Today we went into uncharted territory when our director, Stephen Barker Turner, reported for work. I hired him sight unseen on the recommendation of two other directors I’d invited. They had to back out of the gig because of some late-breaking auditions and film jobs, and they thought I’d like working with Stephen. I knew that this concert, which tells a complex story through an intricate playlist, would benefit from the care of a theater person. Prior to our meeting today, Stephen and I spent some time on the phone talking about the program—that was his “audition.” I was impressed by his gentleness, his kindness, and his intelligence. He’s a Juilliard graduate with a sturdy resumé, he seemed to get what I was trying to do with Love at the Crossroads, and I decided to invite him on board.
Unlike most of the directors I’ve worked with in the recent past, Stephen has not had a lot of experience with the demands—and limitations—of the concert stage. Song repertoire is not his wheelhouse, and he has not worked much with classical singers. All of this turned out to be an advantage, not a deficit. It seemed to allow him to see everything with freshness and imagination. I especially loved his detailed sense of the dramatic arc of every piece. All afternoon I felt I was seeing my deepest and most intuitive feelings about the songs springing to life in the rehearsal room, and I understood some new things about pieces I’ve known for decades. You never know if you can really collaborate with someone until you try. But Stephen and I found a groove today that exceeded all my expectations.
His vibe is different from my recent artistic partners. Stephen is internal, humming rather than sparky, soft-spoken rather than showy—a kindred spirit. I loved the way he found the internal life of each song and let the staging flow from that, rather than creating a lot of catchy stage pictures and bustle. The energy comes from the four singers, who are bursting with life. There’s no lack of show biz, but Stephen’s maturity also brings out everyone’s depth.
There were some stunning moments today. Philippe L’Espérance and Devony Smith are singing a Sondheim duet, “Country House,” in which a couple’s attempts to restart their relationship end up in a nasty exchange of invective. I always think of Philippe as sweet and eager, the quintessential lyric tenor. I wasn’t sure he was quite right for this piece, but—oh lord, he can be a monster. (I mean that as a compliment.) After he lashed out at Devony I saw a tear come into her eye, and then she lashed back. Hard. Then all hell broke loose—it was like watching a traffic accident. Breath-taking.
Erik van Heyningen and Gina Perregrino went to the other end of the spectrum with their Lalo duet. Stephen took a fresh look at it and got us all thinking about the essential question: what is the event of this piece? Gradually a lovely, somewhat generic romantic duet turned into something arresting and surprising: an experienced seducer finds himself utterly vulnerable, while a rather unsure young woman suddenly senses the power of her femininity. All of this unfolded spontaneously under Stephen’s gentle guidance—and, I admit, a bit of mine as well. You see, I was also truly hearing the piece for the first time, though I’d known it for decades.
I haven’t written much about Danny Zelibor, our pianist. He made some beautiful music today, sparkling and flowing. I don’t know what he’s eating at night, but whatever it is I could use some of it. The piano’s been fighting me all week, and today I was on the verge of taking a hatchet to it. I felt like I was on the IRT, but Danny was on the Concorde this afternoon.
Last Tuesday I was ready to rehearse Kurt Weill’s Berlin, and I am now ready to play the show on Thursday. But I was not ready for how deep it was going to cut. My soul has gotten a workout this week, in a wonderful way. I guess it all began with my gradual awareness of just how significant the songs were. As I’ve mentioned before (repeatedly), I’ve known them a long, long time. They’re old friends. So I could see intellectually that this was a very good project for our moment in history; on a practical level, I knew that the songs would lie well for my cast vocally; I thought they’d benefit from having them in their repertoire after the show was over. My ace in the hole: I was counting on the backup of our in-house German coach, the redoubtable Marianne Barrett. Done and done.
But I did not realize how emotional all of this would be for me. For one thing, Alvin Epstein died in December. I performed a lot of these songs with him—on Broadway, off-Broadway, all over the country. I learned of his passing 40 seconds before I rolled onstage to do a performance of NYFOS’s Yuletide show A Goyishe Christmas to You. Someone had emailed me his obit, and when I clicked on my phone in the dressing room—why in God’s name did I do that?—I saw only the beginning of the subject line, “Alvin Epstein, 94, Master of B….” The rest was cut off. But I knew. And the “B” was for “Beckett.” Alvin’s voice, his spirit, his fierce intellect hang over certain of these songs, and I am still accompanying his performance no matter who is singing. I had to suppress my grief instantly that night, but it has been emerging in recent days.
Over the weekend, I tried to see if I could find a video of Martha Schlamme singing the “Bilbao-Song.” I did not see one, but I found a recording on YouTube that included the spoken intro she always did before singing the piece in German. I wanted Will Socolof to introduce the song and I’d been trying to dredge it all up from my memory. And there is was, playing out of my phone, a phenomenon I still find mind-boggling. As I listened, I kept it together for about 35 seconds before dissolving in tears. I first played that song for her 46 years ago, and she included it in every single concert I played until her onstage death in 1985. (A story for another time.) Over dinner, my husband Jim asked to hear it as well—he’s heard so much about Martha but I rarely play her recordings. I clicked on it once more and this time I was OK for a full two minutes afterwards, at which point I began to bawl all over again. (Jim is sort of used to having a crying husband by now.)
Of course I sent the link to Will Socolof, who volunteered to transcribe it for our Sunday rehearsal. He delivered it with his own wonderful energy, and this time I managed not to make a spectacle of myself, moved as I was. That was a relief.
The other unexpectedly emotional element of our week-long Weill Slam has been the response of our guest teachers and lecturers. I watched the faces of Jack Viertel, Marianne Barrett, and Jeremy Lawrence as the cast worked through various parts of the show. I could see they shared my sense that something very significant was going on in that room. The songs are new to younger generation, but so intrinsic to the four of us—practically part of our DNA by now. There is something miraculous about hearing them brought to life so vividly, and sung with such powerful beauty. It gives us hope. The winter will pass, spring will come, perhaps the government will re-open one day, and a new day will dawn.
Photo above: Anneliese Klenetsky and Jaylyn Simmons, photographed by James Russell
Today we had two visitors: Marianne Barrett, who coaches German at Juilliard, and Jeremy Lawrence, a specialist in the songs of the Weimar Era. He did the translations for Ute Lemper’s CD of Berlin cabaret songs (we’re using two of them), and he also has his own show, Lavender Songs, where he performs material from the era.
It was good to settle in with Marianne, who had sprained her ankle the day before but toughed it out to be with us for a while today. She has not only an expert’s ear for precise German vowels—and vowel lengths—but also a keen sense of character and interpretation. We mostly agree, and when we don’t no one gets hurt. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard Marianne say the word “knackt.” You could light a bunsen burner with its incendiary snap. I’m pretty good with German diction, having been immersed in it for a number of decades. But I am not so precise about long “ah” vs. short “ah.” Even though they are the same basic vowel, you really need to differentiate them. In Mozart’s Magic Flute, when the Queen of the Night says to her daughter Pamina, “Siehst du hier dieses Stahl?” she is asking her, “Do you see this steel?”—i.e., dagger. It has a long “ah.” If you say it with a short “ah,” you’d be asking, “Do you see this barn?” or worse, “Do you see the fly on my trousers?”
Marianne’s linguistic energy galvanized the cast. She galvanized me too. But the best part came at the end when we sang the encore, Eisler’s “Peace Song.” I wouldn’t say she dissolved in tears exactly, but it was clear she was extremely moved by it and needed a minute to gather herself. Then she went back in for the kill—“Chance, when you say ‘Brandenburger Tore,” more rrrrrr at the beginning of the word….”
When she left we all thanked her for her time and for coming to see us when she ought to be lying in bed with her feet up. “Oh, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just such a bore, I hate being slowed down. Frankly I’d prefer pain.” It was a great exit line from a great lady.
Jeremy came later on and watched a bunch of songs, including the pair that he’d translated. I was hoping he’d like the elaborate staged version of “Oh Just Suppose,” and I was rewarded by hearing him crack up laughing not once but twice. The surprise ending worked, and let me tell you, there is nothing better than hearing a comic song land. Hats off to Jaylyn, Anneliese, Jack, Nikolay, and Mary for making a three-act play out of a four-minute song—and to Jeremy for crafting such an elegant translation.
Another magic moment: William Socolof sang Jeremy’s translation of the Rudolph Nelson song “Peter, Peter.” William has a special way with this song, balancing the character’s self-deprecating humor and deep regret to perfection. “Peter, Peter” could be just a sentimental ballad, but in William’s hands it is soulful and moving. At the end of it, Jeremy walked up to William and embraced him, without saying a word. The piece is in Jeremy’s repertoire and I know it means a lot to him—he made such a beautiful English adaptation of it. Today I was touched as I watched the torch pass from one generation to the next.
At the end of rehearsal Jeremy talked to us about Berlin and its cabaret scene. He brought along excerpts from some essays by a few of the composers and lyricists in our show. As he read them, I felt as if I were seeing a bright spotlight turned on the material we’d been rehearsing all day. I have researched the era, but Jeremy deepened the colors and enriched the context. He also told us first-hand tales about Hollander’s ex-wife—and Marlene Dietrich—and Ann Miller. Jeremy’s depth of field in Weimar cabaret is considerable, and he stoked my passion to keep these songs alive. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Photo above by William Socolof. Jack Kay puts the moves on Jaylyn Simmons, in “Oh Just Suppose,” as Nikolay waits in the wings for his moment.
Mary Birnbaum finished staging the show today. A minor miracle—I remember Sunday and Monday sessions (before Tuesday concerts!) permeated with under-the-gun anxiety as we routine some very complicated choreography. Kurt Weill’s Berlin is less dance-heavy, so that has sped up the footwork and traffic pattern element of getting it blocked. And that’s a blessing for us because we can now sink into the Art Part, deeper connections to the songs, refinements of the staging, language work, musical exploration. We have till Thursday, a luxury.
It was a day of highs and lows. Some songs flourished in amazing new directions under the guidance of Mary Birnbaum. As I’ve written earlier in the week, I have had to adjust to seeing stand-and-sing songs I’ve done for years turn into mini-scenes that pull in several non-singing performers. Mostly it’s a revelation, once I let go of my preconceptions. “Nanna’s Lied,” delivered so touchingly by Anneliese Klenetsky, took on a new life. So did Chance O’Toole’s rendition of “Parc Monceau.” There was one piece that I felt was going off the rails, though. When that happens, I try to stay out of it until the work is done. It’s a mistake to step on fellow artists when they are in the heat of creation. But I later learned that I had tipped my hand without meaning to. I thought I was giving them Resting Pianist Face as they worked on it, but Greg Feldmann, said, “Um, no. You should have seen how you looked during that staging.” Uh oh.
Mary must have seen it too, and this led to a very good discussion and a very satisfying compromise, something we can polish during the next few days. Different things bother Mary and me. Something that upsets my linear sense of logic doesn’t seem the least bit problematic to her, while a repeated lyric or a misplaced gesture that I don’t even register will pull her emergency brake. I’ve learned to be forthright about what I think. Believe it or not, my tendency is to be reticent. I have a terror of being seen as overbearing and controlling.
There were some really glorious moments today. We have a beautiful encore and the cast delivered it with such radiance at the end of rehearsal when they were dead-tired. I almost lost it.
But my favorite thing happened right at the end of the day. Mary was done with her staging and she said, “OK, that’s it—unless you want to work on something, Steve!” I did. “Hey, let’s do ‘Bilbao.’” The number was almost-but-not-quite working, but I saw an opportunity. Jessica Niles, a wonderful singer at school and friends with everyone in the cast, had stopped in to listen for a while. I always make the sarcastic comment, “Oh, that just needs an audience,” after a particularly gruesome run of a song. But “Bilbao” really did need an audience to make the necessary step forward.
The trio—William Socolof, Greg Feldmann, and Shakèd Bar—went through the piece and it was pretty good. But the tricky part at the end, when they finally “remember” the lyrics to the refrain, was not quite happening. So I did something I don’t usually do: I engineered it. “Pause before you say ‘Brazil.’ No, don’t pretend you just thought of the word, just make them wait for it. Smile with superiority. Good. Shakèd, you’re the Queen Bee. Oh yeah, raise your hand before your line—‘I got this.’ Good. Oh—high five each other after the last line. Good—I think…”
They sang the song again, and it REALLY started to cook. I am sure that having Jessica there turned us all on to deliver the goods. I did my best playing of the day—something powerful was rolling through my body and I felt as if I were on fire. And I realized that I had been longing for these moments all week. When we rehearse everyone faces Mary, who is in the audience position, while I am in back of them trying to emanate leadership and expressivity and collegial spirit. But sometimes I feel like musical Limburger cheese, exerting my influence only by wafting some kind of fragrance into the room. It was a joy to have the singers around the piano again, to be able to stop and start and work on the music—really coach the songs. I won’t have much of that time in the next few days, but I will on Monday. A special time to reconnect with the words and the music and the cast again.
Photo above: “La Klenetsky, born to sing Kurt Weill” by William Socolof
Today I invited my friend Jack Viertel to come watch some of our rehearsal. Jack comes from the highest reaches of the theater world. He’s written a masterful book called The Secret Life of the Broadway Musical (a must-read for anyone who loves American musical theater); he is the Artistic Director of the Encores! Series at City Center; he is Senior Vice-President at Jujamcyn Theaters; and he’s taught at NYU. It would seem a bit scary to invite such a person to give notes to the cast, especially after only a few days of rehearsal. But Jack is one of the greatest mensches in the business—indeed, in our entire city. And he’s a close friend—hell, he was the toastmaster at my wedding. I kept anxiety at bay.
Jack has a deep appreciation of music, and is an avid listener to many genres, especially folk and blues. But he’s not a voice-fancier. A slightly overweighted chest voice or a wide-open F-natural won’t bother him. Anyway, my cast gets plenty of that kind of scrutiny during the semester. Jack was there to look more broadly at the songs, their structure, their meaning, their style—and to help us realize them.
I was afraid he might find my classically trained cast a bit naïve in their approach to acting. I mean, they’re studying to be opera singers, a genus not known for Thespian skill. I need not have feared. Jack Viertel, a Broadway baby, embraced them all as one of his own. He focused instead on specific moments in the songs, transitions that needed delineation. For Jack Kay, in “Sailor’s Tango,” it was where he sings the line “And that’s where they die.” Weill didn’t leave much space around it—the song rushes forward without a pause. But Jack V. said, “It’s a huge arrival point. Somehow you have to underline it, acknowledge it, and then move on.” He went on, charmingly, “Now, I don’t know how you’re going to do that, and that’s why I am not a director. But you have to end the chapter there. Maybe Steve and Mary can help.” (We can.)
The “Bilbao-Song” from Weill’s Happy End has been a little difficult for the cast to understand. And it’s been hard for me to explain it—I’ve played it so many times I feel as if I am explaining my own skin to them. Jack was able to put it in context for them by talking about a jazz club he used to go to in Chicago. It was much like bar described in the song: it had great music, a clientele of regulars, seedy surroundings, and the occasional shootout in the middle of the evening. We listened to Jack evoke that club, watched his face light up, and grooved on his language—that irresistible combination of sophisticated and salty, hundred-dollar words next to a series of F-bombs. After he talked to us, we were suddenly much farther on the road to “Bilbao.”
Perhaps the most precious moment was when Jaylyn, our youngest performer, sang “The Song of Indifference.” I’d taken a flying leap when I gave her the piece, since I’ve mostly heard it done by women several decades older. Jaylyn and I have spent a lot of time talking about it, feeling it together, filling in the details, looking for the right key (it is pretty rangy). When she got done today, Jack was bowled over. “Oh wow, that is a great, great song. And…wow, I just loved what you did. I have no notes!”
The rest of the day we continued to work through the show—we’re getting towards the end, which is a mitzvah. There were several eye-opening discussions about the interpretation of certain details, particularly a couplet in the Eisler/Brecht song “There’s Nothing Quite Like Money”: “For a girl’s knee only sags/At the sight of money-bags.” We eventually reached a consensus (I think) after I blurted out something (unprintable) that I probably have thought for forty years without realizing it. I instantly felt a little exposed for having such a louche interpretation, until Nikolay spoke up in his Russian-tinged English: “Oh, I definitely thought that’s what it meant.”
As Sondheim once wrote, “No one is alone.” Thank God.
There is a certain thrill—and a certain terror—to watching a beloved song receive a new, honest-to-god staging. I’ve seen these pieces acted as solos by a cadre of great artists in recital and cabaret settings, but this is the first time I’ve seen some of them turn into full-fledged theatrical numbers with choreography and fleshed-out scenarios. My director Mary Birnbaum has a brilliant imagination, but sometimes I need a little time to wrap my brain around seeing them in their new clothes.
Case in point: Friedrich Holländer’s “Tritt mir bloß nicht auf die Schuh,” which I used to play for mezzo-soprano Kim Barber. It’s about a young woman who seems intent on making a splash as she enters a dance hall, clearly eager to pick up a guy. But she instantly gets in a lather as he demonstrates how clumsy he is. “You’ve messed up my dress, you idiot! And don’t step on my feet! Your passion is just making a mess!” Anneliese Klenetsky sings the piece this time, and she is having a field day mining the character’s knock-kneed wannabe pretensions. She gets the depth of her shallowness. But Mary has also pulled all the guys into the song to dance with her, and each of them in turn gets told off, punched, insulted, or offended.
I am happy to say that it ends with a line dance where the four boys and Anneliese execute some deliciously silly choreo with vacant, empty eyes—what Mary called “dead Kit-Kat girl face.” To get Greg Feldmann and Chance O’Toole back onstage, she told Greg, “Well, you come from upstage right, so imagine that you’re telling Chance, like, Wow, the weirdest thing just happened to me with a prostitute.” This is about the least likely thing I can imagine Greg ever saying in real life, and I made him say it out loud just so I could hear it with my own ears.
I am sort of responsible for one of the other stagings, at least the idea and story line if not the intricacies of the execution. In “Oh just suppose,” another Holländer tune (originally a solo song), baritone Jack Kay picks up a girl at a bar—Jaylyn Simmons—who seems like a fun person to spend the night with. And she is, except for one thing: she wants money before she’ll put out. Reluctantly, he shells out. Later in the song we learn that Jack has a new paramour, and (in a brilliant coup de théâtre, my idea of course) it turns out to be none other than Nikolay, my assistant pianist. Once again, everything is heating up between them and all missiles are set to launch when Nikolay also asks for money. What are the odds of that, thinks Jack, a fille de joie and a rent-boy in the same week, both by completely by accident. And of course, once again he pays. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Nicolay turned out to be a very charismatic performer, graceful on his feet and elegantly clear as an actor. Will Socolof caught the moment on film when he pulled away from Jack’s kiss and put out his hand as if to say, “OK, baby, now the meter’s on.”
I’ve alluded to some of the singers but I want to introduce all of them today. The bewitching soprano Anneliese Klenetsky you’ve already met. She’s joined by the Israeli mezzo-soprano Shakéd Bar, who has an amazing gift for putting over these Weimar songs—she slips into them as if they’d been written for her; and the baby of the cast, soprano Jaylyn Simmons, a creative and uninhibited young lady who keeps surprising us with her imaginative daring. Baritone Greg Feldman is a guy I have come to lean on for his eloquence and peerless musicianship. I treasure every chance I get to make music with him. But this is my first show with the other three boys: tenor Chance O’Toole, a young man who blends a professional’s polish with a child’s sense of play (a killer combination); baritone Jack Kay, who is fearless, sensitive, and generous in ways that take your breath away; and William Socolof, a bass-baritone I’ve worked with since his first days at school. William’s performing has taken on a kind of magisterial authority in tandem with megawatt charm. When he sings, he owns the room, he owns the song, and he will certainly own the audience.
I am grateful to all of them.
Kurt Weill’s Berlin went into rehearsal today. This is the show I chose for the 2019 NYFOS@Juilliard concert, a program I’ve done a couple of times before—in 1998 and 2004, when it starred Peter Kazaras, Kim Barber, and Connie Hauman. I’ve known some of the songs for four and a half decades, so to keep things fresh I made sure to program one piece new to my repertoire. But much of the material dates from the early years of my career when I was pianist for Martha Schlamme, a folksinger and cabaret artist who brought these songs alive in the 1970s and 80s with Alvin Epstein, the great actor and director who died only last month.
As familiar as the material is to me, it is new to the cast and director. I am always hoping I can help them find their way without imposing my decades-old interpretations. It’s tricky: every piece plays its own venerable mental movie every time I play them. As a result I don’t always agree with some of the things the cast says about them. It’s my policy to leave the singers free to run their own mental movies if their performances are alive, connected, and true. Just deliver the goods.
But let’s face it: after decades you have what is known as an interpretation: pauses you’re used to; your own accelerandos and ritards—places where the tempo speeds or slows; an inflection that you heard so many times it seems to be part of the fabric of the music itself; a swirling sense of the way the piece moves. And I think it would be foolish to give up what I’ve learned. I try to take the approach of a sheepdog, gently herding my singers with a variety of musical signals that point them in the right direction. And I am staying alive to the new insights they are bringing into the room.
We had our first run of the whole program today, and it went extremely well. There were plenty of heart-stopping moments where we all felt the sacred fire in the room. And the program has a strong arc, just as I remembered. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how powerfully Kurt Weill and his fellow Weimar songwriters would speak in 2019. “Jenny’s Song” from Mahagonny sounded like the defiant cry of a Latino immigrant at our southern border. “Wie lange noch,” which Kurt Weill wrote during World War II for broadcast behind enemy lines, seemed ripped from today’s headlines. So did “Caesar’s Death,” from Silverlake, the last theater piece Weill wrote in Germany. At that time it received only one full performance before getting banned after its opening night. This defiant song about a tyrannical megalomaniac was one of the reasons why.
Everything in our program resonated in a new way. Everything was fresh and compelling. Everything needed to be heard now.
I’d worked on the show over the vacation break and I think I was able to get those songs back into my hands in a satisfying way. It’s bad luck to say so, but I felt fabulous at the piano today, so happy to at my music-machine. And of course, I was buoyed up by the first-class talent in the room.
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