Patti LuPone is performing her latest cabaret act, Far Away Places, at Live at the Rrazz in San Francisco. Photos by Rahav Iggy Segev/photopass.com
Need your Patti LuPone fix? You’ve come to the right place.
We have for you an interview with Ms. LuPone in connection with the San Francisco debut of her latest cabaret show, Far Away Places, at the newly configured Live at the Rrazz performance space in the Cadillac Building.
Here’s a sample of the interview in the San Francisco Chronicle:
But don’t expect LuPone back on Broadway anytime soon. She’s a little bitter about the Great White Way at the moment, having just come off two flop shows, the musical version of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and David Mamet’s most recent play, “The Anarchist,” opposite Debra Winger.
“I’m mightily depressed about the state of our art,” LuPone says of the commercial theater. “I’ve been in this business a long time, but I’m still so naive. I’ve always trusted producers, but Wall Street has taken over, and they don’t know what the f- they’re doing. I wish they’d go buy baseball teams and leave us alone. These money people are destroying Broadway. They throw money at a show, then abandon it, and they’re messing with the economy of the people who rely on this profession. This isn’t a game for us.”
We also have a review of Far Away Places from the San Francisco Chronicle.
But LuPone’s sweet spot is the combination of aggression and endearing sincerity she displays on the muscular and melodic Brecht-Weill “Bilbao Song” and Sondheim’s daffy “By the Sea” from “Sweeney Todd,” a show she performed with the San Francisco Symphony and in a Broadway revival.
Then there’s the full-on drama of the Brecht-Weill “Pirate Jenny,” an angry aria that runs with blood and ferocity. When she finishes the number, eyes blazing, you want to hand her a straitjacket and a third Tony Award.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Patti LuPone’s Far Away Places continues through Sunday, March 24 at Live at the Rrazz, 1000 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $60-$75, plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.liveattherrazz.com.
In 1985, Betty Buckley was sensational as a boy in the Rupert Holmes musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which happens to be back on Broadway at the moment in an all-new production). She was playing Alice Nutting, a famous male impersonator, and the trousers role fulfilled a long-held fantasy of being a boy on Broadway (as a kid growing up in Texas she longed to be a Jet in West Side Story).
Though she’s only ever played that one sort-of male character, Buckley has achieved other notable career heights, like her Tony for Cats and a string of memorable movie roles from the gym teacher in Carrie and a truly terrifying loner (named Mrs. Jones) in M. Night Shyamalan’sThe Happening. And her cabaret and concert career is one of the busiest and best reviewed in the country.
Well the 65-year-old Buckley is getting back to the boys in her new cabaret show and CD, Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway in which she sings more than a dozen songs originally sung by male characters in shows. (check on the CD or digital download on Amazon here)
On the phone from New York, where she’s performing yet another new cabaret show (The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway), Buckley says of the Ah, Men! show: “They’re just all songs I really love and never got a chance to sing until now.”
San Francisco audiences will experience the boyish side of Buckley when she brings Ah, Men! to the Rrazz Room this week (Oct. 30-Nov. 4). Among the songs she sings are classics like “Maria” and “Jet Song” from West Side Story and “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls and “Hey There” from The Pajama Game. There’s also an extraordinary suite from Sweeney Todd and a show-stopping re-write of “Hymn to Him” from My Fair Lady that is now “Hymn to Her” and samples tidbits of men’s songs from a vast array of Broadway shows. The latter was created by Buckley’s current musical conspirators, Eric Kornfeld and Eric Stern (also part of that triad is pianist and arranger Christian Jacob). “They’re my team now,” Buckley says. “This is the second collection they’ve done with me. I called them recently and said, ‘What’s the next one?’ We’re thinking about it.”
The coming year is a big one for Buckley. In February she’ll play the Madwoman of Chaillot in a revised version of Dear World by Jerry Herman. Buckley is an inspired piece of casting for the role. She gets to sing two of Herman’s best songs, “I Don’t Want to Know” and “Each Tomorrow Morning.” Her director/choreographer is Gillian Lynne, whom she worked with many years ago on Cats.
“Dear World is such an inspiring, touching show,” Buckley says. “It’s totally revised, completely different. Gillian is brilliant. We stayed in touch after Cats and talked about working together on different projects. Two years ago, she approached me with this, and last February it got serious. It’s thrilling to work on new material as your subconscious works to bring you to your creative awareness.”
Next year will also see the long-awaited release of Buckley’s album Ghostlight, which she made with superstar music producer and old friend T Bone Burnett.
The only drawback to Buckley being so busy is that she’s not able to spend much time on her Texas ranch, where she has a menagerie of 17 animals, including horses.
“I really haven’t seen the animals much this fall at all,” Buckley says. “I’m really concerned about leaving them when I go to London. I have to leave them in various people’s care, which is kind of traumatic. I’m taking my Shih Tzu, though. I’ll just have to tell the other animals, ‘I gotta go earn the money to pay for your grain and hay and vet bills and caretakers.’ I don’t think they get the concept.”
Though she has accomplished so much, Buckley says there’s still a great deal she’d like to do.
“I love working and collaborating with brilliant, wonderful, exciting, gifted people. So far, knock wood, that keeps happening. I’ve been so blessed. It’s really remarkable, and it’s been a wonderful journey thus far.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Betty Buckley’s Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway runs Oct. 30-Nov. 4 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$60 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.
Cabaret dazzler Mark Nadler is on the road both literally and figuratively. He and his partner, a classical pianist, are in the car heading back to New York from a gig in Louisville, Ky. Not to worry, he’s on the phone, but he’s hands free (“Unlike my love life,” he quips). The time in Louisville was great because, as he quips again, he got his “two lips around a julep.”
In the figurative sense, Nadler is on the road to the past in his new show. That shouldn’t be a surprise for a singing-and-piano-playing raconteur like Nadler, who mines the Great American Songbook for all it’s worth. The surprise is that Nadler is not heading back quite as far this time. He’s reaching back to 1961, his birth year, in Crazy 1961, which make its San Francisco debut at The Rrazz Room on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.
Think about 1961 for a minute. In addition to Nadler’s arrival on the planet (along with Barack Obama, George Clooney and Scott Baio), the year saw movie releases such as The Parent Trap, West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In world events, the Vietnam War started, construction began on the Berlin Wall, President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps into being and the Bay of Pigs incident nearly turned the Cold War atomic hot. That’s an eventful year.
It’s all covered in Nadler’s show, which he began researching as his 50th birthday loomed. Once he started delving into his birth year, he was hooked.
“It’s a fascinating year both historically and musically,” he says. “Musically it sits right on the cusp of the Golden Age of musical theater and rock and roll. Gypsy and The Music Man both closed that year, and Bob Dylan and The Beatles made their first performances in public. Everything was teetering on the brink. Judy Garland did her big comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Barbra Streisand made her first TV appearance. The Supremes were signed to Motown and Patsy Cline recorded ‘Crazy’ on my birthday.”
Because he’s covering such a wide range of music, Nadler, who usually accompanies himself, is backed by a full band – bass, drums, guitar and horns. And Nadler proudly writes all of his own arrangements and orchestrations, which are not always what you might expect. For instance, he does Noël Coward’s “Sail Away” (from the show of the same name), but he doesn’t do it a la Coward. He does it as a hard-driving rock song that’s about heading to Vietnam. And he doesn’t do “Crazy” the way Cline did it. Because 1961 was also the year that Ray Charles swept the Grammy Awards, he re-imagines the song as if Charles were doing it.
Nadler is still his charming, high-energy self in this show, but this outing really does showcase another side of the performer. He doesn’t tap dance this time around, but he does do The Twist.
“The response to this show is the strongest I’ve ever gotten,” he says. “I have loyal, generous audiences who have liked my work, but I’ve never seen so many people coming back to see it again and again. I guess the more you see it, the more you get out of it.”
Perhaps the repeat business has something to do with the colossal medley Nadler put together of the Top 50 songs of 1961 (including “Moon River,” “Stand by Me,” “Calendar Girl,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to name a few). That’s 50 songs in eight minutes (see below for a sneak peek).
“What was fun for me in the medley was making it make sense,” Nadler says. “I liked making liaisons, like the last word in one sentence also being the first word in the next song. Or doing things like joining the theme from ‘Mr. Ed’ with Chubby Checker’s ‘The Pony.’ Opportunities like that don’t come along every day.” And let’s not even mention the song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)?”
Given the success of Crazy 1961, it might be understandable if Nadler became the King of Chronology, doing different shows based on different years. But that’s not likely to happen.
“I have this game I play with myself when I put together shows,” he says. “I have to do something I’ve never done before. I can’t see myself wanting to do a show based on another year. Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim agreed that the greats really try to forge new territory. I’m not saying I’m Rodgers or Sondheim, but when I learned that’s what they did as a modus operandi, I decided to take on that game as well.”
[bonus video sneak peek]
Mark Nadler performs a “fast and furious” medley of the top 50 hits of 1961.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mark Nadler’s Crazy 1961 is at 9:15pm Friday, Aug. 31 and Saturday, Sept. 1 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco, Tickets are $35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzrooom.com.
Terri White (center) as Stella Deems in the hit Broadway revival of Follies. White led the ensemble (including Bernadette Peters, left, and Jan Maxwell, right) in the rousing number “Who’s That Woman (Mirror Mirror).” Photo by Joan Marcus Below: White can scale down her Broadway belt to cabaret size, as she’ll do at the Rrazz Room on July 10.
Palo Alto native Terri White grew up and became a Broadway star, thanks largely to her big break in 1972’s musical hit Two Gentlemen of Verona, which she also performed on tour at the Geary Theater. There have been dramatic ups and downs in White’s career – it is a theater career, after all – but her journey has brought her back to the Bay Area several times, including a double stint in 1994 at the then-named Theatre on the Square in Make Someone Happy composer Jule Styne’s last hurrah (White remembers it more as Make Someone Run because it wasn’t Styne’s best work; he died several weeks after the show), followed by Nunsense 2.
But White’s most memorable San Francisco stage experience, at least until she makes her cabaret debut July 10 at the Rrazz Room was in the Cy Coleman musical Barnum in which she originated the role of Joice Heth (singing the memorable song “Thank God I’m Old”). The touring production was playing the Golden Gate Theatre, and on this particular day, the 49ers were just about to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.
“Someone in the audience had a transistor radio and yelled out the winning score,” White recalls. “The show stopped for a good 20 minutes, with everyone cheering and horns honking outside and all the stagehands screaming downstairs. Poor Jim Dale was stuck up there doing shtick for 20 minutes. He couldn’t do anything else.”
Such interruptions aren’t likely to happen during White’s cabaret gig, The Great White Way, which, despite its name, is not just a round-up of White’s Broadway career, though there will be some representation from some of her more recent work such as the revival of Finian’s Rainbow. Alas, White will not be performing “Who’s That Woman (Mirror Mirror),” her show-stopping number from the recent Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’sFollies. She’s still under contract to that production, which just closed its run in Los Angeles, and cannot sing its songs. But there are plenty of other songs to sing, including one she wrote herself.
To paraphrase another song from Follies, good times and bum times, White’s seen them all and my dear, she’s still here. Along with high-profile gigs like Barnum or Ain’t Misbehavin’ in which she understudied Nell Carter, White kept her chops up slinging drinks and singing up a storm in some of New York’s best piano bars like Rose’s Turn and The Duplex. By 2008, things had gotten tough for White and she was, for a period, homeless. But with the help of a NYPD officer who happened to recognize her, she got herself together and was soon back on Broadway.
One thing that helped her? Rhonda Byrne’sThe Secret. “That book helped me to re-focus. Instead of woe is me, I said thank you to the universe,” White says on the phone from L.A. “I had my eyes closed to the world and to my surroundings and to myself. I realized I had to turn that around. Only the best has happened since then. I have a gorgeous wife, a great life and three Broadway shows in the last 32 months. I’m doing what I wanted to do. When I was negative, I was closing off to what the possibilities could have been. I’m not a bad person, though I thought I was. Apparently I’m not. I continue saying thank you and keep going forward with that.”
The gorgeous wife White mentioned is Donna Barnett, and the two got married, rather famously, just after New York made same-sex marriage legal. They did not do it in a small way – on the contrary, they did it with two other couples on stage at the St. James Theatre after a performance of Hair.
“It was such an emotional experience,” White recalls, what with the audience crying, the couples crying and the Hair tribe crying. “But what I loved is that after the show, they announced that there would be a wedding ceremony on stage, and you didn’t see one person leave that theater.”
White’s big news is that she and Barnett are moving to Los Angeles. While performing in Follies there, she got a new agent and is excited to remind the Hollywood powers that be just who she is and what she can do. “They tend to forget who you are if they can’t see you,” White says. “So we’re giving LA a try.”
Even with all her success, in life and on stage, White say she never strays too far from a local piano bar. “I love to socialize and be with friends,” she says. “In piano bars, there’s no fourth wall. You can connect directly to people’s hearts and minds. Cabaret is a lot like the piano bar experience except people are actually coming specifically to see you.”
Oh, and after all those years in piano bars, White still makes a pretty mean martini. Here’s her recipe:
Terri White’s Perfect Martini
Use vodka or gin – whatever you prefer.
Swirl the martini glass with vermouth, then dump the vermouth.
Stir (never shake) your vodka/gin (or better yet, keep it in the freezer).
Rather than just pouring the liquor over the lemon twist, rub the edge of the glass with the twist first so that with each sip you get the citrus essence without it being overbearing.
Here’s Terri White tearing it up in “Who’s That Woman (Mirror Mirror)” from the recent Broadway revival of Follies.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Terri White’s The Great White Way is at 8pm, Tuesday, July 10, at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.
When you call Ben Vereen’s mobile phone, you get a most entertaining voicemail message. It’s Chita Rivera singing, “My wish for you is a sweet, happy life.” Then a cheerful Vereen says that’s his wish for you as well. It’s such an uplifting message that by the time you hear the beep, you realize you don’t really miss talking to the man himself.
But then you get the man himself, and he proves to be even more cheerful than that message. At 65, and after a car accident in 1992 that would have sidelined just about anyone else, Vereen is a man on the move, a man with a plan. He’s bringing his show Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen to the Rrazz Room June 12-17. Next month he’ll play the newly opened 54 Below, the cabaret underneath the former nightclub (now legit Broadway theater) Studio 54. Then he goes to Australia, and after that, it’s Broadway, baby. At least that’s the plan. Vereen is hard at work on the show he’s call in The Last of the Showmen, and that’s really what he is.
As someone who has worked with the greats like Sammy Davis Jr. on the way to becoming great himself, Vereen knows all about the golden age of showmen – the unique razzle dazzle of someone who can sing, dance, act and fill a stage – and is the ideal entertainer to bring some attention to the legacy of legendary showmen, of which he is undeniably one. That’s not to say, however, that showmanship is dead. On the contrary.
“Let’s talk about my godson, Usher,” Vereen says on the phone from Los Angeles. “What about Will.i.am? Or Beyoncé? Cats like that. It’s a younger generation doing their own thing, entertainment metamorphosing into something different. But we’ll always have song-and-dance men and women. I’m proud to be part of that legacy.”
Rrazz Room audiences may get a peek at some of the Showmen material while he journeys through some highlights of his storied career – like his Tony-winning turn in Pippin or his memorable performances in Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago or, most recently, Wicked (he was the Wonderful Wizard of Oz). Vereen was last here three years ago (read my review of that show here), and if the new show is anything like the one he unleashed then, audiences are in for a treat.
But don’t expect Vereen to spend a lot of time wallowing in the past. Ask him what he’s most proud of in his 65 years, thinking maybe he’ll say it was playing Chicken George in the seminal miniseries Roots or working with Bob Fosse on Sweet Charity or Pippin (pictured below). But Vereen is a man of the moment.
“I’m most proud of working in the Rrazz Room next week,” he says. “I’m in the present. I wake up in the morning and get another opportunity to do what I do. People ask me what I still want to accomplish, and I say, ‘The next day.’ Today is enough. I will take what I can in today and be fulfilled in today. I had to learn to live in the present. It happened when I found my breath. I’m a grandfather now. That’s something that will slow you down and make you grateful for each day.”
Vereen says he has a special fondness for San Francisco because he claims it’s where his career really took off. Even though he’d already done Sweet Charity in Las Vegas with Fosse and Golden Boy with Davis, he says it all really started when he drove his mail truck – he was living in it at the time – from Los Angeles to San Francisco to replace Philip Michael Hall in Hair. The year was 1970.
“I was a hippie!” Vereen says with glee. “I was a black hippie living in a puke-green ’54 mail truck I called Henry Charles Mailer. I had a tambourine, a guitar and a footlocker full of clothes. I think there was even an American flag hanging on the truck. I pulled up to the Orpheum Theatre to do Hair, and then after that I stuck around for the play No Place to Be Somebody. A journalist named John Wasserman wrote a story called ‘How a Star Is Born,’ and my career took off. Next stop was Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar.”
San Francisco was also the birthplace of Vereen’s daughter, Naja, who died tragically in a 1986 car accident. “San Francisco is where my daughter came into the world. How could that city not hold a special place in my heart?” Vereen says.
Vereen is clearly a man of spirit. One of his many activities these days is teaching young people the performing arts.
“In the beginning, biblically speaking, God created Earth,” Vereen says. “It’ doesn’t say God manufactured Earth. What we’re trying to do now is manufacture young people into life. Life itself is an art form. As long as we try to manufacture, we take out the essence and the spirit of life. Spirit is art. Children express art from the first cry out of their mother’s womb. They come to bring us art, and we try to separate that by educating them. We cut away the arts from the school system, and we’re cutting away our soul, our spirit.”
Earlier this year, Vereen and the rest of the Roots met for a reunion at the home of Oprah Winfrey. It was a reunion of sorts for Vereen and Winfrey as well.
“I met her years ago when she was working in Baltimore. She interviewed me in a little room,” Vereen recalls. “Sitting in her home, she said, ‘I remember you. We go way back.’ It was wonderful. The whole experience was wonderful. Imagine we’re still talking about Roots 35 years later. Talking about the value of it, what it brought to the country and our world. It’s not just about African-American life but about life itself, about true spiritual roots. If we can get back to those roots, maybe we can find peace on the planet. If enough people can believe in that with me, it can happen.”
And wouldn’t that be a sweet, happy life.
Please enjoy Ben Vereen and Chita Rivera in the 1999 Las Vegas production of Chicago.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen Live! runs June 12-17 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$50 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.
He says he’s been a fan of hers since he was a child. She says he makes her pee.
Quips fly fast and furious when talking to Jason Graae and Faith Prince, especially when they’re talking about each other. Graae and Prince are the latest double act on the circuit, and it’s about time. Seriously. These two have known and loved each other for years, ever since they met in college at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
And oh, yes, there’s that infamous homecoming date and late-night chili surprise. But more on that in a minute.
Graae is the celebrated singer/actor/comedian who most recently brought his Jerry Herman tribute, Perfect Hermany, to the Rrazz Room last spring. And Prince is the Tony-winning Broadway star of Guys and Dolls, Little Me, A Catered Affair (among others) and last summer’s national tour of Billy Elliot, which had an abbreviated stop at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre last fall.
Now bosom buddies Prince and Graae and hitting the road together in The Prince and the Showboy (and there’s a long subtitle with their names and awards attached, see the info box below), coming to the Rrrazz Room this weekend (March 25-27) for three performances only.
The idea for teaming up was actually hatched here in San Francisco, thanks to 42nd Street Moon. The company’s annual songwriter salon feted Jerry Herman this year, and Graae and Klea Blackhurst were slated to headline the show. Blakchurst had to pull out because she got another gig (“I had a dream…”), so Prince, who lives just up the road in Sacramento, filled in.
Graae explains: “When news of our show hit Playbill.com, we got a call from a synagogue in Westchester. ‘Oh, you have a show together? Great!’ And they essentially hired us.”
So Graae and his college pal had a show to put together, and while they were at it, they decided to hit the road together. But what about an act? They already had “Bosom Buddies” from the 42nd Street Moon show. “We’ll just do that one song over and over again,” Graae jokes. But seriously folks, they’re working with musical director Alex Rybeck on putting together a combustible evening of duets and solos.
Of course it will be brilliant – you don’t expect any less from these two. But will they reveal their romantic history? Just in case they don’t, let’s travel back a few years to Cincinnati (let’s just say they were in college a few years ago). She was a junior. He transferred in as a sophomore. Both were working toward a BFA in musical theater. She was friendly resident assistant, and he was living in the dorms.
“I asked him to go to the homecoming dance,” Prince recalls. “He was really funny and charming and very good. He was fun.”
Neither remembers much about the dance itself, but afterward, Graae says Prince invited him to one of her favorite little Italian restaurants. She said it was called something like Schalina. Turned out she was taking him to a hole-in-the-wall chili restaurant called Skyline Chili (who knew Cincinnati proclaimed itself to be the chili capitol of the world?).
“We had chili five ways, which includes spaghetti noodles, cinnamon, onions, beans, cheese. You name it,” Graae says. “That was Faith’s little joke on me, but I loved the chili, and we had a great night.”
It wasn’t a love match in the traditional sense, but it was a love match of sorts.
“Jason evokes in me what he evoked in me then,” Prince says. “My heart always gets lighter when I’m around him. He’s a fun person to be with. He makes me smile and makes me howl with laughter. He also has incredible depth and has done well with life. It’s invigorating to be around somebody like that.”
Here’s Graae’s end of the mutual fan club: “She’s a powerhouse, and I’m thrilled to be performing with her. Should be combustible and exhausting for the audience, I should think. I always look forward just to being in the same room with her. She’s an incredible actress. I’m blown away by how focused she is, how economical with movements and comedy. Just so smart. She can get any laugh she wants, of course, but then she can sing a ballad and rip your heart out.”
Graae, though he’s a mighty funny man, can do exactly the same thing. “Jason and I both like to do the pathos and the humor,” Prince says. “I think we really complement each other, and we have the same sense of humor. It’s wacky, but it’s grounded in truth. We both have enough edge that it’s not gooey. It’s not from anger or harshness. It’s not bitter.”
The set list is still being developed, but Graae and Prince may even pull out some material from the post-college shows they did together in New York, Living Color (which originally had the much more interesting name of The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist) and Olympus on My Mind.
Who knows, they may even re-live their early days and treat the audience to a bowl of 5-way chili.
And, by the way, Prince is serious when she says Graae makes her laugh so hard she tinkles. “I may have to invest a little in Depends.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION The Prince and the Showboy: An evening with Tony Award-Winner Faith Prince and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle/Ovation Award-Winner Jason Graae runs March 25-27 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.
Faith Prince photo credit above: Joseph Marzullo/Wenn.com
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.
Collective memory will soon forget that there used to be entertainers in the grandest sense – performers who could be hilarious, could interact with audience members in wonderful (non-cheesy) ways and, when the mood was right, sing the hell out of great songs.
Sammy Davis Jr. could do that. So could Bobby Darin. And Judy Garland, and the list goes on. The entertainment world has changed a lot – of course there are still wonderful performers out there.
But I have to say, I miss the all-around entertainer, the guys and gals who could hold a Vegas stage without the need for twirling acrobats and pyrotechnics.
Broadway veteran Jason Graae is one of those old-school entertainers. You are guaranteed several things when you see him perform: you will fall under the spell of his dynamic tenor/baritone voice, and you will laugh your ass off.
We don’t see enough of this Los Angeles-based performer here in the Bay Area, but happily he’ll be at the Rrazz Room for two nights, April 3 and 4, with a brand-new show.
As if the anticipated delight of Graae wasn’t enough, he’s doing a tribute to Jerry Herman on the occasion of the composer’s 80th birthday year. Just think of it – a real entertainer doing real show tunes. It’s a show music fan’s (OK, show queen’s) dream come true.
Graae has a long history with Herman as both a friend and a collaborator. For about a decade, Graae has been a part of Hello, Jerry a concert production featuring Karen Morrow, Paige O’Hara and musical director Donald Pippin all performing Herman songs with Herman himself making an appearance.
“In terms of audience reaction, it was like a rock concert every time Jerry came out to sing ‘Mame,’” Graae says on the phone from L.A. “To work closely with him, to travel with him was such an honor.”
The touring has stopped because it simply got too exhausting for Herman, but Graae found he still wanted to sing those great Herman songs. That desire combined with Herman being honored by the Kennedy Center last fall helped Graae make a decision: he’d do his own Jerry Herman show.
The problem with this decision arose when Graae sat down with the Jerry Herman songbook. “I wanted to do every song,” the singer says. “It’s a tightrope for me because I want to get my humor in there while I pay tribute to Jerry. I want to honor his material without imposing my stuff onto it.”
With the help of director Lee Tannen, he has fashioned Perfect Hermany: Jason Graae Sings Jerry Herman, a 70-minute showcase that hits all of Herman’s shows except Mrs. Santa Claus and Miss Spectacular. That means audiences will hear tunes from Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, The Grand Tour, Mack and Mabel and La Cage aux Folles. There will also be selections from Dear World, which Graae says just might be his favorite Herman score with his hands-down favorite Herman song, “I’ve Never Said I Love You.”
The problem with singing that song is that if you’re over 18, it doesn’t quite work.
“You have to be so ingenuous, so virginal to sing it,” Graae says, indicating he is no longer either of this. “But I found another way to get in there and still pay tribute to the song.”
Happily for Graae, Herman has become cool again. With the Kennedy Center Honor, the 80th birthday and the Tony-winning return of La Cage to Broadway, the cycle has returned Herman to favor.
“People are a little cynical these days,” Graae says. “It’s easy to say that Jerry was part of a certain era and is a certain type of writer. Then you sit down to listen to the music and lyrics. They’re deceptive because they seem simple, but the message is so powerful. His optimism is contagious, and doing a show like this gives audiences permission to sit there and celebrate Jerry and have fun even if you look down a little bit on musical theater.”
There are plans afoot to record the Herman show, which is good news indeed.
“There’s no way in the world you can’t feel better listening to a Jerry Herman song,” Graae says.
Here’s a nice video tribute from a Jason Graae fan:
And here’s Graae with Megan Hilty performing “Popular” from Wicked:
Perfect Hermany: Jason Graae Sings Jerry Herman” is at 4pm April 3 and 8pm April 4 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 22 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com for information.
Amanda McBroom is one of those performers who make you understand why cabaret was invented. And why it still endures.
She’s warm, gracious, funny and optimistic. But she’s a sturdy realist and not without edge. This is the woman, after all, who wrote “The Rose.”
When she sings, whether it’s her own work or something by the likes of Jacques Brel, McBroom commands – and rewards – rapt attention. And she just seems to get better with age.
We’ll have a chance to see McBroom this weekend when she brings Song Noir, a show she debuted last fall at New York’s Metropolitan Room, to the Rrazz Room. It’s only three performances, so book now.
Like so many cabaret shows these days, Song Noir came about because the marketing team in New York needed a show title to market.
“Why can’t they just market me? It’s just me singing,” McBroom says on a misty morning at home in Ojai. “When I got the call asking for a title I was listening to a lot of Julie London. I love her and that sound of the ‘40s and ‘50s. So I said the show is called Noir.”
McBroom sat down with her longtime music director, Michele Brourman and started sorting through their favorite strange, dark, sexy, twisted songs. They ended up with tunes by McBroom, Brel, Cole Porter, Astor Piazzola and, for laughs, David Frishberg.
Whatever McBroom chooses to sing, she makes it an event. If you saw her years ago at the Marines Memorial Theatre in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, where, incidentally, she met and fell in love with George Ball, who would become her husband, you heard her gorgeous lyric soprano.
These days, according to the New York Times, the voice is a “a forceful, flexible pop contralto.” That was a conscious choice, McBroom says.
“It was time,” she adds. “I’m probably singing the best I have in my life with the greatest amount of ease. It’s about time and practice and trusting. My voice is one of my dearest friends right now. I don’t worry about it. I don’t push it. I challenge it from time to time – I know where she goes and where she doesn’t. And I’m comfortable with that.”
[BONUS VIDEO: Amanda McBroom performing Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” at New York’s Metropolitan Room in November 2009. Michele Brourman accompanies.]
McBroom is coming off two rather extraordinary projects. The first was the 2009 release of Chanson, her long-awaited disc of Brel songs. The second is the musical for which she has written lyrics along with Jeannine Dominy (book and verse based on her original screenplay) and Brourman (music). Dangerous Beauty is based on the 1998 movie of the same name. The show sails through the sexy, dangerous waters of Venice in the 16th century as a captivating courtesan pursues the forbidden love of a senator.
The show, in development for a decade, has had some high-profile productions, not the least of which were at Northwestern University’s American Musical Theatre Project, and earlier this year, at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“This show has been astoundingly difficult,” McBroom says. “Like finding a diamond needle in a haystack the size of Wisconsin. It has been continuous, from ‘yes, it should be done!’ to getting rights, to finding tasteful producers, to putting together a creative team that likes each other over a loooong period of time and won’t kill one another. Then there’s refining, refining, refining.”
The piece the team started out with 10 years ago has changed dramatically (pun intended) because the show had to evolve to match the tenor of the times without destroying the original impulse that told its creators this would be a great show.
“That was tricky,” McBroom says. “It was being able to hear someone say, ‘It needs some rock and roll’ and then take a deep breath and say, ‘Yes, let’s try it’ rather than run screaming in the other direction. Now there’s rock ‘n’ roll in it, and it’s really good. I think this show is fantastic. I remember being in back of the theater knitting during dress rehearsal. I looked up and was just astonished to see a new musical. Not Camelot, not My Fair Lady but something new. Then it occurred to me it was mine! It was a revelation. In the world, there’s a new musical. That’s an act of faith.”
McBroom says she may even sing a Dangerous Beauty song as part of Song Noir – perhaps the “song of seduction for the mother.”
As for the Brel CD, McBroom calls it a “great joy of life” and her favorite of her many CDs.
“I call it an album, which is a throwback,” McBroom says. “It’s back to the days of pouring a glass of wine, maybe rolling something, then sitting down to listen to an entire album as an evening’s event. Not just background while doing homework. Michele and I got the song list structured properly, and it’s a movie with a beginning, middle and end. You sit down, light the candles and listen. I’m so proud of that.”
Except for spending a third year of teaching a master class in Tuscany this spring, McBroom is not planning on writing another musical or recording another CD just yet.
“The universe throws things at me,” she says. “I need to find out what the next adventure is.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Amanda McBroom’s Song Noir is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 18; Saturday, March 19; and Sunday, March 20 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com for information.
Erich Bergen became a man in San Francisco. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but when the performer was cast as Bob Gaudio in the touring production of Jersey Boys, he was all of 20 years old. The tour ended up sitting down at the Curran Theatre for nine months in 2007, and Bergen, a native of New York City, celebrated his 21st birthday in the City by the Bay.
He’ll be back in San Francisco for an all-too-brief one-night stand at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko on Monday, Feb. 7. His show is affectionately subtitled: “An evening of music, inappropriate laughs and awkward pauses.”
“That city holds a lot of crazy memories,” Bergen says on the phone from Los Angeles, his home since late 2009. “When I was cast, I had never really done New York as an adult actor. I quit college – or ‘left the company’ as I like to say – and was sent out on the road into that crazy Jersey Boys land. Suddenly it was this world you dream of with fans outside the stage door. Then while I was here I was in a relationship and all these first-time grown-up things were happening.”
After that Jersey swirl, Bergen’s first time back in San Francisco was last fall when he was part of a benefit for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation. “You smell certain things, and it all starts coming back,” Bergen says.
Who knows what he’ll smell when he makes his Rrazz Room debut with a show that he debuted last fall at the Magic Castle. Much of the material comes from his debut CD, “The Vegas Sessions,” a highly enjoyable collection of Bergen originals as well as some surprising covers and songs that are, well, drrrrrrty.
The original idea behind the CD was that it would be a live recording of a concert he gave at the (now-closed) Liberace Museum in Las Vegas while he was in the cast of Jersey Boys there. But on the day he was supposed to go into the recording studio to start cleaning up the live recording, Bergen’s idol, Michael Jackson, died.
“That threw my life into total change,” Bergen says. Rather than work on his CD, Bergen began spending his free time mobilizing all the talent in Las Vegas to perform at a Jackson tribute concert – a mammoth undertaking that eventually won the support of the Jackson estate.
“That show remains the most important work I’ve done,” Bergen says. “I got Las Vegas to stop for a day and pay tribute to Michael. To this day, I can’t believe it happened. I joke that I’m still catching up on sleep. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Michael was my hero. He meant everything to me, so it was important to me that we honor him in a really respectable way.”
The event ultimately raised more than $100,000 for music education in Nevada public schools.
“Without music education and Michael Jackson, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Bergen says.
When Bergen’s run in Jersey Boys came to an end – he says it was a surprise to him when it did – he returned to New York and listened again to the Liberace tapes.
“That wasn’t me anymore,” he says. “So I figured I’d make a CD that included some of the serious songs I’ve written as well as songs that show off my skanky whore side.”
On the serious side is the song “I Hope You Know,” a beautiful, earnest ballad paying tribute to a true love. Bergen wrote the song in a night, and it’s the song on the album that people tend to gravitate to and the song that will likely go on to have a long life – especially at weddings.
On the dirty side is “Blow Me a Kiss,” a ditty that includes phrases such as “blow me,” “suck me,” “eat me” and “on your knees” combined with comic pauses and old-fashioned lyrics that actually put dirty minds shame. And all you need to know about Bergen’s cover of the Britney Spears tune “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” (see below) is that he introduces it saying, “This song says a lot about me.”
Bergen was supposed to celebrate the release of his CD last fall with a gig at the Rrazz Room, but he was cast in Venice, a new rock/hip-hop musical version of Othello at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in L.A. No, Bergen did not rap in the show, but he says the experience was extraordinary – especially the student matinees. “They were so into it, and that was inspiring,” Bergen says. “It really made me think we’re screwing up the theater charging $100 a ticket. These are the people who need to see new work, and they can’t afford it.”
Now Bergen is back on the performing circuit, amid other projects. He’s also writing music, pitching movie ideas alongside collaborators and keeping quite busy.
At the Rrazz Room, audiences can expect the handsome crooner to deliver an old-fashioned floor show. Bergen says this is not cabaret.
“When I think of cabaret, I think of a housewife in shoulder pads singing ‘Marry Me a Little.’ That’s not what I do,” he says. “I try to give them a great show that’s not about me. I don’t tell stories of my life on the road. I’m really there to share some amazing songs. I take that approach because I’m not the best interpreter of a song, but I’m a really good entertainer. I’m great at giving the audience a good time. Oftentimes, by the end of the show, the audience is having such a good time, it’s like I need to throw a party afterward.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Erich Bergen in concert, an evening of music, inappropriate laughs and awkward pauses, is at 8pm, Monday, Feb. 7 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 or $40 for the VIP package (signed CD, meet and greet, champagne). Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com for information.
Here’s Bergen singing Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”