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 New York Public Library for The Performing Arts is currently host to a small, gem of an exhibition featuring the art/design of nonagenarian artist, Hilary Knight. Those of you aware only of Knight’s most iconic creation, the irrepressible Eloise (authored by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Knight) should treat yourselves to this glimpse into his utterly stylish and inventive world. Meticulously designed and constructed by the honoree himself, the show unfortunately lacks documentation. I recommend the two recordings offered through earphones for illumination.
“What’s amazing to me is that I still do it. Most people my age are playing golf or under ground.”
Hilary Knight’s parents, Clayton Knight and Katherine Sturges, were successful illustrators/designers across diverse fields. Surrounded by taste, talent, and pleasure in craft, he never thought of doing anything else. A sampling of the couple’s work includes Sturge’s charming circus murals painted in the boy’s childhood room. “At four or five,” Knight drew over his mother’s own circus drawings in one of her sketchbooks. A lifelong enchantment with the big top ensued. Pristine, accomplished silhouettes in his oeuvre are inspired by her work for Oneida Silver. (Second floor)
The Circus is Coming by Hilary Knight
Movies – especially musicals and theater – enthralled him. “I never paid attention to the plots, just the sets and costumes.” The elaborate production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo at The Hippodrome, Adrian’s costumes for The Great Ziegfeld, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark – “The dream sequence was so beautiful I can see it now” – and Sabu films were particular favorites. “…This kid my age who was riding almost naked on an elephant – I thought, that’s a good idea…” (A fantasy achieved later in life.)
The young man studied with Reginald Marsh at The Art Students League then enlisted in the navy, preferring its uniform to that of the army. Irreverence showed itself with his painted mural of naked Geishas in an officer’s Okinowa Quonset hut.
Prestigious theater designer Jo Mielziner facilitated a season as assistant at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. Knight found scenic design “too big.” He’s always striven for control. “With books I could do exactly what I wanted.” The New York School of Interior Design added to multifaceted awareness and skill. He painted murals, built packaging maquettes and illustrated. No aptitude went to waste.
Two Vitrines – Vanity Fair Drawings; Portraits – Note Julie Wilson, upper right
Knight credits watercolor drawings of misbehaving children in Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s 1887 book of children’s manners La Civilité as very early inspiration. (He pored over it as a child.) Later, he was taken with Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian’s girls in British satirical magazines. (St. Trinian’s was a popular series featuring uncontrollable boarding school inhabitants.) Other influences include Lautrec, Mucha, Erte, Rockwell, and Hirschfeld.
In 1952, inspired by Searle’s pen and ink art, Knight drew “a strange little girl” with her mother for an article on bad little children in Mademoiselle Magazine. Its caption was “I think I’ll throw a tantrum.” (First floor). Eloise by any other name.
The artist lived in a bohemian brownstone filled with people “on their way to becoming important in their fields.” DD Dixon, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar under Diana Vreeland occupied the top floor. While doing a photo shoot with MGM vocal coach and nightclub performer Kay Thompson, Dixon overheard and was addressed in what Knight calls Thompson’s “funny little girl voice,” conjuring a character in the third person. This, the editor thought, should be a book…and I know just the right illustrator. Kismet. “DD is completely responsible for Eloise.”
The original Eloise book
Eloise’s appearance was based, in part, on Knight family friend, Eloise Davison, food writer for the Herald Tribune. “…a funny, pudgy little woman with messy hair I pictured as a child.” Thompson had definite ideas about her charge’s life. Like the author, she would live at The Plaza Hotel. There would be no interfering father (she had hated her own) or even a male dog (Weenie has no weenie). “With all her brilliance and sophistication, Kay was curiously prudish…”
Thompson also insisted the girl’s mother should be perpetually absent, therefore never aging. The only drawing of mother and child and Knight’s favorite Eloise art is an unpublished depiction of our favorite mischievous girl choosing her puppy at “an elegant pugery.” Her elegant mother sits, legs crossed, wearing an enormous Audrey Hepburn chapeau and classic sheath. She watches the proceedings with, of course, her back to us. Knight says her body represents that of Uma Thurman.
Three sequels followed before Kay Thompson lost interest and pulled everything but the original book from print. “She wanted to do it all herself and couldn’t.” The incalculable loss to Knight is compounded by ours.
Hilary Knight’s silhouette self portrait with theater posters
“I was going to the theater a great deal.” Knight started designing theater posters with Harry Rigby’s production of Half a Sixpence in 1965. Some of those that followed were No, No Nanette, Good News, I Love My Wife, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Makin’ Whoopee, Mame and Sugar Babies. These and more are on display. Many were tailored to a particular, always identifiable star. Julie Wilson looks as if she might step out of the page, Ray Bolger as if he’ll dance off it.
Some of Knight’s theater poster designs
The artist apparently created endless designs for Timbuktu and La Cage aux Folles securing neither commission. His interpretation of La Cage, however, was rejected by Alan Carr “for showing drag queens instead of a relationship.” (Ironically the final choice, by another illustrator, emulated Knight’s viewpoint.) Knight also enjoyed working with dance companies. The array of styles, each befitting its vehicle is marvelous.
Portraits are showcased in carefully arranged vitrines: Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn as Dr. Ferway de la Fer and Her Assistant Sweepa Truehorn stand in frame. (Horne played de la Fer in the film Broadway Rhythm.) Knight purchased some beaded, French Victorian leaves at a Doyle auction of the vocalist’s possessions. The two figures are bead leaf hunters. She holds a tiny trowel. Like many of the portraits, the piece is a contained diorama, part photography, part collage, part assemblage.
Billy Strayhorn and Lena Horne
We see Sabu; Martha Raye (on an ersatz bootleg album cover); Kaye Ballard;, a 5’ Kay Thompson; full page appreciation of Liliane Montevecchi; Isabella Blow; Barry Humphries, with whom Knight collaborated on years of priceless Etiquette Pages in Vanity Fair Magazine; and Ann Miller with Stephen Sondheim. “Ann was doing Follies and couldn’t get the lyric …An imitation Hitler/But with littler charm… so Stephen was in the booth helping her.” (“Can That Boy Foxtrot!”) Knight can’t wait to start a portrait of his friend, Gloria Vanderbilt.
Feathers, Fur Fins and Fans: Isabella Blow “Birds” portrait under glass – wearing Philip Treacy’s Andy Warhol feather hat; above her, the original drawing for a MAC LIPSTICK carton; top right- 1946 oil painting ”the SEA NYMPH”; Righthand photo includes a costume for the film Frog and Nymph worn by Knight’s assistant Wilson Lopez. Performance artist Phoebe Legere played the sprite. (A frog falls in love with a water nymph).
Upstairs, there are costume sketches for one of the artist’s significant dreams Tail’s : An “Exotic, Erotic Revue” inspired by The Crazy Horse and Sugar Babies. He’s even designed a theater for it. (Music, he tells me, would be that of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.)
Hilary Knight has illustrated more than 50 books and authored nine. He’s designed theater posters, costumes and sets, makes props, furniture and décor, illustrates for magazines and special projects, and is a collage/assemblage portrait artist. I’m sure I’ve left something out. He rises between four and five a.m., feeds his guppies (no kidding), and works almost every day. Energy, enthusiasm, and warmth are palpable.
Barry Humphries ‘A Moon Bed for Dame Edna’
“To me the most interesting thing is what I’m working on now.”
All exhibition photos and those of Hilary Knight courtesy of Hilary Knight All quotes are Hilary Knight
Hilary Knight’s Stage Struck World The New York Public Library for The Performing Arts – First and Second Floor 40 Lincoln Plaza (between 64 and 65 Streets) Through September 1. 2017 WATCH FOR: Eloise at The Museum at The New York Historical Society June 30-October 9, 2017
Hilary Knight with his niece, Lily Knight
Publishers are slated for: Hilary Knight: Drawn from Life, a Memoir and Olive and Olivier, a graphic novel about eccentric twins separated at birth – Olive will be written by Hilary Knight’s twin nieces, Olivier by Knight.
Lena Dunham’s appreciative 2015 documentary It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise is available online.
Twenty years as a cabaret/concert artist has not dimmed the rigorous attention to high standards, curiosity, passion, personal and professional evolution of performer Barbara Fasano.
Barbara Fasano doesn’t remember a time there wasn’t music in her life. “My father was a terrific singer … Armstrong, Crosby, Ella. He had a fantastic record collection. Mom would be upstairs cooking and dad would be downstairs singing along with his records.” As a child, she peered through spokes in the basement banister watching her parents dance. Romance 101.
Mr. & Mrs. Fasano, Barbara (5), Barbara (10) Dad and Tippy
Ill for years, her mother passed when Barbara was 15. Though surrounded by a big Italian family, “everyone else was kind of into their own thing,” leaving the youngest sibling to discover who she was without a mother’s guidance. During our conversations, she refers to this again and again as having been pivotal to forming the woman she’s become. Love of music started as a way to express herself, to exorcise “chaotic” feelings. “I was my own Joni Mitchell. I wrote tons and tons of tortured boyfriend love songs and accompanied myself on terrible guitar.”
Ambitions were to become a serious actress and a singer in musicals, accent on the former. Barbara chose Hofstra University. The program apparently didn’t teach students how to go about getting a job. “I was studying Moliere and Comedia del Arte, then came out and discovered the business was more about Michael Bennett. It was kind of altruistic…cool to be a hungry artist. Capitalism hadn’t run so amok.” Summers were spent acting in Stock. At 24, she acquired her Equity Card playing Rizzo in Grease.
Barbara in Grease; In The Venetian Twins by Miriam Tulin
Barbara met her first husband, an A & R man, while temping at CBS Records. The couple lived in Australia and traveled. Their music was rooted in different genres (his was pop), but categories have always been irrelevant to this artist. From the beginning, she’s explored a potpourri of material, resistant to having limited taste or being slotted as one or the other ‘kind’ of performer.
“Cabaret was an accident.” On trips to New York, Barbara saw Harry Connick, Jr. on Broadway and Michael Feinstein in the storied Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel. “The light really went off when I went to see Andrea (Marcovicci) there. I thought- Oh (she goes up an octave), you can do this? I would love to do this. It wasn’t just Andrea, it was the room, the style. It elevated cabaret.” Air around her vibrates as she remembers.
Early Headshots – Left Photo by Sal Salerno, Right Photo by Johnny Shakespeare
The couple also lived in Los Angeles before returning to Manhattan. In LA, Barbara ended up at a little club in Hollywood called Rose Tattoo where, after sitting-in awhile, she was asked to do her own show. It was a mélange of music called “Caught in the Act.” (Depend upon her for catchy titles.) During a monologue on her mother, the vegetarian literally made meatballs on stage while singing “Arrivederci Roma.” (Mom listened to “cornball Italian singers.”) In Manhattan, she took class, acted, and auditioned.
“You start out with these grand dreams. I’m gonna be that thing – the next Meryl Streep or something; Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, a great artist and superstar. So you pursue that. Then there’s a moment when you kind of realize, huh, oh, I don’t think that’s gonna happen and you have to reassess what you’re doing and why.”
At The Rose Tattoo with MD/Pianist Michael Orland
It wasn’t until a year later at The O’Neill Cabaret & Performance Conference that everything came together and she realized cabaret was a viable art form she could see herself a part of. Three icons particularly influenced her there. The first was straight-shooter Sylvia Syms. Barbara brought “Body and Soul” to one session. “You’ve got to look at this lyric,” Syms said demonstrating: I’m all for you BODY and soul. She stressed the word body. “Though not a ravishing beauty, Sylvia was primal, sexual, whereas I had stressed the word soul” – conceivably an unconscious nod to her own clear and present spirituality.
The second was Margaret Whiting. “Think of your relationship to the audience as if it’s a first date,” the veteran vocalist advised. “You don’t tell someone everything at first meeting,” Barbara clarifies. “You’re kind of friendly, charming, gradually letting your guard down… giving the audience a minute—to fall in love with you or at least really like you…You’re never just singing songs…in my world anyway. You’re always telling a story, always telling them about yourself. It’s about you even if it’s about Harold Arlen.”
Barbara Fasano and Julie Wilson
When alumni were invited back to next season’s final concert, Barbara deferentially approached third legend, Julie Wilson, whom she’d seen at Rainbow and Stars and who was now teaching at the O’Neill. The women found immediate affinity. Wilson became a devoted fan, mentor and lifelong friend. “She knew that it was all about telling the truth and giving. I think I got that from Julie.” Her voice softens.
Barbara divorced. A flexible secretarial job benevolently allowed use of a Xerox machine and radio interview time. She began to explore open mic nights at such as The Duplex, Eighty Eights, Danny’s and Rose’s Turn. “Now it’s such a scene. There was still an arty vibe to the feel of cabaret then. People were quirkier … I would get up and sing poetry set to music, standards, pop tunes, socially conscious things about American Indians.” She turned her focus to singing despite the odds. “Clubs were uptown, downtown, midtown; it was different. And even then, we thought cabaret was dying…”
The flyer for a Firebird Restaurant show -Photo by Michael Ian
The meticulous artist loves putting together shows. Even the thought of notebooks – “accoutrements” and research lights her up. “…I saw it was a place where I could endlessly work towards telling the truth. When you’re specific with what it is you’re feeling, it resonates. The more you can share your humanity, the more you make that connection. That’s the driving force behind my work – connection…Growing up with a parent that’s ill, there’s a lot that goes on. You want to connect with people because there’s a void, and maybe because you know things.” Barbara is the family archivist, carefully filing every arrangement as well as keeping the books. Her father, she “explains,” was an accountant. She actually used to play Office.
The first live show that put her on the map was Girls of Summer with MD/Pianist Rick Jensen. “I got humor from Rick and the love of the process. We’d have such a good time working. He made me trust that I’d get there. I was impatient…” Jensen helmed the show’s recording.
Barbara Fasano and Rick Jensen at her first Cabaret Convention
Donald Smith, creator of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, discovered Barbara at Danny’s and invited her to perform at the annual Cabaret Convention. “Michael Feinstein’s name is just below mine on the poster. My dad loved that.” The poster is framed in her cozy home. When Smith began a series called Cabaret Cavalcade at The Algonquin, she was given her first opportunity to appear in the iconic room.
In 2003, when Barbara wanted more of a jazz flavor, the vocalist turned to John Di Martino. “John actually played on the CD for a different flavor than Rick. I still have the chart he wrote in pencil…He brought a whole other world of colors I’d be hearing in my head and didn’t know how to incorporate.” With Jensen’s blessing she moved on. Some philosophies believe we attract those we need.
Barbara Fasano and John DiMartino at Danny’s
Meanwhile, in what he calls the mayonnaise belt of New Jersey, Eric Comstock also grew up in a house filled with music. Though reared on classical piano, it was clearly not his path. He participated in school shows, but preferred narrating or accompanying to singing. Eventually, the young man realized idols Fats Waller, Bobby Short, and Fred Astaire had not been legitimate vocalists. “These guys had small voices, but put it across.”
Mentors included the inspiration and penultimate style of Bobby Short, Charles DeForest, who “never phoned it in. Even when there was a cacophony around him, he’d totally go there… swing his ass off and could sing,” and Steve Ross. “Steve personifies the whole idea of charm onstage, his musicianship and taste in material is second to none. There’s a knowingness in his work that’s rare — the perfect combo of intellect, whimsy and soul.” Comstock, it should be noted, bears attributes similar to each of these artists.
David Kenny, Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock at The WBAI Benefit
Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock met at a 1997 WBAI Benefit. Both were involved in what they call respective romantic misadventures. It would be six years before he asked her for a date, first playing email footsie. “I feared the worst, a guy who looks like that whose name is Comstock, he’s probably going to be such a prig, a repressed wasp.” It was his use of the soigné word “supper” that pushed her into accepting. She laughs telling me. Barbara has one of the great laughs, thorough, infectious, as open as the woman herself. “We go out and all we do is laugh. We were so on the same wavelength.” They married a year later still barely having seen each other perform.
Despite responding to a duet request while engaged, finding it both fun and successful, the couple had no plans to create a collaborative career. It happened organically. Eric was asked to play and suggested his wife join him. Bookers, already familiar with Barbara, were delighted. “…people of course loved it because you know, this cute couple … At first, we just didn’t want to be apart, but it started to feel pretty good to perform together so we pursued it.” You have only to see Eric pat his wife’s hip on the way to the piano, or watch Barbara look towards him during a particularly warm lyric to see evidence of this in spades. It’s never been an act.
Wedding Photos by Jeff Fasano
Though the artists occasionally appear without each other, most gigs are tandem. They sincerely love working together. “It seems like we complete each other’s sentences musically. We’re always building the repertoire. Every time we go out, we put a show together differently. For ourselves. Often there’s a song just getting a sun tan at the back of your head…kind of gestating…”
Barbara sings every day, Eric plays every day. Separately. “He’d say he doesn’t have the same discipline, but I think he does. He doesn’t take vocal lessons, but he’s always at the piano…Sometimes we work on a current show. It’s not very regulated. Creativity can hit at 11 o’clock.” Mercifully, they’re both nocturnal.
Teaching also evolved organically beginning with workshops conducted at Singer’s Forum. The couple now offer Master Classes and private lessons both locally and out of state. A second season with The Neighborhood Playhouse begins in the fall.
Actor Danielle Herbert and Barbara Fasano
“You want to steer them, but you don’t want to create them in your image,” she reflects thoughtfully. “When I disagree, I say, if you want to do it, we’ll work on it, but here’s why I think it’s wrong. Sometimes I convince them, sometimes they convince me…It’s all about the lyric, the music follows. Hold my interest. Present it in a slightly theatrical way- we’re talking about art here. And look into faces. Musical chops are not enough. Just tell me your story. We’re your best friends…”
The team does most of their own booking. “It’s all about networking, finding out who’s booking who where. You learn how to approach people holding onto your own dignity and dealing with whatever you get at the other end of the line. If you’re someone who’s looking for stability, to be able to make plans, this is not for you. You sacrifice security, good clothes, not being able to be as generous as one would like to be with charities and friends. Emotionally, I think you gain. It keeps you modest. We all know none of that stuff matters…”
Barbara never lost her performance anxiety. In fact, she’s still “hugely nervous,” a state one never observes onstage. She has a ritual that “plugs me in to where I want to be to open up and give” but can’t tell me what it is for fear of taking its power away.
Barbara and Eric at Crazy Coqs in London-Photo by Tom Valence; Barbara and Eric-Hidden Treasure Benefit Concert-Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
“What has Eric taught you?” I ask her.
“Well, we’ve been married for 12 years, it might take me 12 years to tell you. More than anything what he’s really given me –besides plenty of technical things and lots of music – he’s a born sharer and a purist. For Eric, it’s about the music. He’s taught me to give it up for that and be proud of it. We live a really simple life. Everything’s funneled…He’s taught me to respect the artist that’s in me. We give what we have..”
“What has Barbara taught you?” I ask Eric.
“She’s made me so much a better artist and more interested in more varied kinds of material. She’s shown me acting. I consider her the director of much of what I do and all of what we do. This will sound prosaic, I suppose – the simple matter of when and how to sit on a stool, when to hold the microphone and when to put it on the stand, when she sits with me on the bench-stage pictures-none of that is winged, Barbara’s meticulous. We’re each other’s greatest fans. And we’ll never be bored”
Recording in a studio, then and now
For those of you able to grant wishes: Barbara Fasano would love to sing with a symphony orchestra and to record a CD with Eric, for which they constantly get asked.
Receiving her 2016 MAC Award- Photo by Maryann Lopinto; Busy Being Free – CD-Cover photo by Bill Westmoreland
Barbara Fasano is about as real as it gets which is reflected in her artistry. “This is the choice I’ve made and it’s the right choice. I love the challenge and I love how it keeps me honest. I can’t be in the world one way and on the stage another way. Eric and I look at each other and say, Thank God for you and we look around…thank God for (she sings a note) that.”
All unattributed quotes are Barbara Fasano.
Reflecting on the future in Long Island
Opening photo: Bill Westmoreland, Photographer
Barbara’s Upcoming Performance Dates:
Saturday, October1: BRIDGE ST. THEATRE, CATSKILL, NY Sunday, October 2: BIRDLAND, NYC Saturday, October 8: GERMANO’S, BALTIMORE Tuesday, October 18: ROSE HALL, CABARET CONVENTION