Michael Feinstein is a name that holds weight in the Broadway community. The namesake of the famous Feinstein’s at Loews Regency and now Feinstein’s/54 Below earned his spot as an industry mogul, starting out as a youngster playing piano bars, graduating to Ira Gershwin’s literary manager, and eventually becoming the leading interpreter of the Great American Songbook.
The musical consultant, writer, producer, performer, and venue owner, keeps a tight schedule, with over 30 concert dates between now and the end of 2017. Plus, come November 3–10, Playbill Travel presents Broadway on the Danube River in association with Michael Feinstein, featuring Feinstein in intimate performance and a deep discussion looking back on his illustrious (and continuing) career—in addition to the already announced superb lineup of Broadway talent including Drama Desk nominee Julia Murney, Tony nominee Carmen Cusack, two-time Tony nominee Brandon Uranowitz, two-time Tony nominee Christopher Sieber, three-time Tony nominee Marc Kudisch, three-time Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald, and music director Seth Rudetsky. But before that, Playbill spoke to Feinstein to get a taste of what Playbill travelers will experience.
There are so many titles that come with your name: musical consultant, director, producer, performer. What do you consider yourself, first and foremost?
Michael Feinstein: I’m a musician. I try to express my musical life in as many different ways as possible. The trajectory of my career has been an unusual one. One that I never would have expected or planned, especially since I’m self-educated musically and started in piano bars many years ago. In looking back, I see that it is just an evolution and an expansion of my desire to share a specific sort of musical expression.
What was your aspiration when you began?
There was not a concrete goal in mind, musically speaking. I was so thrilled when I got a job playing piano in a restaurant in Ohio where I grew up that I couldn't believe somebody was paying me money for doing that. I never had the desire to be on Broadway. My interest was always in presenting more classic songs and I knew that a lot of these songs had come from Broadway, but I didn't know the shows because we know all these songs, from “My Funny Valentine” to “I've Got a Crush on You.”
Did you always love those songs?
As a kid, I was collecting sheet music and was fascinated with the history of this music, and started talking about the songs when I performed them, which I did not realize at the time would become sort of a trademark or the hallmark of my performances.
Right, because we now know you as the great interpreter of the American songbook. How does that come to be?
My father loved saying he was an amateur singer, and sang with barbershop quartets and with his brothers. They would harmonize together at family gatherings. My mother was a tap dancer. There was a lot of music in our home. They bought a piano when I was five. Much to their amazement, I sat down and started playing it with both hands by ear. It was like knowing how to speak a language. I just knew how to play the piano. But it was certainly the musical influences of my parent's tastes that exposed me to the music.
How does one go from playing in piano bars to—
MF: To what I’ve become?
Yes! What are the in-between steps?
MF: Well, when I moved to Los Angeles, I was again playing in restaurants and piano bars. At the same time, I was collecting records. I'd become fascinated with Oscar Levant because of his association with the music of George Gershwin. As a kid I became obsessed with George Gershwin. First time I heard Rhapsody in Blue around the age of 11 or 12, so I was collecting everything I could find related to George Gershwin and inevitably discovered Oscar Levant and his first book, A Smattering of Ignorance, in which there’s a spectacular chapter about George Gershwin and his association with Gershwin.
When I moved to California at the age of 20 in 1976, I started haunting used record stores out there. Found a store that had all these private home recordings that had belonged to Oscar Levant. Eventually got the phone number of Oscar Levant's widow, June Levant. I called her up and introduced myself and she invited me over to her house. She introduced me to Ira and Leonore Gershwin. Mr. and Mrs. Gershwin asked me to start working for them in a cataloging capacity taking care of Ira’s archive of memorabilia. So I did that for six years. Ira named me as his literary executor of his estate. After Ira’s death, I went back to playing in piano bars and it was in that period that I met Liza Minnelli, because I had become friends with Liza's father, Vincent. Vincent was close friends with the Gershwins.
Ira was Liza’s godfather. Anyway, I met Liza through her father. Liza started coming into the piano bars where I was playing. She threw me a big party when I was at the Mondrian Hotel in 1985, which put me on the map. Elizabeth Taylor was there and Henry Mancini and Gregory Peck… Liza got me my first national publicity. Then I got television appearances, and then I was invited to perform at the Algonquin in 1986. I was invited to perform at the Hollywood Bowl the next year. Suddenly, I was performing in front of 17,000 people.
And looking at your upcoming schedule, you don’t slow down. What goes into creating a Michael Feinstein set?
Every show is different. I’m not like a pop star that goes on tour and does one show over and over again. I like the challenge. Also, because there are these thousands and thousands of songs that are waiting to see the light of day or waiting to be heard, I want to present as many of them as I can in as many different contexts as possible.
Why come aboard and take on Broadway on the Danube? What attracted you to it?
I like collaborations. I like working with other artists. I like travel. One of the keys, scientifically proven, for longevity is being connected to other people. Having a social life that is varied and is shared. I love that. That’s how I learn. I learn by watching other artists. It’s all important, and it’ll be fun!
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.