Sunday, October 3, 2010

Recognition Video Excerpts

A great big thanks to all who came out to see Duncan Moore and me, with our fabulous Music Director Mark Burnell, in our debut show "Recognition", performed on 30th September 2010 at the St James Cafe in Chicago. Here are a couple of my solo clips from the show: Come on Strong by Van Heusen & Cahn and It Never Entered My Mind by Rodgers & Hart. The video quality is poor (so much for Quicktime compression), but you can catch the real life version soon as we add a few new numbers and drag the dialogue from the Diocesan Center to the barstool. Stay tuned for details!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Walk in the Park

Our rehearsal today was a walk in the park. Seriously. We grabbed a coffee and ambled into the park, reciting lines and lyrics as quickly as they would spill out of our mouths – no rhythm, no pitch. Despite the unusual setting, compounded by the presence of speeding cyclists on the narrow return path and other distractions, the words continued to come. Yippee!

I may repeat this meandering tomorrow, since my most complicated number came today in one of the less populated segments of the park pathway. The lack of potential collision hazards allowed me to focus fairly intently on the 14 “Sharon McNight buts” (basically, any transition word that implies contrast has to segue to appropriate physical and/or vocal distinctions from the earlier phrase). I was also able to hone in uniquely on each of the 10 repetitions of the song’s main line (which is also the song’s title). It is both a delight and a challenge, and, therefore, worthy of another wander to wonder at the charms of Irving Berlin. I’ll need to be able to do it a crowd, at a dance, in a house, in the light, on a streetcar, on a train, at a party and at a ball…but too much more, and you’ll know it all!

We repaired to the home music room, ran the duets a cappella and top&bottom’d the solos into and out of the patter. Harmonies were intact. Lyrics were as transcribed. Patter patted down. News of no cordless mic has just changed the entrance…but we are nothing if not flexible.

A walk in the park. I trained for my first (and, to date, only!) half-marathon there. What could be easier?

Monday, September 27, 2010

72 Hours to Go!

What will it be like to own my evenings and days again? Yesterday (my husband’s birthday) I tried, in vain, to adapt my mind to a “relaxing afternoon.” Once I no longer have the pressing demands of my upcoming duo show, *Recognition*, will I pine for Gershwin songbooks and crave the obscure lyric that nails the sentiment required in some imagined 11 o’clock reverie? Will I awaken with the sun and dream of solo shows for one? Will I again descend the slippery slope from YouTube to online sheet music downloads?

I now have 16 Google Docs running with solo show themes and 2 Docs for shows set in a cabaret format of intimacy and humor that combine art songs and poetry. Yet, at the rate I’m building my book, I’ll be as old as (and much less accomplished than) Julie Wilson before I get them all done. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful my ability to learn and interpret songs will progress as quickly as it has in the 4 weeks we’ve had to pull together *Recognition*.

It has been a blessing to have come to this business as a gregarious conversationalist and conveyor of amusing anecdotes…that’s what patter is all about, and that’s been the easy part.

Similarly, as one of my warm-up exercises announces, “Oh I can sing!” It’s not always pretty; it’s not always perfect, but it’s pretty darned good enough of the time that I don’t worry about that piece of the puzzle either. [Thank you, arum triphyllum.]

The hard part is leaving the bathroom in the morning, fully aware of the flaws in the 10x hand mirror and, yet, wanting to deliver what is necessary, “Make them either want to be you or to fall in love with you.”

My duo partner is calm and confident in his personae. Our music director is adept at drawing out of us the nuance of the lyric and finding the perfect arrangement to convey both our talent and the song’s place in the show. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, August 14, 2010


It’s been two weeks since our final concert at the Yale Cabaret Conference. By now, I thought I’d be in the last days of a Convalescence Period, resting quietly in my slippers and robe, reminiscing about how fun it had been and wondering what I would do with all my time. Little did I know, July 31st was only the end of The Incubation Period, and I am now very much in the grip of The Invasive Period of Cabaret Fever.

Sadly, there are no drugs to treat Cabaret Fever. You just have to suffer through it, as attempts to treat the disease either require complete separation from all family and friends, or result in terrible side effects ranging from Prozac Cabaret (the kind of cabaret where you turn up for a show and, regardless of what happens on stage, you don’t really care) to Viagra Cabaret (a show that is so up and hard you may remember it forever, but are too exhausted to continue the treatment).

No, you really do just have to suffer through it, listening to hundreds of songs every day and scanning hundreds of websites to drill down through the layers of research needed to pick perfect pieces. It’s a mercurial illness, with songs that stick one day, coming unglued the next, as patter that peaks today falls tomorrow due to over-beating . And, nastiest of all, when you least expect it, the clocks change, and what was 11 o’clock yesterday, feels like 10 o’clock or, worse yet, midnight.

I am, I gather, still in the early stages of this disease. To those who’ve been caught in the contagion of Cabaret Fever before me, this is all so very old hat. They nod knowingly, but never once has anyone said, “You’ll get over it!”

To cope with this illness, I keep track of my symptoms, carrying around tiny notebooks: one for quotes, one for lyrics (parodies and original), and one for song ideas. Everyday I put these notes into an appropriate google doc…and then cross reference them across the 15 show ideas I’ve got running like caged hamsters on a feeding wheel in my mind. Each show has its own song spreadsheet – name, composer, lyricist, date of composition, show, running time, who recorded it, do I have the music, what key do I sing it in? Each spreadsheet, in turn, is linked to a youtube favorites playlist, so I can check the order of the songs and mix them up. Did I mention that Cabaret Fever also breeds its own type of OCD – Obsessive Cabaret Disorder?

I wake up in the middle of the night and slip out of the bedroom to meet my fantasy and jot down ideas. I miss meals and get up early, just to spend time with a song. I grow mesmerized as I repeat the lyrics like a robot. I say them with an Italian accent and a French accent and a German accent. I sing them as quickly as I can…and…as…slowly…as...I…can…I sing them sadly if they are happy; frightened if they are soothing; silly if they are sexy and sexy if they are silly. I sing them every way I can imagine, and then I find 15 more ways to do it.

Did I mention that Cabaret Fever leads to debilitating related conditions? I’ve also become a Cabaret Geekess, stopping traffic as I slow before a SALE sign at a boutique I could never afford, but which features in its window an iridescent, non-patterned, low cut, ¾ length-sleeved jacket with crystal (not rhinestone!) buttons in a color that won’t clash with my hair, my nails or my 15 year old see-through trousers…and…there are shoes that sparkle to match!

I’ve also become a Cabaret Droness, droning on at all hours of the day and night about song selections and music trivia with people who would really prefer I shut up and come to bed, but for whom divorce is too expensive an alternative.

Pray for me…there’s gotta be something better than this…Wait! Isn’t that Coleman & Fields? Would it work with When in Rome? Mamma mia!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

As one whose narrow vocal career has been spent singing primarily to the back of people’s heads while robed in a big black sack and non-distracting shoes, the shift to performing face-to-face and up close in something alluring, with all the words in my head and not on a piece of sheet music in my hand, has presented several challenges.

Patter writing has created similar trials. Although I enjoy a quick wit and a sharp punch line, quiet work in my basement office seldom offers the opportunity to entertain more than my dog. Besides, in a church setting, the patter is written for you, and, while the Bible contains its share of racy stories, Sunday morning readings are generally not intended to engender raucous laughter and naughty asides. The ascent to our final performance on Saturday night was going to require all the strength of character and purpose I could muster. Sadly, on Thursday morning, my reserves of wit and will were virtually depleted. The photo above from the morning’s rehearsal captures well how far away I’d drifted.

Our group met at 9 with our faculty advisors. (Although church singing had not prepared me for many of the conference challenges, I was at least prepared for early morning vocalizing!) We ran the show through once and then split up, with the faculty consulting amongst themselves in another room as we students rehashed the song order to achieve a tighter program. The faculty returned with their recommendations, suggesting we move some of the songs and advising other overall song changes to better underscore the theme. Their ideas were brilliant, suiting the performers and creating a more cohesive flow.

I was moved to #2. Although I was still going to sing I Want to Be Bad, I was asked to add a second chorus. Precisely when I was going to have a copy of the words to that second chorus was a bit of a mystery. Still, it sounded as if the new lyrics would punch the piece up a bit and liberate it (and me) from the rather dated and ho-hum 1920’s banter. Besides, anything that put such a deliciously wicked smile on the face of the adorable George Hall could not be refused. I agreed to give it my best shot.

Faith & Pam noted that they had plans for my hair, props, posture and gestures. With such champs to lead the way, who could have any doubts? Nobody, right? Nobody except, perhaps, me. If the entire course was cabaret immersion, the next 51 hours would be, at times, like near-drowning. Although a stimulating and supportive one-on-one with Faith and the opportunity to observe brilliant performances by Jason Graae and Sharon McNight kept me afloat, treading water waiting for the missing lyrics was wearing me down, especially as the opportunity to wrap up an arrangement with the supremely talented Shelly Markham depended on knowing the words I would sing.

Thankfully, Erv tossed me a life saver when he encouraged me to re-cycle a bit of patter I’d written for my audition. It was, apparently, too funny not to use again. Another buoy was tossed in my direction when Sharon McNight made an amusing aside in the bar after her Thursday night show. Suddenly the lights came on, and I could see a way through the patter, connecting from the performer before me through my number.

The lyrics arrived at 8.30 on Friday morning, and George gleefully dictated them to me over breakfast, delighted that they were both saucy and verging on the politically incorrect – fabulous! At last, the old fighting spirit that had propelled me literally around the world in my crazy life’s many manifestations awoke with a surprised start. “Where the hell have you been?,” I thought, but there was no time for idle conversation.

I repeated the lyrics over and over during our 3 hour image consultation, when, as a group, we decided which of our costumes would be best for the show. The one-on-ones continued Friday and Saturday, with George, Mark, Shelly, Pam & Tovah each imparting wonderfully helpful advice about the business and perspectives on what would work well for me in general in the future and, in particular, for the final performance. Although some of the ideas were conflicting at the edges, the general thrust was consistent and I was able to develop a sense of how to interpret the piece and the new lyrics. Mark, in particular, saved me from humiliation by suggesting I repeat the lyrics as quickly as possible, as a robot would say them…over and over and over. Wherever I went for the rest of the day, I repeated the words again and again. (In the final moments before going on stage, it was that exercise that allowed me to call up a line that had slipped almost entirely from my mind…and it wasn’t even a line from the new lyrics!)

Friday night’s performances were from Sally Mayes and Faith Prince. We were treated to another round of mind-bogglingly inspired work from which we could learn and grow. At the intermission and on the walk home, I was drilling lyrics…and they were drilling holes in my head.

When the final tech rehearsal came on Saturday afternoon, we each had time to run our entire patter and song once. Faith put me on the elevator and took me down to one of the dressing rooms and there, in 15 minutes, I had the master class of a lifetime from one of the stage’s truly outstanding luminaries. Using Faith’s sun glasses as a microphone and staring into the wall mirror, I followed her lead as she mapped out when the hair would come down, what would happen to the chignon clip (wouldn’t you like to know?), how the hands would go down and then back up and where I’d go when I took the mic from the stand and made my move to the audience. Would it have been nice to have come up with all of that myself? Yes. Could I have ever come up with all that myself? No. Like a baby learning to speak, I was learning the language of non-verbal communication. I identified what I could do and did it. After Faith left the dressing room, I did it over and over again into the mirror and, when I saw there was only an hour and one-half left to get ready, I went and bought a fabulous necklace, some earrings, a curling iron and “Foxy Lady” nail polish…maybe a bit of method acting would help in a pinch!

I won’t rehash the actual performance except to say I’ll post the video when I get it and can figure out how to put it up. I’m only sorry I don’t have one to show how far I came to get to that point.

To my classmates and the faculty, I extend my sincere and heart-felt appreciation for stretching me further than I believed I could ever stretch and returning me younger, funnier and happier than I’ve been in a long time. To everyone supporting me at home and virtually, my gratitude to you is limitless.

On the 14 hour drive home, GT graciously left me to decompress as I sketched out plans for a show. With the help of the gifted Mark Burnell, whom we are blessed to have here in Chicago, I’ll be pulling it together as soon as is sensible.

HOLD ON! There is nothing remotely sensible about this business. It is the glory of risk-taking embraced at every turn, even if it means leaving yourself behind, that yields a harvest of joy. If only I could do it all again…and I will…and I hope you’ll be there!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I keep this image on the cover of my song book. It reminds me that one must anticipate a way forward or risk being blocked in a stagnant place. Sometimes, to continue the journey, one has to tear down bits of what was carefully but needlessly erected so well at the start. This philosophy proved to be very useful in the run-up to our final performance.

The 38 class members of the 2010 International Cabaret Conference at Yale were divided in to three groups of 13, 13 and 12. I was assigned, with 12 others, to Performance Group 1. Our faculty advisors were George Hall, Pamela Myers, Faith Prince, Erv Raible, and, as Music Director, Shelly Markham. Each member of the group was to sing a solo number (with or without a few back-up singers) and to write and deliver their own patter. We could also include one or more full group numbers. Group members’ ages spanned more than four decades and skill levels ran from only a few public performances of a very small number of songs to a vast catalog of material and performance experience. Although the faculty would be there on Thursday to help guide us as our show developed, on Wednesday night the initial work was all down to us.

We operated, more or less, by Robert’s Rules and elected a secretary and a moderator. Then, we each wrote down the songs from our book we would be totally comfortable singing in the Saturday show. Up-tempo numbers went on red cards; ballads were on blue; and novelty or comic pieces went on green cards. If someone had their heart set on one and only one song, they were guaranteed to sing that song. We sifted through the up-tempo numbers and made a short-list of songs that would sit best as openers. We then separated intellectually demanding ballads from non-intellectually demanding ballads (I hasten to add this distinction was made with the level of effort required from the audience in mind and is not a reflection on the intellect of the singer ;-). After hearing the titles of all the ballad and up-tempo song candidates, we went around the table and, one-by-one, put forward ideas for a theme that would provide sufficient flexibility for such a diverse group of people but sufficient cogence for a show to build from start to finish. We voted – Transitions would be our theme.

Following a guideline for show structure shared with us earlier in the week by our music directors, we then sifted through the relevantly colored card set in search of the perfect “up-tempo toe tapper’’, “non-intellectually demanding standard ballad” or “palate cleanser”. The process was somewhat iterative as we tried to anchor an opener and the ‘’11 o’clock ’’ (climax) number and see what would fill in the middle to flesh out the concept. Of 14 songs (13 solos and a group finale), I was put in the #9 spot with I Want to Be Bad. It wasn’t going to be a show stopper, but I knew the lyrics and the notes and, in a still rather shell-shocked state, I was content to be hiding in plain view between two big numbers at #8 and #10.

We finished the entire process in about three hours. Everyone was singing a song they were both comfortable with and happy to sing. The complete absence of the faintest whiff of “diva” was wonderfully refreshing. Everyone was flexible, generous and supportive. The next morning, we’d have three hours to run the numbers with our faculty advisors and begin to concentrate on the patter that would bind the act together.

We would not find out which of the three groups would go first until late in the day on Saturday. I was hoping ours would be first, so I could relax and enjoy the others. If it hadn't been for the friends whom, in headier days, I'd rashly invited to come to the performance, I'd have called GT and insisted he stay at home in Chicago, eschewing the pleasures of a 14 hour drive to what I was almost certain would be a non-eventful performance of less than two minutes. I'd fly back on Sunday and conveniently forget to order the video. I turned in for the, by now, customary 5 1/2 hours of sleep completely oblivious to the plans Euterpe held in store for me.

Monday, August 2, 2010

When I began this post I was in bed...and it was 7.45 in the the conference must be over! Never have I spent 9 more sleep-deprived days. Never has life changed so quickly in such a short space of time. I had thought I would share details on this blog keep my sanity in check, but we were simply too busy, and I lost my mind. I'm not sure in which master class or practice room I left it, but I'm content for it to remain there. It was far too narrow to hold all I'll need for the next phase of this journey.

The lessons culled from the 5 master classes on the first 3 days of the week are clear. They range from appropriate material, to commitment to a text, to personal projection, to channeled emotion, but when I try to summarize them in bullet points they too become too narrow to cover the vast terrain of self-awareness that unfolded. I'm also glad to say that, in the course of working with such a wide range of talents and personalities, I have learned (and begun to inhabit) the realm of 'in control' as opposed to 'controlling'. (GT is more than delighted to hear this ;-))

The faculty were wonderful - truly supportive and deeply caring, but major surgery without anesthesia is incredibly painful no matter how kind the surgeon. I can think of only a very few people in the group who did not experience a fairly major emotional upheaval (and sometimes more than one) in the course of the program. And, in the final performance, those that didn't grow emotionally seemed to leave exactly the same as they came. Would I want to go through it again? No. Will I? Yes. Should anyone who wants to sing with commitment and honesty? Yes.

My first upset was early in the program (I've always been very precocious), in the master class with Julie Wilson, Pam Tate and Michael Joviala. I sang Sentimental Journey - a song I grew up hearing my mother sing and that I thought I knew well. The lights were on, but nobody was home. I missed a key change and came in a third below. I was made to run (literally) for the train, and I realized I really wasn't ready to get on. Everyone congratulated me for achieving in the first class what some folks don't get to in 5 years of acting classes, but breaking down isn't one of my favorite pastimes and, although I'd managed to leave a bit of my baggage at the station, I was still overweight for the journey.

In the second class with Sally Mayes, Jason Graae and Shelley Markham, I sang Keep Young and Beautiful. It was there that I became aware (with help from the great faculty and my super classmates) that I had issues with the impending big-figure-change birthday and that I needed to connect with the "me" other people see and not the one I've already dressed in grey with a lap blanket in the rocker. I sang into the dressing room mirror (and I really hate looking at myself in a mirror). I did press-ups on the makeup bar. And I lay on the floor singing Happy Birthday until I could sing KY&B and feel only the irony. (They asked me to sing Happy Birthday because it's a song everyone knows...but even in that song choice there was irony.)

By the time I was ready for the 3rd master class with Sharon McNight, Faith Prince and Alex Rybeck, I was playing it uber-safe. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake, but I was in ''protect me'' mode, never realizing that the tighter I wrapped my arms around myself, the less able I would be to catch myself when I fell. I picked something I'd sung a few months ago, but when Faith looked up and smiled during the opening bars, everything went out of my head. Although I think I did a reasonable job with Being Alive at the fund-raiser in May, it was DOA that morning. The reason for singing it well in May (feeding homeless men) had charged me with energy and commitment, but, in that basement dressing room Master Class, I had no soul. When I'd finished, I was asked why I'd picked the song. As I began to answer, all the faces from that May night rushed before my eyes; all the emotion I share with those people and for our purpose welled up and I was at it again.

Between the various master classes, the days were peppered with panel discussions on working with music directors, building a show, comedic writing and technical considerations. Freed from the most remote emotional consideration, I took to these hours like a fish in the water. Then an entirely unexpected tsunami hurled me even deeper into the darkness of self-doubt. The speaker was talking about a range of relatively innocuous technical considerations when, as an aside, he mentioned the list of overused songs they keep at the bar in his club. Whenever someone sings a song on the list, the tech crew races to the bar for a shot. Later he mentioned another song that is currently being sung every other day by naive wanna-be's. I had sung two of the three songs - one for my audition and one for my song before the entire group. On any other day, I would have enjoyed the laughter, but, in that already rattled state, I could only think that I had made a terrible mistake. I was totally out of my league, wasting the money, time and support of people I loved. The memory of some East Coast prep school boyfriend of the 80's telling me how much he enjoyed my company because I was refreshingly naive welled up and won the battle. I decided to play it as safe as possible, get through the program and come home. When i got to Chicago, I would stop singing and just focus on work - both professional and for the causes I support. The piece for Master Class 4 that night would be the safest one in my book.

Master Class 4 was with Tovah Feldshuh, Pam Myers and Mark Burnell. I'd auditioned with I Want to Be Bad (accompanied by Mark), and it was by far the safest piece in my book. They stopped me before I'd even finished the verse. I was then asked to sew something while I sang (not so much an act but an action). Then I was asked to access all the sensuality I was repressing and bring it up for the big screen cameo. My forehead was held so i couldn't use my face so much to sing. Tovah has a great observation - people who are sexy and then act sexy just make sexy redundant. Guilty as charged, but I'm so uncomfortable being sexy that I often parody sexy as a safe place to be. I'm still working on the self-awareness these exercises liberated (and no doubt will be for many years to come), but just being able to exist with economy of motion is a terribly liberating way to sing; almost as liberating as knowing to sing in a conversational key rather than a ''don't you just love my voice!" key. That was a great night for our performance group of 8. Everyone made great strides, and there were some truly stellar examples to illuminate the process. I retired for the night determined to see the course through and, maybe, just maybe, to continue singing when I got home.

Master Class 5 was with Laurel Masse, George Hall and Tex Arnold. I sang Come on Strong, a little known Van Huesen and Cahn piece, which contains the delightful lyric ''I want to see harlequins". They loved the song, but I was still too stiff. I ended up singing the piece channeling Samantha from Sex in the City. George Hall has to have the most delightful countenance on the planet, so it wasn't hard to try to charm him. Things ended encouragingly, but I was still holding my security blanket tightly around me.

I know it sounds as if i spent the entire 3 days of master classes in tears...I didn't, but I shed enough to wash away an exterior wax that had yellowed over the years. Now, a little distance away, I can see some of what I discovered. It will take time to explore more fully this strange new territory, but the path is much clearer.

The next post will focus on the process that began Wednesday evening, as our group of 13 put together our show. And I think you can tell from the tone of this post that, although the early days were incredibly difficult, the ending was happy.