John Kander (1927-) and Fred Ebb (1928-2004) were introduced in 1962 and collaborated on their first Broadway musical, Flora the Red Menace (introducing Liza Minnelli) in 1965. Career highlights include the iconic may-run-forever Cabaret, successively revived Chicago- (both made into films), Lauren Bacall’s transition from film to theater in Woman of the Year, and the formidable Scottsboro Boys. The multifaceted team also wrote “New York, New York”, arguably our city anthem- the theme to Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name.
Certain music from Kander’s oeuvre is so evocative of memorable theater, it makes the hairs on one’s arm stand at attention. The Pop’s opening, Suite from Chicago does just that. Some of the audience bob in their seats or tap their feet, others mouth lyrics. More than an era or city, Kander and Ebb (here with Bob Fosse) captured an ethos of gleefully celebrated corruption uncomfortably familiar today. I suspect Cabaret continues to pack them in for the same reason. The shows are not just innovative and entertaining, they’re resonant.
John Kander in the balcony. To his right, director Susan Stroman
Tonight’s Guest Vocalists are both young Broadway veterans.
Cassie Leavy has a smooth, confident voice that can unfurl with moderation or belt, though she seems audibly more at home with the latter. She has stage presence. Results, however, are mixed: “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, lack pathos and bite. “Roxy” (Chicago) and “Everybody’s Girl” (Steel Pier) are missing their innately wicked play. One wonders whether the youthful performer understands the songs’ context.
More contemporary, ‘Ring Them Bells” (Liza with a Z) and “Colored Lights” (The Rink) fare better. Leavy embodies pluck and exasperation attributable to the first song’s protagonist. With the second, we feel hope and ambition as her voice lilts and loops with sweet, trailing vibrato.
Tony Yazbeck rushes through the terrific “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” (70 Girls, 70) -due to speedy arrangement that robs the number authenticity and delivers a couple of songs as Billy Flynn from Chicago, a role to which he’s imminently returning, with no discernible charisma.
Tony Yazbeck, Steven Reineke, Cassie Levy
Act II, however, sees a complete transformation. Yazbeck’s delicate “Sometimes a Day Goes By” (Woman of the Year) with only piano accompaniment, is eminently tender and touching. “You, You, You” (The Visit) follows suit with palpable yearning. Both of these showcase the performer’s emotional tenor. Yazbeck then offers this evening’s zenith, “City Lights” (The Act) during which, having infectious fun, he grows fully animated, even engaging in loosey goosey, complex tap dance.
In addition to a sassy overture, The New York Pops Orchestra excels with “Hot Honey Rag” (Chicago) which grins, twirls, and flips its hat in textured musical layers and a powerful, lush rendition of “The Minstrel March” (The Scottsboro Boys).
Music Director/Conductor Steven Reineke keeps us abreast of each song’s origin with a bit of amiable patter. At his suggestion, we sing “Happy Birthday” to John Kander, spot-lit in the balcony. Far from retired, the honoree’s Kid Victory (written with Greg Pierce) is playing at New York’s Vineyard Theatre. He’s now at work on The Beast of The Jungle, based on a novella by Henry James.
John Kander celebrates his 90th Birthday on March 18. We honor both his partnership and continuing high craft.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Tony Yazbeck, Cassie Levy
NEXT for The New York Pops:
You’ve Got a Friend: A Celebration of Singers and Songwriters- April 21, 2017
Carnegie Hall presents
The New York Pops
Steven Reineke-Music Director and Conductor
Guest Artists: Cassie Levy, Tony Yazbeck
Life Is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb
“She lifted the art of life and sang to the height of excellence…” Rex Reed
Helmed by journalist/author Rex Reed, her intimate friend, Thursday’s New York Cabaret Convention salute to Sylvia Syms (1917-1992) is as illuminating as it is entertaining. The well produced event features affectionate, amusing, well balanced recollections by Reed and those appearing vocalists who knew her, as well as numbers out of Syms’s repertoire.
In 1992, Reed tells us, he was awakened by “an angry, urgent phone call” from Liza Minnelli. “We lost her,” she sobbed. Sylvia Syms had a heart attack and “dropped dead into the arms of Cy Coleman” while in performance at the Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel. “When I go,” she told me a thousand times, “I wanna go in the middle of a standing ovation.” Our host is a terrific storyteller.
We begin with the inimitable Barbara Carroll. Syms asked the pianist to play on her first album in 1951. Discovering Carroll worked until 2 am, the recording was schedule for that hour. A piano tuner was even awakened when the studio instrument was found lacking. With Jay Leonhart on bass, Carroll plays “I Wanna Be Yours” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” making them, as she does everything, her iconoclastic own. Listen to the winking integration of classical influence, to the reflective retards, complex notations, and utter clarity.
Highlights of the evening:
“As wonderful as she was with ballads, she could also be a very funny broad…she said: If you wanna know what I sing like baby, go home and tear up a rag…I don’t care what anybody does in bed. I just wish they’d do it to me once in awhile.” Jay Leonhart’s rendition of “I Always Say Hello to A Flower” is perfect, deadpan drollery. One forgets how well the consummate bassist can sing. (Tomoko Ohno-Piano)
Barbara Carroll; Carol Woods
Syms, it seems, liked to rescue songs. “Big Fat Heart” was cut from the musical Seesaw. Carol Woods’s version is conversational and expressive. There’s an oomph to her delivery adding geniality. Later we hear “Pick Yourself Up” from this vocalist. It’s kind of preaching, full of infectious brightness and optimism. (Barry Levitt-Piano)
“Despite her impeccable taste in ballads, she would also swing…” At 17, Syms would be snuck into 52nd Street jazz clubs by sympathetic doormen, sequestered in hat check rooms so she could listen and observe. Reed credits her with spontaneously supplying Billie Holiday’s famous gardenia, apparently meant to cover a hole burned in her hair one evening before a show.
Nicolas King swings in with “Looking At Me”/ “That Face”/ “Look At That Face” as polished and robustly rhythmic as a full fledged member of the Rat Pack. The man gets this to his bones. In Act II, King offers “Here’s That Rainy Day” with full, rarely heard verse. The melancholy number emerges meticulously controlled, subtly modulated. A lovely interpretation. King covers the stage, drawing in his audience with awareness and flair. (Jon Weber-Piano)
Nicolas King; Billy Stritch
Accompanied by Tedd Firth, Billy Stritch takes center stage, offering only vocal for a change. “Mountain Greenery” is jacked-up and jazzy. The understated Stritch plays with repetition, octave slides, scat, and rhythm making a virtuoso turn seem easy. Later, at the piano, he sighs “It Amazes Me” leading us to empathize with every surprised and grateful lyric. There’s no doubt the performer could’ve made a career as a vocalist if he so chose.
There are stories about Syms’s 3am telephone calls, her appreciation of gossip, uncensored, sometimes caustic opinions, terrific loyalty, generosity, and of Francis Albert Sinatra’s undying devotion.
The ever vital and savory Marilyn Maye sings “Fifty Percent” with powerful authenticity: I don’t share his name/I don’t wear his ring/There’s no piece of paper saying that he’s mine/But he says he loves me, and I believe it’s true/Doesn’t that make someone belong to you? We believe every dramatic, confessional word. Maye returns with “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home,” starting with unexpected a capella, launching into swing with her very own superb grace and brio. (Tedd Firth-Piano)
Marilyn Maye; Ann Hampton Callaway
Ann Hampton Callaway is, for my money, the highpoint of the evening. When this vocalist is on stage, she becomes an additional musical instrument. An originally interpreted Fats Waller medley is propulsive, crisp, and sassy. The artist steps from side to side, shoulders slightly swaying and covers a bit of ground as if she can’t stand still. It’s Happy. Her second contribution is one of the plumiest versions of “Skylark” I’ve ever heard. Tedd Firth caresses the piano; Hampton Callaway embraces lyrical meaning-both swept away romantics. Leonhart’s bass solo is like a bird hitching a ride, backstroking on a breeze. Radiant.
Reed himself sings two heartfelt numbers. The second, “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” reflects “how I felt about her personally and saying goodbye.” It’s moving.
Before we close, our host has the discernment to play Syms’s own voice for those who are unfamiliar and to remind others. “At the time of her passing, she was planning a new album …” We hear an ardent “I’ll See You Again” (Noel Coward) with almost constant, quiet vibrato, lyrics exiting like smoke rings. Silvia Sym’s portrait looks on smiling.
Also featuring: Joyce Breach, Maud Hixon, Daryl Sherman, Marti Stevens, Sally Mayes, Tom Wopat, Jay Leonhart-Bass; Ray Marchica-Drums
All unattributed quotes are Rex Reed
Opening: Stephen Sorokoff; Other Photos Maryann Lopinto
The Mabel Mercer Foundation presents
Saluting Sylvia Syms
Hosted by Rex Reed
The 27th New York Cabaret Convention
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
October 20, 2016