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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 9, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 06
Michael Feinstein on old friends, timeless music and building bridges
Arts & Entertainment
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Michael Feinstein on old friends, timeless music and building bridges

by MK Scott - SGN Contributing Writer

MICHAEL

FEINSTEIN:
CELEBRATING THE CROONERS -
FRANK SINATRA, DEAN MARTIN,
SAMMY DAVIS, BING CROSBY,
& OTHERS
BROADWAY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
PANTAGES THEATER (TACOMA)
February 23 @ 7:30pm
EDMONDS CENTER FOR THE ARTS
February 24 @ 7:30pm


In 1990 I traveled to New York for the first time and while there I was mentored by a man that knew many people in show business. The name, Michael Feinstein came up and once I heard his voice and saw his stunning good looks, I became an instant fan. My friend, Buddy, also told me to follow my dreams and encouraged me to become a journalist. In 1993-94, Feinstein was coming to Portland to perform with the Oregon Symphony and I wanted to interview him. I reached out to his publicist, but since I only had my talk show on public access, the interview never happened.

After 25 years, I got another opportunity to seek an interview with Feinstein who will be performing in the Puget Sound area in two weeks: First at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma on February 23rd and then at the Edmonds Center for the Arts on February 24th. And I finally got to talk with Michael Feinstein by phone last Friday!

Here's our conversation.

MK Scott: Welcome back to Seattle. We are looking forward to your two concerts, one at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma, and the other at the Edmond Center for the Arts. What can we expect from these performances?

Feinstein: I'll be working with a jazz trio doing a selection of songs that are American classics that are by Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, so that's part of the soundtrack of our history and history sung by everybody through the years from Sinatra to Lady Gaga and beyond. These songs are indestructible and it's a fun, interactive, upbeat show. It celebrates this music and is really an expression of timeless topics, you know, beautiful expressions of romance and wit. It's a fun show.

MK: I read that you were mentored by the iconic Ira Gershwin. What did you learn most from Ira?

Feinstein: I worked for six years for Ira Gershwin who was 80 years old at the time and wrote all the lyrics to these classic Gershwin songs that I grew up hearing in my home. And he taught me about the importance of telling a story when you sing a song, that each song is like a three-act play. They're little slices of life. And they express emotions, heightened emotions, that we can't always express personally. They say things that we aren't able to say as eloquently. And it's interesting because Liza Minnelli, who is a friend of mine, recently said 'When I meet someone who knows a lot of songs I know that they had a lonely childhood,' because they embrace music. And that music became sort of their friend in their expression of so many things. And I thought that was a very canny observation.

MK: And actually I kind of remember that you were here about 20 years ago. You sang with Seattle Men's Chorus and it was a Gershwin-style concert.

Feinstein: I remember that too, of course.

MK: It's like I keep on seeing the review in the Seattle Gay News. It says, 'Absolute Gershwin was absolutely fabulous.'

Feinstein: Oh, that's nice.

MK: Yes. (Chuckle) So also speaking of the chorus, your good friend, Rosemary Clooney performed with them in 2001 when I was an actual member. And it was a great moment with her. She was amazing. It was amazing to sing behind her and see the audience's reaction.

Feinstein: Yes, and that was only a year before she passed. So very lucky.

MK: I know. Yeah, well, we had the same feeling back in 2000 when we performed with Nell Carter, and then she ended up passing a couple of years later after that as well. By the way, my favorite song of yours is 'You and I'.

Feinstein: Oh, yes. That's a beautiful one. I was thinking about that the other day. Yeah, from Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

MK: Yes, yes, it was beautiful. What is your favorite song to perform?

Feinstein: I don't have a favorite. I love singing 'Love Is Here To Stay', certainly that is one that I sing a lot. So that is a favorite, but a single favorite is impossible, you know, that would be against my religion, to choose one.

MK: (Chuckle) Because you are called the father or the keeper of the Great American Songbook. I loved watching the three-part series that you hosted on PBS years ago. What makes these songs so timeless?

Feinstein: I think that these songs are timeless because they express fundamental emotions that never change, the human condition, the wit, the humor, and the expression of romance, all of these things never change, you know, as the song 'As Time Goes By' - it says 'The fundamental things apply / As time goes by.'

You know, certain things do not change. And I think that regardless of where music goes, this music will always be strong and thriving because it speaks to the heart in a unique way that does not replace or supplant any other kind of music, it's just another kind of music that people desire to hear. There's something about the eloquence of Cole Porter writing: 'I'd sacrifice anything come what might / For the sake of having you near / In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night / And repeats and repeats in my ear.'

You know, those sorts of expressions are so incredible and people appreciate the craft and the work that went into creating them. And also, these songs, they are adaptable. So they can be performed with a contemporary beat by a jazz combo, by a symphony orchestra, or a big band with percussion accompaniment. You know, the songs are changeable so they are performed in thousands of different ways. And that's what keeps them alive. You know, they're not staid and solid, they're not stuck in one style, they evolve, as we do, the music evolves with us. And that's a wonderful thing.

MK: With Tony Bennett still active and there's the new generation with Josh Groban and Michael Buble' keeping the genre going. What does the future hold for the Great American Songbook?

Feinstein: It will always survive. I don't know about how popular the songs will be, I mean, as far as going mainstream, but that doesn't matter. They'll always be present and important to a segment of the population. And I helped start an organization called The Great American Songbook Foundation, and every year we have an annual high school song book academy where kids come from all 50 states and take a week long workshop learning how to interpret and perform these songs. So young people embrace them. And now there's more, it's more possible for young people to know this music than ever before because of technology. So I'm meeting - and there's always lots of young kids, young people, I should say, in my audiences because they discover the music somewhere. And they're interested in it because it appeals to them. So it will be around as long as good music is around.

MK: And you also own Feinstein's in San Francisco and New York. How do you have time to do it all? And, also I hear you're still an artistic director at a center in Indiana? [EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael Feinstein is artistic director for the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana where the Great American Songbook Foundation is currently based.]

Feinstein: Yes. Well, to quote a famous song, 'I get by with a little help from my friends.' (Chuckle) So, you know, it's definitely a group effort, you know. But I, with my name being on the clubs, that means that the buck stops here and I'm responsible for people having a good time and making sure that they're taken care of, so I take it quite seriously. But obviously I'm not able to handle day-to-day operations.

MK: You married your partner Terrance in 2008. As a gay and Jewish man, what are your thoughts on the current political climate?

Feinstein: Hmm, it's a time where it's very, very important, simply, to live the truth of who we are. I think that the most important thing that anyone can do is be true to themselves. Just as years and years ago, when George W. Bush was President, I was asked to perform at the White House on Valentine's Day, and I turned it down, for personal reasons. And Terrance said, 'Well, I've never been to the White House, and I want to go to the White House.' And I thought, well, you know, the White House belongs to all of us as citizens, and I called President Bush's social secretary and I said, okay, I'll come and perform on Valentine's Day if my partner and I are treated as a couple, we are photographed together, and that we are treated in the same way as you would treat any other couple. And they agreed. And so we went there and I feel that by going there with my partner, with my life partner, it might've changed the perception of some people in how they think of same sex couples. Because it was - that particular performance was a private event for the president. It was all of their friends, so they were almost all very conservative Republicans. And I felt very good being there with my partner, because that's another way that bridges are built. And I try not to demonize people with whom I do not share the same point of view. If they are violating my freedom and my rights I can get pretty loud and will fight for my rights to the death. Yet the most important thing is how we behave moment to moment.

MK: I've got one more question, my burning question. You have always looked about 15, 20 years younger. How do you keep your youthful appearance?

Feinstein: Well, I'm 61, and I've not had red meat for 41 years. Started when I was 20. Been a vegan for 15 years. I meditate. I very much accept that belief creates reality and I do a lot of visualization and connection with spirit, or energy, or God, or whatever, you know, everybody has their own beliefs. But I think that without having a connection to a source of creation none of us could survive in these times. And I feel that as we age who we are on the inside manifests more and more on the outside. So I feel that if I have a youthful appearance it's because I live from the source of creation and spirit and belief that we all, in our essence, are ageless.

MK: Awesome. That is all the questions I have. I feel like I've come full circle since I've waited 25 years for this interview.

Feinstein: Oh, my gosh. Hope it was worth it. (Laugh)

MK: Wonderful. Thank you so much for taking time out for this.

Feinstein: My pleasure.

MK: I appreciate it.

Feinstein: Me, too.

For ticket information for Michael Feinstein's upcoming concerts February 23, visit Pantages Theater in Tacoma (www.broadwaycenter.org) or call (253) 591-5894 or (800) 291-7593, and February 24, visit Edmonds Center for the Arts (www.edmondscenterforthearts.org) or call (425) 275-9595.

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