November 27, 2023
Talking with Michael Feinstein Ahead of Two Boston Area Concerts This Week
John Amodeo READ TIME: 8 MIN.
"I put the Garland show together in connection with the centennial of her birth in 2022," notes Emmy-nominated and five-time Grammy-nominated concert performer and recording artist Michael Feinstein about his show "Michael Feinstein Celebrates Judy Garland. "I was encouraged by her children, particularly Liza Minnelli, who has been a friend of mine for many years. Liza wanted me to put a focus on the art, the talent, and the music she sang, instead of the tabloid news that people focus on these days."
Like Garland, Feinstein has been a champion of the Great American Songbook his entire four-decade career. He is not only a renowned singer and pianist, but is also one of the country's foremost Great American Songbook scholars and curators of American popular song –– researching, restoring, rescuing, and preserving them. Of Feinstein's recent performance at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, Stephen Mosher of BroadwayWorld gushed, "Mr. Feinstein demonstrated that which has made him stand apart, as a vocalist, all these years – an enviable ability with rhythm and nuance, a knowledge of when to swing and when to act, and vocal prowess that continues to amaze, to this day."
On Feinstein as a musicologist and entertainer, Mosher adds, "He is so smart, he is so knowledgeable about the history of music, about the composers... and he discusses it with you like he's just telling a story around the dining table. There are no notes. There are no stumbles. There are no long-winded lectures. There is only pleasing and informative storytelling... and jokes... Feinstein is funny, and he is fun, and he is jovial. He is everything you could ever want in an evening of entertainment."
Watch Michael Feinstein sing a duet of "Over the Rainbow" with Judy Garland.
Lovers of the Great American Songbook, Judy Garland, and Michael Feinstein will be happy to learn that his current concert tour will include two stops in eastern Massachusetts – first with "Michael Feinstein Celebrates Judy Garland," on Thursday, November 30 at Cary Hall, Lexington, MA. The following night, Feinstein will salute American popular song with "An Intimate Evening with Michael Feinstein" on Friday, December 1 at Rockport Music's Shalin Lui Performance Center, Rockport, MA.
The Great American Songbook is generally considered to be the canon of timeless and enduring jazz standards, popular standards, and show tunes from the early-mid 20th Century written by American composers and lyricists for Broadway theatre and Hollywood musical films.
Great American Songbook composers and lyricists include George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg, and Harold Arlen, among others, made popular by such iconic singers as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, and, more recently, Lady Gaga.
As a young fan of the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Feinstein also came to love the musical work of comedian, television personality, and concert pianist Oscar Levant, who had recorded much of the Gershwin songbook.
In 1977, at the age of 20, Feinstein stumbled on a box of Levant's Gershwin recordings in a Los Angles record store. Discovering they were missing from Levant's personal collection, Feinstein was introduced to his widow June Levant to return them, who then introduced the young Feinstein to Ira Gershwin who, at 80, needed someone to catalogue his collection of phonograph records. What started out as a several-week project grew into a six-year engagement where Feinstein became not only Ira Gershwin's archivist, but his protégé and his friend.
Shortly after finishing his work with Ira Gershwin, which ended with Gershwin's death in 1983, Feinstein entered the cabaret and recording spotlight, first with his "Live at the Algonquin" recording in 1986, then with his 1987 recording "Pure Gershwin." Over the next four decades, Feinstein recorded 35 albums.
He has performed at the White House, Buckingham Palace, the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and the Sydney Opera House. As an impresario, he has opened or attached his name to cabaret nightclubs from coast to coast, including Feinstein's at the Nikko Hotel in San Francisco and Feinstein's at the Hotel Carmichael in Carmel Indiana.
From Carmel, Indiana, Feinstein operates the Great American Songbook Foundation, which also holds an annual Songbook Academy for high school students, and he serves as the artistic director for the Carmel Center for the Performing Arts. There are plans to open a Great American Songbook Museum in Carmel, as well.
EDGE caught up with Feinstein to chat about his work in Carmel, his two eastern Massachusetts gigs, and how a mystical experience enabled him to accompany Judy Garland in his upcoming show in Lexington.
EDGE: You've been known to do shows that are completely unprogrammed, with just you at the piano, making up the program as you go along. Will that be your show at the Shalin Liu?
Michael Feinstein: Yes. Those are favorite evenings of mine, because it gives me spontaneity and I can be extemporaneous and play off the energy of the audience.
EDGE: The night before, you will perform a Judy Garland tribute show at Cary Hall in Lexington, MA. What is it about Garland that intrigues you?
Michael Feinstein: It is because of her incredible talent and her music abilities and transcendence as an actor that we remember her, and the program is very affectionate, though it doesn't present her life in a Pollyanna way. It's multimedia with some film clips provided by her family and a never-heard-before recording of her singing "I'll Be Seeing You" a cappella that I found in one of her homes.
EDGE: How did you come to find this recording?
Michael Feinstein: This came about because I was at a house that she had once owned, and she hadn't lived there since the 1940s; and I leaned against a wall that was a fake wall and it opened, and there was a shelf of home-made recordings, and a home-made recorder; and no one had known of their existence.
People had known there was a home-made recorder, but no one knew where it was, nor the recordings made with it. I took the discs home, and they were unlabeled, and I played them, and I found this song which she had never recorded. Because she sang this one song a cappella, it enables me to accompany her live on the piano in the concert. It was a mystical experience all around.
EDGE: Will any of Garland's tunes make their way into your program at the Shalin Liu?
Michael Feinstein: I might sing a song or two. We'll see.
EDGE: Why locate the Great American Songbook Foundation in Carmel, Indiana?
Michael Feinstein: Carmel was named by Money Magazine as one of the ten most livable places in the U.S., and a model community culturally. While there were offers from many places, including Los Angeles and Las Vegas, this location made sense because of the cultural support the city provides, and robust cultural education in the schools – and they provided the staff and location and resources that gave our organization a kick start.
EDGE: How is the Foundation going?
Michael Feinstein: Extremely well. We have our annual High School Songbook Academy with young people who come from all over the country to learn about this music. It is life changing for them. Also, [there's] a program called Perfect Harmony for people with dementia, and we are building a Great American Songbook Museum for all the artifacts we've collected over the years. We've finalized the location and the land, and have some seed money to keep it going in its formative state, and it's a process that will take several years. We don't have an opening date yet, but we know it will happen, and I'm quite excited about it.
EDGE: Speaking of your program Perfect Harmony, you just performed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for their program The Brain on Music that shows how music connects caregivers, persons living with dementia, and all of us in affirming and uplifting ways. Have you seen firsthand how music can be used to heal?
Michael Feinstein: Obviously, I'm not a scientist, but I've seen the effects of music on elderly that have compromised cognitive situations ever since my teens when playing at retirement communities. The scientific community has spoken on this, including at the Mayo Clinic, where I just performed. They are measuring the scientific effects of music on the brain.
Music is a powerful tool for healing and for comfort. That is so important, because prior to the research by the medical community it was only anecdotal and not considered a bona fide means of treatment. Now it is an accepted part of treatment, and that bridge will make the difference in millions of lives.
EDGE: The Great American Songbook might be considered out of date for many of today's young people. What do you do to demonstrate the relevance of that music to them?
Michael Feinstein: The music and the songs invite them in on their own. When they hear the music, they respond to it. There is something about the classic American songbook that remains timeless. The craft in the construction of the music, with its sophisticated harmonic structure and the cleverness and the wit in the lyrics, all of which are appealing to young people. It's a very diverse body of music that might not replace their contemporary musical choices, but becomes a part of their musical arsenal.
For more on Michael Feinstein, visit his website.
Michael Feinstein will perform "Michael Feinstein Celebrates Judy Garland," on Thursday, November 30, 7:30 PM at Cary Hall,1605 Massachusetts Avenue, Lexington, MA. Tickets $69-$129. For reservations, visit this site.
Michael Feinstein will perform "An Intimate Evening with Michael Feinstein," on Friday, December 1, 8 PM at Rockport Music's Shalin Lui Performance Center, 16 Main Street, Rockport, MA. Tickets: $85-$125. For reservations, visit this site.
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.