Fly Her to the Moon :: Jennifer Sheehan Explores the Cosmos with New Show
Growing up in St. Louis, Jennifer Sheehan frequently stargazed-quite literally-during family drives along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Those memories, along with her endless curiosity, have led the celebrated singer to the creation of her new show, "Stardust: A Night in the Cosmos."
A hallmark of Sheehan's shows is the research she puts into them, and the knowledge she imparts among a cornucopia of songs brought to glorious life through her warm, all-embracing vocal style, which has already earned her several prestigious awards and notices.
Sheehan brings her latest show to 54 Below on May 9 and 20, along with her band, led by music director James Followell.
Sheehan admits that she was always singing and dancing and making up plays as a child-and before long studied piano, dance, and voice-but she is the only one in her family who has gone on to build a professional career as a performer.
"But my father's mother was an actress in St. Louis, and she also played the violin, sang, and was a seamstress," Sheehan told me. "She was part of the Mummers, and she acted in several of Tennessee Williams' early plays. Only recently, we unearthed some letters he wrote to the director of the company, and he favorably mentioned her several times in the letters. She played four lead roles!"
At just nine years old, Sheehan was singing Cole Porter songs at retirement homes around St. Louis. When she was about thirteen, a cabaret singer was coming to town and Sheehan's mother decided to take her to the show. The singer was Andrea Marcovicci.
"I immediately fell in love with the whole medium," she said. "We were in the balcony but it felt like she was singing right to us." Sheehan immediately started listening to CDs, and when Marcovicci came back a year later to teach a master class, Sheehan jumped at the opportunity.
"I was by far the youngest one there," she recalled. "I think I skipped my geometry class every day to get there. I was very nervous, but I sang 'The Way You Look Tonight.' Andrea asked to see me after class. She encouraged me to start reading about music and building up a repertoire, believing that I could really do this!"
While continuing to do concerts around St. Louis as a teenager, she had also become a competitive pianist and was in the training program at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Sheehan eventually attended New York's prestigious Juilliard School as a voice major, but she described the audition as almost an afterthought. "It was the last application I filled out," she said. "It was a long process and very stressful. I submitted a CD. I was speechless when I got accepted."
While a senior at Juilliard, she received the Margaret Whiting Award from the Johnny Mercer Foundation. Since her graduation in 2007, she has also won the Noel Coward Foundation Competition Award, the Dorothy Loudon Foundation's Dorothy Loudon Award, the Julie Wilson Award, and, last year, the Donald F. Smith Award, named after the founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation and the Cabaret Convention.
Despite all of that, Sheehan insists that the real pressure comes every time she goes onto a stage. "I want to feel that I have shared something and given the performance I wanted to give," she said. "But I'm very grateful when someone recognizes my work, because it's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears."
Sheehan has also been a featured vocalist for The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, recorded "You Made Me Love You," an album based on her first New York cabaret show, and tours nationally. This winter, she was featured on PBS's pilot, "66th and Broadway," a show she hopes will continue. "It's up close and personal, and a needed platform," she said. "It was wonderful, but I'm not sure of the future of it."
"Stardust: A Night in the Cosmos" follows her acclaimed show from a couple of years ago, "I Know a Place," a thorough retrospective of the varied music from the '60s.
Not one to shy away from any genre, the new show offers an even greater variety, featuring a little jazz (Sergio Mendes' "So Many Stars"), a little blues with masterful guitarist Steven Bargonetti (Joni Mitchell's "Moon at My Window"), a little glam rock (David Bowie's "Space Oddity"), and classics (Harburg and Lane's "Old Devil Moon").
"I've always tried to have shows that are musically diverse," Sheehan said. "It's more interesting as an artist to stretch myself in different directions. And this subject matter has attracted every genre of music."
Sheehan was inspired by Neil de Grasse Tyson's new show, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," as well as her own fondness for the mysteries of the universe. "I've always been fascinated by the night sky and space, and keep myself informed about what's going on in space exploration," she explained. "And we fall in love under the stars; it is the backdrop of romance. We look to the sky for answers, comfort, and solace."
Still, Sheehan wanted to emphasize that the show has lots of humor along with the fascination. In fact, Sheehan tells hilarious and wondrous stories of the Voyager, which continues to sail out of our solar system, with its time capsule about our life on Earth among its contents. And Sheehan isn't shy with the dance, either, effectively highlighting her celestial moves on a few numbers.
Sheehan hopes to continue to perform concerts, theater, and do recordings for the foreseeable future. "I really want to do a CD of this show," she confided.
"This show has been kind of a spiritual experience for me," Sheehan added. "It's healthy to be able to look up and be a part of something so much bigger than myself."
Jennifer Sheehan appears at 54 Below on May 9 and 20, 9:30. Go to www.54below.com for details or call 646-476-3551 for tickets and information.