20 Questions With…Michael Feinstein
Date: 13 September 2004
American singer, songwriter & pianist Michael Feinstein – who joins the Singular Sensations season at the Haymarket this week – explains how he got by with a little help from friends Ira Gershwin & Liza Minnelli & withstood heckling from Joan Fontaine.
Michael Feinstein, considered one of the premier contemporary interpreters of the great American Songbook, began playing the piano by ear when he was five and performed at local weddings and parties in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio before moving to Los Angeles, aged 20. It was there that he met his idol, the lyricist Ira Gershwin, to whom he became personal assistant for six years.
After Gershwin’s death in 1983, Feinstein launched his own concert career, helped along by Liza Minnelli, who became a fan after seeing him perform and subsequently held a high-profile party in his honour. An engagement at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, extended from six to 16 weeks, led to his first Broadway show, Isn’t It Romantic in 1986.
Gershwin’s influence provided a base upon which Feinstein not only evolved into a performer, composer and arranger of his own music, but also interpreted the legacies of music legends such as the Gershwins as well as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington and Harry Warren.
Now a four-time Grammy nominee, Feinstein performs all over the US at major concert halls, with symphony orchestras and at intimate jazz clubs and college campuses. He co-owns the popular New York nightclub Feinstein’s at the Regency, where he and other top cabaret artists - such as Steve Tyrell, Barbara Cook, Ann Hampton Callaway and Dame Cleo Laine – regularly perform. Feinstein has also made numerous film and television appearances.
His albums to date include Michael and George: Feinstein Sings Gershwin, Big City Rhythms, Michael Feinstein with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, The Michael Feinstein Anthology and the recent double-CD Romance on Film, Romance on Broadway, featuring fresh renditions of 22 classics such as “The More I See You”, “Something’s Gotta Give”, “Always” and “My Funny Valentine”.
Feinstein now returns to London to take part in the “Singular Sensations” season of music and cabaret at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, where his limited engagement runs from 13 to 25 September 2004.
Date & place of birth
Born in Columbus, Ohio, on 7 September 1956.
Lives now in…
I am bi-coastal. I have a house in Los Angeles, a city I’ve lived in for 27 years, and I’ve also lived in New York since 1993 – I have a brownstone town house on the east side there.
I was given a few lessons when I was five, but I jettisoned them after a month’s worth because I was playing by ear, and my parents miraculously allowed me to pursue it on my own. I was playing in restaurants when I was 15 or 16, while I was still at high school. I didn’t go to college, but started playing in piano bars at the age of 17. I’ve never formally learnt to read music – I read enough music to be dangerous! I can read a melody line. But, for example, when I played the Rhapsody in Blue, I had to learn the original score – I had to laboriously read the music, and as I deciphered it, I memorised it, and learnt it the hard way. If I need to learn something I can, but it just takes me a lot of time whereas other people can sit down and play it!
First big break
I suppose it was meeting Ira Gershwin, because that led to so many other things. I had never dreamt I would meet an idol – somebody who wrote the songs that I loved. It was an extraordinary experience. I was 20 years old, and we were introduced through June Levant, the widow of the great wit, author and pianist Oscar.
I had met June first through a series of coincidences. I was browsing for some Levant records in an old record store, and the owner didn’t have the album I was looking for, but he did have a whole bunch of private recordings that had belonged to Levant. I bought them, and at the time I was working as a piano salesman, and I got June’s number through a gentleman I was working at the piano store with. She invited me over – really with the intention of getting those records back! She hadn’t known that they were gone – it turns out she’d designated some things to be sold and some things to be moved to her new home when she downsized, and some of the wrong things got sold. When I bought them, I had no idea that they would lead me to her. And when I walked through the door of her apartment, she was first of all visibly shocked that I was so young, and that I knew so much about her husband!
Soon after, June was having lunch with Leonore Gershwin, Ira’s wife, and was telling her about me – how knowledgeable I was and that I had catalogued some of the recordings she had. Leo told her to ask me to call her, as she also had some stuff that she needed organising and didn’t know what to do with. So I did, and we made arrangements for the following week.
I went over and just as I was arriving, she pulled into the driveway in a 1964 silver Rolls Royce. She greeted me, and we walked in and there was Ira Gershwin sitting at a table. I was very nervous and started shaking, so she offered me a glass of water. He was autographing an album of private demo recordings he’d made with Kurt Weill and Burton Lane, and I said, “I have that record!” And he looked at me with the most perplexed expression – “You have this record?” Quite seriously, I was the first person outside of a friend or relative who he met who had it. He couldn’t conceive that anybody could want recordings of him singing these demos.
Then she took me to this little closet that was floor to ceiling with records, and asked me to catalogue them. I started the next day – I got a little table and filing cards and started annotating all the information on the records and created a filing system. Ira had been in a deep depression following the death of his dear friend Eddie Carter, but after about a month, Mrs Gershwin called me aside when she was saw what was happening to him. She told me I’d brought a new life to her husband, and she said, “I want to open up every closet in this house, and keep you busy cataloguing everything and keeping Ira happy.” I was also his companion, and his eyes and ears to the outside world. It was a relationship of great trust that happened very quickly.
I expected to spend the rest of my life immersed in Gershwin. But six years and one month later, Ira die. We were all bereft, and Leo fired me in a fit of anger, after I refused to pull out of a tribute concert to Ira that she had originally sanctioned but then decided wasn’t appropriate. So I went back to completely concentrating on playing in the clubs, and during that period, I was discovered by Liza Minnelli, who provided my next big break.
Career highlights to date
In February 1985, Liza threw a party for me at the Mondrian Hotel, and it was the real springboard that first brought me national attention. As a result, I was offered an engagement to play New York’s Algonquin Hotel in January 1986, and my debut there was very exciting. The season was extended from four weeks to 16 weeks, and it catapulted me to another level. Prior to that, I was basically doing piano bars, though I had done the Plush Rooms in San Francisco in 1985, which was the first time I did an actual show as opposed to a piano bar. In 1986, I also came to London to appear at the Ritz for a month, playing in the dining room. They promised there would be no service during the show, but these silver trolleys with huge trays on them would be wheeled around clinking and clunking throughout! While I was in London, I did a cameo performance as a piano player in The Two Mrs Grenvilles, a TV movie filmed here with Claudette Colbert and Ann Margaret; and I also met Evelyn Laye for the first time, who became a very dear friend.
In July 1987, I was offered a gig at the Hollywood Bowl, and played in front of 17,000 people! In 1988, I did my first solo show on Broadway – I opened at the Lyceum Theatre and extended through to the end of June, closed for the summer, then came back in the fall to the Booth Theatre.
Rosemary Clooney – she was my second mother. I’ve always been passionate about her music, and then I met her and fell in love with her, as did everyone. She made me a part of her family. Her guidance and influence were supremely important to me. Three years ago, we appeared together at the Royal Festival Hall – it was her last time in London. Of course, I love Liza, too.
Favourite musical or songwriters
I’m going to name some of the more obscure ones, as they’re important to me and maybe somebody will get an idea to look into their catalogues. Harry Warren, he was a close friend and crucial to American popular song. He had an amazing output, but his catalogue is largely un-mined because he was so prolific. He’s one of my musical heroes. David Raksin - a great, great film composer who has recently died - wrote a lot of songs that have all but disappeared. Johnny Green, who wrote “Body and Soul”, is another great writer. And Burton Lane – I’ve done two albums of his music, and in my life he’s as significant to me as Gershwin.
What was it like working with Ira Gershwin?
Ira taught me not only about interpreting the songs, but also brought back that era so vividly to me as he told me stories about George and their associates. It was an education I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. I also met all of his friends and compatriots who were still alive – Comden and Green, Lauren Bacall, Andre Kostelanetz, Leonard Bernstein, Harry Warren, Burton Lane, Arthur Schwartz, Lehman Engel – one after another.
My favourite screen musical is Bandwagon, because of the songs. On stage, I suppose I’m rather boring in that warhorses like Gypsy and Guys and Dolls are among my favourites. I also love the score for Little Me. And Sweeney Todd is another favourite – I’m going to see that one in the West End while I’m here.
If I had to choose a favourite, it would have to be “Our Love is Here to Stay”, because of the story behind it. It was George’s last song, and it was completed by Ira, who wrote the lyric of the verse for George: “The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend/the world and all it’s capers and how it all began/nothing seems to be lasting, but that isn’t our affair./ We’ve got something permanent, I mean in the way we care.”
What would you advise the government – British or American - to secure the future of theatre?
I think they would do well to simply look at the clinical proof that the arts enrich our lives and have a therapeutic effect, the bureaucrats need to understand that it’s not a waste of money to support the arts. In the States, we have an administration that is incrementally destroying not just the US but also the planet, and therefore the arts are at the very bottom of the barrel, and it’s a desperately sad situation. We have to keep reminding people that our heritage is entwined with music – as Irving Berlin said, “Songs make history and history makes songs.”
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Maybe Casanova – because I’ve never had a life like that. It would be interesting to experience the frenzied abandon of such sexual freedom!
Favourite holiday destinations
Australia is one of my favourite places – I’ve been about half a dozen times. It’s 30 years behind the times, it feels, in all the ways that we long for: an idyllic past that maybe never existed, but in an illusory sense, it still seems to exist there. Though Australians have many problems, too, the place gives the illusion of a halcyon past.
I don’t read much fiction – I usually read self-help books. The Four Agreements is wonderful. They’re simple, fundamental axioms to live by. If I ever feel befuddled in any way, I look at any page of that book and it gives me inspiration. But if I just want a good read, I’ll open a volume of Dickens.
Favourite after-show haunts
There are no after-show haunts in LA and no real show business watering hole. Here in London, it’s Joe Allen’s. Jimmy, the pianist there, knows all the songs and plays all the right chords – he plays what Harry Warren used to call shoulder chords, because when you play them, you can’t help but move your shoulders! In New York, I like to go to the Bemelmans Bar of the Café Carlyle, to hear Lostin Paris, a marvellous piano player. And on Monday and Tuesday, I go to the New York Times Bar and Grill, to hear Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks, a Twenties band that play village music brilliantly, and are absolutely authentic. All the greatest musicians in New York like to go there.
Abe.com, the bookfinder website – you can find any book in the world.
If you hadn’t become a performer, what would you have done professionally?
I would have been an archivist or a music librarian.
What, if anything, does it mean to you to be performing in the West End?
I previously played at the Comedy Theatre in 1995 for a month, which was wonderful, and I’ve also supported Liza Minnelli at the Royal Albert Hall in 1986 and recorded a concert for video at the Dominion. It’s very imposing to play in the West End, because for me it is the beginning of theatre. It is the genesis of so much of what I’m all about. It’s scary, because I want so much for it to be good. And there are so many ghosts of the people who were here long before us, and as my eyes see the same things they saw. I always have a great feeling not only of nostalgia but also of yearning – of wanting to experience that other time. Somehow in bringing through the essence of the art of another time and sharing it again – because the greatest art is timeless – I hope that what I do in some way contributes to the great sense of the continuum of theatre I feel here. The Haymarket is so elegant, it makes me want to wear tails, though I won’t – but it’s very elegant, in the most comfortable way. It’s plush but inviting and intimate – and it’s run by a crook – Albert Crook!
How would you rate the state of cabaret in the US & the UK?
The state of cabaret is what Kaufman and Hart used to describe theatre as – A Fabulous Invalid. It’s always dying but it always survives. When I played the Algonquin, I was credited with reviving a particular sort of cabaret. From my perspective, it’s much weaker now than it was 20 years ago, yet there’s a proliferation of recorded music now. Thanks to CDs and the Internet, there’s more of a multi-cultural exchange - a sense of community where you’re able to hear a CD before someone comes to town and get to know their work, so there’s an ability for the music to find an audience as there wasn’t before. These possibilities for instant global communication of music and sharing it give me hope.
Clubs come and go in New York very, very quickly, so I’m very grateful that my club, Feinstein’s at the Regency, has sustained – it’s now in its fifth year. I am a 50-50 partner with the people who own the hotel. But I don’t do the bookings, because I didn’t want to put myself in the position where friends would have to ask me to appear there. I usually appear myself there every December, and it’s just about the only place I still perform that intimately now.
How different will the Singular Sensations show be to your previous shows here?
For one thing, I’ll be working with five-piece band. All of other engagements here, save for the one-night at the Dominion that was recorded for television, have been solo. So this gives me the opportunity to get up from the piano and do different material in addition to doing the usual things. I’m very excited – it won’t just be ballads that I love to sing, because I’m at heart a balladeer, but also some swing songs and a few more contemporary things.
What’s the funniest/oddest/strangest thing that’s happened during your previous performances?
Probably the most awful thing that happened to me was at the Plush Room in San Francisco when the veteran actress Joan Fontaine attended a New Year’s Eve show - they’re always difficult for performers, because people are drunk and having a great time and the objective is to make sure they do. Anyway, Joan was sitting in the front, and I was quite excited. She was very grand, dressed beautifully, and kept gesturing to people – it was like she was part of the show. And she was drinking. After a while, she became less effusive, but then, about three quarters of the way through, she started bubbling – like a teapot, and mumbling and murmuring under her breath. Then she started erupting and started saying things, first in a stage whisper, then loudly, “You’re terrible, you can’t sing, you have no talent!” She was screaming and heckling me! It went from this joy of “Oh my God, it’s Joan Fontaine”, to “OH MY GOD!” It was one of the most awful experiences I’ve ever had, to be heckled by this legendary Hollywood star!
Michael Feinstein appears at the West End's Theatre Royal Haymarket, as part of the Singular Sensations season, from 13 to 25 September 2004 only.
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