Michael Fe­in­stein brings Broad­way to… Radlett

He’s the leg­endary singer fa­mous for his in­ter­pre­ta­tions of clas­sics from the Great Amer­i­can Song­book. So what’s he do­ing in Hert­ford­shire, asks JohnNathan

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

FOR MANY mu­sic lovers, Michael Fe­in­stein is the great­est per­former of the Great Amer­i­can Song­book singing to­day. For the past 25 years, his ac­claimed record­ings have pre­served and re­freshed that wellloved cat­a­logue of num­bers writ­ten be­tween the 1920s and the 1960s. His New York club is prob­a­bly the classi­est at­trac­tion on the city’s cabaret cir­cuit and next year he will re­turn to Broad­way with his own show. But be­fore that Broad­way date, the five-times Grammy-nom­i­nated artist and his pi­ano ar­rive at the slightly less show­biz des­ti­na­tion of… Radlett. The Radlett Cen­tre to be pre­cise, where next week Fe­in­stein will be warm­ing up be­fore a con­cert at the Lon­don Pal­la­dium a few days later.

Audiences at both venues can ex­pect clas­sics from greats such as Irv­ing Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and, prob­a­bly most im­por­tantly for Fe­in­stein, the Gersh­wins. It was as a young per­former that Fe­in­stein struck up a friend­ship with the lyric-writ­ing half of pos­si­bly one of the great­est mu­si­cal part­ner­ship of all time, Ge­orge and Ira Gersh­win.

“Ira ex­panded my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of mu­sic,” says Fe­in­stein, sit­ting in Hamp­stead’s New End The­atre. It’s not the first time the the­atre’s owner/artis­tic di­rec­tor Brian Daniels has pro­duced Fe­in­stein in Lon­don and the New End is even get­ting a cut of the Pal­la­dium box of­fice, for which Daniels has is­sued state­ment ex­press­ing his “im­mense” grat­i­tude.

“But Ira also ex­panded my un­der­stand­ing of lyrics,” con­tin­ues Fe­in­stein, “and also un­der­stand­ing of their in­spi­ra­tion and craft. He opened up a world to me.”

It seems an un­likely friend­ship. On the one hand, a rel­a­tively un­known pi­ano player in his twen­ties ply­ing his trade in the cock­tail bars of Los An­ge­les, and on the other, an age­ing gi­ant of Amer­i­can mu­sic-mak­ing, the man who put words to They Can’t Take That Away

From Me and S’Won­der­ful. It came about when Fe­in­stein was spot­ted in 1977 by the widow of Os­car Lev­ant — the pi­anist and ac­tor — who in­tro­duced the young per­former to Gersh­win.

“The first thing I think of when I pic­ture Ira is that he was di­min­ished phys­i­cally, but very sharp men­tally,” re­mem­bers Fe­in­stein. “He was very alive in­side that old body of his. And very ex­cited to spend time with a young per­son who spoke his lan­guage.

“I was so well ac­quainted with Gersh­win mu­sic by the time I met Ira, he was sur­prised by how much I knew. One day we had a gen­tle dis­pute about the date a show occurred. He said: ‘Oh no, I re­mem­ber it clearly. It was Ethel Mer­man, it was Girl Crazy so the year was 1930,’ and I said: ‘Ac­tu­ally it was 1931’, and I got a ref­er­ence book to show him I was right. Ira said: ‘Well, you have an ad­van­tage over me. I’ve only lived my life. You’ve thor­oughly re­searched it.’”

It was a pe­riod in Fe­in­stein’s life that be­came even more in­flu­en­tial when he met Ira’s neigh­bour, the singer/ac­tress Rose­mary Clooney — Ge­orge’s aunt. She and Fe­in­stein be­came so close, he called her his Bev­erly Hills mother; she called him her sixth kid.

“She was my favourite fe­male singer and one of the great in­ter­preters of any kind of song,” says Fe­in­stein. “That friend­ship was an end­less mas­ter­class. We did a show to­gether and she gave me a plaque that was on her dress­ing-room door when she was at the Pal­la­dium with Bing Crosby. So I will cer­tainly be think­ing of her and prob­a­bly speak­ing of her that night be­cause of that mem­ory.”

It will not be Fe­in­stein’s first night at the Pal­la­dium. That par­tic­u­lar de­but occurred in 1988 when he shared billing with Julio Igle­sias, the Golden Girls and co­me­dian Jackie Ma­son in a Royal Va­ri­ety Per­for­mance in front of the Queen Mother. It was the first time Ma­son had ap­peared in the UK. Fe­in­stein re­mem­bers talk­ing to the co­me­dian back­stage.

“He said to me: ‘I don’t care if I’m a hit. I’m al­ready a hit.’” And when Fe­in­stein told him how ex­cited he was to be play­ing at the Pal­la­dium in front of the Queen Mother, Ma­son said: “Ha! It’s a big deal to sing for some yenta with a crown?”

Fe­in­stein tells the story in a per­fect “Noo Yoik” Jackie Ma­son ac­cent. And with comic tim­ing that is as good as Ma­son’s too. That pat­ter, the abil­ity to en­ter­tain be­tween songs, comes from all the years play­ing pi­ano bars when Fe­in­stein was start­ing out. It was there he learned not only to de­liver a song, but how to keep the au­di­ence en­gaged be­tween the num­bers. For live per­form­ers, it is an abil­ity that sep­a­rates the men from the boys — and the women from the girls.

“So many artists who are record­ing suc­cesses don’t know how to per­form live,” says the 53-year-old singer. “I re­mem­ber when Whit­ney Hus­ton came to do her first live show in New York it was a dis­as­ter. She ba­si­cally just stood there and didn’t know how to do much else. And then she was groomed and learned


and be­came quite adept. Some learn and some don’t.” If Hous­ton gets faint praise from Fe­in­stein, oth­ers get down-right de­ri­sion. Es­pe­cially those who think they can get away with bad ver­sions of great songs, and es­pe­cially if those songs are from the Amer­i­can song­book. “There are many peo­ple who don’t sing them well,” he says, “but I won’t men­tion Rod Ste­wart.”

But is there not a dan­ger that a mu­si­cal tal­ent such as Fe­in­stein’s might be bet­ter di­rected to­wards new mu­sic in­stead of pre­serv­ing the past? He an­swers the im­per­ti­nent ques­tion head on and with pas­sion.

“I am a mu­si­cal in­no­va­tor.” he says. “It’s not pos­si­ble to keep the songs fresh and glow­ing for a present-day au­di­ence un­less the mu­sic has a present-day sen­si­bil­ity. So if it ap­pears to be sub­li­mat­ing tal­ent, I un­der­stand what you’re say­ing. But it’s fiendishly dif­fi­cult to in­ter­pret th­ese songs well. And I do in­ter­pret them. I play them vastly dif­fer­ently from the way they were writ­ten. I change the chord struc­ture, the phras­ing, the key and the rou­tines. That’s what makes them fresh again.

“Some peo­ple say deroga­to­rily that I’m a tra­di­tion­al­ist. But a lot of times they are ig­no­rant about mu­sic and what I’m do­ing. My great­est de­sire when singing th­ese songs is to bring through the in­ten­tions of the writ­ers. And al­though some­times I’ll do very dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions to achieve that, the bot­tom line is that I un­der­stand the point of view of th­ese songs. And as far as I’m con­cerned, I can’t do bet­ter than that.” Michael Fe­in­stein sings at the Radlett Cen­tre on Oc­to­ber 31 (www.radlett­cen­tre.co.uk) and at the Pal­la­dium on Novem­ber 1 (www.the-lon­don-pal­la­dium.com)

Michael Fe­in­stein ben­e­fited hugely from friend­ships with Ira Gersh­win and singer Rose­mary Clooney, the aunt of Ge­orge Clooney

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