I first met Sammy Goldstein at the MAC Awards last April, hours after he had won the award for Best Newcomer. In talking to him, I kidded him that he was like those performers who work 20 years to become an 'overnight' success, since he had quite the musical career before winning the award. Originally a musical comedy actor, he started working as a singer/pianist in a piano lounge in Los Angeles to support his acting, but discovered a career instead, one which not only supported him, but got him parts in TV shows and jobs playing for such Hollywood luminaries as Barbara Walters and David Geffen. Sammy recently came out from behind the piano and started performing solely as a vocalist, to great acclaim.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Sammy. I enjoyed meeting you at the MAC Awards in April. And you won the MAC Award for Best Newcomer that night!
Sammy: Well ... that's an interesting topic of conversation right there!
J: You mean how you were classified as a 'newcomer?' You've been performing for a long time, haven't you?
S: Yes, but as a singer/pianist in piano bars, at private parties and on cruise ships. Wally Harper, who co-presented the award with Barbara Cook, referred to the category as "cabaret's newcomers," but it sounded more like newcomers to the entertainment profession. And the category is actually for "New York solo cabaret debut." I'm not a newcomer to the business, but it was my debut cabaret show totally as a stand-up singer. Cabaret is, in essence, a new baby for me. But, with one exception, the only cabaret I ever did was in the early 90's as a singer/pianist, when I lived in Los Angeles. However, there really wasn't any difference between how I performed working at a piano bar versus a cabaret room. So, I stopped attempting cabaret in Los Angeles as a singer/pianist.
J: What do you find is the difference between performing at a piano bar and doing a cabaret show?
S: Well, in piano bars, when you're the one sitting behind the piano, it's about playing to the spontaneity of an immediate crowd; you're not doing a structured show. You're not necessarily picking the songs you want to do. Of course, it depends on your style. When I worked in piano bars, I encouraged requests, so every night and every hour was different, because it was based on spontaneity. In a cabaret show, you're doing a structured show; you're picking the songs, you're picking the theme, you're doing a solo show. You're not part of an ad-lib party atmosphere.
J: You're less background entertainment and more foreground.
S: We hope! In a piano bar, even if you are dynamite, you can be taken for granted, because people do talk in bars, and people do sing along sometimes. In a cabaret show, people don't talk ... (laughs) much! People don't sing along unless invited. So it's two totally different atmospheres. The similarity between the two is that, hopefully, one can be just as entertaining in a cabaret room as they are in a piano bar. And that's what I tried to do with those early attempts at cabaret in LA. But I found that I was too restricted and hidden sitting behind a piano.
I came to New York from LA in 1995 to perform at the Cabaret Convention as a singer/pianist. While I was here, I did two performances at Danny's Skylight Room. Half of the show I was at the piano and half of the show I sang standing up. Later that year, I contacted MAC about the Cabaret Debut category, and I was informed that I had to do four performances to be eligible. I was told that the next time I did a cabaret show, and did a minimum of four performances, I could submit myself for the Debut category. Then I ended up moving to New York in 1996, taking a two and a half year hiatus, and didn't do any public performing.
J: Why not?
S: I had attended the Cabaret Symposium in 1995 and realized that I needed to stand up and get out from behind the piano if I wanted to do cabaret. I decided that after all those years of piano bars, I had just had it. I was buried in bars and going nowhere. It was time to move up a level.
J: You're the first person I have talked to who has done the cabaret symposium. What exactly is it?
S: It's a ten or eleven day master-class, basically, and it really turned my life around, not just professionally, but personally. At the symposium, you are in an incredibly safe atmosphere, and supported to try new things. I never had that experience before, of being enveloped by caring, loving people who wanted to help. You're working with 15 or so teachers like Margaret Whiting, Julie Wilson, and the best musical directors around, and they are with the group of students all the time, so you're not getting just one person's opinion. It's like an open forum. A student, known as a "fellow," will go up and sing a song, and then everyone will offer their input. So you are getting all these different and wonderful opinions. You just have to learn how to sift through it and find what works for you. Some of the students are sheer beginners, some people have been professionals for years, but you are all there doing the same thing; you are all learning. My year, Tovah Feldshuh was a student. She had been a Tony nominee and had this major career going, but she was there to learn. And it was interesting to see rank beginners alongside seasoned professionals, all there to learn.
J: So I take it that you would recommend it?
J: How do you get accepted into the Cabaret Symposium?
S: It's strictly by audition. They have auditions in major cities, and audition tons of people. It's kind of a unique process, because they take, I think, 34 students and 2 observers.
J: Where is it held?
S: Waterford, Connecticut.
J: Do people do the symposium more than once?
S: No, just once. You can go back and observe, and some come back as teachers. It was very effective, because it got me to slow down. Working in piano bars had gotten me into the habit of rushing through songs; not really paying attention to the lyrics as much as entertaining the crowd. I was so busy entertaining, and trying to please everyone, that I wasn't giving the necessary attention to the songs themselves; to the lyric content and the emotion. And the symposium got me to take my time, listen to my lyrics, and be an artist, instead of just an entertainer. And that was the transition point for me.
I had started out as a musical comedy actor when I was in college, and when I got out of college, I was performing as an actor/singer/dancer. I became a pianist as an afterthought. I taught myself piano, got into piano bars as a career back-up and suddenly found myself doing nothing but piano bars. And I missed being back on my feet. After many years of piano bars, I knew I had to move on.
J: That's funny, because I have always envied people who could be self-contained acts because it cuts down on overhead so much!
S: Oh yes! It's great to be able to work solo in cabaret, and also make a living as a piano bar entertainer and do private parties, corporate events, cruise ships ... I could always work solo and make a lot more money. But in cabaret, I really feel that you're much better off when you are collaborating with someone, instead of making it a solo effort. In LA, I was too isolated as a singer/pianist on the cabaret stage. I would put a show together myself, perform it by myself, direct it myself ... and you need to collaborate with people; it's healthy.
J: You're right. You need that third eye for feedback.
Now do you mean to say that you didn't do any performing during those two and a half years? Not even at piano bars?
S: I played the private party circuit as a singer/pianist, which I still do. But, during that time, I only attempted a piano bar once. I played for five nights at the piano bar at Danny's. I just wanted to try it out and see if I enjoyed it again. And what it did was verify that I didn't want to do piano bars again, ever. As much as I like them, at times love them, and I feel that I'm good at them, I just don't want to be in that position again. I'm happy to be a singer/pianist at private parties or corporate events, or do a month on a cruise ship. But those are short term things.
Now I really don't want you to think that I'm down on piano bars. Piano bars gave me the opportunity of making a living doing music for many years and I learned so much about music and entertaining. I never would have performed at parties for celebrities like Barbara Walters, Henry Kissinger and David Geffen if I hadn't had all those years of experience working at piano bars. Nor would I have gotten the television work I did, in shows like Murder, She Wrote, as an actor/singer/pianist. It was a blessing to have, but it was time to transition into a different level.
Anyway, I ended my hiatus with my show last year. When nomination time rolled around, I wanted to make sure that I could legally be considered for the Cabaret Debut category, since I had done those two performances in 1995. I spoke to members of the eligibility committee, the committee discussed it, and they okayed me. I did have one person come up and say "Well, you're not really debuting because you've been performing for so many years." I explained that I had been performing all those years as a singer/pianist in piano bars, not as a stand-up cabaret performer. And a lot other people in the debut category this year have been doing other things as performers. For example, Karen Mack has a career in voice-overs and has done guest singing and directing in cabaret. Ken Roberson, I understand, was in two Broadway shows, and Christine Pedi co-starred in Forbidden Broadway. So it's not about being a newcomer to the entertainment business, but that, instead, you are making your solo New York cabaret debut. The only time they negate this is if you are a big name. Rita Moreno, for instance, had her cabaret debut this year at the Algonquin, but she can't be up for a debut award, because she's a major star. That's different.
J: You have a gig coming up in January. Where is it?
S: I'll be performing January 28th at The Egg, which is a theater complex in Albany. I think that their website is www.theegg.org. They do theater productions and bring in dance troops and specialty shows ... they have a full season of various kinds of performances. One of their programs is their cabaret series, where four times a year they bring in performers to do concerts. This year's season is Charles Cermele, Steven Brinberg doing Simply Barbara, Mark Nadler and Angela LeGreca doing a show together, and me. We each just do one night. I'll do a two-act concert, accompanied by my musical director Fred Wells, so it's a little over an hour and a half show. It's a 400+ seat theater, and it's a subscription series, so they usually have big crowds. I discovered that there are a lot of theaters around the country that do cabaret series like this. I've started collecting the names of various theaters when I see performers are doing shows. The next job is to compile them!
J: When you're done, give me a copy! Thank you for the interview, Sammy, and best of fates in Albany. Hopefully I'll see you at the MAC Awards again this year!
To learn more about Sammy Goldstein and his performance dates, visit his website: www.sammygoldstein.com. Sammy's CD, I'm Glad There is You, is available in stores across the country, or can be ordered by calling Original Cast Records at 1-888-627-3993.
I'm Glad There is You contains the following songs:
1. I'm Glad There Is You