Jeff Harnar Gets Personal, Keeps It Light
Since the mid-'80s, Jeff Harnar has been one of the premiere male vocalists in cabaret music. He has toured around the world with his many themed shows, including tributes to Sammy Cahn, Comden and Green, Hollywood musicals, and the 1959 Broadway Songbook (his birth year), and he recorded four CDs based on his shows.
Along the way, Harnar picked up two MAC Awards, three Bistro Awards, and was the 2012 recipient of The Noel Coward Foundation Cabaret Award.
After a couple of try-outs in the fall, Harnar returns to the New York cabaret scene with his first solo outing in many years, Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?
This show represents a bit of a departure for Harnar. EDGE spoke with him about his career and the new show.
All the fun stuff
EDGE: In your new show, you say you’re trying a lot of new material to see if it fits. How do you think it’s fitting?
Jeff Harnar: I’m going to take one piece of new material out and shift the show around a bit, but I had a great time. There are issues I wanted to raise with humor and it’s about as close to stand-up as I could get through song.
EDGE: It’s been a number of years since you’ve done a solo show in New York. I’m guessing there was a lot of personal transformation going on during that time. What has changed?
Jeff Harnar: I’m sober today. I’ve struggled with all kinds of addictions throughout my life and it had been unmanageable for quite awhile. I wanted to show off my new self-acceptance. I’ve always done songbook shows and this show was about as themeless as I’ve ever been. I wanted to keep it light and funny. And it’s the first time I’ve ever sung about my sexuality on stage.
EDGE: You do keep things very light-even hilarious-during the show, but there are a lot of dark undercurrents going on: dealing with fear of commitment, addictions, psychiatry, broken dreams, loneliness. Was putting this show together a risk for you?
Jeff Harnar: [Laughs] All that fun stuff! Yes, it was a risk, but this whole thing has been so joyful. I’m singing about experiences that I’ve had. I’m hoping that someone will be touched by the songs and the stories behind them, and that the show can be healing in some sense. I keep thinking of what Carrie Fisher said: ’My life has to be funny or it’s true, and that’s not acceptable.’ This show is my truth right now.
A child performer
EDGE: An old friend of yours told me before the show, ’Jeff is America’s better answer to Michael Buble.’ As successful as you’ve been on many levels, do you ever have moments where you say to yourself, ’Man, if only the timing had been different, I could have been selling millions of albums’?
Jeff Harnar: Not so much. I’ve always been fascinated by the eras before, almost to a fault, but I love the era I’m in. We’re losing so many people these days, but I got to meet Sammy Cahn and Comden and Green. I’m grateful to be making a living doing what I do, and being in the same room and on the same stage with all these talented people. This show is the first time I’m doing material from living people who are sometimes in the audience! [Pause]
But I recently got to do an art film, ’The Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree 1951.’ It’s about James Dean the year before he became famous. They used a cut from my Sammy Cahn album and then they asked me to be a nightclub singer in the film. It will be out later this year. So it was nice to have that kind of experience.
EDGE: I was surprised to learn you were a child performer, making money doing jingles and stage work from the age of ten. What are the ups and downs of that kind of early success?
Jeff Harnar: One of the ups was that it was in the ’70s and it was an era where I fit in. I was gay and didn’t even know it, but I found success and affirmation. It was no small thing that my mother took me to auditions for shows. One of the downs was that I wish I’d had more of a sense of gratitude for what it was. Sometimes, if it was just an audition and not a paying gig, I didn’t want to go. But really, the experience was all good.
Making a transition
EDGE: You grew up on 1960s pop music, as demonstrated in your show, but you’ve also been a foremost interpreter of standards. You recently won the 2012 Noel Coward Foundation Cabaret Award. What did that award mean to you?
Jeff Harnar: It’s enormous, what that means to me. This period, when I was stepping away from singing to take care of my own issues, I had the opportunity to help Donald Smith as he made that transition. He was my manager for several years and did so much for me. Well, toward the end of his life, he put my name in for this award, which offered a grant. I would not have been able to do this engagement without that award.
EDGE: I’m so surprised by how easy you make it look, especially when you tackle such lyrically challenging songs like ’Can Can,’ Tom Lehrer’s ’The Elements,’ and Larry Kerchner’s ’What’s Your Phobia?’ How do you approach those challenges?
Jeff Harnar: I learned the elements one at a time, then two in a row, and so forth-basically a line a day was my goal. It took me a month to learn it. I do know the whole song, but we realized half of it is enough for the show! ’ ’Can Can’ has a throughline of sorts: one part of the song deals with animals, then French, then international. And the rhymes are so cleverly constructed. And Larry Kerchner was so great; he allowed me to add lyrics to update it a little.
EDGE: You talk and sing a lot about your love of New York during the show. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the city since your days as a student at NYU?
Jeff Harnar: I first came in 1979. It was like being in a war zone, the city was spiritually bankrupt. In fact, it was bankrupt. The subway was a nightmare. Walking from Times Square to the Actors and Directors Lab was dangerous. Now the city is vibrant and thriving and an attractive destination to come to.
Of course, I do worry that we’re losing some of the things that made us unique as we become more like the mall of America. But overall, I’m thrilled that it’s safe and joyful. And I’m thrilled that we have The Laurie Beechman Theatre and 54 Below and The Metropolitan Room, and we still have the Café Carlyle. I’m not one of those who complain that cabaret is dying.
EDGE: What advice would you give to someone who wants to put together a cabaret show?
Jeff Harnar: Get out and see as much as you can, see what resonates with you. Paint your own canvas with it. What’s so wonderful about cabaret is that it’s just a conversation with the people who are there. That intimacy is becoming much more precious. With technology, people aren’t going out and talking to each other. It’s a unique kind of journey they can’t get anywhere else. And go to Cast Party and get up and sing!
EDGE: I hope this show comes back again and again. What else do you hope to do in the future?
Jeff Harnar: I’m very much a believer in living in the moment because that’s all we have. But I’ve been asked to co-host the Cabaret Convention in the fall with Andrea Marcovicci, and there are other Mabel Mercer Foundation events. And I hope I can do this show in some of the other venues where I’ve performed over the years.
Jeff Harnar’s "Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?" will be at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on Monday, January 28, and Friday, February 8. Go to www.beechmantheatre.com or www.jeffharnar.com for more information.
Watch this YouTube clip with Jeff Harnar: