Also see Rob's interview with Jasper Kump
Earlier this month, Shawn Ryan was singing in Heaven. Sounds appropriate for a guy who can croon love songs in angelic tones, but Heaven is also the name of a club in Palm Springs and was part of a 33-city tour. The couldn't-be-happier performer says his professional and personal lives both seem Heaven-sent these days. (It seemed appropriate, then, that the restaurant where we met to chat is called Utopia.)
Shawn's stop in New York City this week is just in the time for an appearance in one of the concerts in the annual week-long Cabaret Convention and then a three-consecutive-night gig at The Encore. "I'm really excited to have been so welcomed into the New York cabaret community," he enthuses between sips of coffee. This week he'll be singing many of the tunes from his recent CD, Blue Skies, and he says that particular Irving Berlin song expresses how he feels about his current state, as he quoted, "Nothing but blue skies do I see."
Things are definitely going well, with successful engagements from his hometown of Phoenix to Crete to Barcelona, and getting his CD into stores and sold on the Internet. Blue Skies is on the LML record label, run by fellow singer Lee Lessack - "an artist who fully understands" a singer's perspective.
Despite his relaxed and casual boy-next-door manner, Shawn is serious and businesslike about his career. He has a manager and a publicist and plans things carefully. He also has a bit of a devilish side. "People see my [promotional] postcard with this baby-faced blond and they don't expect the crazy fun in my show. I'm sort of like the love child of Charles Nelson Reilly and Tallulah Bankhead." Much as he adores love songs like "Moon River," he also relishes a sarcastic lyric such as David Friedman's "My Simple Christmas Wish," or a quirky tune like Jay Leonhart's "Beat My Dog." He enjoys joking with the audience and can be pretty uninhibited. "I don't think I could censor myself if I tried." He admires a cabaret performer like Craig Rubano whose interpretations he finds especially romantic, but says "my perspective is a bit twisted."
The current show is about 75% songs from the CD, but includes other material like a giant eight-song, fifteen-minute Frank Loesser medley. It's a falling-in-love saga, and Shawn is very comfortable talking about his own romantic road in the show. His being gay has not been an issue personally or professionally and he's matter-of-fact about it, just relating his own story of his five-year relationship with his partner John. I first met Shawn and John the night of this year's MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards: Shawn was nominated in the "debut" category for his first New York club engagement. But it was a different kind of engagement that happened that same week that is making him smile. "The night after you met me," he reveals, "John got down on one knee in the street and proposed to me." They are having a marriage ceremony next spring.
I asked about online visibility. "Hands down, the Internet has been the best thing," he states. CD sales have come from people casually browsing for new jazz singers, or people who knew him growing up who stumbled upon a mention of him somewhere. He's been discovered via confusion with another Shawn Ryan who has a similarly-named website ("I think he's a rock climber or something") - Shawn the singer's website is www.shawn-ryan.com.
With a sense of humor and a sense of reality about cabaret, the California-based singer takes things in his stride, such as performing in a club where the spinning ceiling fan was so low (or, at over 6' 3", he was so tall), it appeared to be growing out of his head. He recalls a long-ago daytime gig involving the human kind of fan. Only seven people showed up for the show, which had been packed the week before, but two fans asked if they could organize a fan club and start a newsletter. Although he felt odd about the term "fan club," it has led to a monthly newsletter subscription base of 8000 people.
No matter how someone is exposed to his music, Shawn is elated when he finds it's the first cabaret experience for an audience member. "Some of them get dragged in," others have a misconception of what cabaret is. "In the South, someone said, 'Cabaret? So that's like pole dancing?' and wondered what his act and wardrobe might be like.
He loves "pure entertainers who could do it all, like Mickey Rooney." Working with the jazz musicians in the Kelly Park Trio, he finds people more comfortable with the description "jazz," even if the jazz-inflected cabaret is not quite what they'd expected. Describing the improvisational playfulness with bass player Daniel Fabricant, he remarks, "at points it feels like the two of us are two kids in a sandbox." They mix it up, and a dash of improv comedy comes out, too. Shawn enjoys changing the set list and spoken sections based on audience reactions. "If someone gets the giggles right before I'm supposed to do a serious song, I have to go with the moment and say something." He might get back to the serious moment later - or maybe not. He likes things to feel natural. "I never wanted to move stage left before a ballad and lean thoughtfully against a wall."
His eyes brighten as he talks of how excited he was having icon chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci come see his show (she's quoted as saying Shawn is "just what cabaret needs"). He enjoyed seeing her and many others in Sunday's HeartSong, benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina. In May and June, Shawn lived and performed in New Orleans, and he was of course especially touched by the tragedy and the musicians he met. Closer to home, early encouragement came from Lillias White who met him when they were booked in the same hotel. She caught his act and he caught her advice: "'Just keep doin' it'," she told me. It sounds so simple..."
"Acting is my first love," and he's still pursuing that. He says he's usually cast as "the good guy, the best friend." If he could be his own casting agent, he'd want to play the Gene Kelly role in Singin' In The Rain or play a character like the misfits in the current hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But for now, he's busy playing the role of romantic balladeer with a major twinkle in his eye ... and blue skies above. If there's a cloud somewhere, he's not looking that way.
Shawn Ryan is at The Encore on West 47th Street on October 22 at 11 pm, and
October 23 and 24, both at 9:30 pm. Reservations: 212-221-3960. For more information, visit www.theencorenyc.com. He also performs
two songs at The Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center tomorrow (Wednesday night,
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