"I wanted to make a CD people can play while they're eating," Craig Rubano explained. I'd asked him why his second solo album, Change Partners, is so much more low-key and intimate than his first. That debut recording, Finishing the Act, was mostly big-orchestra arrangements of big Broadway songs (all first-act finishers) sung in full voice. It was well received, winning a MAC Album of The Year Award and was on several "Best Of The Year" lists for 2000. But it's clear that Craig Rubano doesn't like to repeat himself. With a dramatic gesture, he explains "that first album was very presentational, very listen to me!," then goes on to say, "I knew I wanted to do something romantic."
Craig's live show featuring the songs on Change Partners is running now at the classy club The Hideaway Room at Helen's Supper Club, on Eighth Avenue near 19th Street in Manhattan. He has performed shows in many cities, in concert halls and in cabarets where only drinks are served, but Helen's is a supper club, so indeed people will be munching while he sings of love.
Is he starting to see himself more as a crooner these days? As Craig wrinkles his nose a bit and considers the word "crooner," I start to wish I'd brought my thesaurus to our coffee shop meeting. "I wouldn't say really crooooooning," he nearly crooned. But it's been changing. Touring the country in composer-themed shows (Rodgers, Coward, Arlen) has helped him develop his style. His first album was put together after a few years on Broadway (in both companies of The Scarlet Pimpernel and two years in a leading role in Les Miserables), so he was coming from that perspective as a performer. Lately, he's done shows with singers such as K. T. Sullivan, Heather MacRae and Mark Nadler and with a variety of musical directors.
"I've learned so much from the wonderful people I've had the pleasure of working with along the way, and from the the experience I've had in performance," says Craig, who has never had a formal voice or acting lesson. He never intended to be a performer and had only sung "for fun" in college. The college was Yale and the group was the historic Whiffenpoofs and they ended up at Carnegie Hall. "Choir work, in particular, is a great learning thing to do," he says.
Craig is eager to talk about the songs he's doing because he is in love with these love songs. It's been almost five years between CDs and he has been keeping lists of songs he always liked and some he has discovered since 2000. He shows me the pad of paper he has with him at all times, where he scribbles the titles of songs as they cross his path. And, oh, does he love to research them. "It's what I do. It's me," he shrugs and tells me of The Green Book of indexed songs, arranged by subject matter, that he uses.
He rented the 1938 film Carefree to view the original context of the Irving Berlin song "Change Partners," sung by Fred Astaire, playing a psychiatrist who happens to dance really well. He falls in love with his patient and tries to hypnotize her into falling in love with him during the number. "It's a bizarre little movie," says Craig with a characteristic impish grin.
The songs on the new CD are all about changing partners - in life, not just for a spin on the dance floor. They vary in perspective and mood: seeking, finding and losing partners and back again. Hopeful confidence is shown in "Everything Is Possible," a rarely-heard gem from the musical Nefertiti, which contrasts with the self-explanatory "The Thrill Is Gone." Included is the unjustly ignored "Love Is Only Love," cut from Mame but put in the film version of Hello, Dolly! by its songwriter Jerry Herman. "He's very excited that I've recorded it," Craig can happily proclaim.
I've enjoyed seeing Craig sing on several occasions and understand why he is a favorite of audiences, critics and other performers. He has presence and passion and a sense of joy. It all transmits. He does his homework but doesn't get clinical or analytical or even cynical. I wonder what "tip" he'd give an aspiring singer about how to approach a song. "Know what you're singing about. Every word of it." I ask him to think back on the many times he's heard cabaret singers talk about what a song or set of songs should "do." If he could banish one overused word from those pontifications, what would it be? He thinks for the briefest moment and his face changes totally, showing controlled disgust as he distinctly says the word "journey." "Every time I hear someone say it, I just cringe."
Craig is a serious scholar, though he can be quirky and mischievous. After we met, I thought about that and e-mailed him a few follow-up questions. "What were you like as a kid?" I typed. "I was never a kid!" he shot back. I also queried him about his one "guilty pop-culture pleasure" and he replied that it is the "N" Channel on cable TV. Staying in a less serious vein, he confesses that, he's "... obsessed with pigs. I have a rather large pig collection." Since he revealed this just after I inquired about his early role as Wilbur The Pig in Charles Strouse's musical version of Charlotte's Web, I'll assume it came from that and not from some early childhood psychotic fixation.
Getting back to the music, Craig rarely approaches recent songs. He sounds so at home with the songs of the 1930s and '40s, I asked him if he ever wishes he had lived in that era. "I'm glad to have been born in a time when there is air conditioning!!" More seriously, he adds, "I am coming into my career at a time when people are still alive who knew the folks who wrote The Great American Songbook. I'm the last generation with a direct link. I think it adds a poignancy and importance to keeping the Songbook alive and well."
In Change Partners, his musical partner is the talented and in-demand Alex Rybeck. Craig first heard him as Jeff Harnar's musical director in the first cabaret act he ever saw. "I learned so much from Jeff - so much about how to put together an act and perform."
Craig openly admits to some romantic ups and downs in the last few years - part of the impetus for choosing these songs and interpreting them from the perspective he has gained. He looks forward to singing them that way for you in a person-to-person way, but he won't go on and on about the "journey." He just wants you to listen. And, remember, he also wants you to eat.
Craig Rubano: Change Partners continues at Helen's Hideaway, 169 Eight Avenue, Manhattan, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. throughout February. For reservations, phone 212-206-0609. For more information, visit www.craigrubano.com
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