What makes a great singer? That's a question I've pondered many times throughout the years. With few exceptions, someone cannot be a great singer at 18. A performer can have a great voice, a great instrument, at a young age, but it takes a certain amount of living to become a great singer.
She must know great joy and love as well as loss and heartache firsthand. I don't know Ellen Greene's life story, but I would venture to guess that she's experienced her fair share of all of these. For Greene is a great singer — make that an exceptional one. She is that rare breed who can make a song come alive and move a listener profoundly.
Over the past few years I've had the pleasure of watching Greene and her musical director-accompanist (and husband) Christian Klikovits perform at Joe's Pub, the intimate cabaret space within the Public Theater. In performance, Greene is never less than riveting, one of the finest song interpreters of her generation. And, on her debut solo recording, "In His Eyes," she manages to do the near-impossible: Greene imbues her studio recording with the wide range of emotion that fills her live performances.
Greene possesses a unique, easily identifiable voice. Like Bernadette Peters, that voice has an innate warmth — it is like listening to the comforting sounds of an old friend. And like Peters, the voice is a mix of womanly and girlish tones. Greene can also make you laugh one minute and break your heart the next. "In His Eyes," which features Klikovits on piano, organ and synthesizers, employs a host of other musicians who bring to life Klikovits' beautiful arrangements. The cello, the viola, and the violins all surround Greene's voice with dazzling effect. Bernie Kirsh has also mixed the recording magnificently — there is a perfect balance of voice and accompaniment.
The 13-track disc begins with Sarah McLachlan's "I Love You," and from the moment Greene sings "I have a smile stretched from ear to ear to see you walking down the road," she completely hooks the listener and proceeds to take him or her on a 58-minute emotional journey.
That roller-coaster-ride-of-a-journey follows with a haunting rendition of Kate Bush's "The Man with the Child in His Eyes" before venturing into tunes by Peter Allen, Alice Cooper, Paula Cole, Tori Amos, Queen, Tom Waits, Freddie Mercury as well as a new piece by Klikovits, "When Love Is Gone." Although the disc includes just one theatre song — a bonus track of Weill and Brecht's "Pirate Jenny" — Greene is such a terrific storyteller that each song becomes a theatre piece in itself. As I've written before, Greene's emotional nakedness and fragility comes across in everything she sings. Just listen to her delivery of Simpson and Miller's "Ready for Love": Like the greatest of theatre ballads, in Greene's hands (and voice) the longing she expresses is completely heartbreaking.
Other highlights include fiery renditions of "Nothing Blues" and "Throwing Stones"; a reading of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" that includes some humorous, off-the-cuff remarks by back-up vocalist Maiya Sykes; the best version of Peter Allen's "Pretty Pretty" I've heard; a touching take of "Too Much Love Will Kill You"; and the aforementioned Klikovits ballad, "When Love Is Gone."
Two of my favorite tracks are Tori Amos' ravishing "Winter" and the wrenching "Love Is Everything" by Jane Siberry. It's impossible not to be moved as Greene pours her heart out in the Siberry lyric: "Love is everything they said it would be/ Love did not hold back the reins/ But love forgot to make me too blind to see/ You're chickening out aren't you?/ You're bangin' on the beach like an old tin drum/ I cant wait 'til you make/ The whole kingdom come/ So I'm leaving . . . I gave my love didn't I?/ And I gave it big sometimes/ And I gave it in my own sweet time/ I'm just leaving."
The recording is simply sensational, songs delivered with honest emotion by a multi-talented artist. With only a few months left until 2005, I believe "In His Eyes" is the solo vocal recording of the year.
[Though not yet in stores, "In His Eyes" will be available sometime next week via the internet. As soon as the website goes live, I will post the address. Those who can't wait for a copy, however, should head to Provincetown, where Greene is now playing through Aug. 30. The new CD will be available in the lobby before and after performances of her acclaimed concert, Torch. The actress and Klikovits are playing the UU Meeting House, located at 236 Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA. Call (508) 487-9793 for reservations; tickets are priced at $30.]
I've often said that a performer can't truly be appreciated until seen live. As much as I've enjoyed Maureen McGovern's recordings throughout the years, I had never seen the former 3 Penny star perform live until this past Saturday night. In person, the sound of her voice is even more beautiful than on disc. I was most impressed with her amazing control of her instrument — whether she's singing softly, belting full-out or occasionally scatting, McGovern has exquisite vocal agility. The performer, who will soon be seen in the new musical Little Women, has also grown tremendously as an interpreter throughout the years. On Saturday, she imbued a medley of Bacharach and David's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and "A House Is Not a Home" with a touching sincerity. Other highlights of the show — dubbed "Sultry Songs on a Hot Summer's Night" — included her opening, a beautiful rendition of William Finn's "I'd Rather Be Sailing"; a great take on that classic sultry song, "Fever"; a wonderful duet with bass player Jay Leonhart on Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy"; and her belty finale, "Blues in the Night." She also did well with two little-heard ditties, Jule Styne's "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'Em with a Ribbon" and William Bolcom's humorous "Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." McGovern was warm, funny and extremely appealing at Le Jazz Au Bar, where she concludes her run Aug. 22. The comfortable space, located within the nightclub Au Bar on East 58th Street, has standard cabaret tables and chairs as well as oversized couches, and is a great new addition to the cabaret scene. For reservations, call (212) 308-9455.
Initial casting was announced earlier this week for the Actors' Fund of America's fourth annual benefit concert, Hair. The Sept. 20 concert at the New Amsterdam Theatre will feature Kathy Brier, Gavin Creel, Darius de Haas, Harvey Fierstein, Hunter Foster, Ann Harada, Norm Lewis, Idina Menzel, Julia Murney, Adam Pascal, Billy Porter, RuPaul, Jai Rodriguez and Lillias White. These stellar talents will be joined by Anika Larsen, Paul Castree, Stephen Bienskie, Kate Coffman-Lloyd, Mary Faber, Trent Armand Kendall, Darius Nichols, Amanda Ryan Paige, Jason Little, Audrey Klinger, Aisha de Haas, Nell Snaidas, Ledisi, Julie Garnye, Mary Ann Hu, Chris Zelno, Brian Gloub, Eliseo Roman, Jason Little, Trent Armand and Bobby Daye. And, even more names are expected to join what has become one of the hottest tickets of the season. The brainchild of musical director Seth Rudetsky, Hair follows all star concerts of Dreamgirls, Funny Girl and, most recently, Chess. The one-night-only event will be held at the New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street. Tickets for the Hair concert are available by calling (212) 221-7300. For more information, go to www.actorsfund.org.
A host of Broadway favorites will be part of a benefit concert for the Gay Men's Health Crisis Oct. 25 in Manhattan. Titled Showstoppers: A Salute to the Best of Broadway, the evening will include performers re-creating some of their greatest stage work. Although the list is still in formation, those currently scheduled to appear include Melissa Errico, now on Broadway in Dracula; Tony Award-winning City of Angels star Randy Graff; current Wicked Wizard George Hearn; original West Side Story singer-actress Carol Lawrence; the first Annie, Andrea McArdle; Tony-winning Purlie star Melba Moore; two-time Tony Award winner Robert (How to Succeed, Tru) Morse; A Chorus Line Tony winner Priscilla Lopez; Falsettos' Stephen Bogardus; and the star of the original staging and subsequent film of Little Shop of Horrors, the aforementioned Ellen Greene. The evening, according to a GMHC spokesperson, will include solos, duets and group numbers. Peter Bogyo is producing the Showstoppers evening, which boasts direction by Broadway veteran Graciela Daniele and musical direction by Robert Billig. Tickets for the concert are on sale through Century Charge, (212) 721-6500. Benefit level tickets, which begin at $250, are available by e-mailing [email protected] or by calling (212) 367 1472. Tickets priced $500 and up will include a post-concert reception at Tavern on the Green.
And, finally, I received this e-mail from up-n-coming composer Scott Alan: "I know how you love your divas, so I just wanted to let you know I have updated my website with new music from my musical Piece with vocal performances by Stephanie J. Block, Julia Murney, Alison Fraser, Shoshana Bean, Kerry Butler and, well, Billy Porter, for good measure! I hope you enjoy what you hear, and that you will be able to attend the October 17 reading of Piece at the Makor. If you like anything you hear and feel like sharing the link to my site on your next posting for 'Diva Talk,' it would be greatly appreciated, as I am sure your readers will love to hear these vocal dynamites in any direction." So, here 'ya go: Click Here
Next week: An interview with Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth, who will make her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut Sept. 10. Coming soon: A chat with Wicked's new Glinda, Jennifer Laura Thompson.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]
(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)