by Rob Lester
She appeared at The Cabaret Convention concerts and did a sold-out one-nighter at The Metropolitan Room last October, when we first met. As I wait to interview her after the third show in her run (again at the Metropolitan), it's very much the same fervent, festive feeling. "It's insane!" she cries as new fans and those who remember her from her recordings or some of her 76 guest spots on TV's "The Tonight Show" cheer, hug her, cry, and line up to buy the CDs of old and newer recordings. That October night, like tonight, she was as lively as could be at 1:00 in the morning as the crowd waited and waited to tell her things like, "You know, here in New York, a standing ovation hardly ever happens in a cabaret room" (she shrugs modestly and says she's glad they came) and "I'm a singer, too, and I'm sorry to gush but you're just amazing." ("Go ahead and gush!" she grins) and "You're amazing. Your voice is in phenomenal shape! You're fabulous!" ("Tell the world!" she calls after them, waving them goodnight.)
Marilyn compares her shows to a party with old friends. "It's fun. The audience is supposed to have a good time. They're supposed to be happy. And they're supposed to cry," she adds pointedly, remarking on the need for the audience to feel the pathos in a ballad. Her connection with the audience begins the moment she takes the stage singing vibrantly, "The Song Is You," looking directly at audience members and pulling them in. "I don't make them come to me. I hope that it's an exchange and an interplay." She also enjoys the interaction with the audience and her trio: Jim Eklof on drums (they've worked together since the '60s), Tom Hubbard on bass and Billy Stritch, her musical director and sometime duet partner. "You were good," says Billy with a wink, patting her hand as he leaves us to our interview. "Mmmm, you did a few new things tonight," she replies with admiration as he waves goodnight.
Commenting on the Metropolitan Room, the West 22nd Street New York nightclub where Billy was the first performer for its opening last May, Marilyn enthuses, "I love the room. It's wonderful." She praises the sound in the club and how its intimacy lets the crowd respond to the more dramatic songs. "When I go into a ballad, they don't move a muscle. They really get it."
She approaches her serious songs theatrically. "Every song is a vignette. Every song is a little one-act play." Her work as a musical theater actress informed that approach, but the nuanced characterization style was not a new style for her. "No, I always did that," she replies simply, indicating her approach to a character ballad like "Something Cool" wherein a troubled woman tries to make a good impression on a man she's talking to at a bar by deluding him and probably herself. She incorporates nervous gestures, forced smiles, reactions that presume the other half of the conversation. In "Guess Who I Saw Today" she is a wife addressing her husband in a difficult moment. In both situations, she incorporates gestures, adopts nervous tics, changes her physical stance to suggest moments of more or less confidence and her eyes and facial expressions change as she's recalling a detail or looking at the imagined man to gauge his reaction. But in other numbers, like "Old Friends" from Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along she addresses the audience directly with the lyrics, making eye contact and creating a bond. "I just go for the lyric. Always the lyric first. It has to have a message."
Marilyn Maye has been delivering those messages for decades now. "I was the overnight success who'd been working for 20 years." She's enjoyed club work, singing jazz and Broadway songs, recording and performing in musical theater, and doesn't find them vastly different. "I love doing Hello, Dolly! because Dolly goes to the audience," she says, noting the way the opportunities in the show let the character break the fourth wall and address some speeches to the audience and make comments. "That was very natural for me." It's a favorite role, which she performed for many seasons, and a favorite score.
In fact, her very first record album (back in 1965 when the show was on Broadway) included the title song. After playing the role, she recorded an album (just transferred to CD for the first time) on which she sings 11 songs from the score, including a few sung by other characters in the actual musical. Some were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and some with a jazz band. The liner notes refer to her as having "great versatility and vocal range" and "an extraordinary combination of singing and acting talent." High praise indeed, and it was penned by the man who wrote the score, Jerry Herman. She also played the title role in another of his musicals, Mame. "I loved playing Mame because her philosophy is the same as mine: 'Life is a banquet and most people are starving to death.'" She closes the show these days with that musical's song that encourages living life to the fullest: "It's Today."
The first part Marilyn Maye played was the lead in Can-Can in her home base of Kansas City. The character, Pistache, gets to sing "I Love Paris" and "C'est Magnifique" in this musical set in Paris. "But they didn't ask me to do it with a French accent, thank goodness!" Did she have the same difficulty that some singers have had trying to expand into acting, in that they weren't considered or couldn't get an audition because they were typed as just nightclub singers and had no theatrical background? "No, the part really came to me. I never auditioned for it. I never went out for anything." She remembers the people involved coming to see her perform in Kansas City and thinking she'd be right for the role and they had a 9,000-seat amphitheater to fill. "They knew that I would draw" because she'd long been attracting big crowds in the same city. "And we broke all attendance records. They'd been open for 20 years." She smiles. "And they knew I could sing those Cole Porter songs. They even added two more Cole Porter songs [that weren't in the original score]. 'Just One of Those Things' was one." (It was also added to the film version, where it was an extra song for Maurice Chevalier.) We do a whole Cole Porter show now. It's so wonderful to do that music."
Marilyn sometimes personalizes songs by adding extra lyrics. There are also special lyrics for a couple of the Ray Charles songs she does in the show. They're also on her newest CD, Maye Sings Ray, with musical director Billy Stritch playing and singing some duets. The original lines get a good response. Her set list varies somewhat from show to show, but she often does the Broadway tunes she introduced on record, such as the title songs of Cabaret and Sherry! and the rousing "Step to the Rear" from How Now, Dow Jones.. She includes songs by Steve Allen who gave her early national TV exposure, featuring two numbers from his score to Sophie.
Though Marilyn hadn't performed here for years, New York holds memories. Her seven RCA record albums (1965-1970) were all made in New York City, mostly at Webster Hall. Her second, The Second of Maye, was a live album also recorded in the city at a club called The Living Room with a quartet led by Sammy Tucker. "Yes, he was my husband. My alcoholic husband. Such a time. Oh, my God. Unbelievable. I'm finally talking about it now that he's gone. I didn't talk about it at the time."
We are interrupted for a moment as she stops and hugs a dear friend and former co-star who's just caught the show tonight. "My Buddy!" she hugs him as we are chatting and he passes by. It's Follies veteran Harvey Evans, who played Buddy to her Sally in a Texas production of Follies. "I'm coming back to the show and bringing Barbara [Cook]!" he tells her. Recalling another production of Follies she was in, she laughs and says, "They'd already cast Sally by the time I got there. But actually, I just wanted to be in something at that point so I could get my [Actors] Equity insurance," she admits with a tone of practicality that is typical of her forthright nature. And she ended up getting the role of Carlotta, who gets the plum spot doing the ultimate survivor's anthem, "I'm Still Here." It's a song this veteran relates to. Talking about being in the very emotional show, she says at first, "It was fun," and then clarifies. "No. It wasn't fun. It was not fun because it's so ... I got so into it." She decides that calling the experience "rewarding" professionally would be a more apt description. "I really had to pick myself up after each show because you get pretty depressed!" and she laughs her hearty laugh again. "It's a fabulous show but it's pretty draining." She recalls that the choreographer told her, "I'm not even going to attempt to set 'I'm Still Here' with you. I'm just going to sit here and take notes on what you do with it, and the next time I do the show I'm going to use that.' So, I was very flattered by that."
But I love this, she says of her cabaret work. "I love being off-the-cuff. I love improvising. I never say the same thing twice. There are stock things, of course." She looks up as someone asks her about her recordings. She's made a few albums in more recent years (see note below) and a CD reissue combines her two favorites of her early albums, Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye and The Lamp is Low. The latter includes a track that was chosen as one of the "100 Best Recordings of the 20th Century" by The Smithsonian Institution. "A friend of mine called me up and said, 'Do you know you're in the Smithsonian Institution?" I had no idea." The track is the Burton Lane/ Alan Jay Lerner ballad from the film Royal Wedding, "Too Late Now."
And it seemed too late now to continue as it was 1:30 in the morning, but Marilyn Maye is not going off to sleep and her lamp is not low. The high-energy lady has changed from her sequined jacket and is off to another club to spend some time with friends, bouncing out the door with quick steps into the New York night ... make that morning.
Marilyn Maye with trio (Billy Stritch on piano and vocals, Jim Eklof on drums, Tom Hubbard on bass) play the Metropolitan Room at Gotham, located at 34 West 22nd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) through Sunday, April 1. Cover charge is $25 and a two-drink minimum applies. Reservations by phone: 212-206-0440. Remaining shows are Thursday, March 29 at 10:30 pm; Friday March 30 at 8 pm and 10:30 pm; Saturday, March 31 at 8 pm and 10:30 pm; Sunday, April 1 at 7:00 and 9:30 pm. Visit www.metropolitanroom.com for more information
Note on CDs: To inquire about buying CDs by mail, call 816-591-1114 or email email@example.com or write: Double M Productions, 12609 Ballentine St., Overland Park, Kansas 66213.
The March 29th installment of our weekly Sound Advice covers Marilyn Maye's most recent work, the Ray Charles tribute album and the first CD issue of the Hello, Dolly! songs.