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
Zero Hour is a helluva piece of writing. Now tightened from two acts (first premiering in 2006) to intermissionless, time-stopping captivation, Jim Brochu’s one man play offers a no-holds-barred look at the quick, wry, perpetually angry leftist; a boisterous man who, though an actor by profession, longed to just paint. This deeply researched piece, as personal as it is historical, illuminates Samuel Joel (Zero) Mostel. Peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and insults, its serious depiction of reasons for the subject’s dark side, including a pivotal run-in with The House Un-American Activities Committee, provides affecting, whiz-bang dramatization.
Mostel speaks to a New York Times reporter blackmailed into modeling. We don’t hear responses. This cleverly allows Brochu to look directly at his audience while he (actually) sketches. “I don’t want to know your name, this is an interview not a relationship.”
The actor begins with his 1915 birth on “a beautiful little radish farm at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Pitkin Avenue” and ends about to start rehearsals for a Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant. Mostel died shortly thereafter.
We hear about his passion for art (since childhood), immigrant Jewish parents that declared him dead when Mostel married outside the faith, his second wife Katie “a gawegus (phonetic) Catholic Rockette”, HER MUTHA!, and his inadvertent entrée into show business. Brochu leans over the drawing table to scream the last two words stentorian and bug-eyed, then lightly resuming the tale as if his outburst had never occurred. Sheer Zero.
He answers the annoying phone “Palestinian Anti-Defamation League,” screams, swears, slams the receiver down and cheerily says, “that was my wife.”
The subject went from being an art student, to lecturing on art-adding humor, then doing benefits and finally breaking out as a comedian at Barney Josephson’s Café Society. (We see part of the routine. Both physicality and timing are recognizable.) Watch the bird movement of his large head as it jerks around as if gauging the room’s temperature; his eloquent hands, fingers most often splayed, gesturing close to the body – like a smaller man; and the frozen beat he takes to allow humor to land.
“I was a Marxist….Why? WHY???!!!.(ostensibly the reporter has asked) BECAUSE OF HITLER AND FASCISM!” Next comes the WPA, a Hollywood contract cut short when Mostel blew off a Louis B. Mayer party for a Longshoremen benefit, and the life altering HUAC: Communism equaled liberalism equaled Judaism! Names are vehemently named. Participants excoriated. Friends mourned. Part of his testimony is shared. As if things weren’t bad enough, the actor was then run over by a bus. (Did you know this, reader?)
Theater includes famous roles in Marjorie Barkentin’s Ulysses in Nightown, Rhinoceros (Eugène Ionesco),A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gilbert), which suffered near fatal growing pains on its way to Broadway and threw in his path one of Hollywood’s major HUAC informers, and the iconic Fiddler on the Roof, (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein) during which his past came back to haunt the actor. (The actor initially hated both Forum and Tevye, the first iteration of Fiddler.)
We then neatly circle back with palpable regret to lost peers, lost family, and Mostel again forced to leave his art studio for theater. A last line, which refers to what he considered an outrageous request from Katie, couldn’t be better. It leaves us with a knowing smile.
Jim Brochu is so filled with energy, so present, it’s as if he’s performing early in the run of a new show. The actor has honed his character over the years to a degree that brings a whole human being to life. Though familiar mannerisms and speech patterns (including intermittent volume) are employed, this is less a purposeful imitation than top notch channeling.
Director Piper Laurie has done a wonderful job of utilizing the stage, seamlessly evoking mood change in extremely subtle chapters. Pacing is just right. Use of props is completely natural. One assumes this is predominantly the original direction.
Josh Iacovelli’s Scenic Design is detailed and evocative. His Lighting adroitly defines subtly overlapping vignettes.
There’s no credit, but Sound Design is excellent.
Production Photos by Stan Barough
The Peccadillo Theater Company presents Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour By Jim Brochu Directed by Piper Laurie Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street Through July 9, 2017
2016 is the 90th Anniversary of what was organized in 1924 by R.H. Macy’s immigrant employees as a street carnival. The group would undoubtedly be surprised to discover efforts to celebrate their new country with European traditions became an international symbol of Thanksgiving. As of last year, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured 27 floats and 17 balloons. (In 1939, floats were still pulled by horses.) The parade has marched every year but two since then, pausing only during wartime when rationing of helium and rubber necessitated hiatus. Planning for each procession takes 18 months.
Photographer Matt Harnick’s earliest memory of the parade is waking up to tubas and trumpets. His family home on the 14th floor of a venerable Central Park West building overlooks the staging area for bands and floats. Buses pull in early. Drum majorettes in skimpy outfits with epaulets huddle together for warmth. Musical instruments and stilts are unloaded. Half dressed clowns and headless animals on hind legs go in search of hot coffee. Tune up begins. In those days, balloons were quietly inflated on 86th Street. “It was a little dicey up there,” he recalls.
By the 1980s, maintenance moved to 77th and 81st between Central Park West and Columbus where balloons are laid head to toe and inflated by a team of specially instructed Macy’s employees. (There are stilt walking classes and a clown school as well.) Night-before viewing became the festive public event it is now with slow rivers of parents and children touring around a flattened Charlie Brown or raised fist and burgeoning muscles of Spider-Man. “On one side of each balloon is an easel with its character’s name posted, on the other are directions for inflation-which chambers to fill first…” Matt tells me.
Though he remembers sitting on his dad’s shoulders in front of the building, most Thanksgivings the Harnicks spent the morning preparing turkey to take to family dinner in New Jersey. Eventually Matt would cook the bird himself making him even busier. He didn’t take advantage of opportunity to see an entire parade until 2014. (This year he’s cooking and shooting.)
Sheldon and Margery Gray Harnick’s children both expressed interest in taking pictures when they were very young. A former actress and exhibited painter as well as a photographer, his mom learned the latter from her father. Matt grew up with it. Seven years ago, he received his first digital camera and headed out Thanksgiving morning. Most of those shots were unfortunately lost with a data card.
The next year, he approached the parade “with the intention of taking the best pictures I could.” Year after year, Matt would squeeze his way up to the barriers, sometimes running into the same local denizens, sharing notes. Cameras improved, Matt grew more skilled.
In 2013, book proposal accepted, Matt sat down with Bill Schermerhorn, Creative Director of Macy’s Parade and Entertainment Group since 1983. They had a wide ranging discussion and the photographer was invited to Macy’s 70,000-foot Moonachie, New Jersey facility. Where most of us would have described the place as Santa’s Workshop on steroids, “The first thing I thought of seeing all the maquettes hanging from the ceiling was, my God, this is just like (puppeteer) Bill Baird’s workshop.'” he says. “My parents did three shows with him. It was a very magical place.” (Musical theater icon Sheldon Harnick wrote scores, and both he and Margery gave voice to characters.) There’s something benignly innocent about the recollection. Floats, balloons and costumes are assembled across the river. Matt’s first love are the balloons.
Starting in 2014, project in hand, he’s had an all-access pass to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “2014, I stood on 77th Street in a raging ice storm and shot almost the entire inflation of the Thomas the Tank balloon.” The largest balloon, Thomas is 53-feet long, 23-feet wide, and 47-feet high. “If you look underneath, you can see they’ve detailed the crankshaft in the machinery,” Matt says with enthusiasm. Those photos are, alas, not in the book. You can, however, see several sharp images of Scrat (the acorn-obsessed, saber-toothed squirrel from Ice Age) as he becomes a fulsome 59-feet long, 24-feet wide, 41-feet tall.
“The balloons I remember as a kid were sausage-like, but they’ve discovered the technology of using a webbing of ropes on the interior to hold shapes in position…Today, they’re incredible feats of engineering as well as artistry.”
Matt never asks people to pose. He thinks of the parade as “a living organism. It’s like nature photography. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible.” The book offers evocative images of bands, floats, clowns, dancers, the Moonachie Workshop, and balloons from all angles. In addition, there are Macy’s archival photos, some of which date way back. Early shots of The Rockettes, Mickey Mouse as you likely never knew him, and, balloons most of us don’t recognize, are priceless.
Still unjaded, Matt Harnick intends to continue photographing the parade. “I don’t know what’s going to be new this year and I don’t want to. There are always different floats and balloons, the order changes as does the music. It’s like Christmas. To me-there are so few surprises anymore…The important thing is that there are no small parts, even if someone just shows up, puts on a costume and walks down the street…I love it.”
This is a terrific gift book for anyone with memories of the parade, those who can’t watch the event in person, tourists. Its THE perfect present if you’re going to someone’s home on Thanksgiving. (Both Amazon Prime and Barnes & Noble promise to deliver in 24 hours.) Vibrant photos give one a real feeling of the tradition, while text by Steven M. Silverman is as entertaining as it is illuminating.
In an election year full of worst possible behavior and damaging convictions, it’s uplifting to be reminded of a man of principle. (The bad guys seemed easier to identify then.) That Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning Fiorello! is a terrific piece of writing (a master class, really; don’t just watch, listen), with, in this production, adroit direction, artful visuals, droll choreography, and a company of notably young, talented players, is a veritable treat. Getting past their youth takes a minute. After that, it’s clear sailing.
Julius Reese, Michael Brahce, Ben Dallas Redding, Ryan Morsbach
If you’re familiar with Fiorello H. LaGuardia, it’s probably as the progressive, three-term Mayor of New York who helped quash a corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. Few are aware the lawyer was Deputy Attorney General, a decorated Army airman, served in Congress with firebrand commitment sponsoring labor legislation and railing against immigrant quotas, and was one of the first outspoken critics of Hitler.
Fiorello! concentrates on vicissitudes of city politics, LaGuardia’s personal life and character. There are three love stories – two based on fact, one, comic relief, lost as well as won elections, and a look at politics which, though couched in humor, is likely not too far from the truth.
Katie Birenboim and Chelsea Cree Groen
The longshot nominee is chosen at a poker table (“Politics and Poker,” one of musical theater’s cleverest numbers) presided over by party head Ben (Ryan Morsbach who especially shines in “Little Tin Box,” another whiz-bang funny song). Women of The Nifty Shirtwaist Factory, including the sweet, obtuse, Dora go on strike. (Chelsea Cree Groen – endearing comedienne, good singer, lovely dancer.) In retaliation, their leader, Thea (Rebecca Brudner – beautiful voice, lyrical spoken Italian, winning actress), is arrested for solicitation by on-the-take cop Floyd (Dan Cassin, a little too duh.)
Beleaguered employees Neil (Michael Sullivan – fetching tenor), Morris (Matt McClean, who could make more of this), and Marie (a spirited Katie Barenboim) – secretly in love with her uber-ethical, scrappy boss, put up with long hours and erratic behavior because LaGuardia is “On the Side of the Angels.” Dora unwittingly falls for Floyd: “I Love a Cop” which almost has dire consequences.
Austin Scott Lombardi, Rebecca Brudner and The Company
We see “The Little Flower” (a translation of his name, not to mention diminutive height) campaign in Italian and Yiddish: (“The Name’s LaGuardia: L-A-G-U-A-R-D-I-A”), fall in love with what the audience may perceive as the wrong girl, go to war, lose the girl and an election to the flashy, shallow-sound familiar? “Gentleman Jimmy” (James J. Walker), then win on both those fronts.
As LaGuardia, Austin Scott Lombardi is earnest and attractive, but rather more a leading man than charismatic character type which is a bit disconcerting. Like the company’s youth, one simply has to let this go.
The show is warm, tuneful, charming, wry, and wise. You’ll have a good time.
Matt McLean and The Company
Director Bob Moss stages with great freshness and an eye to visuals. The large cast moves seamlessly from scene to scene as does furniture. Pacing is nimble. Small moments as when each soldier salutes his girl before boarding the ship and Thea singing the beautiful “When Did I Fall in Love,” wrapping herself in LaGuardia’s robe, add intimacy.
Evan Zavada’s Music Direction offers the illusion of an orchestra with only 2 pianos and a violin. Brendan F. Doyle’s Sound Design is utterly crisp. Deft Choreography by Michael Callahan ranges from graceful to rollicking.
The city is made up of group of miniature (about 5’), two dimensional buildings on which photography of actual structures has been printed. These are supplemented by tall, portable street signs so we know where we are. A montage of newspaper clippings from the period covers the floor. If you’re sitting up high enough, perusal is fun. Incidental furniture is well chosen. Love the switchboard. Carl Sprague’s Scenic Design is original and effective. Matthew E. Adelson’s Lighting is playfully colored or dappled in all the right places.
By the look of it, Costume Designer David Murin had a great time dressing the company, not the least because of variety (chorus girls to cops, immigrants to servicemen) and multiple changes rarely seen on a production of this scale. The stage looks swell.
IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s freezing in this theater. Bring a jacket or sweater.
Photography by Alexander Hill Opening: Austin Scott Lombardi
Berkshire Theatre Group presents Fiorello! Book- Jerome Weidman & George Abbott Music- Jerry Bock Lyrics- Sheldon Harnick Directed by Bob Moss Choreography- Michael Callahan Music Direction- Evan Zavada The East 13th Street Theater 136 East 13th Street Through October 7, 2016
In October 1989, Donald Smith’s four year-old Mabel Mercer Foundation held its first annual New York Cabaret Convention. The New York Times headline read: Cabaret Convention Ponders a Disturbing Future. “Is there a place for cabaret in today’s age of mass entertainment? That is the question being pondered this week on the stage of Town Hall…” Stephen Holden. According to Holden’s 1991 coverage of the event, its debut “…attracted an audience of 6,000, and in its wake, Smith said, he received 900 letters about the problems facing the cabaret industry.”
Let us breathe a deep communal sigh and persevere with a modicum of rosey tint on our glasses. Print media, except for the venerable Cabaret Scenes, may refuse to acknowledge us except for an occasional blurb, but the art form continues to exist and evolve.
Small rooms and piano bars pop up replacing storied nightclubs as venues in which performers showcase talent. 54Below has become (Michael) Feinstein’s/54Below, extending programming and attracting fresh audiences. The 92 St. Y’s robust Lyrics and Lyricists series goes on with the organization’s roster adding Harvey Granat’s delightful midday salutes to iconic composers and lyricists. Fairly new on the scene, Pangea delivers striking alternative cabaret. Gianni Valenti (of Birdland) promises an additional locale in 2017. PBS has taken to the front line presenting cabaret on television. The Mabel Mercer Foundation is in its 31st year.
The 27th Annual New York Cabaret Convention runs from Tuesday, October 18 through Friday, October 21 at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Artists this year range from 12 year-old Zoe Gellman and 15 year-old Joie Bianco (who KT Sullivan heard this year at Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook Academy Competition – she didn’t win…this time) to the eternally youthful Marilyn Maye. Sullivan is encouraged by all the young aspiring vocalists she’s met and has faith in the art form. “As long as people gather in small places, sometimes with a drink, they’ll want to sit and listen to musical stories- unlike rock and pop and rap.” Artistic Director KT Sullivan
Tuesday October 18: Opening Night Gala – Hosted by KT Sullivan
Featuring, in part, Christina Bianco, Allan Harris, Carole J. Buffard, Eric Yves Garcia
“Opening night is always different because I like to spotlight more new talent and more kinds of music and sounds. There are several artists who have never performed at a Convention. We’ll hear American Songbook, Weimar, Jazz, likely Noel Coward, contemporary writers, and Broadway. We’re even hoping to have a trio song from Hamilton. I try to see every performer live, though I chose one this season on the basis of a terrific video, and then advise on material presented in our show.” KT Sullivan
Wednesday October 19: Saluting Stephen Sondheim- Hosted by Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar
Featuring, in part, Karen Akers, Sidney Meyer, Steve Ross, Jennifer Sheehan, Celia Berk
“Since its inception the Cabaret Convention has been a chance for performers to shine, and what better way to feature their talents than with the wit and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim! The repertoire is vast and sparkling with humor and tenderness, more than enough familiar songs to please our audience, yet many lesser known songs have found their way into the evening to keep them on their toes. I particularly look forward to my duets with Jeff Harnar which have been the highlight of my hosting duties, so once again we’ll be “Side By Side.” Andrea Marcovicci
“Three years ago I was a performer who felt too intimidated by the Sondheim catalogue to even consider his songs for my performance repertoire. KT Sullivan changed all that when she invited me to do a two-hander Sondheim show with her. As a performer who has always felt most at home in the musical skin of Cole Porter, now in my mid-fifties, I find performing Sondheim’s lyrics gifts me with a similar musical intelligence and wit as Porter’s, but with an unmistakably 21st Century sensibility. For our fifth time out as co-hosts, Andrea Marcovicci and I will present a Sondheim songbook. No hesitation on my part saying yes to that. Jeff Harnar
Thursday October 20: Saluting Sylvia Syms – Hosted by Rex Reed
Featuring, in part, Joyce Breach, Ann Hampton Callaway, Nicolas King, Billy Stritch
Frank Sinatra, her friend and mentor for five decades, called Sylvia Syms “the world’s greatest saloon singer.” The vocalist was perhaps best known for intimacy, unabashed honesty, and the ability to sing a variety of styles while maintaining her signature voice. “When you perform it’s a one-to-one love affair with the people out there. That’s how it has to be.” Sylvia Syms
“Sylvia Syms was beloved by everyone with sensitivity, taste and even the most basic knowledge of the art of the Great American Songbook, so a tribute to her warmth, savvy, sophisticated understanding of a lyric, and the beauty of her deep, throaty voice is long overdue. In addition to her exalted place in the history of song, she was a close personal friend who taught and informed me, enriched my life, and made me laugh, so I convinced myself I was the right person to lead the parade in celebrating her life and extraordinary career. I hope what we have some up with will best represent the supreme legacy of the artistry of Sylvia Syms.” Rex Reed
Friday October 21: Saluting Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse – Hosted by Klea Blackhurst
Featuring, in part, Corrina Sowers Adler, Liam Forde, Shana Farr, Todd Murray, Scott Coulter
Sheldon Harnick, author of such as Fiorello and She Loves Me, is having a banner year of national and local recognition with multiple musical revivals in New York. He received the 2016 Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theater, as well as the 2016 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Composer Charles Strouse gave us such musicals as Golden Boy, the eternal Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, and Rags. “I never said to myself, How will I ever top this? …I mean, I like things to be a success, but the main thing is to keep working.” Charles Strouse
“As a little girl of four or five, I’d romp around the house belting out up-tempos from Fiddler On the Roof and Applause, Annie and The Apple Tree, among many others from our household collection. Flash forward to the preparations for the final night of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 27th New York Cabaret Convention. The focus is on Sheldon Harnick and Charles Strouse, titans from my ongoing record collection. The joy Sheldon’s words have brought into my life cannot be measured or fully understood. To be hosting the event is a thrill and a huge honor.” Klea Blackhurst
This year, the Convention will be preceded by several special events: Will Friedwald presents Cabaret Clips – rarely seen video and film of iconic performers – where does he find these?! at The Laurie Beechman Theater on October 15, 2016
On October 16th, also at the Laurie Beechman, one can be present at the live DVD recording of a show (at last!) by beloved performer (and booker) Sidney Myer “a lovable madcap singer/comedian with an audacious performing style who can touch your heart at the same time.” Steve Ross. People are already clamoring for tickets as the exquisitely wry Meyer performs so rarely these days.
On Sunday October 23rd following the convention, Urban Stages will reprise a special concert encore of the critically acclaimed Mabel Madness about the life of the Foundation’s legendary namesake written and performed by Tony Award Winner Trazana Beverly.
Coming Up: November 2016 KT Sullivan and Natalie Douglas accompanied by pianist Jon Weber will judge a Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Competition in Durango, Colorado for aspiring young singers.
April 2017 The Cabaret Convention returns to Chicago for its fourth gala run in that city after a hiatus. Watch for details on the Foundation web site.
Opening: Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
KT Sullivan and Rick Meadows at Town Hall – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff KT Sullivan – Photo by Maryann Lopinto Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff Rex Reed – Photo courtesy of Mr. Reed Klea Blackhurst- Photo by Bill Westmoreland
92Y’s estimable Lyrics & Lyricists series ended its current season with a bang as the excellent Ted Chapin, President & Chief Creative Officer of Rodgers & Hammerstein, presented an evening illuminating Richard Rodgers and his work after the death of iconic collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II.
Not just a celebration, the show gave us a glimpse into the artist’s behavior, philosophy and process. This was imaginatively accomplished with a combination of excerpts from filmed interviews with the composer, his family, and associates, narrative by our knowledgeable host, and actor Larry Pine playing the honoree, utilizing Rodger’s own words. Chapin’s light touch and selectivity are always a pleasure. Pine is terrific, not just reading, but embodying the celebrant. Pleasing arrangements by Joseph Thalken, Charming Stage Direction/Choreography by Lorin Latarro, and evocative Projections by Matthew Haber, create a well crafted show.
Larry Pine as Richard Rodgers
“There is no valid reason for hiding honest emotion.” Richard Rodgers
Chapin divides Richard Rodgers life into three chapters: collaboration with Lorenz Hart in the 1920s and 1930s, collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II through World War II, and a robust afterward reflected in tonight’s show. “If I am successful,” Pine declares as Rodgers, “I know full well it’s because some of the talents of Oscar and Larry (Hart) have rubbed off on me.”
Rodgers lyric writing began with the updated 1962 remake of the film State Fair starring Ann Margaret, Pat Boone and Bobby Darren- not exactly performers to whom one might turn for a Rodgers and Hammerstein interpretation, and continued in tandem with composing through his last musical, 1979’s I Remember Mama.
We hear songs from and stories about No Strings, the film of The Sound of Music , Do I Hear a Waltz? (lyrics-Stephen Sondheim), Androcles and the Lion, Two by Two (lyrics Martin Charnin), Rex (lyrics Sheldon Harnick) and I Remember Mama (lyrics Martin Charnin) as performed by four talented vocalists, each of whom had best moments.
Karen Ziemba, too long away from the Broadway stage, captivated with a rendition of “Loads of Love” (No Strings) which offered characterization, grace and infectious brightness. Every major theater turned the show down because it crossed a color line with its interracial relationship. It landed on 54th Street.
“I know I give the appearance of not being sentimental, but this isn’t true. I believe people have an emotional need for melody just as they need food.” Richard Rodgers
Subdued until her performance of “Someone Woke Up,” Leona’s joyful discovery of Venice from Do I Hear a Waltz?, Betsy Wolfe irresistibly tries to take in everything at once. A perfect ingenue, she moves with ease and innocence. Contralto is confident and appealing, soaring without stress. Rodgers felt that trying to emulate the sound of a place or culture was a mistake and stuck to his own musical ideas wherever and whenever a musical was located.
Betsy Wolfe; Ben Crawford
A buoyant “What Do We Do? We Fly!” from the same show is performed by the company. Ostensibly crammed into tiered airline seats, they gesture and complain with graphic frustration.
Ben Crawford’s vocals, though technically lovely, seem self conscious until he inhabits Noah in “Ninety Again” from Two by Two. Singing to and flirting with his astonished wife, Esther, cavorting all over the stage like a gleeful 17 year-old, ending with a buck-and-wing and push-ups, Crawford’s throat opens to reveal resonance and sincerity. The Broadway show’s esteemed star, Danny Kaye, tore a ligament, returned in a wheelchair, and became ungovernable, ad-libbing and pinching the ladies.
The song is followed by “An Old Man” performed by Ziemba as Esther. The hug that he gives you is hardly a hug…Accompanied only by piano, the actress brims with weathered affection. It’s truly touching.
Chapin tells us a sweet story shared by lyricist Sheldon Harnick who was nervous working with the forbidding Rodgers at a time in his life when the composer needed lyric structure on which to build. Harnick was fearful of being graded and found wanting, yet Rodgers appeared visibly relieved when his new collaborator expressed enthusiasm at the setting of an early tune.
Crawford and Wolfe offer “Away From You” (Rex), a song played for Andrew Lloyd Weber by his father who considered it one of the best melodies of the 20th century. (Rodgers was Lloyd Weber’s idol.) Both performers are engaging, strings add winning texture.
“Strangers” (Androcles and the Lion) is begun by T. Oliver Reid whose gentle, cottony delivery floats the lyrics. He and Betsy Wolfe, who joins the expressive duet, aptly end up back to back on a stool. Reid’s vibrato-filled “I Do Not Know a Day I Didn’t Love You” (Two by Two) sounds like operetta. His precise tenor seems swept away by emotion.
We close with the company’s “Sing Me a Song” (Rex), a waltz by an artist one can arguably call America’s waltz king. It’s an oom-pah-pah arrangement, at one point even vocally simulating a calliope. Everyone’s smiling.
Richard Rodgers was by all reports an outwardly gruff man- something writer Sherman Yellen recognized as symptomatic of his generation, and an alcoholic, yet wrote some of the most timeless, romantic melodies in the annals of American music (not to mention unexpected lyrics.) His work is immortal. Ted Chapin has more than done Rodgers justice with this eloquent evening.
Joseph Thalken (piano), Karen Ziemba, T.Oliver Reid, Ben Crawford, Betsy Wolfe
Theater novices are often teased by veterans into looking for the key to the curtain. “I’ve been in the theater more than half a century…all my life I’ve been looking for that key and I’m still looking.” Richard Rodgers
Photos by Richard Termine Opening: Joseph Thalken (piano), Ben Crawford, Betsy Wolfe, T.Oliver Reid, Karen Ziemba
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents I Have Confidence: Rodgers After Hammerstein Ted Chapin-Artistic Director/Writer/Host Joseph Thalken-Music Director/Arrangements/ Orchestrations Based on a concept by Bill Rudman of “On the Aisle” 92Y at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street Next Season’s Lyrics & Lyricists begins with Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years January 2017
Attesting to its timeless appeal, the 1936 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László had been made into two Hollywood films – The Shop Around the Corner and The Good Old Summertime – before this 1963 musical saw the light. Nor did that end reinterpretation, as the next generation grinned through You’ve Got Mail.
The Joe Masterhoff/Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick version is a hand-painted valentine, a shaken snow globe, a waltz. As written, the piece has universal appeal. Its book is sympathetic and unfussy, music and lyrics original and adroit. Once again numbers like “Sounds While Selling” in which we hear pieces of conversation from three customers with three salespeople:
1st WOMAN: I would like to see a…/KODALY:…face like yours…/2nd WOMAN: …cracked…/SIPOS:…but we carry…/1st WOMAN:Do you have a cream for…/2nd WOMAN:…very red…and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which swings back and forth from the heroine’s astonishment at suddenly finding her nemesis captivating and writing to her lonely hearts “pen pal,” make me marvel the authors’ accomplishment. Not to mention resonant ballads and clever comedic numbers.
Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath
The show has warmth, humor, love, distinctive characters, misunderstanding, adultery, Christmas, and a happy ending, several really. What more could one want? It’s sentimental but not saccharine. I’m a longtime fan.
Here, as in the original, our story unfolds at Maraczek’s Parfumerie in Budapest, Hungary. Set Designer David Rockwell imagines the establishment as a charming, deftly detailed dolls’ house. The set morphs beautiflly. Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings) runs a cheerfully tight ship. The shop is managed by 30-something everyman Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) and staffed by timid, Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), womanizer Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), single-too-long Ilona Ritter (Jane Krakowski), and delivery boy Arpad Laslo (Nicholas Barasch). Kodaly and Ritter are having a clandestine affair about which everyone is aware.
Into this happy family comes Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) desperate for a job. Though refused a position, the young woman whips off her hat and sells an item about which the proprietor is enthusiastic, but which Nowack considers a mistake. She’s hired. Balash and Nowack are now at loggerheads, a self perpetuating situation.
Having seen at least one of this story’s iterations, you must know that the eventual couple are unknowingly writing one another letters through a lonely hearts club. Both are completely smitten. An eventual attempt to meet evokes an usually touching and comic scenario during which he finds out the identity of his inamorata. Now what? Meanwhile, Kodaly’s latest betrayal of Ilona upsets the apple cart at work in ways no one anticipated.
Gavin Creek and Jane Krakowski
In order for any production to be successful, the show’s protagonists must seem unconscious of what the audience knows. Actors must play “straight,” innocent, or as my companion this evening succinctly suggested, they must “discover” in front of us. This, unfortunately, largely fails to happen.
Scott Ellis’s Direction broadcasts every emotion. Comedy arrives in a succession akin to – I’m about to be funny, look I’m being funny, wait – did you get that? There are broad ba-dump-dump looks and gestures appropriate to vaudeville. Moments of revelation ignore adjustment, confusion, and surprise in favor of being slick. Anger is glossed over. No one thinks or feels, they just move on.
Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Michael McGrath (Sipos) does a nice, subdued, early Nathan Lane-ish job, managing to be gentle and credible. Gavin Creel (Kodaly), the single actor for whom exaggeration is appropriate, is at the same time flamboyant and precise, never going for the yuks.
Jane Krakowski’s Ilona is all sex all the time. A theatrical fanny has not had so much work out since Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. This is supposed to be a girl possessed, neither naively kittenish, nor a vixen. When her turnabout occurs, we don’t buy it. Krakowski is a fine singer and usually a much better comedienne.
Zachary Levi (Nowack) seems to have had a revelation between Acts I and II. In Act I, he’s self-conscious and preening. In Act II, the actor suddenly becomes boyish and believable. “She Loves Me” is infectiously exuberant.
The biggest disappointment is Laura Benanti. At no time is the role of Amalia Balash plumbed for anything but surface expression. Benanti has an extraordinary voice which here, alas, is too often both loudly unfitting to a moment and unbecoming.
Re Warren Carlyle’s Choreography: Though Kodaly’s magnetism is amusingly showcased during a dance duet that features Krakowski’s skillful split (cue applause), that same move has no more business in “I Resolve”- her swearing off that kind of relationship – than do leg extensions through a highly slit skirt she later, aptly rebuttons. The once wry scenario at Cafe Imperiale (bravo Headwaiter Peter Bartlett), is now something out of a Marx Brothers script.
Tonight’s audience admittedly seems unaware of these issues. If you’ve never seen this delicious piece, perhaps you will be as well.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi
Roundabout Theatre Company presents She Loves Me Book-Joe Masterhoff; Music-Jerry Bock; Lyrics- Sheldon Harnick Directed by Scott Ellis Studio 54 254 West 54th Street Through June 12, 2016