Singer/pianist Steve Ross is the epitome of sophisticated "Café" cabaret. One of the foremost interpreters of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, his performances invoke the elegant style and wicked wit of the era that spawned both brilliant composers. He is as delightful to watch perform as he is to hear, and it was a delight to chat with him as he was gearing up for a run at the equally elegant Firebird in New York.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Steve. At the time of this interview, you are about to wrap up the week long Cabaret Convention in New York. What did you perform yesterday at the Convention?
Steve: Everybody was doing songs sung by Mabel Mercer, so I told my story and performed a Bart Howard song, and did "These Foolish Things."
The big surprise last night was Polly Bergen, who made a stunning comeback.
J: I'm not familiar with her, I'm afraid ...
S: She was a star in the '50s and then laid low for many years before starting to perform again recently. She's going to be in the new production of Follies.
J: That's right! Now I remember ... Cabaret Scenes did a big article on her in their October issue.
But this isn't about Mabel or Polly; it's about you! You're doing a show at The Firebird that runs through December 2nd. Is there a theme?
S: No. I'm doing a rather mixed show that actually contains a lot of Kander and Ebb songs in it. While I was putting together the show, I realized that I knew a lot of their songs and had always wanted to perform them, so ...
S: True! It's also a departure in that I'm working with a director for the first time. His name is Duncan Knowles and I met him in London. He's an actor and a singer there and he's been very helpful providing musical collaboration and direction. It's been very good for me, actually.
J: What made you decide to work with a director at this point in your career?
S: He's a friend, and while I was doing a show on Noel Coward in London he offered some very apposite comments about the show. I liked his insights and thought he was very clear, and since I never listen to myself perform enough I asked him if he would like to help me put together a show. As I already mentioned, I had wanted to do several Kander and Ebb songs, and as we are want to do in the Cabaret world, I really wanted to get a handle on them and make them 'mine' and he was very helpful with that. He's also getting me to 'act' more, because I'm doing songs like "Mr. Cellophane." So he's helping me clean-up my act, so to speak.
J: What is the title of the show going to be?
S: Love and Laughter: The Sequel.
J: You already mentioned one set of modern songwriters that you like. I'm wondering what other contemporary writers you like?
S: I suspect my favorites would be among the top ones of today: Michele Brourman, Amanda McBroom, Steven Lutvak, Craig Carnelia ... I also like Ann Hampton Callaway, Carol Hall ... I'm going to be doing one of her songs in my show "Circle of Friends." It's interesting: in the old days, the composers and lyricists never really could sing. They may have attempted it, but you accepted the fact that you were mainly there to listen to them for the authenticity of the writer performing his own work. But now, everybody sings wonderfully!
J: How did you get involved in Cabaret?
S: There really wasn't a cabaret scene per se when I got involved thirty years ago; there was Bobby Short and nobody else. Cabaret, meaning a specifically centered evening, kind of evolved, largely thanks to Bobby ... he was such a trailblazer. When I started, we just did sets of songs. The idea of the evening being more dramatized came later, and with that came the advent of using directors. Mabel Mercer used to do just sets of songs; very satisfying, but the idea of performing for an hour, with everybody shutting up and listening to everything you said and sang ... that didn't come until later, and it made the art form more specific.
Anyway, I started performing at a wonderful place called Ted Hook's Backstage, which was a very lively piano bar in the theater district. Little by little, I got more focused from being just a pianist in the background to being a piano bar performer, to being a piano player that did actual shows. Then I went over to the Algonquin when they reopened the Oak Room in 1981. I was the first person in forty years to do a show there.
J: That's about the time you were doing a cabaret-themed radio show, right?
S: Yes. It was a lovely thing sponsored by American Express for Public Radio here called "New York Cabaret Nights" and we had everybody in the world on it. I guess they were all taped; we never asked about that.
J: How long did the show run?
S: Twenty-six weeks, and they were two to three hours in length.
J: Were you into Cole Porter and Noel Coward growing up?
S: Kind of. I knew about them, certainly and knew a lot of the songs, especially the showtunes. My mother was a pianist, and my aunt was a singer, so I was raised around music. I was a young man before the '60s, so when the whole musical revolution took place, I was already grounded in the other stuff.
J: It came as a surprise to me when you mentioned back in June that you had been in the Army for a while.
S: Yes. I also had a stint in the seminary ... I did a lot of things ...
J: ... before becoming a fabulous singer/pianist. Did you play piano during all of that?
S: I have always been a keyboardist. It was something I have done since I was six or seven years old and it has been a running theme in my life. In the seminary I played the organ, in the Army I played shows for the troops ... I don't think they wanted to hear showtunes, but ... I would wheel the piano around and entertain in the hospitals. I finally decided to try and make a living doing it. I left school and went to Washington to become a cocktail pianist, and I've been doing it ever since.
J: You never had aspirations at becoming an actor?
S: No. I ended up on Broadway a few years ago, but it was a fluke.
J: What show was that?
S: Noel Coward's Present Laughter with Frank Langella. I played the piano and sang during the show.
J: Do you ever perform strictly as a singer?
S: Not very often. When you simply focus on singing or playing and not doing both, you can devote all your energy to that one area and are completely free, instead of splitting your energy between the fingers and the voice. Most of the time, the attention primarily goes to my fingers: I was a pianist first, so that's my default setting. When I play for a singer, for example, I tend to come up with ideas that I wouldn't if I were playing for myself. I sometimes like to use a singer as a guinea pig for numbers that I plan on performing, just so I can see what I would come up with accompaniment-wise.
J: What do you have coming up after your run at The Firebird?
S: I'm going to go to Brazil; I haven't been there in 15 years. They have a jazz club and I'll be performing there. Nothing too much has come up for the beginning of next year, though. I've been working with all these 'Dames;' I worked with Julie Wilson and Karen Akers in Pizza on the Park in London last summer, and I did a wonderful show with Judy Carmichael. She's a jazz stride pianist in the style of Fats Waller. She and I did a show called Style Meets Stride; Cole Porter Meets Fats Waller. It was a great success, and she and I may be teaming up again. I've been doing a lot of collaborative work with these women which is wonderful.
J: Any plans to record an album with any of them?
S: If I had a lot of money, I thought it would be fun to do an album of Steve Ross and his Ladies, and do a duet or two with all these women. What do you think about that?
J: I know I'd buy it.
S: You'd buy it because you have blind affection (laughing)! It would be fun to record duets with Judy and Karen and Julie ...
J: Do you find that your style varies when you work with other performers?
S: No, not really.
Oh! Here's something interesting that I'm doing. On November 12th I'll be going to Chicago for The Chicago Humanities Festival which is a symposium/performance event. Last year they honored Noel Coward and Cole Porter. On the 12th they will be honoring Johnny Mercer. Margaret Whiting will be singing and I will be doing a double piano number with one of my great favorites, Billy Stritch.
J: Sounds like fun! I wish you the very best, and have a great run at the Firebird!
Steve Ross will be appearing at The Firebird, located at 365 West 46th Street in New York through December 2nd. Performance times are 9:30pm on Thursday nights, and 9:00pm and 11:00pm on Friday and Saturday nights. For reservations call (212) 586-0244. For more information on Steve Ross, visit his website at http://www.steveross.net
On a side note: I am constantly receiving e-mail from people who are interested in putting together a cabaret show, but have no idea what to do or where to start. Finally, for those interested in joining our special band of fourth-wall breaking performers, a wonderful resource has been published, The Cabaret Artist's Handbook: Creating Your Own Act in Today's Liveliest Theater Setting. The book compiles columns by the late Back Stage writer Bob Harrington, who started the Bistro Bits column in said magazine and instituted the Bistro Awards. Whether you are just starting out or have been doing cabaret for decades, The Cabaret Artist's Handbook is a must-have resource. From picking out material and getting rights for songs, to putting an act together and getting people in the seats, Bob Harrington provides thought provoking and highly informative insights that are guaranteed to make the process a lot easier, if not saner. The Cabaret Artist's Handbook is available at most theater bookstores, Internet book sellers, and Stage and Screen.