Monday night, the National Arts Club hosted Shana Farr and Steve Ross in a unique concert spotlighting Christmas and some of the collaborators’ other best loved things. The unique evening offered original arrangements of familiar holiday songs, wry, unexpected novelty numbers, love, romance, hope, faith, and affectionate nods to Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner and Manhattan. It was warm, amusing, uplifting and stylish.
A Viennese-waltz-like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year” segues, with Ross’s “Oh!” into “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” –he’s flirty! And then Farr’s melodically gliding “Sleigh Ride.” Ross tells us “Snow” was written on a hot Los Angeles day. Heat apparently inspires Christmas songs. Irving Berlin is said to have penned “White Christmas” at La Quinta Hotel in Arizona, probably we’re told, in the middle of the night. (He was an insomniac.) “Take this down,” Berlin commanded his secretary. “I’ve just written the best song anyone’s every written.” Accompaniment is both harmonious and fresh.
In the satiric vein, Midwestern-bred Farr performs “Department Stores Mean Christmas to Me.” “…They had to get that frankincense from somewhere!” arrives ingénue-sincere. (David Cameron Anderson/Steve Landau) “I did sit on Santa’s lap outside (J.C.) Penny’s” she admits. And, in duet, Fred Silver’s immortal “The Twelve Days After Christmas”: The third day after Christmas, my Mother caught the croup/I had to use the three French Hens to make some chicken soup/The four calling birds were a big mistake for their language was obscene/The five golden rings were completely fake and they turned my fingers green…
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” wafts light and lilting (Farr) in tandem with John Wallowitch’s uber-droll “Three Penny Things” (Ross). The latter is just what it sounds like, a charming, family-friendly lyric riding Kurt Weill’s foreboding music. Ross’s ersatz chermin interpretation: “…schnitzel mit noodles…ven the dog bites ven the bee sinks…” is tongue-in-cheek perfect.
Citing the centenary of Alan Jay Lerner, Farr offers “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” as if breathing in tune and Ross sings a tender “The Heather On the Hill” whose melody emerges like an embrace by graceful arms.
More recent material is represented by Larry Kirchner’s “Winter in Manhattan”- Farr imbues its lyric with deep affection, Ross’s soulful, rather elegant “Manhattan Moon” (Richard Crosby/Steve Ross), and “It’s Almost Christmas Eve” (Rosie Casey/Ken Hirsch/Steve Ross/Frederick Chopin), a Norman Rockwell painting of friends, and family evoking gratitude.
The traditional “Three Ships”: I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;/I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day in the morning…replete with pianistic chimes and- reverence, is lovely. Farr’s acoustic “Oh Holy Night” carries gravitas further. The artist annually sings in a one-room Missouri church at which her grandparents still worship. Tonight she might just as well be wearing a long white choir robe bathed in shafts of light coming through a stained glass window. A powerful and humble rendition.
Farr’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Santa Baby” are less successful for lack of engaging sexual innuendo. Ross’s inevitable Cole Porter numbers though swell, don’t really fit.
To close, we all sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The room is warmer than when we entered, dispositions have softened, spirits have risen. A sophisticated evening presented with talent, class, mutual regard, and genuine feeling for the season.
Photos by Bruce Allan
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15 Gramercy Park South
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
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
Details and Tickets: Mabel Mercer Foundation Events
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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