Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Author/historian/dramatist and self avowed “show maker,” Deborah Grace Winer owns her grandmother’s 1929 piano. (“Lots of cool people,” some of the best in the business, play it.) Among photos atop the instrument is her younger self with beloved mentor Rosemary Clooney. On the wall behind is a framed copy of “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” a hand written birthday gift from the song’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Across the room her sister’s paintings swirl. This is a woman defined by family and the company she keeps.
Deborah, Toba (their mother), and Jessica Winer
“One of the greatest gifts is to wake up in the morning and do something you love surrounded by people who have the same passion and love to create in the same vein… It’s flip side of the professional struggle. I’m a very glass half full person…”
Winer talks with urgency. Thoughts race forward like salmon determined to spawn. Enthusiasm palpably sparks. Longtime fan, author/historian Robert Kimball, whom she asks for advice and information, was instrumental in paving the way to her successful tenure as Artistic Director of 92Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists. He calls her a “cheerleader,” noting she brings out the best in people. (Positivity/can-do attitude is mentioned in every comment made about Winer.) She tenderly remembers Kimball’s being one of the first to telephone congratulations upon seeing her newly published 1990’s book on Dorothy Fields: On the Sunny Side of The Street in Barnes & Noble.
Robert Kimball and Deborah GraceWiner (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)
“Bob’s work is the gold standard of historical scholarship in our field. He’s extraordinary about recognizing when someone of a younger generation has a passion and talent for understanding this music, nurtures and champions their effort. He does that for me.” There’s no doubt these two would go to the barricades for one another.
Her eyes fix on mine, typifying focus that enables the artist to metaphorically juggle an apple, a hat, and a buzz saw. Conceiving and putting together successful American Songbook concerts/revues requires knowledge, taste, imagination, planning, diplomacy, and tenacity. “My 92Y work taught me to organize lots and lots of moving parts.”
She thinks fast, speaks with confidence, and rhapsodizes about people she esteems as if they were leaders of a common tribe. Were it not self-created, the kind of professional freedom she enjoys might be viewed as a fairytale. Even during her demanding term at 92Y, she remained an independent contractor.
My subject has dedicated herself to illuminating and presenting songs and, in her books, associated talent, from the 1920s through the early 1960s, when popular culture shifted. She’d have loved to have been born early enough to have had her “heyday” in the time of supper clubs and The Golden Age of Broadway.
Deborah Grace Winer, Teenager
As an adolescent, friends listened to rock n’roll while Winer played Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and musicals on the turntable. A quintessential New York kid growing up on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was raised by “smart set” parents: a mother who’d been a classical piano prodigy and a physician father with interest and friends in theater. Deborah and her sister Jessica (the painter responsible for the mural in Sardi’s upstairs banquet room) were surrounded by the arts.
Winer’s mom “instilled in us that in the world there’s no hierarchy or bureaucratic impediment to accomplishing anything you dream…if you envision it and do the work, there’s no earthly reason you shouldn’t go immediately to the top and sort it out with whoever’s in charge.” Her dad offered “a philosophical view of people, very measured and insightful…taking people on their own merits and accepting them for who they are.”
Dr. and Mrs. Winer had a subscription to The Metropolitan Opera. When her mother didn’t want to go, one of the girls was escorted as daddy’s date. Deborah’s first exposure occurred at seven years old. The opera was – wait for it – Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. I wonder aloud at her sitting through, leave absorbing the piece. She lightly assures me that having had dinner, they arrived after the performance began and because her father had to be at the hospital early, left before it was over. This happened often. “…so stories often ended happily and we always got a cab.” She smiles. It seems to come easily.
That same year, a friend invited Winer to her first Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It was, she says, “tremendously impactful.” Recollected impressions include “visual enormity,” “thrilling theatrical values,” “wonderful dancing,” and “the sound of the pit orchestra.” Curiously, she applies none of these vivid descriptions to years of extravagant opera. Winer filtered everything through songs. She was more stylistically excited by Broadway and old Hollywood musicals. Though she appeared in school plays, even as a child she wanted instead to write them. Her work was produced at school.
Deborah Grace Winer and Jesscia Winer, Apprentices
The Winers spent summers in Westport, Connecticut, a haven for people in the arts. Deborah rounded up neighborhood kids and put on al fresco plays. The Westport Country Playhouse was a short drive and family friend Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater just a bike ride down the road. Mrs. Winer asked the impresario to take her daughters and “make’m sweep the stage or something” in order to get theater out of their systems. Like countless other cases, the reverse happened. Winer hastens to tell me that any field was fine with her parents as long as she and her sister “showed verified talent. “
Apprentices Debbie and Jessie got a taste of both grunt work and creative aspects of theater. As “pets” of the barn’s grande dame, they were additionally dressed up (she grimaces slightly) and trotted out to greet audiences. “We were the kids without sun tans, but I got to show Jason Robards where the bathroom was,” she adds nonchalantly. Even as a teen she was never starstruck. “It’s a missing valve.”
Lortel set another example for Winer. “A rich, social woman whose husband wouldn’t let her pursue a career she’d begun as an actress, she loved theater, and though not an intellectual, had an uncanny sense of what was valuable to our time.” Here was an independent, iconoclastic spirit – she sat her audiences like guests at a dinner party and insisted on having submissions read aloud to her – who found a way to participate in the art about which she was passionate.
A history major at Swarthmore, the young woman took every theater course. She and Jessica (also enrolled) were characteristically impatient to create rather than discuss. They began putting on plays and concerts at the campus coffee house. “Reinventing the space, creating our own opportunities to get work up set the template for almost everything in my career.”
After graduation, she was employed at what she cites as her only “real” salaried job, tearing and logging in Metropolitan Opera raffle tickets. No kidding. Winer had been “note-taker, sometime driver and all around resource person” for every show at the Barn directed by Charles P. Maryan. Reading a play by “this bright, enthusiastic young woman” led to his becoming a mentor. He recommended her for an editorial position at Opera News, later directing her Off Broadway play. Ever unorthodox, Winer’s first article, “Kid Sister,” was a profile of Frances Gershwin Godowsky. Making a living as a playwright is extremely difficult. Writing about what she loved, Winer found her way “in.”
“And then I made my way,” she comments mildly. The new graduate wrote for Opera News, The New York Times (she simply sent them a letter pitching an idea), and Town and Country. In 1995, Winer’s play, The Last Girl Singer, was produced Off Broadway by The Women’s Project Theater. (Others would follow.) Stephen Holden of The New York Times opined “…it offers a bracingly cynical view of show business and has some acidic, funny lines…” She was just out of her twenties.
Winer authored four books, the first two with Dennis McGovern, two on her own. Among solo efforts was The Night and The Music, day to day portraits of treasured mentors/ friends Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook, and Julie Wilson. Her show based on the vocal virtuosos will be presented during Mabel Mercer Foundation’s October 2018 Cabaret Convention.
Deborah Grace Winer and Rosemary Clooney (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)
Meeting Rosemary Clooney was “like lightening striking in a romantic story. We were insanely close. She taught me everything about how to be an artist in this business, how to be true to oneself and build what one thinks is valuable…” Winer shares the example of Clooney’s appearances at New York’s iconic Rainbow Room. “The economics of the job and the vocalist’s expenses meant that inevitably she would barely break even.”
Clooney told Winer it was nonetheless the most important gig of the year because artistically she made it exactly the way she wanted, stellar exposure made it worth the outlay. “It had to do with priorities…” This was a major star “whose psychological and prescription abuse issues along with the arrival of rock n’ roll had reduced her to playing The Holiday Inn in Ventura, California.” Winer notes this would be the show Clooney afterwards took on the road as if it was secondary motivation.
Barbara Cook and Deborah Grace Winer; Deborah Grace Winer and Julie Wilson (Photos: Jessica Daryl Winer)
“Barbara (Cook) was a broad with a great sense of humor… She was grounded…There was nothing world weary about her or namby pamby….She had edge, and fire and temperament… Even when very successful, Barbara kept pinching herself to recognize where she was and what she achieved.”
“Julie Wilson taught me mastery over an audience. She had them in the palm of her hand even when she had no voice left…she was never a worrier… she knew things were out of her control anyway, so whatever happens, happens. Other people knew that too…but they worry all the same – not Julie.”
Lyrics & Lyricists: Songs of The City-Billy Stritch, Klea Blackhurst, Jeffrey Schecter, Leslie Kritzer, Darius De Haas, La Tanya Hall, Deborah Grace Winer (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)
Having parted with the 92Y hasn’t slowed the artistic director a moment. Her Gershwin program at The Schimmel Center downtown established a relationship there. Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook began Winer’s collaboration with Feinstein’s/54Below, which will continue with The Classic American Songbook Series on March 27, May 8, and June 17, 2018.
Each of these will feature vocal entertainment bridged by brief anecdote and/or historical narrative riffs. Winer’s philosophy pervades: “I never want the Songbook to have a whiff of nostalgia. Do you go see Traviata and get nostalgic for the 19th century? The material is fresh, vibrant and current. Our first audiences included a bunch of young people.” Some recent and upcoming shows will also be staged at out of state venues. Projects abound. Multitasking is second nature to this seemingly indefatigable woman.
Feinstein’s 54/Below: Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook – Margo Seibert, Karen Ziemba, Deborah Grace Winer, Kenita Miller, Emily Skinner (Photo: Bruce Cohen)
“I have been in the audience for programs about songwriters produced by Deb Winer and I have performed in such programs. Deb’s affection and respect for songwriters is quite moving to me,” friend/mentor Sheldon Harnick tells me. Ironically Harnick is the lyricist behind her first Broadway experience, a fitting case of aria da capo.
The artist met the famed wordsmith in the early 1990s. “I learn from him almost every moment we spend together, asking for stories about how he wrote this work, or solved that theatrical puzzle, or the ins and outs of collaborating with this or that iconic creative artist. He is also one of the most deeply principled human beings I’ve ever known…”
Deborah Grace Winer and Sheldon Harnick (Photo Stephen Sorokoff)
Winer absorbs something from every talent with whom she comes in contact. Professional relationships often evolve to friendships. “The biggest blessing is the people in my life.” Her mentors appear to be as outstanding as they are legion. Their presence and devotion is telling.
To Deborah Grace Winer, show making/artistic direction is alchemy, a great adventure, a cause. Watch the horizon.
Deborah Grace Winer at work (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)
Opening Photo of Deborah Grace Winer: Jessica Daryl Winer
The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual summer concert celebrated composer Howard Dietz (1896-1983) and lyricist Arthur Schwartz (1900-1984), while including an unrelated roster of other writers. Relative newcomers and established artists presented jazz, cabaret, and musical theater interpretations out of what we call The American Songbook, which, despite suggestions to the contrary, continues to endure and evolve.
Arthur Schwartz was pressured into law by his family and admitted to the bar in 1924. By 1928, having moonlighted for years, he’d closed his office in favor of songwriting. Howard Dietz moved from advertising to MGM’s Vice President in Charge of Publicity, originating their iconic, roaring lion as well as the slogan “More Stars than there are in Heaven.” The composer wrote continuously throughout his alternate career. Collaboration began with The Little Show, a revue starring Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, and Fred Allen. The rest is history.
Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (Wikipedia)
In her best, wide-eyed, faux innocent persona, the Foundation’s Artistic Director, KT Sullivan, opened with “Confession” from The Band Wagon.
Frank Dain’s version of “Penny” was utterly enchanting. (Songwriter/musical director/musician/board member and lifetime card-carrying, cabaret supporter Larry Elow.) Dain shimmered with ardor. The unfussy ballad goes straight to the heart with timeless appeal. Kathleen Landis – lovely arrangement, graceful piano.
“Make the Man Love Me” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) emerged genuinely sweet as rendered by Lauren Stanford. During an instrumental, the vocalist seemed to continue internal dialogue holding us captive. Piano-Jon Weber.
Frank Dain; Lauren Stanford
The Inimitable Sidney Meyer, who has the most articulate shoulders in the business, sang “Rainy Night in Rio” (Arthur Schwartz/Leo Robin) with iconoclastic, deadpan phrasing, impish facial expression, and the rousing help of the band’s “Ai Yi Yi!” chorus. A photographic finish. Piano-Jon Weber.
Danny Bacher and Alexis Cole, usually solo performers, symbiotically joined for three numbers with Cole at the piano and Bacher on soprano sax as well as duet vocals. “I’ll Buy You a Star” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) swung in with the ease of a languid hammock. “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” was insouciant rather than wistful. “You and The Night and The Music” showcased the artists’ extraordinary ability with scat. Someone find these people a supper club!
Alexis Cole; Danny Bacher
In his first appearance with The Mabel Mercer Foundation, Darius de Haas displayed well honed acting skill with the theatrical prose/poem “Trotsky in Mexico” (Renee Rosnes/David Hajdu). An original “Shine On Your Shoes” arrived like a slow-motion Fred Astaire turn, every word savored as if preaching gospel. Todd Firth-splendid, textural piano and arrangements.
John Wallowich’s “I Live Alone Again” was performed with rare restraint by Mark Nadler as stipulated by its author – first verse a lament, second in gleeful relief. The artist sold both with credibility. “By Myself,” adroitly including Jack Buchanan’s original spoken word, was a crie de coeur rather than familiar resignation. And, oh, the piano!
Mark Nadler; Marta Sanders
To my mind, this evening’s highlight was veteran Marta Sanders whose inhabiting lyrics, flexible timbre, and arch humor created a show unto itself. The gypsy “Come A-Wandering With Me”(Mark Nadler-emphatic piano), cue atmospheric stage smoke, was followed with equal fervor by John Wallowich’s amusing “Warsaw,” (John McMahon-piano), an impeccably timed in-one, deftly utilizing a babushka.
Sullivan then closed with “Lovely,” for which she played matchmaker to a forgotten composition by Howard Dietz and Bart Howard’s lyrics, and, perhaps the best known Dietz and Schwartz song, “Dancing in The Dark” materializing a chanteusey, soprano waltz. Jon Weber-piano.
Also featuring: exuberant Seth Sikes; Celia Berk’s poignant “Something to Remember You By” rife with implicit “please”; an underwhelming Margi Gianquinto; the polished Sue Matsuki with a clever, if seemingly out of place number on which she collaborated; a bright, sweetheart rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” from Karen Oberlin; Laurie Krauz and Daryl Kojak’s extremely original interpretation of “Alone Together” with massaged vocal, wordless singing, and Valkyrie delivery; the sincere Gary Crawford; and Mauricio Bustamante’s rendition of John Wallowich’s “Bruce.”
Musicianship was uniformly superb.
Performance Photos by Seth Cashman
Opening: Jon Weber; KT Sullivan
Songs by other than Dietz and Schwartz are noted.
Recommended Reading: Dancing in The Dark by Howard Dietz (published in 1974)
That’s Entertainment: Dietz & Schwartz and Friends Music Director: Jon Weber Saadi Zain-bass, Sean Harkness-guitar, David Silliman-drums. Weill Hall June 20, 2017 The Mabel Mercer Foundation
Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman were both born out of the same Brooklyn hospital into Eastern European families. Despite neighborhood proximity, they didn’t meet until respectively landing in Los Angeles the 1950s. One might call this particular collaboration Kismet.
The married couple has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards garnering three. Their extensive oeuvre also includes, in part, iconic television themes, numbers written for television musicals, a jazz cycle, and widely varied songs popularized by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand. The Bergmans never found their way to Broadway but tailored to characters in film (Yentl is a prime example) and when writing for a particular vocalist. “We knew enough about him to fit the lyric to his character time and time again,” Alan Bergman once commented about Frank Sinatra.
Today’s Special Guest is critic/biographer/librettist/playwright Terry Teachout. The inimitable David Lahm, Granat’s symbiotic accompanist furnishes eloquent piano.
Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman
Host Harvey Granat begins vocal choices with Alan Bergman/Lou Spence’s “That Face,” introduced by Fred Astaire, followed by the Sinatra hit “Nice N’ Easy” credited to Alan Bergman/Marilyn Keith/Lou Spence. Renditions are genial and dancey. Granat’s skilled nonchalance is similar to that of Sinatra. During the second number, he feeds us the lyrics. (The knowledgeable audience often knows songs by heart and are selectively encouraged to sing along.) Teachout suggests we don’t ordinarily think of the Bergmans for a swing tune.
Original placement of familiar songs is something of a revelation. 1967’s “Make Me Rainbows” (music – John Williams) is from what Teachout calls “a justifiably forgotten film” called Fitzwilly.” “If that had been written 10 years earlier,” he continues, “it would have become a standard.” The same year saw original English lyrics for “You Must Believe in Spring” (music – Michel Legrand) from French film The Young Girls of Rochefort: Beneath the deepest snows,/The secret of a rose/Is merely that it knows/You must believe in Spring! …Granat’s version is delicate, poetic, lovely. Teachout declares it the moment the Bergmans became themselves, “the great romantics of the late golden age of songwriting.”
From The Thomas Crown Affair we hear a wistful, resigned “The Windmills of Your Mind” for which composer Michel Legrand apparently wrote five or six melodies. The Bergmans suggested he go to a movie and they’d meet the next morning, whereupon the vote was unanimous. Teachout observes the song is effectively in a minor key “which American popular songs never are.” Lahm adds that the grammar is successfully out of phase with the melody, yet another example of iconoclastic skill.
It turns out that “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” (music – Michel Legrand) was written for an obscure 1969 film called The Happy Ending. Granat’s buttery version is rife with yearning. Teachout remarks that rhymes fall on the next to last words. This particular session of the Granat series is illuminated by more incisive music perceptions than usual due to this guest’s contribution.
In the same lush vein, “Summer Me, Winter Me” arrives with recognition that nouns have become verbs: Summer me, winter me/And with your kisses, morning me, evening me/And as the world slips far away, a star away/Forever me with love…Suddenly, magically/We found each other…Granat sings with surprise and excitement, not disturbing the tenor of the song. During “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” with what Teachout calls “a great lyric for a soured relationship,” Granat appears to be reflecting in real time. (Both music – Michel Legrand)
In 1973, the Bergmans wrote “The Way We Were” (music – Marvin Hamlish). Though the group is invited to sing and clearly know the lyrics, its volume is extremely soft, in order, one suspects, to fully hear the vocalist’s interpretation.
When, as a little girl, Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s daughter was asked what her parents do, she responded “When my mommy and daddy wake up, they drink coffee, go into a room and close the door. Sometimes there’s music, sometimes not. And they get paid for it.” And aren’t we lucky?
I hear a great many vocalists. Not only are these sessions illuminating and fun, but Harvey Granat is one of our most authentic balladeers. Again, a good time is had by all.
Opening photo: Harvey Granat, Terry Teachout, David Lahm Bigstock Photo of Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman at the Grammy Foundation’s Starry Night Gala. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA. 07-12-08
Songs and Stories with Harvey Granat: Alan and Marilyn Bergman Special Guest Terry Teachout 92St.Y 92nd and Lexington Avenue Venue Web Site NEXT: May 4 On Dorothy Fields with Special Guest, Field’s son, musician David Lahm
“I’ve gotten to an age when people say to me you’ve had an interesting life. Had?!”
Dillie Keane and songwriting partner of 35 years, Adele Anderson (they both write lyrics, Keane writes the music) might be love children of Dorothy Fields and Noel Coward. As with Fields’ work, cleverness never obscures honesty or empathy. Like that of Coward, droll lyrics, even those with hat-and-cane music hall tunes, are basted by sophistication. Poignancy inevitably arrives with charm.
With this very personal show, Keane and Anderson tell stories of women/people of a certain vintage enmeshed in the vicissitudes of love and facsimiles thereof. “You know, my life is touring, chutney and gardening and it’s not going to make a great read really. So anybody wanting to look at my life will have to just look at the songs.” Hello Dillie! is scrappy, witty, and warm.
That the artist is also a respected theater actress is immediately apparent. Keane inhabits every song. Some are character turns, other mini one-acts. We open with “My Average Morning” in which, amid twittering birds, the singer faces another day as the butt of God’s great joke, literally falling back across the piano top with a moan.
Deeply hungover, she hears an unfamiliar snore, finds she’s not alone in bed and that the window isn’t where it ought to be. As if that weren’t sufficiently disconcerting, …Those certainly aren’t my handcuffs,/And I never wear red lace… not to mention the horse! An hysterical story recollected rather than related, with blithe melody and spot-on comic timing.
Three visits to clairvoyants are intermittently enacted, some fateful, others guff. What, after all, is one to do with time off touring in places like Canberra, Australia? The actress becomes a Hungarian tarot card reader, a Brighton seer, after whose session she thought, based on the sybil’s logic, her grandmother may have been Fats Waller, and a Blackpool psychic who described the view out her back window long before Keane found herself at the house.
“Single Again” and “Back With You” were written years apart, yet when the second was completed Keane and her collaborator felt they’d “finished the story.” The idea of being single at her age – embarrassed, awkward, remembering two toothbrushes, two robes, “frightened” the performer so much, she stayed in a bad relationship too long. While lyrics couldn’t be more genuine or distressed, piano accompaniment is jaunty; juxtaposition works wonderfully. The second number is delivered with a frustrated growl. Keane paces and rants, a self admitted fool, a slave to pheromones. I’m deranged/ To kid myself that you had really changed…Sound familiar?
Touching songs include such as “Out of Practice,” a conversation with her reticent self about risking love again, “Little Shadows” experienced from inside a long term relationship colored by … hidden grief;/Silent as a withered leaf;/… There are things, she suggests, one must never discuss, yet life goes on. And the tender, poetic “Love Late” which sounds for all the world like a traditional folk song handed down from generation to generation.
Keane packs more measured feeling into a phrase than that with which many vocalists imbue a whole song. She can be as delicate as snow in a snowglobe, broad-vaudeville funny, or incisively arch. Twice she ably replaces her excellent piano accompanist, Michael Roulston, whose light touch, intuitive timing, and theatrical flair buoy the show.
The well written piece has a vertebrae which serves. Stories bridge and introduce, each specific, none manufactured to fit. Keane creates the kind of genial intimacy one wants to take home to dinner. Direction by Simon Green, himself a first rate performer, is expressive and perfectly tailored.
“Pam,” about a woman confronting a husband’s mistress, communicates, in the sweetest, most polite tones, that though not ordinarily aggressive, she feels it only fair to warn the interloper her kneecaps are at present in danger. Should she continue pursuit, in fact, far worse consequences would ensue. Stop/start phrasing leaves ample time for the potential victim’s squirming. We can see Keane observe her. Most striking is that the song’s authors instill its lyrics with the wife’s experience and insight rather than merely describing revenge.
“Much More Married” is the episodic history of a burgeoning relationship whose every date reveals an aspect of circumstances not as first portrayed. The prologue is a gem. Keane got out of this one in time. “One More Campaign,” erupts as a drinking song, equating love with war. There are numbers describing literal and figurative illusions proffered by older romantics. “Everything,” as Nora Ephron famously said, “is copy.”
Except for a few more obviously concocted numbers, the show is sheer delight. An hour and a half with the multi-talented Dillie Keane will leave you feeling like uncorked bubbly. Go. Take friends. You’ll thank me.
Keane is best known to American audiences as one-third of Fascinating Aida with irreverent vocalists Adele Anderson and Liza Pullman. Her two previous solo shows, alas, never reached these shores.
Photos of Dillie Keane and Michael Roulston by Carol Rosegg.
Hello, Dillie! Dillie Keane With songs by Dillie Keane and Adele Anderson Michael Roulston at the piano Directed by Simon Green 59E59 Street Theatres 59 East 59th Street Through July 3. 2016
Queens born Ethel Merman (1908-1984) sang publicly from the age of nine. Completing school, determined to forge a show business career, she performed nights after full time work as a stenographer. Merman was discovered in a club, offered a contract by Paramount, and made a series of short, cookie-cutter-plotted films.
Her breakout theatrical role in “Girl Crazy” put the incipient icon at the forefront of musical theater transition from operetta to jazz-based scores. The orchestra pit of George and Ira Gershwin’s show held Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa. One review said “She can hold a note longer than The Chase Manhattan Bank.” Merman starred in 14 Broadway successes.
We learn all this during Ted Sperling’s introduction to an evening of Merman numbers almost none of which represent the spirit of the artist. When the host informs us the company will not try to impersonate the celebrant, but rather share the joy of her singing, we assume that means not imitating her vocal style.
Instead, slowed and weighted musical arrangements with dissonant instrumental solos by otherwise good musicians and two a capella choral numbers that can’t be further from the singer’s essence, make the presentation seem longer than its almost 2 ½ hours. A sing-along with lyrics projected is assigned to a complex a song and quickly loses the audience. Direction dictates that naturally animated numbers are performed almost stock still. (Several artists’ tendencies to put their hands in pockets doesn’t help.) Hard working vocalists seem tethered.
Having said that, Sperling does deliver a sense of Merman’s trajectory, her becoming a sassy broad who could hold her own with the guys, professional idiosyncrasies, and personal challenges. We’re privy to a couple of priceless film clips, some nifty anecdotes, and there are entertaining musical exceptions.
Ted Sperling, Lindsay Mendez
Lindsay Mendez, perhaps the closest reflection of La Merman not only in lung power, but in energy, pluck, and unaffected presentation, offers such as “You’re a Builder-Upper” (Ira Gershwin/EY Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen from Life Begins at 8:40)- crisply articulated and sparkling with exemplary player-piano like accompaniment and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne from Gypsy, a musical that was turned down by Irving Berlin) wherein some octave changes are very Merman-like, but performance is ultimately her own.
Natasha Yvette Williams gives us “Eadie Was a Lady” with spot-on instincts when to sing or speak a lyric, big eyes, rolling hips, and a bit of an appealing growl. (BG De Sylva/Nacio Herb Brown/Richard A Whiting from Take A Chance!) Cole Porter’s “Blow, Gabriel Blow” (from Anything Goes), on the other hand, is curiously bereft of exuberance until 2/3 of the way in. Undoubtedly not her fault. Williams preaches with zest and aptitude looking in audience faces.
Natasha Yvette Williams
Julia Murney’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “Down in The Depths On the Ninetieth Floor” is too big and depicts misplaced sexuality. (from Red, Hot, and Blue for which contested billing was decided by printing Merman and Jimmy Durante’s names graphically crossed.) Though the vocalist has a good instrument with fine control, she overacts. “Small World,” however, accompanied only by Kevin Kuhn’s guitar, is lilting and sincere. (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne from Gypsy)
The excellent Charke Thorell sings a jazz-age tinted “Anything Goes” (Cole Porter from the musical of the same name) with some easy scat and a breezy, cutely directed “You’re the Top” (Cole Porter from Anything Goes) with Emily Skinner. His interpretation of “Do I Love You?” following Sperling’s description of tragedies in Merman’s life, is handicapped by clear instruction to appear inconsolable. Vocal is pristine. (Cole Porter from DuBarry Was a Lady)
Clarke Thorell, Emily Skinner
Emily Skinner’s “Some People” is pithy and clarion without over-reaching. (Stephen Sondheim/ Jule Styne from Gypsy) Her version of “A Lady Needs a Change” (Dorothy Fields/Arthur Schwartz from Stars in Your Eyes) is aply wry. The rarely performed “World Take Me Back” has just the right tone. (Jerry Herman, written for Merman in Hello Dolly, cut from the original Carol Channing version when Merman at first turned the show down.) Skinner makes lyrics authentic.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening “You Say the Nicest Things” is jauntily performed by Williams and Thoreau AS Merman and Jimmy Durante for whom the song was written. Both vocal and movement are charming. Thorell excels. (Dick Manning/Carroll Carroll- special material)
An experiment in which two “double duets” – “You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin from Call Me Madam) and “An Old Fashioned Wedding” (Berlin from Annie Get Your Gun) are sung first, separately, and then simultaneously, surprisingly works as novel discovery. Both songs are sung in counterpoint, yet have such similar construction, lyrics sync. Skinner and Williams perform the first, Mendez and Thorell, the second-this delightfully expressive.
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents Everything’s Coming Up Ethel-The Ethel Merman Songbook Ted Sperling- Artistic Director/Stage Director/Writer/Host Jeffrey Klitz-Music Director/Piano Lainie Sakakura-Associate Director/Choreographer Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall 92 Y at 92nd and Lexington Avenue NEXT UP:I Have Confidence-Rodgers After Hammerstein– May 21-23
Most fans know composer/songwriter/pianist Cy Coleman (Seymour Kaufman 1929-2004) as an author of such musical theater successes as Sweet Charity, Barnum, and The Will Rodgers Follies. In fact, the classically trained child prodigy was drawn to popular music, particularly jazz, penning dozens upon dozens of songs recorded by iconic vocalists.
Guest Artistic Director Billy Stritch (piano/vocals) is a natural and fortuitous choice to helm this program. Co-written with the knowledgeable Andy Propst, author of You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman, narrative is warm and illuminating. Not only is Stritch a superb performer/musician/arranger, but he briefly knew Coleman and is able to share his own affectionate and respectful experience of the man. The sum total is top flight entertainment. (Stritch should do this more often.)
“Tin Pan Alley,” written with Coleman’s first collaborator Joseph McCarthy, Jr., is a dancey valentine to the business: …where music with a lyric/has caused a dizzy mirac-le…It’s Jolson singing Mammy/ that put the A in Alabamy…Stritch’s solo does it charming justice. His “I’ll Be Coming Back” (Al Stillman) shows the mercurial musician’s hip, Philip Marlowe side and facility with tonight’s celebrated genre.
La Tanya Hall
Also written with McCarthy, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” is rendered by La Tanya Hall with a satiny voice skating just above circling brushes. Hall intermittently looks at the audience as if she’s in an intimate club and can see faces. This is immensely engaging. Later, her interpretation of “Sweet Talk” (Floyd Huddleston) manages to be pissed off without sounding abrasive. The vocalist has a husky purr she uses to fine effect.
In addition to McCarthy, we hear songs for which Coleman partnered with such as Carolyn Leigh (a fruitful, but tempestuous collaboration during which some songs were legendary for the spontaneity and speed with which they were created), Dorothy Fields, Peggy Lee, Floyd Huddleston, Buddy Greco, and Marilyn and Alan Bergman.
In his Y debut, Nicolas King presents “I Walk a Little Faster” (Carolyn Leigh) with appealing phrasing that includes a minute pause after “walk” a little faster, one between keep and bumping into walls…and a little laugh at nothing but disaster…as if he can’t control his behavior.
King, like Hall, looks at faces. In some ways, we’ve watched him grow up onstage (since age 11). Probably a reincarnated member of The Rat Pack, it’s good to see the artist channel his decisive flair into more restrained delivery. Even during the dense, bracing “You Wanna Bet” (Dorothy Fields), he moves around the stage vocally swinging without overt flamboyance.
The jaunty “Doodling Song” is performed, with inviting vocal arrangement, by Stritch, King, and Gabrielle Stravelli. Stritch first heard the captivating number on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Another group selection featuring Debby Boone, Gabrielle Stravelli, and Hall, “Bouncing Back For More,” was bumped from successive Broadway musicals only to have its first public outing on a television special with Lucille Ball and Shirley MacLaine. The snappy trio is enhanced by cute, synchronized movement. (Both Carolyn Leigh)
Stravelli showcases quiet intensity and expert control with “Rules Of the Road:” So these are the ropes,/The tricks of the trade,/The rules of the road…She’s grave, resigned, bummed out and refined. (Carolyn Leigh) During “Sweet Talk” (Floyd Huddleston), the artist’s focus makes it seem as if thoughts are coming to her for the first time.
She and Hall also present an inviting duet of “Cheatin’” (Marilyn and Alan Bergman), part of a Song Cycle called “Portraits of Jazz.” Stritch tells us this is “a tribute to the nightclub scene when Coleman was coming up.” The wry lyric finds Hall as “his” mistress singing to “his” wife: I always thought that when he wasn’t with me, he must’ve been home with you. Apparently the musician has been two timing both of them. He works out every morning/Two shows a night/Plus that son of a bitch/ Is cheating on us…The ladies bond in betrayal and incredulity. Both vocalists enact the scenario with effective spirit.
Billy Stritch and Debby Boone
Debby Boone shines with “Here I Go Again” (Tommy Wolf) which sails by like a delicate milkweed pod on a light breeze, the unknown, “Pink Taffeta Sample Size Ten” (Dorothy Fields-cut from Sweet Charity) in which she inhabits girlish awe with porcelain clarity, and “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” (Joseph McCarthy, Jr. for a musicalization of The Heartbreak Kid) which is delivered with melancholy bitterness.
An unexpected vocal turn by bassist Jay Leonhart gives us the amusing “The Laarge Daark Aardvaark Song” –misspelling intentional- (Alan Sherman of “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” fame.) Anyone who’s heard Leonhart scat won’t be surprised he’s a master of cool understatement.
Billy Stritch’s pristine version of “It Amazes Me” (Carolyn Leigh), the show’s denouement, is slow and savored; surprised, grateful, abashed, and rather moving.
Stage Direction by Scott Faris suits both material and performers to a T.
Somewhere Mr. Coleman is beaming.
Performance Photos by Richard Termine Opening: Billy Stritch, Debby Boone, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli, La Tanya Hall
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents Witchcraft- The Jazz Magic of Cy Coleman Billy Stritch Artistic Director Andy Propst- Co-Writer Scott Faris- Stage Director Featuring Debby Boone, La Tanya Hall, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli Jay Leonhart-Bass, Rick Montalbano-Drums 92Y Lexington Avenue NEXT: Everything’s Coming Up Ethel-The Ethel Merman Songbook April 16-18