What is a cabaret music director? The MD is almost always an accompanist, almost always on the piano. She may make musical arrangements, help a performer in the selection of appropriate material, provide coaching, training, direction, charts; may hire other backup musicians, may conduct the ensemble; might find a studio; may be a rehearsal coach; may be a therapist. In smaller venues and towns, an MD’s only contact with a performer may be a brief conversation and a temporary exchange of sheet music – and then they accompany. They do all of these things and more – for which their name is usually inaudibly voiced over the applause and cheers directed at the instrumentalists on the other side of the stage. You get the idea. The MD is a vital, sometimes key, component in the success of a performer – and is rarely recognized by the public. Nonetheless an MD may form a career-spanning relationship with a performer when a sympathetic partnership is struck; and a very few have come to be permanently associated with specific performers. (Top photo: Barry Levitt)
In New York City, the community of professional MDs is, as you might imagine, unusually able, and deep, and often on the road in support of their artists; they number fewer than a hundred. On June 14, 2015, the Metropolitan Room celebrated Music Directors. Of those invited, about 25 ultimately made it to the venue. Each was offered a few minutes to use as he might wish (on this evening all were ‘he’s), singing, performing, accompanying a performer or just talking. All were expressly grateful to The Met Room and Bernie Furshpan for the moment of recognition, and for a chance to play with and for their peers. For once the MD was the star and, because the audience was composed largely of music professionals, the stars were free to make musical references and jokes – and did. For once we can put some faces to the names – at least of those who elected to perform. The MDs were dapper, often elegant, raconteurs – most with a long-practiced ease on the stage.
Bryon Sommers and David Shenton
First up was Bryon Sommers who performed “There’s a Party Going On” to get the party started. Sommers was followed by David Shenton who evidenced virtuosity on violin and piano – remarkably, simultaneously fingering frets with the left, and plunking keys with the right, hand – playing a style-bending rendition of “All of Me.”
Andy Kahn and Billy Stritch
Andy Kahn, natty in plaid, played a marvelous jazz rendering of the Harburg/Duke song “What is There to Say?” showing some first rate performance chops of his own. Billy Stritch, a fan and accompanist of Marilyn Maye, chose an Andre Previn song she favors: “You’re Gonna Hear From Me.”
Bill Zeffiro and Marissa Mulder
Bill Zeffiro, who frequently accompanies the marvelous Marissa Mulder, brought Mulder along to perform one of Zeffiro’s tunes “My Kind of Guy (Line up if You’re a Loser).” Mulder, who looks and initially sounds like a soft Irish lass, showed the musical and comedic range to wring the best from this clever song.
David Alpher and Jenny Litt
David Alpher took the keyboard to accompany wife Jenny Litt to engagingly perform “I want to be a TV Chef,” a comic song of their joint creation – “[I] don’t know my eggplant from my aspic.” David Budway thanked the many singers whom he had supported and who had supported him.
David Lewis and Douglas Cohen
David Lewis performed a song written for one of his famous partners, Patty LuPone (at Les Mouches): “Everything I Am.” His showmanship was apparent as he sang to every corner of the room (and the camera) with a broad smile. Lewis was followed by Don Rebic commenting on his career supporting, among many others, Karen Akers and Leslie Uggams. Douglas Cohen performed the charming “Unromantic Things” from his musical in process: Nine Wives.
Ron Abel and Klea Blackhurst
Ron Abel, once accompanist for Michelle Lee and Shirley Jones, performed next with Klea Blackhurst engagingly singing a tune from his work in process: Hazel.
Jeffrey Cubeta and Carolyn Montgomery-Forant
Abel and Blackhurst were followed by Jeffrey Cubeta; Cubeta brought with him Carolyn Montgomery-Forant who sang a buoyant and suggestive “Gourmet Meal” (Keith Thompson).
Jeffrey Klitz and Mark Janas
Cubeta and Montgomery-Forant were followed by Jeffrey Klitz who sang a laugh-out-loud parody about side-stepping paternity: “Benny’s From Heaven.” Mark Janas rendered another clever parody – of Phantom’s “Music of the Night” – commenting on the original’s dubious merits.
Barry Levitt and Yasukiho Fukuoka
Barry Levitt, a regular MD at the Met Room, professing his seniority, took the occasion to recall the fine singers, many now gone, whom he had supported over his lengthy (but unfinished) career.
Sean Harkness and Ian Herman
Sean Harkness, one of the very few MDs practicing from behind a guitar, performed with Ian Herman on Piano, displaying musical fireworks that cannot be presented behind a singer. Young Yasukiho Fukuoka (“Yaz”) revealed some obvious nerves in front of this august group in attacking some serious pianistic Gershwin – but emerged smiling.
Russ Kassoff, a former Sinatra accompanist, performed a relaxed, grounded finale of his own song “Christmas in July.” NB: the brevity (or lack) of comments above should not be taken as a back-handed note on any performance; this reporter was jotting and snapping as fast as possible – in awe of the talents on display.
Bernie Furshpan closed the show with thanks to all – and the room promptly fractured into ardent conversation groups as old friends and new acquaintances broke into reminiscences, expressions of thanks and appreciation, admiration and hugs. It was a privilege to witness this celebration, to see a side of the MDs that is normally revealed only among close friends. You can’t look for this precise event to repeat, and if the effort is made, it cannot be the same. These serendipitous “appreciations” reflect a unique aspect of NYC life that must to be taken on the rise when they come along. But they do come along from time to time. I can only suggest that you take advantage of New York’s thriving musical culture and grab them.
All photos copyright by Fred Cohen Photography. For more information, go to Fred’s website.