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