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
“…Dear Ms. Fitzgerald…The first time I saw you was on tv…You were singing…clear and velvety smooth…like you were making a beautiful painting with your voice…” The daughter of two professional singers, Broadway denizen Andrea Frierson has felt an affinity with Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917-1996) since childhood. Bookended by letters, this show parallels Frierson’s life (and that of her family) with Fitzgerald’s, not in terms of actual incidents, but rather professional experience and the icon’s influence. The author/performer wisely doesn’t try to imitate her heroine, she channels her.
Between vocals, Fitzgerald’s biography is peppered with four line poems written by Frierson: Hollywood came a-calling /I went!/Salary they paid me- three times my rent/Oh Chick…if only you could see/All the good you brung to me…This, as if by Fitzgerald, refers to Ella’s invitation to Hollywood because of popularity with Chick Webb’s band. A single reference to experienced prejudice elicits: A first-class ticket to a Jim Crow affair/The dress code is black and white/The misery’s private; inherited by birth/Enjoy your second-class flight…The novelty mostly works.
Signature numbers like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “A Tisket a Tasket,” “Goody, Goody,” “Lady Be Good,” “How High the Moon,” and “The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” arrive with confidence and style. Frierson is a fine singer. She has superb control, a classy swing, mellow scat, and a long note that never pushes. Ballads whisper and swell, be-bop feels effervescent. Phrasing is impeccable, gestures kept to a minimum.
Projected images of Fitzgerald and Frierson through the years are joined by photos of The Apollo Theater, streets of Harlem, album covers, and newspaper headlines adding atmosphere. Relevant sound effects are occasionally employed to create time and place.
The show is in development. At this point Frierson’s own story, especially in regard to that of her family, intrudes too often with tenuous analogy in order to include certain songs. A set of peripheral cousins, one boyfriend, and a Beatles number could be easily jettisoned. Though she sings George Gershwin’s “Porgy” beautifully, it doesn’t relate to Fitzgerald the way “Summertime”, a similar vocal opportunity, would. “Laura” is justified by a mention of Million Dollar Movie and “Get Out of Town” doesn’t work in response to bigotry experienced on American Airlines.
This is meant to be constructive criticism. Me & Ella is thoroughly entertaining. Fitzgerald’s story is well told. Much of Frierson’s history is charmingly related. The artist can clearly act and boy can she sing! Enthusiasm and affection are palpable.
Directors Murphy Cross & Paul Kreppel spotlight Frierson’s vocal appeal and storytelling.
Ron Abel’s excellent arrangements are engaging and evocative of Fitzgerald.
The band, featuring Abel on piano, Rex Benincasa- Percussion and Richie Goods-Bass, is first rate.
Photos by Ben Strothmann.
Photo of Ella Fitzgerald- Wikipedia
The York Theatre Company presents Me & Ella- Written and Performed by Andrea Frierson Music Direction & Arrangements by Ron Abel The Theater at St. Peter’s 618 Lexington Avenue Through July 23, 2017 NEXT: JERRY’S GIRLS August 8-15
Thos Shipley presented a tribute to Nat King Cole Saturday evening, March 25, at the Metropolitan Room to a sold out audience, both vocal and warmly enveloping. Shipley’s is a relaxed and open personality, unpretentious and accessible. Whether that was cultivated by, or enabling of, his varied background, I cannot know. But it works. (Shipley was raised by a teacher mom and army dad; spent his youth in Japan; studied electrical engineering, followed by acting and singing; performs locally and internationally and is now Ward Councilman in Roselle Park, New Jersey.) You want to like this man, and he makes it easy. He is, despite his current political role, a cabaret professional who has precisely prepared all aspects of the performance – befitting his broad experience on Broadway, regional theater and local and international cabaret and recording. And, again, it works. The show feels spontaneous and relaxed – perhaps because of the careful preparation.
Shipley was backed by Tom Guarna on guitar, David Finck on double bass, and Mark Soskin on Piano. These very able musicians had too brief opportunities to solo, but made the most of each one. Each is individually impressive, but they were there in the service of Shipley, and Cole, and delivered a smooth, and, as needed, swinging or syncopated sound, providing solid but unobtrusive support.
The show opens with a brief video of Cole; Shipley enters and blends into a Cole lyric to join the two performers, so we are immediately engaged, and alert to the connection. The band starts and we are launched into a medley of Straighten Up and Fly Right (Cole, Mills), I Love You For Sentimental Reasons (Watson, Best) and Route 66 (Chuck Berry, a timely reminder of his recent passing).
Shipley intermittently tells us a bit about Cole (nee Nathaniel Adams Coles), instructed by his mother in classical piano but, to his father’s chagrin, finding his heart in jazz. (I have supplemented the Cole history here.) Cole struck out on his own at 15 and gained renown for his piano playing. He was christened “Nat King Cole” by a band mate and initially prodded to sing, reluctantly, by an insistent, tipsy patron. He sang, then, a song that became one of his signature numbers; so did Shipley: Sweet Lorraine (Burwell, Parish) – with a brief but captivating Soskin solo.
Cole was so widely recorded that Shipley had a broad repertoire from which to choose material strongly associated with Cole’s name. Each number will resonate with many as being the Cole song they best remember. With the medley of Nature Boy (attributed to Cole), Mona Lisa (Evans, Livingston) and The Christmas Song (Wells, Torme), I heard Cole in Shipley, and relaxed into the evening.
The show is a tribute – not a recreation, but Shipley has, in addition to his own sonorous sound, much of the warmth and (for this performance, at least) some of the musical mannerisms of Cole, so that Cole is often spontaneously recalled to memory. This is helped in part by the (minimal) costume changes and the instrumental backing, both stylistically reminiscent of Cole.
Shipley related an aspect of the racism of the time that kept Cole in his place and at least privately somewhat bitter: Cole was simultaneously lionized for his talent and vilified as a black man attempting to popularize “black” music. He was personally harassed from both sides of the issue, but he strove to open the national entertainment industry to blacks. He enjoyed a truncated single season hosting a variety TV show on NBC, which footed the bill until it was agreed that, for fear of southern backlash, no national sponsor would be forthcoming. Despite support of black and white headliners (Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahailia Jackson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte – among others, working for minimum scale), the show could not be sustained. Cole was physically attacked and intimidated. Without stressing the connection, Shipley sings the plaintive Smile (Chaplin, Turner and Parsons).
With the advent of Rock and Roll, Cole bridled, but Shipley relates that he did expand his jazz approach to include pop and country music; Shipley dons a new jacket and hat to evoke the ‘Cole cool’ to perform Send for Me (Jones) with some nice solo licks by Guarna, and Wild is Love (Rasch, Wayne). A silky rendition of It’s a Beautiful Evening (Rasch, Wayne) again brought back Cole for me.
As a performer, Shipley reflects those characteristics we might expect him to have picked up from his parents – discipline, a work ethic, respect for himself and his audience. He is clearly working on stage: not straining but delivering; not enraptured by fully engaged. He is confident, comfortable, musical and enjoying the process. You will too.
After additional Cole standards, Shipley began to wind down the evening with the obligatory Unforgettable (Gordon). The audience was not ready to end the evening. A video of Cole was projected on the back of the stage and Shipley again echoed Cole in voice and movement – bringing the performance full circle to the initial montage. Shipley thanked the staff, the musicians, the audience, his manager and husband, and slid into the “final” number of L-O-V-E (Kaempfert, Gabler). At this point, the audience was singing along unbidden and would barely let Shipley off the stage. An encore of Paper Moon (Arlen, E. Y. Harburg and Rose) closed the performance. This is an enjoyable show for boomers who listened to Nat King Cole when growing up and for new comers to the American Songbook – who never had the pleasure.
Shipley will be performing on May 18, 2017 at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.; current booking information can be found at www.ThosShipley.com. He plans to return to the Metropolitan Room in the summer.
We open with an infectious rendition of “Roll Jordan Roll” rousing the club like fireworks. This is one fabulous band. If they came together only for the gig, these musicians might consider repeating a clearly winning combination. Angels One and Two, author/performer Trent Armand Kendall and Natasha Yvette Williams, excavate the heart and gut of gospel.
Premise: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), arguably two of the most influential musicians in our American pantheon (and repeated collaborators) are wandering around Heaven with amnesia. Louis wants to see what his legacy will be, while Ella has unaddressed regrets. Both need to resolve issues before passing into the light. Angels will assume the artist’s forms. “Tonight we’re gonna do our best to offer some closure, so the souls can cross over…”
Memory comes back gradually. When the old friends meet, they don’t recognize each other. Louis is a cocky flirt. Ella backs away wary and proper. Perhaps alluding to a fugue state, he sings “St. James Infirmary” with engaging, short/long phrasing and enthusiastic stomps. She, ostensibly clinging to her Bible, offers a bouncy, resonant “I Shall Not Be Moved.” “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” and “Cheek to Cheek” follow (to show that the pair realize they’re in Heaven) as Louis comes onto her. “I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, just a friend,” he assures Ella, at last getting her to take a few turns around the celestial dance floor.
Lack of logic next presents Ella’s terrific version of a silken “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and then a duet of “I Won’t Dance.” Sometimes song choices make sense, at others they appear arbitrary. As Act II is a concert to The Almighty, numbers don’t need intros, yet the sequence could be better considered. Occasional banter is rather sweet and evocative. Exposition, on the other hand, often seems crammed in without ballast in the way of related lyrics. A librettist would help. He might at the least jettison the laxative commercial. (No kidding.)
About half way through Act I, Ella and Louis realize with whom they’re singing duets. “Louis?” “Ella?!” “Do you feel like you just woke up from a dream?” Still, she protests, “No monkey business, no jazz” in order to get into the ambrosial fields. (?!) Ella’s “Sentimental Journey” is sheer velvet. “Ba ba ba bome,” Louis comes in from a stage right stool. A well integrated parenthesis talks about life partners and her beloved mama. Next comes “Our Love is Here to Stay” and a gleeful “When You’re Smiling.” It’s a mutual admiration society.
As in actual later life, Ella no longer yearns for the spotlight, while Louis can’t get enough. She has to be talked into doing a show for “The King of Kings.” A lush, soulful “Something to Live For” embraces the audience. Williams looks into our eyes. We believe every word. It’s thrilling. “You sure know how to make an old man smile,” Louis comments speaking for the audience.
The show is overstuffed. Act II contains in part, several Cole Porter choices, some audience interaction (we scat), and cute direction on “Can’t We Be Friends.” Louis’ “The Home Fire” is lovely and mellow, almost an old fashioned soft shoe. Ella’s famous “A Tisket, A Tasket” with nifty band call-outs and a mute-horn-like “Skylark” are a pleasure. The pair remember their respective passing and are ready to move on.
Kendall is all energy. Though he moves appealingly, affects convincing period/genre gestures, and definitely sings well, anyone familiar with Armstrong would know Satchmo never acted like this. For one thing, Pops busied himself with a trumpet, minimizing the physical. That Kendall cannot – the script says Louis ruined his lip, is uncomfortable. Simply holding the instrument becomes an irritating tease after awhile. Only once does the actor mime playing – Ella pushes him into it – while to his left we watch Gabriel (the very fine Eli Asher) actually making music. (Admittedly those unacquainted with the icon will not feel cheated.)
The performer might also take it down a notch vocally. Too many of his numbers are too big. Armstrong was skillful at the unfussy and modulated with his sandpapery vocal and easy laugh. Imitating is not suggested, but channeling a bit more carefully…
Williams is marvelous. Her Ella is at first proud and decorous, then warm, but never over a ladylike line. Exuberance is visceral, Blues sound experienced. The actress puts herself into lyrics. Vocals are low or bright, sculpt octaves like ready clay, and scat with mastery. (An expertise of Ella.) Intimacy with the audience is palpable. She emulates the honoree without parroting.
The piece offers a tandem ending of “Smile”/”What a Wonderful World” and “Swing Low”/”When the Saints Go Marching In.” One or the other, please.
Both artists are talented. Though Louis and Ella has much to offer in the way of entertainment, a piece with dialogue and story has demands not met here.
Director/Choreographer Jeff Whiting uses his space well, onstage and off.
This is a good idea but, to me, only part way there.
Louis and Ella!
A new Jazzical by Trent Armand Kendall
Trent Armand Kendall and Natasha Yvette Williams
Mark Berman- MD/Piano, Eli Asher-Angel Gabriel/Trumpet, Belden Bullock-Bass,
Brian Floody-Drums, Sean Nowell-Sax
The Cutting Room
44 East 32nd Street
March 5, 2017 Venue Calendar