Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
In this 1998 interview, singer-pianist Michael Feinstein’s was leading a return engagement on Broadway of his singular rendition of vintage showtunes. Now known as the foremost interpreter of the Great American Songbook, Feinstein will bring his now-famous show—albeit an even more intimate one—to Playbill’s Broadway on the Danube River November 3–13, a cruise also featuring performances by Julia Murney (Wicked), Christopher Sieber (Spamalot), Marc Kudisch (9 to 5), Christopher Fitzgerald (Waitress), Carmen Cusack (Bright Star), Brandon Uranowitz (Falsettos), and music director Seth Rudetsky. But what makes Feinstein the performer he is today? Nearly 20 years ago, Playbill captured it perfectly:
When Michael Feinstein made his Broadway debut earlier this year, he didn’t open his one-man show with the usual upbeat knock-‘em-dead, grab-the-audience number, but with Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” a lovely, wistful ballad that contains the lyrics, “If dreams are made of imagination / I’m not afraid of my own creation.”
That song, those lines, are a perfect introduction to Feinstein, the 32-year-old singer-pianist who is very much his own creation. Spiritually and zealously devoted to American popular music of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, he is carving out an international career performing the classic songs of such writers as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and, most potently, George and Ira Gershwin. His initial stint on Broadway proved to be so successful that he returns next month for another limited engagement.
“When I started out playing and singing these songs in clubs, all I ever heard from people was. ‘You can’t make a living doing this,’” Feinstein recalls. “But I did it because I loved it, and I didn’t know what else I would do. My entire career proves to me that if you believe in what you’re doing, you will reap the benefits.”
Feinstein’s faith in himself and his music has helped him succeed in cabarets, as a recording artist, and now on Broadway. He’s onstage for more than two hours singing song after glorious song, interspersing delightful anecdotes along the way. Something performing solo, sometimes backed by a six-piece band, he manages to create the intimate atmosphere that is so essential to his music.
Feinstein is something of an anachronism, a romantic living in a decidedly unromantic time. The contemporary sounds favored by his generation baffle him, so he simply tunes them out. Instead, he wraps himself in his own music as if it were a protective cocoon, shielding him from an inelegant world.
The fact that he is out of sync with his peers may well be his biggest asset. His commitment to his material is so total, his conviction so powerful, that audiences of all ages—including his own—are eager to join him on his musical journey. And it is not a mere trip down memory lane. Feinstein approaches each song as if it is brand new, as if we are hearing it for the first time. Often, we are. He sings each tune clearly, simply, directly. His diction is impeccable, his interpretation straightforward, without the “improvements” favored by many artists.
For Feinstein, the song—rather than the singer—is paramount, which makes him a songwriter’s delight. Composer Burton Lane told him that his rendition of “How About You?” was the finest ever. He sings the song the way Lane and lyricist Ralph Freed meant it to be sung, smoothing out the words rather than bouncing them the way most people do.
Although his voice is pleasant, it is by no means remarkable. But he is a superb stylist who has the ability to plumb the depths of a song and get across its very essence.
Before he performs a tune in public, Feinstein explores each song in the manner of an archaeologist on a dig. He mines old recordings and anything else he has access to in the hope of capturing the authors’ intent, and perhaps unearthing forgotten gems along the way.
“I always try to get back to the original source of the song,” Feinstein relates. “It’s not always there in the sheet music, which is sometimes just a sketchy blueprint of what the song is about. I try to listen to vintage recordings, and try to find recordings of the authors performing their songs. If I know the author I will ask him to play it, and I try to have him present when I record. I always ask about extra lyrics. When I recorded ‘A Fine Romance,’ I included a verse that has never been recorder before because it doesn’t exist on paper anywhere. But [conductor] Johnny Green had given me an unreleased recording of the song that he had made with Fred Astaire, and it contained that verse.
“It’s hard to know what’s original, what’s authentic,” he continues. “There are times you’ll find material that contains notes, without any clue as to whose notes they are. Sometimes there are different editions of songs, with different lyrics. There are cases of Irving Berlin songs where he rewrote the melody. Who knows why? So I go through everything I can get my hands on, and ultimately do what feels right.”
Feinstein, a native of Columbus, Ohio, grew up listening to Al Jolson and Bing Crosby on old 78 records, “captivated by the power and the energy of their voices.” He moved to Los Angeles when he was 20 and met Oscar Levant’s widow, June, who introduced him to Ira Gershwin. From 1977 until Gershwin’s death in 1983, Feinstein worked as his assistant and received an invaluable education.
“Ira was very depressed in his last years because of his physical condition,” Feinstein remembers, “yet his music always brought him to a certain place of joy and wonder that was transcendent. He had never imagined that songs he had written 50 years ago would endure. He gave me a sense of the era in which he wrote that I find very valuable. He shared a great enthusiasm about the work of many other authors, particularly Kern, Berlin, P.G. Wodehouse, and Gilbert and Sullivan. He taught me a lot about the creative process of writing a song.
“He also played many recordings of his favorite interpretations of his songs,” Feinstein continues. “I learned what interpretations moved him and what he liked about them and what he looked for. I also heard him perform his own material, which is important. There’s a truth that comes through when an author performs his own work that is unique and special.”
Perhaps it is for all those reasons that Feinstein has such a remarkable affinity for the music of the brothers Gershwin. It is difficult to think of anyone performing today who sings a Gershwin song with more honesty, with more emotion.
Although Feinstein first made a name for himself in chic, high-society cabarets, he is not comfortable in those surroundings unless the audience is there to listen. Early in his career, when he was just starting out, he quit a steady job at a club because the patrons weren’t paying attention.
“It wasn’t an ego thing. It’s just that it’s important to me that people listen to the songs,” he says. “I believe that I am chosen to do what I’m doing, and because of that I feel a big responsibility—not in a burdensome way, but something very positive. I meditate a lot and pray for guidance. If, in a moment of self-contemplation or meditation, I were to feel very strongly that I shouldn’t be an entertainer anymore, that I should be doing something else, I would stop immediately. But right now I feel this is what I’m supposed to be doing, so I do it right.”
Feinstein will be a special guest performer on Playbill Travel’s November 3–10, 2017 cruise Broadway on the Danube River with Michael Feinstein, also featuring Carmen Cusack, Christopher Fitzgerald, Marc Kudisch, Julia Murney, Christopher Sieber, Brandon Uranowitz, and Seth Rudetsky, as well as other exciting talent to be announced. Cabins are also still available for Playbill’s Broadway on the Rhine River cruise in August 2017, featuring Andréa Burns, Faith Prince, Terrence Mann, Charlotte d’Amboise, Santino Fontana and Rudetsky. Visit PlaybillTravel.com for booking and information.