November 3, 2023
EDGE Interview: Broadway's Sally Mayes Returns to Cabaret with Boston Show
John Amodeo READ TIME: 7 MIN.
"I'm living my best life right now," proclaims Tony-Award nominee actor and recording artist Sally Mayes. "I'm the laziest gal in town these days, so I don't take any jobs that I don't want to do. I just want to sing my stuff. When you are doing what you want to do for as long as I have, you have to lay it out in a way that makes you happy and makes your family happy." Mayes, who has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, and in cabaret rooms and concert halls, has reached a point in her career where she can call the shots. "Now I'm wearing all these hats: directing and songwriting," says Mayes. "I'm working with my friend Scott Davis on something called "Indigo" that might make it to Broadway someday."
Mayes, a native of Livingston, Texas, made her Broadway debut in 1989 in a short-lived Cy Coleman musical, "Welcome to the Club." Though it closed after only 12 performances, it gave Mayes the power anthem "In the Name of Love," which she later recorded on "Unsung Musicals," produced by Bruce Kimmel on the Varese Sarabande Label.
Her performance in "Welcome to the Club" not only garnered her a Theater World Award, but it also led to her getting cast in the Maltby and Shire Off-Broadway revue "Closer Than Ever," which ran for 312 performances, and where Mayes created a sensation with her tour-de-force performance of "Miss Byrd." Variety said at the time, "The top delight, and not at all rueful, is Sally Mayes singing 'Miss Byrd.'" Rex Reed gushed, "My favorite is Sally Mayes, a huggable doll of femininity."
Mayes will once again perform "Miss Byrd" and a collection of her favorite songs all gems when she makes her Boston cabaret debut in "An Evening with Sally Mayes," with musical director Alex Rybeck on Friday, November 10, 2023, at Club Café's Moonshine Room. (For ticket information, follow this link.
Throughout Mayes' active theater career, she mixed in cabaret and concert performances, as well as making recordings. Her theater roles struck a wide range of characters, from the coquette Ilona in the 1993 Broadway revival of "She Loves Me," for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and the sultry Mae West in a national tour of "Dirty Blonde" to the maternal roles of Mrs. MacAfee in the 1995 television movie version of "Bye, Bye Birdie," and Aunt Corene in the 2003 Broadway production of "Urban Cowboy."
And as broad as her theater roles were, her cabaret, concert, and recording endeavors allow her to perform even more broadly, exploring the genres of jazz, pop, country, and R & B, as well as story songs.
New York Times cabaret critic Stephen Holden wrote in 2001, "There is hardly a cabaret performer in New York who couldn't learn something from Sally Mayes. The plucky platinum-haired singer and actress embodies a hard-shelled professionalism that is too often missing from the nightclub stage. Alternately sparkly and brassy, and exuding a determined can-do energy, Ms. Mayes often suggests a contemporary cabaret descendant of Ginger Rogers."
And lately, she's begun writing her own songs, enabling her to bring her own voice to the stage.
As much as Mayes has enjoyed her cabaret and concert performing, theater ("and life") took over, and there was a long period of time where she hadn't been performing in clubs and concert halls. But that recently changed. "Now, I want to sing again," declares Mayes. "I want to do songs I've written. I want to do more story songs."
Mayes has even mapped out a plan that includes getting back into the cabaret circuit in New York, Boston, and elsewhere. "The first show I'll do in New York will be a teaser–a little tease of everything that's coming. And Boston will be the same–a hodge-podge of old and new," hints Mayes. "The second one will be Broadway, the third will be jazz and American Songbook, and the fourth one will be originals and story songs...and a little country."
Mayes feels these shows can be easily tailored for her audiences. When she does shows in Florida for older audiences, she will do her jazz and American Songbook standards; for concerts at colleges and universities, she'll feature her Broadway repertoire; and when she plays cabaret clubs, she'll pull out her story songs and original songs.
While Mayes' Boston show will be in the same vein as the preceding New York show, Mayes warns, "It won't be the same. There are story songs in the show, yes. Right now, there aren't any from 'The Story Hour,' but I'm not done yet. I've put some originals of mine into the set. No one will be disappointed in the story ratio. 'Miss Byrd' is in there, and a song by my friend Scott Evan Davis. Yeah, you're going to be happy. I promise. I have some beautiful arrangements from [former musical directors] Patrick Brady and Tedd Firth, a huge massing of material, a lot of songs I haven't done in a while."
Mayes' past shows, many of which she has recorded, have explored the songbooks of different composers such as Dorothy Fields and Comden and Green. In her show, "Boys and Girls Like You and Me," she uses songs cut from Broadway shows to explore the relationships of her life, and her Valentine show is filled with romantic standards. But the one that stands above the rest is "The Story Hour," which is a collection of story songs that get right down deep into the heart of humanity.
"I had a say in all my albums, but 'The Story Hour' was really me," confides Mayes. "I was very much in charge of that, with Patrick Brady as a brilliant collaborator. Patrick was my music director and partner for more than 20 years before he left the business. I was his muse, and he was mine. So, when people tell me 'The Story Hour' is their favorite, I'm so delighted."
Watch Sally Mayes sing "I'm Still Here" from "Follies"
Story songs are integral to Mayes' singing career and seem to come naturally for her. "I have an ease that comes from being able to sit and talk to the audience. It's in my wheelhouse, and I enjoy it," shares Mayes. "When I get in front of the audience, I am so comfortable there. I'm more comfortable on a stage telling a story than I am in my own home. I love telling stories about my life, my career.
But I may have to lower a few keys because everybody does as they get older. I'm 64 now. I do belt, though not as high and not as often. But I can still tell a story that will make you cry and make you laugh. I think of myself as more than a singer and more than an actor–I think of myself as a storyteller."
Another aspect of Mayes' career is teaching. In fact, for this interview, Mayes was speaking from Texas, where she is doing an artist in residence with her alma mater, University of Houston. "I studied with Cecil Pickett, acting teacher," reminisces Mayes. "Now I'm teaching students to do what I do. I teach them how to tell a story through song. It's a nice little gig that becomes the centerpiece for my year, so I plan everything I do for the year around it."
Watch Sally Mayes sing "A Trip to the Library" from "She Loves Me"
The University of Texas' theater program doesn't have a musical theater department, so Mayes does her best to fill in that gap. "Last year, I brought Faith Prince down," she says proudly. "This year, I'm bringing Jason Robert Brown." What's especially endearing is how Mayes' accent, which can be nearly undetectable when she's up north, comes out in full force when she returns to Texas. Her long vowels and slower cadence are nearly musical. "My accent is a bit thick these days being in Texas," she admits. "I'll have to lose it when I come to New York and Boston."
It is Mayes' teaching that is responsible for her coming up to Boston to perform. Going back more than 25 years, Mayes has been a teacher at the Eugene O'Neill Cabaret Symposium and the Yale Cabaret Symposium. Among the symposium faculty were other cabaret luminaries such as Margaret Whiting and Julie Wilson. It was at the O'Neill Symposium that Mayes met John O'Neil, who was one of her students. O'Neil currently programs Josephine's Cabaret Series at Club Café, and he has arranged to have Mayes perform there.
"John O'Neil–he's a sprite, and is so wonderful to bring me up to Boston," Mayes says excitedly. "It's an emotional flashpoint. He brought me to CabaretFest Provincetown so many years ago, He was my student at the O'Neill, and now it comes full circle."
Sally Mayes will perform "An Evening with Sally Mayes," Friday, November 10, 2023, 8 PM at Moonshine, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. Tickets: $40. For reservations, : click here.
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.