"Michel Legrand showed up at my door on the day after Valentine’s Day, February 15th, 2005 and stayed for a week in NYC. We hadn’t seen each other since the Tony Awards the year before where AMOUR was celebrated with many nominations. I had since been on Broadway in Dracula and it had just closed. Michel had always said he would like to consider making an album together and the time had come. He came to New York to spend time together, to listen and practice and sing and see if we could find an idea that felt right. On the first day, he sat at my table and mused, saying that we will only make a recording if we can find something that speaks to us, a spirit, a connection to certain songs and a vision. And then he never talked again about it. Michel isn’t a big talker. He likes to DO. He likes to play music and focus (or wander) and get enveloped in work. So, we began to go through his music. I had compiled a massive binder of his songs, perhaps every song he ever wrote (I had a wonderful time before he arrived researching and finding experts with impressive libraries). Michel was astounded by this binder and poured through it for days, sometimes not even remembering certain songs or collaborations, seeing handwritten songs from films long forgotten. We went through mountains of unknown songs, and then would come to a famous song, and around it went; Michel would sit and play quietly in our apartment, and I would sing along, with my husband Patrick tip-toeing in and out, kindly bringing us sandwiches or we would never have stopped to relax ever. It was a dream come true. Michel sometimes suddenly wanted to watch a film, and we would call his manager who would messenger over copies of old movies and we would sit and watch them in the afternoon. Michel told stories about his life during the war, of his piano teachers, of his mother, of his career and incredible collaborations and friendships, and some of the maverick things he has done such as spending three days frolicking on a beach with Miles Davis when they were meant to be composing, or the time he wasn’t finished orchestrating a movie and asked the airplane pilot to circle around and not land in Los Angeles yet. It was a magical time for me, and Patrick will never forget those days of our home filled with this music. It was almost surreal for me. My father is a pianist, and since I was a little girl, he has played Legrand’s music. To think that the universe had brought me this incredible good fortune to meet Michel and then to work with him on Broadway and now to even THINK together about a recording was beyond any imaginable expectations.
So, Michel and I played through his songs, and always quietly and tenderly. Neither of us seemed to want to do anything theatrical or bombastic—we found ourselves exploring the poetic words, and meandering through his painfully gorgeous melodies, always with intimacy. I knew the stories of his films, and if I didn’t know the stories behind the songs, he would let me know. The lyrics themselves would hit me and I’d know right away if something was mine to sing. Michel would feel it too, and he would play and decorate and inspire me along with his extraordinary pianistic color, which flows from him like water. I’d hold the melody and the meanings while he would go to wild corners of his imagination, sometimes bringing in classical motifs or jazz or folk. He would write notes in the margins like “Mozart meets folk” or “Ravel concerto in G major” and then his hands would sort of combine these elements in a fascinating way. I would sit at the piano bench and delight in his creativity, and at the same time I would feel completely lost in the simplicity of a truthful song, and I’d feel totally balanced. It was a strange thing but it started coming together. We spoke of some of our favorite cds (such as Shirley Horn Here’s To Life/with Strings and Joni Mitchell including her beautiful orchestral Both Sides, Now album) and Michel was certain it had to be a huge symphonic recording. How on earth would that actually ever happen I thought!? , “enormone, intime, sensuelle” he said. 100 musicians in a symphony for an intimate cd? Well, that’s just what we set out to do.
What happened next is something of a dream, and a dream with momentum, as we started writing lists and trusting ourselves. By the fifth day, Michel jumped up and said we had to call Phil. He got on his cellphone and with his petulant charm and heavy French accent said “hello Phil!? Phil! How are you!? It is Michel! Oh hello my friend. I want you to come over, I am with Melissa, Melissa ERRICO, we have something to sing for you, I want you to hear it. Come. Come come.” The next day, Phil (who turned out to be PHIL RAMONE) was in my apartment and I was singing these arrangements for him. (I had met him once before when I was chosen to sing for Jimmy Webb's induction into the Hall of Fame.) Michel and I had about 30 songs on a favorites list, and six arrangement ideas to present to Phil that day: The Summer Knows, Windmills, Something New In My Life, I Was Born in Love With You, Maybe Someone Dreamed Us, Once Upon A Summertime, and a spare Dis-Moi. Phil was clearly a good friend to Michel, and approached him (and me) full of warmth, with ready hugs and a calm demeanor, entering the unknown. He had no idea what we were up to, and he wasn't phased one bit, perhaps sensing a journey was upon us, totally willing. After some small talk, Michel unplugged from socializing and started playing the piano, in sometimes manic dashes up and down the entire keyboard, as if to warm up his hands for a race, or perhaps to get some energy out before his concentration would kick in. Michel had his head down and we would all just watch, and then he would lift his head and smile and want to chat again—and then he drew me to his piano bench and was ready to sing. I sat down, at what by now had become a familiar spot at his side.
As we sang for Phil, I had a calm feeling that Michel and I had become something of a team; after all, we had already been through a lot of excitement. In the last two years, we had already done a month-long workshop and a Broadway show. We had done press appearances, had our own opening night bash at The Tavern On The Green and been on the red carpet at The Tony Awards. During Broadway preview performances, Michel was given the task to add more music for my character. While much of our previews were embroiled with technical issues (the central character walks through walls, but some of those walls were falling), Michel and I found ourselves in a quiet place in the lower lobby of The Music Box Theatre where there is a grand piano. It was at that piano where he would present new songs to me, and I would sit down to learn new melodies to be put into the show that very night. (Because it was written overnight and put into the show immediately, I did have the lyrics to “Other Peoples Stories” pasted discreetly in the magazine my character conveniently carried as a prop.) We had a way of not noticing the chaos of a Broadway tech rehearsal around us, and just staying in a fantasy.
So, as I sat at Michel’s side in my apartment, Phil Ramone may have sensed that we were quite happy to share our ideas for a cd. I recorded those at-home performances, and Phil was a wonderful audience. He reveled in the colors, and he seemed to understand me and want to support us. I was so grateful. At the end of that day, it was agreed that we would go into the studio the next day to make demos at Right Track. Michel sat at my kitchen table and started writing on music paper which he always carries with him. He hadn’t stopped to eat or drink, so I made him food and he didn’t look up. He was writing arrangements for trio, for tomorrow. He was writing for an hour or so, and then we met the next day, where I think I saw him scribbling a few more times as we settled into the recording studio. That was the day I met Steve Gadd and David Finck. And what a revelation that was! Michel presented them with charts for The Summer Knows, Windmills, Maybe Someone Dreamed Us, Once Upon a Summertime and Something New In My Life. And off we went. I'll never forget hearing Michel suddenly change tempos completely and Steve Gadd flawlessly following him, making things funky and delicate at the same time, tender and groovy, suddenly jazzy and then suddenly quite classical. Michel probably wasn't reading his arrangements. At the end of the day, we recorded the two French songs Dis-Moi and Celui-La. Dis-Moi was always a heartbreaker for me, as it tells the story of a woman who has given up her children and left her husband for a lover who is now drifting from her. It is a song of fear and pleading, but most of all a portrait of a woman who has surrendered entirely; from a film – and with lyrics- written by the novelist Francoise Sagan. Celui-La was a song I wanted to sing. Michel told me he wrote it the day he heard that President Kennedy was dead. In that song, I feel so much about Michel’s values and his sense of honor. We made a one-take demo and that is the song that ends the cd, never touched.
After the demos were made, Michel went back to Paris and Switzerland, and began to write the orchestrations. My husband and I visited him once to rehearse in France, and Phil Ramone accompanied us, enjoying wonderful afternoons where Michel’s wife Catherine treated us with such graciousness at their home, including a breathtaking impromptu performance one day on her harp. None of us will ever forget the view from the car approaching Michel’s house in Normandie, dominated as it was by an enormous spiraling water mill. We all played by the water mill and enjoyed the blossoms falling all around us in the grass. We filled a week with rehearsals and discussions about the music, and by the end of our trip, we had solidified a recording song list and Michel could continue to write. When I returned to New York, I was working on a hit production of Finian's Rainbow and preparing to do Camelot with Jeremy Irons. Then one day, I was asked by Michel to fly to Toronto to learn a new song he was writing for our cd. And it was in Toronto where Michel presented me with “In Another Life,” and I cried. Catherine was there, standing by the piano to support Michel as he played it to me for the first time in their hotel suite, and it was truly a moment where I felt so touched and thankful to be with them both.
The next time I saw Michel was in Belgium in early July on a Monday morning. I had a closing night performance the prior Saturday eve in Westport CT for the grand re-opening of the Westport Country Playhouse where I had champagne with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and was in London the following afternoon to pick up my husband from the Wimbledon final, only to hop a train together at dawn en route to Leuven. And we were only 10 minutes late for the recording session at the concert hall that Monday at 10am! As I walked in the room, Michel was playing “In Another Life” with 100 musicians. I have it all on video, thanks to my manager. I was speechless, I was elated. We were there. A symphony orchestra. I had never seen so many people in one orchestra. I counted 11 upright bass players. It was a glorious week, and a glorious 6 day experience, and Phil Ramone was steady and brilliant.
The first time I heard the recorded orchestrations, I was at Patrick’s side in a small airplane, being flown by Michel Legrand (yes, as the pilot!) over the Pyrenees to Spain where he wanted us to all go and celebrate for a few days with his friends. Fortunately, I had a portable cd player and Michel presented me with the recording at the little airport with its little cafe, surrounded by grassy fields, just outside of Paris. I was in the clouds (literally) when I listened for the first time to all that had been captured in Belgium. It wasn’t all play and Michel was working upstairs all the time on a new musical, and new songs, and for 2 days he asked Patrick to drive him 7 hrs to Andorra where we spent a long weekend with Chucho Valdez, enjoying a very exciting concert. Michel travels with a small wooden piano and practiced the entire car ride, asking my husband to drive with less swerving, as we twisted through the mountains. I had to return to Los Angeles for Camelot, or I might never have left the Mediterranean air of the Costa Brava, and the sense of sunlit wonder at what had been created.
In Los Angeles, I spent some time with Alan and Marilyn Bergman and don’t expect I will ever see a more radiant flower garden (or witness a more gentle and beautiful marriage). That August in LA, Michel arrived to do jazz concerts and included me and my Amour co-star Malcolm Gets on stage. In the months to follow, we all continued to work in NYC recording piano over-dubs and vocals, until my life became a true manifestation of “Something New In My Life” as Patrick and I welcomed our first daughter that year. I never lost sight of the recording or the mixing process, but motherhood had an immediacy I could not deny. I thought I would release the cd several times along the six years to today, but I held it close, and had two more daughters. Michel did not rush me, and Phil the same. Over the years, Michel visited New York and we appeared together on stage at Joe's Pub and Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center, as well as did a photoshoot for this cd, and I came to see Michel perform at Birdland. Surrounded by beautiful babies and several sleepless years, I would work on the music and then take time to step away from it, letting life and air just breathe around it for a while. I would return to it vigorously and then I would let it wait a moment, as I thought about certain details of it. Then, I'd return again. And for long periods of time I didn't see Michel. Now, with the three vibrant graces at my side, I feel I have sung this recording as I always meant to sing it. I did the final vocals in a concentrated few days, with only two takes per song, or sometimes merely one. Perhaps it was with renewed energy due to the twins just beginning to stand on their own two feet, literally, or perhaps it was the sweet experience of returning to Broadway in White Christmas. I sang the music in the presence of an old friend, Richard Jay-Alexander, and we didn't seek perfection, we sought to connect to the meanings, and all the years I had cherished these songs. And in my head and in my heart I always thought of my days with Michel, wanting to give him and his orchestrations the voice we had wanted, never losing sight of our vision, never letting go of that feeling of being at his side."
To read more about the new recording, click here.
-- Andrew Gans