Mabel’s Babies – An American Songbook Competition
Adela and Larry Elow, long banner-carrying supporters of American Songbook in the put-your-money-where-your-heart-is vein *, have generously endowed The Mabel Mercer Foundation with a $50,000 fund created specifically to encourage teenagers to learn and perform The Great American Songbook over the next decade. The Foundation calls these young people “Mabel’s Babies”- in reference to namesake, the iconic (childless) Mabel Mercer.
As defined by Larry, this means “material composed between the years 1900-1970 – songs that formed the essence of America’s three great interrelated musical gifts to the world: Jazz, Popular Song, and the Modern Musical Theater.” When the couple were respectively coming of age, Adela recalls, “…These songs expressed the ethos, character and values of what came to be known as The Greatest Generation: the romance, grace, sensitivity, idealism and all those other life attitudes that we took for granted.”
Larry tells me he had to be convinced of the enterprise by his more optimistic soul mate. Imagine what it must be like for those who have lived through (and loved ) eras when the milkman and debutantes were familiar with the same songs, when fans bought sheet music, families gathered around radios, couples went dancing, nightclubs and movie musicals proliferated.
Adela and Larry Elow
Put yourselves in the shoes of a man who became a songwriter and musician in order to immerse himself and contribute to the genre as he watched venues close, popularity/ awareness diminish… Imagine the frustration of talking to young people – especially performers – unfamiliar with Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern…who might never have heard the Songbook were it not for Paul McCartney or Rod Stewart. Fortunately, Larry Elow has the determined Adela to sway his counter intuitive reserve. One couldn’t imagine a more symbiotic team.
The first part of the Elow’s heat-seeking “Teenager Endowment Fund,” titled Songs Were Made to Sing While We’re Young, were tapped on February 3, 2018 at the supportive Laurie Beechman Theatre. Adolescents chosen from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Talent Unlimited High School, and the Professional Performing Arts School (with a program run by Rosie’s Kids), will compete before an audience for a first, second and third prize of $2500, $1500, and $1000 meant to further study. Origin schools are not identified in order to maintain lack of prejudice.
The winner will also be given the opportunity to perform October 2018 during the foundation’s annual New York Cabaret Convention.
David Finkle, La Tanya Hall, Jim Morgan, Jeff Harnar, Deborah Grace Winer
I asked each of the judges (beforehand) to describe the qualities of a good cabaret performer. Here’s what they’re respectively hoping to find.
Village Voice/Huffington Post commentator David Finkle: A good cabaret performer should have: 1. A personality 2. Respect for lyrics 3. A reason for singing the songs he/she has chosen 4. Impressing the audience with your voice is not as important as entertaining them
Cabaret Entertainer/ Director- Jeff Harnar: The last thing a good cabaret artist needs to have is a good singing voice. Everything else is essential: a point of view, specificity, intimacy, humor, wisdom, creativity, vulnerability, the gift of storytelling in song and a compelling enough personality to hold an audience for an hour. If you have all that and a good singing voice, that’s cabaret heaven for me.
Cabaret/Jazz Vocalist La Tanya Hall: The most impactful singers are ones who sing to EXPRESS, not IMPRESS. In all music, we must be storytellers and not be so concerned with sound production. Take me on an honest journey, and you have a fan for life.
Producing Director of The York Theater Jim Morgan: My idea of a good cabaret performer is someone whose confident knowledge of the song being performed is evident from their presentation, who is able to connect with an audience through a unique point of view. Ideally, a cabaret artist takes the song in a new direction while honoring the original intent of its creator(s).
Author/Historian/Artistic Director Deborah Grace Winer: What I look for in any cabaret performer is someone who can communicate to an audience a personal point of view on a song, telling a story filtered through his or her own perspective and life experience–with musicality, talent, taste and craft. And always, allowing the song itself to be paramount.
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Vocalist sums it up with: It’s all about telling stories.
On the 118th anniversary of Mabel Mercer’s passing, the competition featured 16 teenagers ranging from 15 to a venerable 19. Each was given a single opportunity with which to show the judges what he/she had to offer. A wide variety of songs from musical theater and traditional songbook were offered.
“It’s through the performances of young people that these songs will live for the next hundred years.” Adela Elow. Hope springs eternal.
*Adela and Larry Elow additionally founded and helm, to date, 26 years of concerts at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York and annually underwrite the Donald F. Smith Award presented at The New York Cabaret Convention.
First Prize Winner Christina Jimenez chooses to share Kander & Ebb’s “Sing Happy” (Flora the Red Menace). The vocalist starts low key which gives her time to slowly build emotion. Surety and skill keep lyrics surging without going over the top. Like immutable waves in a smooth surf, she holds balance=focus and brightness, even as keys shift. Chills run up my spine.
The very personable Jimenez tells me she discovered American Songbook at PPAS (Professional Performing Arts School) on a musical theater trajectory at 15.“I knew it was there, I just never sang it myself.” She particularly enjoys telling stories. Cabaret, the young woman wisely observes, allows one to personalize a song instead of bending to its context. Cristina is enthusiastic about this new fount of material. “There were songs I heard today that I want to take a look at.” I found her particularly well grounded, a quality that will serve. Her check will go towards college.
Second Prize Winner Hannah-Jane Peterson delivers a fully (self) staged version of “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ at Carnegie Hall” (Blaine/Martin/Edens) sung by Judy Garland in Thousands Cheer. Beginning atop the piano, ostensibly bored with accompanist Jon Weber, Peterson is clearly a multifaceted talent. Movement during the boogie woogie chorus is fluid and appealing. Vocal not only sounds swell, but is infused with period attributes; brief scat is a bullseye.
Peterson, also from PPS, tells me she and her now single mother relocated from West Virginia two years ago to facilitate pursuing Hannah’s aspirations. Against all odds, she secured an agent who sends her out for voice-over work, but knows that at 17, she might have to wait on “legitimate” theater. (She’s made other appearances.) The young woman grew up with musicals and standards. She’s always been a Golden Age fan “it’s so relatable…” A junior looking at Pace, Marymount, and Circle in The Square, her determination, impatience and zeal make me think of the character Molly Brown (as in unsinkable). Part of Hannah’s check will go to new dance shoes, the rest towards college.
Naomi Autumn Steele
Third Prize Winner Naomi Autumn Steele (Talented Unlimited High School) applies her fetching voice to “Gorgeous” (Bock & Harnick- The Apple Tree). Without knowledge of the song’s context – Ella’s pleasure and surprise at having been transformed by her fairy godmother, this unique interpretation portrays a woman’s expressing an “obnoxious” (Steele) opinion of herself. The vocalist is a little stiff onstage.
Steele is an opera student who took a flier with this competition. Both knowledge and ambitions lie in that sector. “I chose this song because it had kind of the same color and range that I have…I like to sing lyrics that make me feel good. It’s a confidence booster to sing I’m gorgeous.” The young woman says she concentrates so much on her classical music, she forgets there are other genres she can explore. A window was opened here. (Eileen Farrell interpreted standards after a career in opera. Songbook stylists Sylvia McNair and Tammy McCann were also operatically trained.) A senior who aspires to Ithaca College, her check is going into a bank account.
James Steinman Gordon; Isiah Feil-Sharp
In my opinion the best male performers are 15 year-old James Steinman-Gordon and Isiah Feil-Sharp. Gordon offered Lerner & Lowe’s “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady) with besotted expression appropriate to young Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His ballad is melodious, emphasis well placed, swell admirably restrained. Unfortunately, the young man never looks at his audience. Feil-Sharp has us from the moment he insouciantly leans against the wall. “Luck Be A Lady” (Frank Loesser- Guys and Dolls) arrives with spit, polish, and theatricality. The vocalist is street cool/credible. He connects as if coolly challenging dispute. Gestures are spot-on.
Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston
Of the women, Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston are striking. Ross renders Rodgers & Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love” (The Boys From Syracuse), immediately assuming character, immediately connecting with the audience. Gestures are meaningful for being minimal. Phrasing makes theatrical sense. Ross stresses a bit on high notes, but that’s just practice…and octave choice. Hairston’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Waller/Razaf) emerges like slow hip rotation. “What do I care?” issues plaintive. With “I’m home about eight” she charmingly taps her watch. Octaves slip slide with skill and comprehension of the period. Open your eyes please.
Juliette Papadopoulos’ “If I Loved You” (Rodgers & Hammerstein – Carousel) showcases a lovely, legit voice and fine control. The song is perhaps beyond real life experience, however, which diminishes impact. Kerlin Pyun’s cute “I Can Cook” (Comden & Green/ Bernstein – On the Town) evidences great feeling for and ability with swing. The performer needs to moooove however, to sell the otherwise infectious song. She doesn’t have enough fun. Neither of these contestants look at the audience.
In general, the biggest issues after musicality are relating to people out front and choosing material that’s viscerally understood/and or appropriate to experience.
Somewhat of an exception to the last caveat is Joie Bianco, the youngest winner of Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Julie Wilson Award (at 16) and still a student at Talent Unlimited High School. The artist is preternaturally mature on stage managing not just graciousness/warmth and all important connection, but a knack for believably finding herself in songs for which one might otherwise require more maturity.
Bianco is aware of what she’s singing, not just how. She has a captivating voice and fine control. From the apt “I’m Just Too Young to Sing the Blues” (Charles Nater Jones/ /Chuck Meyer) – the last “blues” is, I think, sung in ten syllables, to Styne/Merrill’s iconic “People,” Bianco sets an example to other young performers. (Jon Weber-piano)
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, offers diverse thanks, in particular to the teachers behind the aspiring artists: Heidi Best, Carl Johnson, Jeff Statile, and Bret Kristofferson. Her pristine a cappella verse of “While We’re Young” (Wilder/Engvick) follows…Songs are meant to sing while we’re young… Adela and Larry quietly sing along.
The program’s benefactors are pleased and, I think, moved. Adela Elow comments she’s glad she’s not a judge and advises the young people to learn, study, perform, and follow their dreams. Larry Elow says he’s sorry he gave Adela such a hard time and now has hope.
The crowd is buoyant. Tune in next year. Meanwhile support American Songbook.
Pianist Jason Andrews accompanied students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Pianist John Pristiani accompanied students from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Jon Weber accompanied students from Professional Performing Arts School
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Opening: Naomi Steele, Hannah Peterson, Cristina Jiminez, KT Sullivan, Adela Elow, Larry Elow
Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.