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.
Adela and Larry Elow, long banner-carrying supporters of American Songbook in the put-your-money-where-your-heart-is vein *, have generously endowed The Mabel Mercer Foundation with a $50,000 fund created specifically to encourage teenagers to learn and perform The Great American Songbook over the next decade. The Foundation calls these young people “Mabel’s Babies”- in reference to namesake, the iconic (childless) Mabel Mercer.
As defined by Larry, this means “material composed between the years 1900-1970 – songs that formed the essence of America’s three great interrelated musical gifts to the world: Jazz, Popular Song, and the Modern Musical Theater.” When the couple were respectively coming of age, Adela recalls, “…These songs expressed the ethos, character and values of what came to be known as The Greatest Generation: the romance, grace, sensitivity, idealism and all those other life attitudes that we took for granted.”
Larry tells me he had to be convinced of the enterprise by his more optimistic soul mate. Imagine what it must be like for those who have lived through (and loved ) eras when the milkman and debutantes were familiar with the same songs, when fans bought sheet music, families gathered around radios, couples went dancing, nightclubs and movie musicals proliferated.
Adela and Larry Elow
Put yourselves in the shoes of a man who became a songwriter and musician in order to immerse himself and contribute to the genre as he watched venues close, popularity/ awareness diminish… Imagine the frustration of talking to young people – especially performers – unfamiliar with Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern…who might never have heard the Songbook were it not for Paul McCartney or Rod Stewart. Fortunately, Larry Elow has the determined Adela to sway his counter intuitive reserve. One couldn’t imagine a more symbiotic team.
The first part of the Elow’s heat-seeking “Teenager Endowment Fund,” titled Songs Were Made to Sing While We’re Young, were tapped on February 3, 2018 at the supportive Laurie Beechman Theatre. Adolescents chosen from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Talent Unlimited High School, and the Professional Performing Arts School (with a program run by Rosie’s Kids), will compete before an audience for a first, second and third prize of $2500, $1500, and $1000 meant to further study. Origin schools are not identified in order to maintain lack of prejudice.
The winner will also be given the opportunity to perform October 2018 during the foundation’s annual New York Cabaret Convention.
David Finkle, La Tanya Hall, Jim Morgan, Jeff Harnar, Deborah Grace Winer
I asked each of the judges (beforehand) to describe the qualities of a good cabaret performer. Here’s what they’re respectively hoping to find.
Village Voice/Huffington Post commentator David Finkle: A good cabaret performer should have: 1. A personality 2. Respect for lyrics 3. A reason for singing the songs he/she has chosen 4. Impressing the audience with your voice is not as important as entertaining them
Cabaret Entertainer/ Director- Jeff Harnar: The last thing a good cabaret artist needs to have is a good singing voice. Everything else is essential: a point of view, specificity, intimacy, humor, wisdom, creativity, vulnerability, the gift of storytelling in song and a compelling enough personality to hold an audience for an hour. If you have all that and a good singing voice, that’s cabaret heaven for me.
Cabaret/Jazz Vocalist La Tanya Hall: The most impactful singers are ones who sing to EXPRESS, not IMPRESS. In all music, we must be storytellers and not be so concerned with sound production. Take me on an honest journey, and you have a fan for life.
Producing Director of The York Theater Jim Morgan: My idea of a good cabaret performer is someone whose confident knowledge of the song being performed is evident from their presentation, who is able to connect with an audience through a unique point of view. Ideally, a cabaret artist takes the song in a new direction while honoring the original intent of its creator(s).
Author/Historian/Artistic Director Deborah Grace Winer: What I look for in any cabaret performer is someone who can communicate to an audience a personal point of view on a song, telling a story filtered through his or her own perspective and life experience–with musicality, talent, taste and craft. And always, allowing the song itself to be paramount.
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Vocalist sums it up with: It’s all about telling stories.
On the 118th anniversary of Mabel Mercer’s passing, the competition featured 16 teenagers ranging from 15 to a venerable 19. Each was given a single opportunity with which to show the judges what he/she had to offer. A wide variety of songs from musical theater and traditional songbook were offered.
“It’s through the performances of young people that these songs will live for the next hundred years.” Adela Elow. Hope springs eternal.
*Adela and Larry Elow additionally founded and helm, to date, 26 years of concerts at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York and annually underwrite the Donald F. Smith Award presented at The New York Cabaret Convention.
First Prize Winner Christina Jimenez chooses to share Kander & Ebb’s “Sing Happy” (Flora the Red Menace). The vocalist starts low key which gives her time to slowly build emotion. Surety and skill keep lyrics surging without going over the top. Like immutable waves in a smooth surf, she holds balance=focus and brightness, even as keys shift. Chills run up my spine.
The very personable Jimenez tells me she discovered American Songbook at PPAS (Professional Performing Arts School) on a musical theater trajectory at 15.“I knew it was there, I just never sang it myself.” She particularly enjoys telling stories. Cabaret, the young woman wisely observes, allows one to personalize a song instead of bending to its context. Cristina is enthusiastic about this new fount of material. “There were songs I heard today that I want to take a look at.” I found her particularly well grounded, a quality that will serve. Her check will go towards college.
Second Prize Winner Hannah-Jane Peterson delivers a fully (self) staged version of “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ at Carnegie Hall” (Blaine/Martin/Edens) sung by Judy Garland in Thousands Cheer. Beginning atop the piano, ostensibly bored with accompanist Jon Weber, Peterson is clearly a multifaceted talent. Movement during the boogie woogie chorus is fluid and appealing. Vocal not only sounds swell, but is infused with period attributes; brief scat is a bullseye.
Peterson, also from PPS, tells me she and her now single mother relocated from West Virginia two years ago to facilitate pursuing Hannah’s aspirations. Against all odds, she secured an agent who sends her out for voice-over work, but knows that at 17, she might have to wait on “legitimate” theater. (She’s made other appearances.) The young woman grew up with musicals and standards. She’s always been a Golden Age fan “it’s so relatable…” A junior looking at Pace, Marymount, and Circle in The Square, her determination, impatience and zeal make me think of the character Molly Brown (as in unsinkable). Part of Hannah’s check will go to new dance shoes, the rest towards college.
Naomi Autumn Steele
Third Prize Winner Naomi Autumn Steele (Talented Unlimited High School) applies her fetching voice to “Gorgeous” (Bock & Harnick- The Apple Tree). Without knowledge of the song’s context – Ella’s pleasure and surprise at having been transformed by her fairy godmother, this unique interpretation portrays a woman’s expressing an “obnoxious” (Steele) opinion of herself. The vocalist is a little stiff onstage.
Steele is an opera student who took a flier with this competition. Both knowledge and ambitions lie in that sector. “I chose this song because it had kind of the same color and range that I have…I like to sing lyrics that make me feel good. It’s a confidence booster to sing I’m gorgeous.” The young woman says she concentrates so much on her classical music, she forgets there are other genres she can explore. A window was opened here. (Eileen Farrell interpreted standards after a career in opera. Songbook stylists Sylvia McNair and Tammy McCann were also operatically trained.) A senior who aspires to Ithaca College, her check is going into a bank account.
James Steinman Gordon; Isiah Feil-Sharp
In my opinion the best male performers are 15 year-old James Steinman-Gordon and Isiah Feil-Sharp. Gordon offered Lerner & Lowe’s “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady) with besotted expression appropriate to young Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His ballad is melodious, emphasis well placed, swell admirably restrained. Unfortunately, the young man never looks at his audience. Feil-Sharp has us from the moment he insouciantly leans against the wall. “Luck Be A Lady” (Frank Loesser- Guys and Dolls) arrives with spit, polish, and theatricality. The vocalist is street cool/credible. He connects as if coolly challenging dispute. Gestures are spot-on.
Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston
Of the women, Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston are striking. Ross renders Rodgers & Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love” (The Boys From Syracuse), immediately assuming character, immediately connecting with the audience. Gestures are meaningful for being minimal. Phrasing makes theatrical sense. Ross stresses a bit on high notes, but that’s just practice…and octave choice. Hairston’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Waller/Razaf) emerges like slow hip rotation. “What do I care?” issues plaintive. With “I’m home about eight” she charmingly taps her watch. Octaves slip slide with skill and comprehension of the period. Open your eyes please.
Juliette Papadopoulos’ “If I Loved You” (Rodgers & Hammerstein – Carousel) showcases a lovely, legit voice and fine control. The song is perhaps beyond real life experience, however, which diminishes impact. Kerlin Pyun’s cute “I Can Cook” (Comden & Green/ Bernstein – On the Town) evidences great feeling for and ability with swing. The performer needs to moooove however, to sell the otherwise infectious song. She doesn’t have enough fun. Neither of these contestants look at the audience.
In general, the biggest issues after musicality are relating to people out front and choosing material that’s viscerally understood/and or appropriate to experience.
Somewhat of an exception to the last caveat is Joie Bianco, the youngest winner of Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Julie Wilson Award (at 16) and still a student at Talent Unlimited High School. The artist is preternaturally mature on stage managing not just graciousness/warmth and all important connection, but a knack for believably finding herself in songs for which one might otherwise require more maturity.
Bianco is aware of what she’s singing, not just how. She has a captivating voice and fine control. From the apt “I’m Just Too Young to Sing the Blues” (Charles Nater Jones/ /Chuck Meyer) – the last “blues” is, I think, sung in ten syllables, to Styne/Merrill’s iconic “People,” Bianco sets an example to other young performers. (Jon Weber-piano)
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, offers diverse thanks, in particular to the teachers behind the aspiring artists: Heidi Best, Carl Johnson, Jeff Statile, and Bret Kristofferson. Her pristine a cappella verse of “While We’re Young” (Wilder/Engvick) follows…Songs are meant to sing while we’re young… Adela and Larry quietly sing along.
The program’s benefactors are pleased and, I think, moved. Adela Elow comments she’s glad she’s not a judge and advises the young people to learn, study, perform, and follow their dreams. Larry Elow says he’s sorry he gave Adela such a hard time and now has hope.
The crowd is buoyant. Tune in next year. Meanwhile support American Songbook.
Pianist Jason Andrews accompanied students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Pianist John Pristiani accompanied students from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Jon Weber accompanied students from Professional Performing Arts School
Photos by Maryann Lopinto Opening: Naomi Steele, Hannah Peterson, Cristina Jiminez, KT Sullivan, Adela Elow, Larry Elow
The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual summer concert celebrated composer Howard Dietz (1896-1983) and lyricist Arthur Schwartz (1900-1984), while including an unrelated roster of other writers. Relative newcomers and established artists presented jazz, cabaret, and musical theater interpretations out of what we call The American Songbook, which, despite suggestions to the contrary, continues to endure and evolve.
Arthur Schwartz was pressured into law by his family and admitted to the bar in 1924. By 1928, having moonlighted for years, he’d closed his office in favor of songwriting. Howard Dietz moved from advertising to MGM’s Vice President in Charge of Publicity, originating their iconic, roaring lion as well as the slogan “More Stars than there are in Heaven.” The composer wrote continuously throughout his alternate career. Collaboration began with The Little Show, a revue starring Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, and Fred Allen. The rest is history.
Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (Wikipedia)
In her best, wide-eyed, faux innocent persona, the Foundation’s Artistic Director, KT Sullivan, opened with “Confession” from The Band Wagon.
Frank Dain’s version of “Penny” was utterly enchanting. (Songwriter/musical director/musician/board member and lifetime card-carrying, cabaret supporter Larry Elow.) Dain shimmered with ardor. The unfussy ballad goes straight to the heart with timeless appeal. Kathleen Landis – lovely arrangement, graceful piano.
“Make the Man Love Me” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) emerged genuinely sweet as rendered by Lauren Stanford. During an instrumental, the vocalist seemed to continue internal dialogue holding us captive. Piano-Jon Weber.
Frank Dain; Lauren Stanford
The Inimitable Sidney Meyer, who has the most articulate shoulders in the business, sang “Rainy Night in Rio” (Arthur Schwartz/Leo Robin) with iconoclastic, deadpan phrasing, impish facial expression, and the rousing help of the band’s “Ai Yi Yi!” chorus. A photographic finish. Piano-Jon Weber.
Danny Bacher and Alexis Cole, usually solo performers, symbiotically joined for three numbers with Cole at the piano and Bacher on soprano sax as well as duet vocals. “I’ll Buy You a Star” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) swung in with the ease of a languid hammock. “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” was insouciant rather than wistful. “You and The Night and The Music” showcased the artists’ extraordinary ability with scat. Someone find these people a supper club!
Alexis Cole; Danny Bacher
In his first appearance with The Mabel Mercer Foundation, Darius de Haas displayed well honed acting skill with the theatrical prose/poem “Trotsky in Mexico” (Renee Rosnes/David Hajdu). An original “Shine On Your Shoes” arrived like a slow-motion Fred Astaire turn, every word savored as if preaching gospel. Todd Firth-splendid, textural piano and arrangements.
John Wallowich’s “I Live Alone Again” was performed with rare restraint by Mark Nadler as stipulated by its author – first verse a lament, second in gleeful relief. The artist sold both with credibility. “By Myself,” adroitly including Jack Buchanan’s original spoken word, was a crie de coeur rather than familiar resignation. And, oh, the piano!
Mark Nadler; Marta Sanders
To my mind, this evening’s highlight was veteran Marta Sanders whose inhabiting lyrics, flexible timbre, and arch humor created a show unto itself. The gypsy “Come A-Wandering With Me”(Mark Nadler-emphatic piano), cue atmospheric stage smoke, was followed with equal fervor by John Wallowich’s amusing “Warsaw,” (John McMahon-piano), an impeccably timed in-one, deftly utilizing a babushka.
Sullivan then closed with “Lovely,” for which she played matchmaker to a forgotten composition by Howard Dietz and Bart Howard’s lyrics, and, perhaps the best known Dietz and Schwartz song, “Dancing in The Dark” materializing a chanteusey, soprano waltz. Jon Weber-piano.
Also featuring: exuberant Seth Sikes; Celia Berk’s poignant “Something to Remember You By” rife with implicit “please”; an underwhelming Margi Gianquinto; the polished Sue Matsuki with a clever, if seemingly out of place number on which she collaborated; a bright, sweetheart rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” from Karen Oberlin; Laurie Krauz and Daryl Kojak’s extremely original interpretation of “Alone Together” with massaged vocal, wordless singing, and Valkyrie delivery; the sincere Gary Crawford; and Mauricio Bustamante’s rendition of John Wallowich’s “Bruce.”
Musicianship was uniformly superb.
Performance Photos by Seth Cashman
Opening: Jon Weber; KT Sullivan
Songs by other than Dietz and Schwartz are noted.
Recommended Reading: Dancing in The Dark by Howard Dietz (published in 1974)
That’s Entertainment: Dietz & Schwartz and Friends Music Director: Jon Weber Saadi Zain-bass, Sean Harkness-guitar, David Silliman-drums. Weill Hall June 20, 2017 The Mabel Mercer Foundation
“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
And so they gather once again like migrated birds instinctively drawn to the annual Cabaret Convention, the smorgasbord of an art still beloved. From all over the country, hotels are booked, other shows ticketed. Some out of town attendees meet only once a year on this occasion, while local denizens take the opportunity to greet favorite artists and compare opinions. The 27th edition of the celebratory event boasts a 15 year-old newcomer as well as performers from London and Australia. Buzz is palpable.
KT Sullivan by Maryann Lopinto
Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation/Host, KT Sullivan, opens the show with a high, light version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” Tonight, she might be singing about the audience or the extraordinary fascinator perched on her chignon. (Piano-Jon Weber, Bass- Steve Doyle, Drums- Rob Garcia)
Next we’re treated to Robert Creighton who must run to the theater where he’s starring in his own co-written musical Cagney. “No matter what your political leanings, sometimes it’s hard to see how great this country is.” Creighton performs George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” unfathomably without dancing. Renditions are easy, slightly nasal, with apt Cagney inflection. (MD/piano- Matt Perri)
Highlights of the evening follow.
Josephine Bianco; Kelly McDonald by Maryann Lopinto
A finalist at both the Metrostar and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Academy competitions, 15 year-old Josephine Bianco offers Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s “People” displaying all the right instincts. The performer takes her time, looks into audience faces, and imbues the number with both personal expression and subtle modulations. Someone to watch.
Burgeoning artist, Kelly McDonald, introduces one of the evening’s few contemporary numbers, “Latte Boy” (Marcy Heisler/ Zina Goldrich). Her vocal is lovely, character embodiment innocent and credible. Kudos to the appealing McDonald for taking a risk. (Piano on both-Jon Weber)
Stacy Sullivan; Natalie Douglas by Stephen Sorokoff
From new CD Stranger in a Dream, we hear Stacy Sullivan’s deft, airbrushed “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Duke Ellington/Don George/Johnny Hodges/ Harry James) and a well rendered swing selection in which the vocalist shifts octaves like an aerialist (MD/piano-Jon Weber).
The surprising opening of Act II is a buoyant “Helpless” (Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton) featuring Karen Oberlin, KT Sullivan, Natalie Douglas as Eliza and Jon Weber- rapping! (MD/piano-Jon Weber). Douglas is then palpably surprised by winning the Donald F. Smith Award endowed by Adela and Larry Elow. Her interpretation of Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” is beautifully understated. (MD/piano- Mark Hartman)
Vivian Reed and Dancers by Stephen Sorokoff
Broadway’s Vivian Reed unleashes “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard/Kenneth Casey) as a full production number replete with choreographed backup dancers and bebop scat followed by a gospel “Believe” (admirably without overshooting the mark), which visibly courses through her. (MD/Piano-William Foster McDaniel)
Kristoffer Lowe’s jaunty, tandem “A Quarter to Nine” (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) and “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing” segues from stylish to infectiously happy. Lowe is old school classy. Making his Convention debut, the immensely elegant, decidedly decadent Kim David Smith captivates in English and pristine German with renditions of “Illusions” and “Eine Kleine…” (Piano-Tracy Stark)
Kristoffer Lowe; Kim David Smith by Maryann Lopinto
Irving Berlin’s “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is married to Amanda McBroom’s poignant “Dance” by Susan Winter who takes us with her on every emotional journey. Shimmering arrangement by MD/pianist Alex Rybeck. The reliably show-stopping Carole J. Bufford erupts into “St. James Infirmary” with powerful vocal from chest to throat, growl to howl, sinuous moves, and a command of the stage we rarely see. (Matt Baker-piano, Tom Hubbard-bass, Rob Garcia-drums, Charlie Coranics- superior Trumpet)
Maureen McGovern is appreciatively presented this year’s Mabel Mercer Award. The artist then sings two immensely original takes on numbers from The Wizard of Oz (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg): a charming preface of “Optimistic Voices” (You’re out of the woods…) leads to an a capella and acoustic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which one can only call indelible. Showcasing her range, McGovern then delivers an ardent, “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) with an entirely different voice. Wow. (MD/Piano-Jeff Harris)
Maureen McGovern by Stephen Sorokoff
Also featuring: Two Randy Newman songs from Karen Oberlin-one appealingly shadowy, the other, a dissonantly paired political ditty (Piano-Jon Weber); T. Oliver Reid’s bubbly “I’m Throwin’ a Ball Tonight” by Cole Porter (MD/Piano-Larry Yurman); A warm Fran Landesman/Alec Wilder number from Barbara Fasano who makes us empathize with every sentiment (Piano-Eric Comstock); Stephan Bednarczyk’s angry take on Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington” which defangs implicit wit…
Jacob Storms, whose voice is like an articulated hum, chooses two iconic songs on which he unfortunately leaves no personal stamp. (Piano-Jon Weber) Eric Yves Garcia’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’m A Gigolo” emerges vocally forced instead of insouciant, though the artist is capable of the latter. It should be noted, to my knowledge, this is the first time superb performer Leslie Hutchenson,“Hutch,” has been mentioned on the Convention stage. If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend research.
Barbara Fasano; Matt Baker by Stephen Sorokoff
Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” is evocatively performed by Matt Baker including breathy vocal and arrangement that sounds like fine, 1950s jazz. (Bass-Endea Owens, Drums-Darrian Douglas) He’s less successful with an over long, dense interpretation of the theme from The Apartment (Charles Williams.) Crowd pleaser Christina Bianco safely repeats her Kander and Ebb “Cabaret” turn for the umpteenth time, imitating such as Julie Andrews and Judy Garland. The talented vocalist might consider moving on. (Piano-Jon Weber)
Thanks to Steve Doyle and Ron Hubbard, bassists, Rob Garcia-drums.
The evening ran a long 2 ½ hours, but offered many rewarding performances.
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
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. A bird sings because it has a song. Chinese proverb
Every year on her birthday, Elizabeth Sullivan, matriarch of the formidably musical family, flies to New York from Oklahoma for a blow out party. The tree from which these talented apples fall not far is herself a songwriter and vocalist. Sullivans from all over gather at a local club-Sunday it was the packed-to-the-gills Metropolitan Room, to share their talents with friends, fans and each other. It’s a love fest.
Ever elegant, Elizabeth, who turned 86 this year and looks well over ten years younger, begins with a group of her own compositions. “You Are the Reason I Sing My Song”/You are the why of it all/Without you listening, it would go so wrong… It drifts down with utter warmth and sincerity. We sway.
Stacy Sullivan, Robin Brooks Sullivan, Elizabeth Sullivan, KT Sullivan
Songs are brief, poetic, personal. If you didn’t know her you might imagine Elizabeth a good actress. The truth is that every lyric grows from her heart like a flower. She seems authentic because she is. Communication and sensitivity more than make up for a wavering word or note not quite reached. ‘Om puttin’ things on the back burner/ Serving up what’s good tonight/’Om thinking soon or maybe later/I’ll hear a tune and get a rhyme…(“Back Burner”) emerges riding a kick-back-and-rock-on-the-porch two step.
Where there never was a box/Then there never was a limit… (“Out of the Box”) is wise yet light. Elizabeth’s voice rises like an upward sigh, a feather on a breeze. She performs “Without a Song” (Vincent Youmans and Edward Eliscu) with depth of investment that makes it feel as if she were the author. For “Song of the Chimes,” (her own) the performer is joined by 6 year-old granddaughter Layla Elizabeth Sullivan, bending down to duet with the very pretty girl at her own level. Some of it is stage-whispered adding to delicacy. They make quite a picture.
Elizabeth Sullivan and Layla Elizabeth Sullivan; Montana Sullivan
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Elizabeth’s daughter in law, Robin Brooks Sullivan, share one of the writer’s signature songs, “As Long As We Sing.” Written in honor of Mabel Mercer, the number is a moving, cabaret anthem. The ladies harmonize.
KT then offers Elizabeth’s “How Were We To Know?” inspired by her unexpected meeting of husband-to-be, Stephen Downey. (It’s a charming story.) Despite his opening salvo, including somewhat daunting references to his mother and five children, both apparently “knew.” How could we miss/The promise of that thrill/Spinning in our bliss/ Above a world gone still…Lovely. Robin returns on guitar and vocal for Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” which arrives with pith, spit and lively, country twang.
The Sullivans have each chosen his or her own musical path/genre. Robin’s son, young Montana Sullivan, offers “Soul”, a classically tinted piano solo of his own composition. I hear insistence, fluency, spirit…a stream, creek, river, waterfall, the ocean…unstoppable momentum with pauses preparing waves. The piece is evocative and well played.
Granddaughter Savannah Elizabeth Brown who has recently embarked upon her own singing/acting career, has chosen the charming “Bubbly” (Colbie Caillat/Jason Reeves.) “The song is about a lover, but I’m gonna bring it back to my grandma because I think I had my boyfriend sold when I showed him what I’d look like at 86.” Guitar in hand, with backup by her mother, vocalist Stacy Sullivan, and Montana on piano, Savannah exhibits vocal qualities like Elizabeth and Stacy-she can float a melody. Harmony is appealing, the song diaphanous.
Savannah Elizabeth Brown and Stacy Sullivan
Stacy then takes center stage for “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/B.Y. Foster) accompanied by Jon Weber’s up, UP-tempo jazz piano and Tom Hubbard’s fast-as-hummingbirds’-wings-bass. A performer able to successfully embrace many genres, she delivers both percussive and lyrical verses with finesse. Stacy, Robin, KT and Elizabeth then share the nostalgic “Where My Picture Hangs on the Wall” (Elizabeth Sullivan), a song about home Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz) would’ve treasured.
Elizabeth closes with more of her own material including one of my favorites, the deeply romantic “Not Tonight”, written for her husband’s 70th birthday (Mr. Sullivan passed.) There may be a time when I’ll not want you/But not tonight, not tonight… The room then joins in “Friends” whose partial lyrics adorn a flyer left on tables. Singing or not, every soul in the room feels the love.
The Family (Tom Hubbard on bass-background)
This evening’s concert was accompanied by the superb Tom Hubbard on bass and Musical Director Dennis Buck on piano. Mr. Buck, with whom I am unfamiliar, subtly tailors arrangements in service of both composition and artist. He plays with terrific finesse and an ear to wind change.
Sunday May 22, 2016
Photos by Maryann Lopinto Opening: Elizabeth Sullivan