For the past two decades Andrea Marcovicci has made a career out of exploring the Great American Songbook. Her specialty? A knack for finding some of the canon’s most sublime performers — such brilliant interpreters as Mabel Mercer, Ruth Etting, Gertrude Lawrence and Fred Astaire — and revealing the richer meanings and possibilities of their music. In the process, she has located buried treasures under the dust of the American songbook’s history, and discovered renewed passion, intrigue and respect for its performers.
As she celebrates her 20th year as a cabaret artist, Marcovicci now pays tribute to yet another of her creative muses: that extravagantly self-made gal from Milwaukee who became known around the world by the description Walter Winchell bestowed upon her, "The Incomparable Hildegarde." Through Jan. 13, Marcovicci honors the late chanteuse (who died a mere 17 months ago at the age of 99) in a new show at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, Marcovicci’s New York home away from home.
Entitled I’m Feeling Like a Million: A Salute to the Incomparable Hildegarde, Marcovicci’s new show is one that the singer admits feeling intimidated by at first. “Hildegarde was one of a kind,” she explains. “But then I decided to take a look at her life. And it was the recordings from the 1930s that swayed me.” Quite pointedly, Marcovicci says, “I fell in love with her.”
Up until then, Hildegarde had occupied two fascinatingly different moments in Marcovicci’s memory. “In 1991 we were on the same bill at Carnegie Hall,” she recalls. “I remember watching her. Fabulous.” An earlier occasion took place when Marcovicci was in kindergarten. “My parents took me to the Persian Room when I was five, and I have a dim memory of a very glamorous woman playing the piano with her gloves on. It was all about the gloves,” she says with a burst of laughter.
Famed as an international fashion plate in her supper club heyday, according to Marcovicci, “Hildegarde traveled with 40 gowns, 200 pairs of gloves and 100 lace handkerchiefs. 32 trunks!” To that end, the Los Angeles–based Marcovicci travels considerably lighter. “I’m not going to overdo it. I’m wearing a gown my mother saved for me, a black satin with a print of huge cabbage roses. Hildegarde loved print dresses. And with this dress I can be all things Hildegarde. I can be her at 30, 50, 90! And,” she notes, “I can still be me. I mean, I’m not imitating her, I’m telling her story.” To do so, Marcovicci engages Hildegarde’s signature songs “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “I’ll See You Again” and “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.” Surprises include Ray Noble’s “Love Locked Out” and “a very touching, weird song,” she says, “called ‘The Scene Changes.’” Finally, asked what she herself finds “incomparable” about Hildegarde, Marcovicci answers frankly, “Her courage. Because she never ever gave up show business, and I love that!” Considering this benchmark year in Marcovicci’s career, it’s no surprise then that Hildegarde offers her continued inspiration. “At first my cabaret career might have been all about me. And black velvet,” she jokes. “Now it’s about a mission to make sure this music doesn’t die. So when I think about my 25th anniversary—or the 30th, 35th—I want to see the kids of the kids of the kids there. I want to be there like Mabel Mercer was, to see that I’m a-teaching. ’Cause this is a ministry to me.”
—Actor-writer David Drake contributes a monthly column, "The Cabaret Beat," to the Playbill subscription issue.