He presides over Feinstein's at the Regency, the cabaret home for Broadway talent. He is also perhaps the foremost current interpreter of the Broadway songbook — the works of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and other great composers and lyricists of the 20th century. And he is returning to Broadway in March, at Henry Miller's Theatre, co-starring with Dame Edna in an evening called All About Me.
Michael Feinstein gave Playbill an exclusive tour of moments from his life and career in this Playbill Slideshow, which features intimate shots with mentor Ira Gershwin, friends Joan Rivers, Liza Minnelli and others.
How did it all begin? How did you first become interested in music and the piano? It really goes back before my childhood. Because I believe in reincarnation. There's no question in my mind or in my being that I've been here before. And I feel that part of the reason I was so drawn to music and had a facility at an early age was that I came into this physical existence with that ability.
My parents are extremely musical. My mother was a dancer, my father an amateur singer with local bands in Columbus, OH, where we were all born and raised. And certainly my early and constant exposure to music in our home made me interested in it.
My parents bought a piano when I was five and I sat down and started playing with both hands, by ear, and they were shocked to see that I had an instant ability to play. The songs that I was playing were the songs I heard them sing at family gatherings. And on the Broadway cast albums, because in those days everybody bought the cast albums of the shows, not just gay people.
What is it about the music, the piano, performing onstage, that first attracted you, that made you want to devote your career to them?
It's an all-consuming passion, something that has obsessed me since I was a child. My first reaction was emotional, not intellectual, because I wasn't old enough to really understand the lyrics in their full glory. Yet I was drawn in and transported to a place of great exhilaration, or sometimes other emotions.
For me, it's the perfect combination of music and lyric, creating an emotional experience, a feeling, a different way of looking at something we've looked at all our lives. Like the myriad ways that love is expressed without being obvious. The familiarity of experience that is heightened in a song.
Liza Minnelli said that when she was a kid, records were her friends, because listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra and discovering their songs introduced a world to her that expressed many things she was feeling as a youth but couldn't share with anybody else, couldn't express in any other way. And then suddenly there were all of these songs that seemed to be peering into her soul and expressing aspects of it. That's how I feel sometimes.
Did you perform in school?
I started singing in choir in junior high, and already I was weird compared to the other kids because my musical references were all primarily older songs. I was not attracted to the contemporary music on the airwaves. I liked some of it, but most of the time the stuff I heard on the radio did not at all move me in the same way. The Beatles meant nothing to me, Elvis Presley, whoever.
I wasn't in the orchestra or the band because I couldn't read music. Eventually, in high school I was in musicals. By that time I had started playing the piano professionally, for weddings and bar mitzvahs. I was offered $25 to play at somebody's affair, and I couldn't believe somebody would pay me money to play.
By the time I got out of high school I decided I was going to work in piano bars — I didn't want to go to college because I was a terrible student. The guidance counselor at school unkindly told me that I was not 'college material.' I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I was just trying to figure it out.
At 20, I moved to Los Angeles because I had had this insistent voice in me from the time I was very young telling me to move to California, even though with my musical interests it would have made sense to come to New York. And less than a year after I moved to L.A., I met Ira Gershwin. I worked for him for six years. I was also playing in piano bars and nightclubs, and after he died in 1983 I started playing full-time in clubs.
How did you make your first recording?
I was playing at the Mondrian hotel and a gentleman named Herb Eiseman, a retired music executive, heard me play and sing, among other things, Gershwin songs. He knew of my association with Ira Gershwin, which I would trumpet at any opportune moment, and asked me if I would like to make a recording. I resisted because I assured him that nobody would buy it, and I didn't feel I was ready to do such a thing.
But he insisted, and I thought, 'I guess I'm pretty stupid to turn down an offer like this.' So he got me into a studio and I made an album called Pure Gershwin, and he started distributing it and it started getting airplay. One of the reasons I think was because Rosemary Clooney did a duet with me on the album, which caused some people to take notice, including Jonathan Schwartz, who played it [on the radio] in New York.
Because of that, I eventually got an offer to play the Algonquin in New York and was well received, and the engagement was extended to, at that time, an unprecedented 12 weeks, and suddenly I had a full and rich career performing this music. So it was all an evolution that I certainly couldn't have predicted or seen coming. It was quite a heady time. Everybody came in — from Leonard Bernstein to Stephen Sondheim to Burton Lane to Harold Rome to Jacqueline Kennedy and Bill Blass and Brooke Astor. It was extraordinary.
Are George and Ira Gershwin still your favorites?
In some ways yes, and in other ways no. I am so immersed in the Gershwin catalog that there are no surprises left. And I get a great charge when I discover a piece of music that is unfamiliar to me, and of course there are thousands of songs that are unknown. So I don't have that charge of electricity when I hear Gershwin anymore — except when I wake up in the morning and I'll suddenly hear something on the radio that will feel like the first time I heard "Rhapsody in Blue," and I'll have that feeling again. But I'll always have that passion for Gershwin.
How did Feinstein's at the Regency happen?
My previous manager asked me what I wanted to achieve in my career that I hadn't. I told him that I had a fantasy of having a nightclub but was mindful of the fact that every entertainer I knew who had a nightclub had not been successful, from Bobby Short to Julie Wilson to Chita Rivera. He suggested approaching the Regency Hotel because I had played private events for the Tisch family, which owns it, and liked them a great deal, and they were very receptive to opening a club. Because of their interest we were able to open Feinstein's. And it's been 10 years now.
Your first Broadway appearance was in 1988, in Michael Feinstein in Concert. You haven't been back since 1990. What made you decide to return?
Broadway is a very special and coveted experience for me, because I get to perform the songs that I love in the context of the place they were created. Audiences are absolutely wonderful because there is a heightened sense of appreciation for what I do and a feeling of connection that is unique, I think, to this part of the world. It's in the air, in the water — the audiences have a greater appreciation for the Gershwins or Cole Porter or the whole genre than people in other places do.
I haven't been back for 20 years because I didn't want to come back and do something that would be obvious or expected. I've had many opportunities through the years to come back and do another concert, and it didn't appeal to me because it would be something that people would expect or know.
There've been offers to do musicals — Pal Joey, Souvenir, 42nd Street — but again they were roles that were largely kind of what you would expect me to do. And for me to do eight shows a week it has to be something that will be completely consuming and fascinating and will keep me fresh and excited every moment I'll be onstage. And I can assure you that that will be the case with Dame Edna. We have some extraordinary surprises planned for Broadway. Edna has conquered many mediums but has secret ambitions to be on the Broadway musical stage. Our fans have expectations, and those expectations will be fulfilled. But I can tell you that there will be some pretty wild moments in the show. And I hope I survive them.
Is there something in your career that you haven't done that you are still hoping to accomplish?
One ambition is to produce a film, and I'm actually in the midst of producing a Gershwin biopic, as they used to call them, with Marc Platt, who co-produced Wicked on Broadway and the movie version of Nine.
The other is to create a musical. So I've been writing musicals. One is at the behest of MGM Onstage, which approached me about doing a musical stage version of "The Thomas Crown Affair," and I'm very excited about that.
The other is a show called The Gold Room, with a British librettist, Warner Brown, based on the life of Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress. We had a reading of it with Victoria Clark and Jonathan Groff, and it went very well.