The Torch Burns On


Blue Champagne—purple shadows and Blue Champagne/With the echoes that still remain/ I keep a blue rendezvous…(Grady Watts/ Frank Ryerson/Jimmy Eaton)

The best torch singers are actresses. Of course, you can live a heart-wrenchingly difficult and self-defeating life or have it cast upon you. Helen Morgan, the original Julie in Show Boat (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein) draped herself across the piano creating, “an iconic image for every torch singer that followed.” Five ponies of brandy to the wind, she was too drunk to remain upright. Libby Holman “a singer of sullen sex hymns” is thought to have murdered her first husband and lived through the suicide of her second. Ruth Etting, famous for Ten Cents a Dance (written for her by Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) married Moe-the-Gimp Snyder, who became her manager, later wounding her lover…who became her husband. The scandal ended her career.

No such extreme history plagues Andrea Marcovicci, yet she’s been interpreting this material with aching affinity since her very first themed cabaret act in 1985. Drawing from her own experience as well as channeling that of the “character” singing, a profound richness of performance grows year to year. Her mother, Helen Stuart (Marcovicci),* a cafe chanteuse herself, evidently sang these songs…around the house. All torch, all the time. “It was maaaaagical. Magical.” Imagine five-year-old Andrea learning to sing The Man I Love.

Up on her toes and down on her heels in a small movement that possesses Marcovicci as if a current were coursing through her, she leads us through the golden era of the genre (the 20s & 30s) from melancholy yearning to dashed hopes and desperation. Don’t Ever Leave Me she pleads with indelible poignancy—preceded by that gorgeous verse. Why Was I Born/I wish I knew she plaintively sings, hands almost at prayer. (Both songs Oscar Hammerstein /Jerome Kern.) Her extraordinary hands eloquently reach for what they cannot have, grasp what they cannot hold.

But fear not—where this thespian abides, there will always be wit and irony. He’ll build a little home/just meant for two (The Man I Love–George & Ira Gershwin) “Of course, he will. Most men wouldn’t know the difference between a 2×4 and an 8×10, but dream on, girls.”

Delivered with acerbic perfection are Mr. Right, “by that wacky guy, Kurt Weill” (and Alan Jay Lerner) a rarely heard parody of the torch introduced by a true queen of melodrama, Nanette Fabray?! …tender as a flower/he’ll look like Tyrone Power…in his arms he’ll crush me/ and constantly mush me. And Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke’s Just Like a Man…He was a man/the only thing Del Monte cannot can…

This is one of Marcovicci’s best researched and developed shows illuminating perhaps an essential difference between spending an evening with her and other notable cabaret artists. The storytelling is simply marvelous. We learn about the era, the writers, the songs-in context, and the dames—oh, the dames! Her backstage narratives are pithy, her through line unwavering.

Music Director/Arranger/ Pianist Shelly Markham is so in sync with Marcovicci’s style, skills, and, I daresay, heart, his collaboration is integral. From the lush underpinning and piano solo of Something to Remember You By (Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz), to his completely unexpected syncopated arrangement of Bill (Oscar Hammerstein/PG Woodhouse/Jerome Kern), Markham contributes distinctive texture and mood.

“Do people still write torch songs?” They do. I believe in heroes/Someday I’ll get wise/But right now I need/The lies of handsome men. (Lies of Handsome Men—Francesca Blumenthal).

With scrupulous control Marcovicci seduces the room…person by person. There are audible sighs. We dream, remember, hurt, sway (the French songs are enraptured) and are stilled. We smile. And, finally, find ourselves actually singing along with Mean to Me. (Fred Ahlert/ Roy Turk, 1929)

Though her voice is thinning, a description she uses for Helen Morgan’s instrument, Andrea Marcovicci continues to captivate. She’s innately elegant. Her shows are smart, her showmanship transcendent. Lyric truth is inviolate. She’s an actress.

Blue Champagne is a wonderful piece—moving, edifying, fun and completely personal.

*At 91, Helen Stuart continues to intermittently perform with her daughter

All quotes are Andrea Marcovicci

Read Alix’s Cohen’s profile of Andrea Marcovicci in Woman Around Town

Blue Champagne—The History of the Torch Song
The Oak Room, Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44 Street
212-840-6800 or
Through December 30
Including Special Matinees
Shelly Markham, Music Director/Piano
Jered Egan—Bass

Photo Credits:
Opening Photo and Blue Champagne poster photo by Daniel Reichert
Photo in text by Pat Johnson

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