Except for initial difficulty in getting in, the first night of Mabel Mercer Foundation’s virtual Cabaret Convention ran smoothly. Camera, lights, and sound, especially out of the Foundation office were excellent. Artistic Director KT Sullivan referred somewhat wistfully back to the Convention debut at Town Hall in 1989, the $5 ticket price and seven days-a-week concerts that ran from 6 p.m. to -12-ish. Many left at intermission assuming the show was over. Most of us packed snacks and hunkered down. Talent came from all over the country. You never knew who you’d discover.
This is an evening about then and now, memories, community, and survival. It’s also, at this point in any longtime cabaret aficionado’s life, a reminder that communication is more important than hitting every note.
Highlights: Natalie Douglas’ “Throw It Away” (Abbey Lincoln) arrived wrapped in dark, ripening, Shirley Bassey-like sound. (Piano-Matt Baker) “I Am Your Man” (Bonnie Lee Sanders/Susan Greenwas) was delivered by Sidney Myer with inimitable deadpan drollery. (Tracy Stark- piano) Marissa Mulder’s pristine, emotional rendition of “All the Way” (Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn) entwined with Jon Weber’s every-note-counts keyboard.
Shana Farr told us she hasn’t felt much like singing now that she can’t do what she loves in a room energized by an audience. The vocalist shared a poem written by her empathetic five year-old: I can sing to me/Can you sing to you/I can sing to you. An a capella version of “The Impossible Dream” (Mitch Leigh/Joe Darion) performed as a lullaby followed, raw and moving.
Aisha de Haas offered “Miss Celie’s Blues” (Quincy Jones/Rod Temperton/ Lionel Richie.) Impeccable phrasing surfaced with long, silken, almost-hummed tails“Sis-taaar” entered in melodic arc. An artist in control. Jon Weber’s sashaying accompaniment added just right attitude.
Jeff Harnar – “It was Tuesday, October 17, 1989. The show begins at 6 p.m.. I’ll never forget the thrill …the back row of the balcony seemed so close. One of the songs I sang was “Beyond the Blue Horizon.” It was astonishing to come off the stage and find Margaret Whiting waiting in the wings. She hugged me and said, “Thank you for singing daddy’s song!” Whiting, by the way, didn’t take the stage herself until shortly before midnight. Upon her entrance, she memorably said to the audience, “Does anyone have a Fig Newton?”
“Alex (Rybeck) and I hopped in a car and dashed to The Ballroom where we did our 9 o’clock show. Then we went to the Algonquin to see Andrea Marcovicci‘s 11 o’clock show. I met Michael Feinstein there. Afterwards we went to Broadway Baby to listen to music till 2 a.m. The next morning I called Donald to give him a full report. When I finished he said, as he would many times during our long association, “Another dull night in Manhattan.”
Karen Akers spoke for most of the community when she said Donald Smith has to be one of the most missed people. “He gave a boost to so very many… I have to say, I’m glad he’s not here to experience this because he thrived on nightlife…” Akers offered the legendary story of Julie Kurnitz ending the Convention’s first act singing “My story’s just too sad to be told…” after which she turned and walked into the wings. (Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”
Steve Ross spoke of Donald’s coming to him with the idea for the Convention, noting that not only was Smith championing talent and variety, but also pragmatically hoping musicians might get work out of it. “Nothing would make him happier than someone turning down an appearance because of paying work.” Karen Mason summoned the sense of collective energy that let artists perform at midnight, 1 a.m., even 3 a.m. “We always had an audience. People were out. I miss that, although I’m not sure I could stay up now…”
Larry Woodard tells us he came to New York in 1975 and got a job as 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. entertainment at a new Upper West Side boite called Clio’s. A couple of weeks in, Mabel Mercer began a run. As Woodard was exiting, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were entering. He decided to stay and see what the fuss was about. “In early records she had an operatic soprano. All that was gone, but she was a better singer.” They became friends.
Woodard then shared an anecdote about a visit to Mercer’s Chatham home with Steve Ross. During his living room piano recital of an esoteric Beethoven piece, their host seemed to fall asleep, so Woodard made cuts. Afterwards she commended the musician for his playing and chided him for omissions. The two guests then serenaded her with “Find Out What they Like & How They Like It & Let Them Have It Just That Way.” As performed by Woodard tonight, “How Do You Say Auf Wiedersehen?” (Johnny Mercer/Tony Scibetta) was beautifully tremulous and restrained.
Also featuring Ann Hampton Callaway, who regaled us with one of her clever, original, event-specific compositions; classy Eric Yves Garcia; a whispery jazz turn by Daryl Sherman; David LaMarr- whose personal interjections rankled; Karen Oberlin’s palpable emotion; Mark Nadler’s wry “Bruce” (John Wallowitch): Klea Blackhurst on trumpet, “I’ve been spending time in my basement getting better at things” and her memories of Donald’s ability to constantly surprise; Amra Faye Wright’s extravagant version of Jerry Herman’s“I Don’t Want to Know.” (Mark Hummel piano)
Sandy Stewart presented the Foundation’s Mabel Award to international opera star, Stephanie Blythe, a welcome newcomer to the community for “Her unique ability to inspire, elevate, and celebrate the human spirit in every melodic moment.” (words by John Fricke) Ms. Blythe presented an infectiously jaunty “If I Could Be With You” accompanying herself on ukulele.
The show ended with a sweet duet of Irving Berlin’s “Always” by Larry Goddard and KT Sullivan. Like many songs chosen for the event, it was eminently apt.