Not many people can claim success in the fields of musical theater, bread baking and crooning. Todd Murray can.
Growing up in a small Pennsylvania farming community, Murray had two loves. One was music. The other was food. In the pre-Internet, pre-cable TV days, Murray figured it would be impossible to break into the entertainment industry and maybe not as difficult to break into the food biz. Up until his senior year of high school, he had his sites set on chef school.
But then in college, he started gravitating toward performing and started getting jobs in Opryland USA, Tokyo Disneyland and summer stock in his home state.
On the phone from Charlotte, N.C., where he’s visiting his partner, Broadway performer Douglas Sills, who is starring in the tour of The Addams Family, Murray recalls his early days of performing in venues like cruise ships and the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey. At auditions, Murray, who has a rich bass baritone, was constantly being asked if he could sing higher. Desperate for a job, the young performer would try to comply.
“It took me a long time to accept that my voice range was my voice range,” Murray says. “Where I sound good is lower than where most men sound good. That’s who I am, and it doesn’t work to plug me into someone else’s sweet spot. It doesn’t mean I’m not a good singer. I’m a different singer.”
So Murray found himself singing and dancing in the chorus.
“I got bored with that,” he says. “And there was no guarantee that I’d become a leading man on Broadway, which is what I wanted. I decided I wanted a little more control of my destiny.”
So while on tour with The Secret Garden, Murray met a fateful loaf of bread in San Francisco. The bread baker was Oliver Zaenglein, who was baking European-style loaves just as the artisan bread craze was taking hold.
When Murray finished his tour about a year and a half later, he called Zaenglein with an offer: how about Murray licensed his bakery and opened an outlet in Los Angeles? The deal was sealed, and Murray ran the bakery for the next decade (though unfortunately Zaenglein died suddenly only eight months after Murray moved from New York to LA).
“I enjoyed being a businessman,” Murray says, “but I didn’t want to grow old being a baker. This other thing was gnawing at me – my music. I needed that outlet, so I started to put together my own shows.”
That’s how a Broadway baby turned bread baker becomes a cabaret performer.
As Murray began testing the cabaret waters in New York and LA, he gained in confidence. He sold his bakery to fund his first CD, called, naturally, When I Sing Low.
Reviews for his shows almost always referred to him as a crooner, and that got him thinking about what his next show might be.
“I realized I didn’t entirely know what crooning meant,” Murray says. “We know Sinatra and Crosby were called crooners, but when I started researching, I came to see that the microphone is the key to singing intimately, almost conversationally.”
The advent of the microphone changed singing, and suddenly, radios across the land were filled with the soothing tones of singers like Crosby singing to housewives in their houses once the husbands had gone off to work.
“You don’t think of singers like Bing Crosby as sexually charged, but that’s how it was seen back then,” Murray explains. “These crooners invented pop music as we know it today.”
So Murray created Croon, the show with which he’s making his San Francisco cabaret debut at the Rrazz Room Oct. 24 and 25. The show features songs from the 1920s to today. Crosby and Sinatra are represented, of course, and so are Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Lou Rawls and Leonard Cohen.
Murray introduced a few of his own songs on his second album, Stardust and Swing, and for Croon, he and pianist/musical director Alex Rybeck collaborated on a song called “And I’m Leaving Today,” which was nominated for the MAC Awards in New York for best song.
“Doing shows like Croon for intimate clubs is where I get to express who I am,” Murray says. He is controlling his destiny. “I set the key,s I set the songs. I set the interpretation. I’ve gotten really good response. My voice is happily different from what’s out there. You don’t hear a lot of men singing in the range I sing in.”
Murray has other projects going, including a documentary called Toni and Rosi about German pianist sisters who escaped the Nazis and lived and performed in New York. (visit the movie’s website here).
As for food, Murray’s busy schedule means he only gets to eat it these days. But he keeps ties to the food world. His favorite chef is Patricia Wells for whom he wrote the song “Patricia.” He’s heard this before, but maybe it’s time for a new twist on a cooking show. The Crooning Chef anyone?
Here’s Todd Murray singing his original song “And I’m Leaving Today.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Todd Murray’s Croon is Oct. 24 and 25 at 8pm, Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 (plus a two-drink minimum). Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com. Visit Todd Murray’s website: www.toddmurray.com.