Bring on the bal­lads

One of Amer­i­can mu­si­cal theatre’s most nat­u­ral per­form­ers re­veals his plans for a pres­ence in Lon­don


‘ITHOUGHT, 20 years ago, that all my au­di­ences would be dead by now.” Amer­i­can song­ster Michael Fe­in­stein af­fects sur­prise that he is still pack­ing them in with tra­di­tional show-tune ma­te­rial. He is in Lon­don to fi­nalise ar­range­ments for the launch of what amounts to his own brand at Lon­don’s in­ti­mate Shaw Theatre, close to the spank­ing new St Pan­cras Sta­tion. Af­ter giv­ing six con­certs at the venue in Jan­uary, he will be­come the dis­creet host for Fe­in­stein’s at the Shaw, a range of el­e­gant mu­si­cal sea­sons each year, star­ring guest artists of the cal­i­bre of Ute Lem­per and Joan Collins.

The idea is based on its New York coun­ter­part, Fe­in­stein’s at Loews Re­gency Ho­tel. Opened by Rose­mary Clooney eight years ago, this has be­come a pop­u­lar draw at which Cleo Laine, Michel Le­grand, Chita Rivera and Bar­bara Cook have de­lighted a dis­crim­i­nat­ing clien­tele.

Softly spo­ken Fe­in­stein is one of the fore­most in­ter­preters of Amer­i­can song. He ac­com­pa­nies him­self un­ob­tru­sively and skil­fully on the pi­ano (though he never had a classical key­board train­ing), and tilts his head dis­arm­ingly to­wards his au­di­ence as, in a clear, well-mod­u­lated voice, he draws on a seem­ingly lim­it­less trea­sure-trove of bal­lads and show tunes, both familiar and ne­glected.

His knowl­edge of Amer­i­can mu­si­cal theatre is en­cy­clopaedic. More­over, he gives the im­pres­sion that he could pick up the phone and have al­most any­one in the Broad­way pan­theon say “yes” to join­ing him on stage.

“Once things are un­der way at the Shaw, I’ll come over to par­tic­i­pate and be a pres­ence. It’s one of the ways to keep what I love alive, and I en­joy it. There’s so much mu­sic to­day that’s about scream­ing and the ‘X-Fac­tor’. I’m a bal­ladeer at heart.”

And in­deed, when he de­liv­ers the words and mu­sic of the Gersh­wins, Cole Porter, Irv­ing Ber­lin or Jule Styne, we are trans­ported back to a golden era.

Michael Fe­in­stein was born in Colum­bus, Ohio, which he de­scribes as “not ex­actly a hot­bed of mu­si­cal ac­tiv­ity”. When the great pi­anist Vladimir Horowitz played at Colum­bus in the 1970s, “it was the only hall, in an oth­er­wise sold-out tour, that was only three-quar­ters full”.

Fe­in­stein’s par­ents were born and raised there, and met through B’nai B’rith shows at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­tre. His fa­ther sang in a bar­ber­shop quar­tet, his mother tap-danced, and young Michael be­gan hum­ming songs as a baby. At five, he started the pi­ano, de­vel­op­ing a keen ear (and me­mory) for the Broad­way songs he heard on the ra­dio, at the movies, and at small-town lo­cal shows with quaint ti­tles like Sing Along with Mitch. “This,” he re­calls, “was the mu­sic I later em­braced.”

Mov­ing to Los An­ge­les in his early 20s, Fe­in­stein met June Le­vant, widow of Os­car Le­vant — the lugubri­ous, wise­crack­ing movie star, bril­liant pi­anist, and close as­so­ci­ate of Ge­orge Gersh­win. She in­tro­duced the young Fe­in­stein to one of his idols: Ge­orge Gersh­win’s brother and lyri­cist, Ira. Michael prac­ti­cally lived with Ira Gersh­win (who out­lived Ge­orge by 46 years) and his wife Leonore for the last six years of Ira’s life, help­ing him cat­a­logue the brothers’ ar­chive. From this, many un­pub­lished Gersh­win songs were un­cov­ered, which Fe­in­stein added to his reper­toire.

Af­ter Ira died, Fe­in­stein ex­tended his pub­lic ap­pear­ances, de­vel­op­ing from night­club singer to stage per­former. “If I only per­formed for peo­ple who were there for nos­tal­gia, my au­di­ences would have been long gone,” he says. “So there’s clearly a gen­er­a­tional thing that hap­pens with this mu­sic as it’s passed on. It some­times doesn’t come to peo­ple till they’re in their 30s. They dis­cover it through jazz. It’s played in movies when pro­duc­ers want to evoke emo­tions, and in TV com­mer­cials. The songs sur­vive, but peo­ple don’t know where they came from.”

He is much more up­beat about this than some oth­ers in the busi­ness: “I met [film di­rec­tor] Stan­ley Do­nen at a con­cert se­ries when the New York Phil­har­monic played live, as back­ing to clips from his films. Up came Sin­gin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly. Stan­ley turned to me and said: ‘Michael, it’s all gone. No­body knows or cares any more.’ He’s right if you look at the main­stream. But those con­certs sold out!”

Re­fer­ring to the Volk­swa­gen Golf ad on Bri­tish TV that recre­ates that fa­mous rain dance with mod­ern gy­ra­tions, Fe­in­stein re­veals that “in Amer­ica, they went fur­ther. They had a go­rilla do­ing the song. When Kelly’s widow tried to claim roy­al­ties, the lawyers said: ‘It’s a go­rilla. It has noth­ing to do with Gene Kelly.’ She didn’t get any roy­al­ties…

“Younger peo­ple are com­ing to my con­certs, but of course it’s not main­stream. The ex­cep­tions are when some­one like Rod Ste­wart, or Sting, or Elvis Costello, de­cides to give old songs their bless­ing. Rod is mainly fo­cused on mak­ing each record a hit, but with Sting or Costello you have peo­ple with great mu­si­cal minds. They ap­pre­ci­ate what went be­fore. Sting has even recorded [16th-cen­tury English com­poser] John Dow­land, and they res­onate with that ma­te­rial. Now, via the in­ter­net, younger peo­ple can ac­cess this vast source of ear­lier pop­u­lar song as never be­fore.”

Fe­in­stein rates our au­di­ences above those in his own coun­try. “Bri­tish au­di­ences lis­ten dif­fer­ently, and they are more at­tuned to lyrics. I think it’s due to a the­atri­cal tra­di­tion, of know­ing you are go­ing to a space where you’re go­ing to be fo­cused and pay at­ten­tion. From my lim­ited per­spec­tive, au­di­ences here still have a col­lec­tive agree­ment of deco­rum. In Amer­ica, short at­ten­tion span has per­vaded the theatre. It’s a dan­ger­ous and un­for­tu­nate by-prod­uct of the mu­sic chan­nel MTV. That chan­nel pro­motes many good things, like ac­cep­tance of mi­nori­ties, but its fast cut­ting has cre­ated two gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple un­able to con­cen­trate.

“When I do a TV show in the States, they say: ‘We want an up-tempo song, max­i­mum two-and-a-half min­utes.’ I’m for­bid­den to do a bal­lad. They’re con­vinced peo­ple would switch to an­other chan­nel. It’s mad­ness. That’s the true legacy of MTV.”

But Fe­in­stein has the free­dom to in­dulge in the thing MTV could never get their fast-spin­ning heads round: the mak­ing of a CD ded­i­cated to leisurely, ro­man­tic bal­lads by one of the great­est and least pub­li­cised song­writ­ers in Amer­i­can mu­sic, Harry War­ren. Fe­in­stein has for­gone his own key­board sup­port and brought in the leg­endary, blind, Bat­tersea-born jazz pi­anist Ge­orge Shear­ing to cush­ion his sen­si­tively ar­tic­u­lated lyrics with sub­tle, in­ge­nious ac­com­pa­ni­ments, in­clud­ing fleet­ing ref­er­ences to com­posers from Bach to Rach­mani­nov.

“We’ve called the album Hope­less Ro­man­tics be­cause that’s what we are. At an age when oth­ers have thrown in the towel, Ge­orge is al­ways find­ing new ways to re­spect­fully dress up a clas­sic tune.” Th­ese in­clude the stan­dards At Last, Septem­ber In The Rain, and I Only Have Eyes For You.

“Harry was born Sal­va­tore Guaragna in Brook­lyn. I met him through Ira Gersh­win, and he be­came an­other men­tor. He loved Puc­cini; his own vo­cal lines are long and lan­guid, like Puc­cini’s. Ev­ery­one knows his tunes from the mu­si­cal 42nd Street, but he him­self re­mained ob­scure. Of­fi­cials at the Academy Awards once turned him away, even though he was there to re­ceive an Os­car, be­cause he ‘didn’t look like any­body’. My favourite story is of how, hav­ing fallen out with Irv­ing Ber­lin, he heard on the ra­dio that the Al­lies had bombed Ger­many. Harry rang a friend to say: ‘They’ve bombed the wrong Ber­lin.’” Michael Fe­in­stein is at the Shaw Theatre, Lon­don (tel: 0870 033 2600), from Jan­uary 6-11; the CD, Hope­less Ro­man­tics, with Ge­orge Shear­ing, is out on the Con­cord la­bel

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