On Foot with Jason Graae

By Rob Lester

Jason Graae is feeling nostalgic. We meet soon after he has taken the red-eye to New York City for one of his "too infrequent" return trips; we're not far from where he used to live and he wants to look around. "How do you feel about walking?" he asks hopefully. "I think we could get some coffee over here if we veer left. Do you veer?" We end up walking, chatting and veering for 26 blocks. It's a late January afternoon, a brisk one, and he walks and talks briskly, too. I don't credit the caffeine; this actor-singer is known for his high energy and even manic persona. "Actually, I woke up at the crack of noon," he says, drinking in the old sights and the java. At one point, he says he's sure he has recognized some people he used to see walking around the neighborhood when he lived here full time. "They look familiar, but they're all just ... older." We sidestep the midday crowds on lunch break, a construction site, uncurbed dogs and a massive spill of what appears to be several gallons of bright red tomato sauce in the middle of the sidewalk.

Jason is carrying a plain black notebook with his sheet music: songs written by Fats Waller or Dorothy Fields. It's for a concert of their work that has brought him to town, a repeat of a Merkin Concert Hall event from last year. Will anything will be different this time? "It'll be different this time around because I really know my lyrics!" he laughs. "I've had a year to work on 'em, so I should really not be panicked in the wings like I was last time. It's a fun concert."

When he was told there would be a New York Festival of Song concert called "Fats & Fields," he claims he didn't understand. "I thought it was Totie Fields at first," referring to the rotund comedienne popular on TV and clubs in the 1960s. What he calls the "really peculiar combination that actually works" is a pairing that resulted simply because the two writers both had centennial birthday celebrations last year. Jason tells me how he enjoyed learning interesting tidbits about the two writers and their times through this fun concert, which includes the telling of some of incredible anecdotes and insight provided by Steven Blier, who put the event together and is the host and pianist. "His piano playing is incredible," enthuses the never blah Graae. "There's that ever-popular debate about who really wrote 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love,' and we address that, but that's all I'm going to say," he reports with a teasing tone.

One of his favorite moments is when he gets to play the oboe, the instrument that he played for years and was part of his major in college. Oddly enough, "unbeknownst to me, James Martin, the other male singer in the show, also played the oboe. He was an oboe major in college, also." So they both grabbed the chance to play what Jason calls, "a bit of 'Dueling Oboes,' if you will" on the Fats Waller melody, "The Jitterbug Waltz." The two out-of-practice players had to make up for the years of neglect. "We were so awful at first that [at rehearsal] the women singers were howling. They couldn't get through it at first because they were laughing at how horrible we were. " But they worked hard and by show time "it was great ... a renaissance of my oboe career," he adds, affecting the exaggerated character voice of a snob. He's anything but.

Speaking fondly of one of the ladies he'll share the stage with at Merkin Hall this Tuesday, Jason remarks, "Any time Judy Kaye is performing is a good enough reason to come to see anything. There are two great opera singers, too: James Martin and Jennifer Aylmer. And then there's me - the musical comedy trash."

As we stomp through his old stomping grounds, he is singing one of the Dorothy Fields songs he particularly likes: "I am blue again, blue again/ And you know darn well it's you again/ 'Cause you said last night we are through again/ And I am blue again ..." He calls it "wry and kind of sad and maudlin but kind of amusing," and adds, " It's kind of strange. I love that. It's morose and cynical. The person is kind of suicidal, but uses perfect rhymes."

Other music running through his head is from The Grand Tour in California. Co-book writer Mark Bramble and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman were actively involved in the production. Herman tweaked "Mrs. S. L. Jacobowsky," which Jason calls his favorite Herman tune from any show. "He did a rewrite and it was brilliant." Jason exuberantly sings a few lines for me as we cross the street and escape being hit by an oncoming car as he obliviously croons. They also restored "I Wanna Live Each Night," which had been cut [but used in Miss Spectacular]. Jerry Herman fans may be intrigued but frustrated to know that he wrote a brand new - but ultimately cut - song just for this revisal, "called 'The Red and the Black' that the Nazi sang, and it was very dark." Eventually, Herman decided it didn't really fit. "But he had a ball writing." And Jason had the time of his life playing the role. "I knew it was the best role I'd ever get. That was it. I peaked in Burbank."

California critics, including Talkin' Broadway's own, were impressed by his characterization in this role created by Joel Grey. He has more in common with that performer than just the initials. Both are noted for character work, spunk and infectious charm in song-and-dance roles. Jason says he's been called "elfin" in reviews more times than he might wish, and also "mischievous.". Was he the class clown as a boy? "No, I sat next to the class clown. And learned everything from him."

Future plans? "I traveled so much last year, I'm trying to stay in L.A. I've got some concerts coming up with Susan Egan." The two long to do a stage production of the 1965 musical Drat! The Cat! which they both fell in love with while recording a studio cast album of the score. He'd also love to be in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Seeing Norbert Leo Butz's performance, "I thought, 'Damn it, I'd really like a crack at that.'" I ask him to name another character that he should portray in a musical. With the professional comic timing he's known for, he pauses just long enough and says, "Evita."

More seriously, he remarks that he'd love to find something like roles he found especially rewarding: Mendel in Falsettos and the title role in Candide. "That was a turning point for me" in making choices where, "I began to get a little pickier." I think of everything as pre-Candide and post-Candide." He also has fond memories from his 20s, playing another title character, Snoopy where his doghouse on Broadway had a slit between slats that let him look out and watch the stage and the audience. In more recent times, he's especially enjoyed his "side career" in opera, sharing stages with divas like Frederica Von Staade.

As for professional disappointments or regrets, he can't think of many, except not being cast as the lead in a show he'd done in many workshops and loved. It was Birds of Paradise and he was offered the position of standby, but turned it down.

What continues to inspire him is working with - or just seeing - talented people. "It makes me excited to be in the same business." Most recently, he was impressed seeing young singer-songwriter Johnny Rodgers. "He's great! So talented." Excited to be back in town, Jason is seeing new shows and old pals. He'll linger just long enough to participate in The Nightlife Awards at the Town Hall on Monday, February 6 (the all-performing, no-acceptance-speeches awards show). He's the winner in the category, "Outstanding Cabaret Musical Comedy/Characterization Performance." He'll be leaving right after that, but is eager to return for a Lincoln Center concert of David Zippel songs with Barbara Cook. "You know, I never intended to move to L.A.! I just got evicted from my apartment here."

Jason Graae appears with Judy Kaye, James Martin, Jennifer Aylmer and Steven Blier on Tuesday, January 31, at 8:00 pm. The New York Festival of Song: Fats & Fields is a tribute to songwriter Fats Waller and lyricist Dorothy Fields. At Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street. Single ticket prices are $45, $35 for seniors, and $22.50 for students one half-hour before show time. Tickets are available by phone at 212-501-3330, online at www.kaufman-center.org, or at the Merkin Concert Hall Box Office, 129 West 67th Street. Visit the NYFOS website at www.nyfos.org.

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