix of people. Just feeling very grateful.
What You Love About New York: The diversity- everything: the food, music, entertainment.
What You Hate About New York: The Noise. Definitely. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis with trees and birds.

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