by Rob Lester
Singer-actress Andréa Burns will be performing on Monday, August 14th at 10 p.m. at The Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues (one night only). During a busy week preparing, she took time out to share some time and thoughts on her work.
"It was my first big break in New York," says Andréa Burns of the theater piece Songs for a New World, which brought her to the attention of many theater lovers and CD listeners. Her own new world involves a rare dare to do her own act, recently becoming a mother, recording a contemporary dance music track, preparing for a new musical and planning her debut solo album. She tells me that two of the musical worlds she loves are show tunes and pop. The upcoming club act, she says, "is a bit of a marriage of those two worlds." Explaining how that marriage came about, she tells me, "As a little girl I was obsessed with 70s female pop singers but I became a musical theatre soprano instead."
In fact, it was her own marriage partner [director Peter Flynn] whose smooth talking led to the booking. (She says he keeps her grounded in show business where things can get "myopic" and their shared humor also keeps her sane.) Producer Jayson Raitt wondered if Andréa had a club act. "Actually, he spoke to my husband first. Jayson had worked with Peter and told him hed like to produce my solo show if I had an act that was ready to go. The truth is, I had never done my own solo show but I had talked about it for years. Peter, knowing I always work better under pressure, assured him that I indeed already had a pre-existing show and that Id be delighted to put it up this summer. Aaaahhh! Suddenly the date was set and I literally had to 'get my act together'!" Although most of her work on stages has involved singing as characters in musicals, cabarets and nightclubs are not foreign territory. "Ive sung in a lot of clubs around town over the years with composers and Ive always loved the relaxed vibe of being myself in front of an audience. Its entirely different from playing a character onstage and I find it very freeing and quite fun, actually."
With eclectic tastes and many songwriters she admires (some friends and colleagues), she at first was uncertain about how to come up with a set list. "Once I picked a few songs, though, I began to see a tone was developing, musically and emotionally, and the songs started to choose themselves. Most come out of some personal story." Her musical director is Steve Marzullo in whom she has found a kindred spirit. "We have a lot of the same tastes in music and a similar sensibility so that made the process fun and easy. We both come from a more classical training background, but we both love '70s pop music and were obsessed at a young age with Broadway musicals." So they will include some pop faves side by side with theater classics such as "Something Wonderful" from The King and I. "Hes an incredible talent," she says of Marzullo, who is also a composer and arranger.
The Metropolitan Room evening, which she calls "a bit of a variety show" will include personal reflections and some songs she has on her list to record for the solo album she has been waiting some time to record. "It's finally happening!" she exults, but still in the beginning stages. One song Andréa will have in store for her audience Monday is "This Moment," which is also included on the album she's on, It's Only Life, released this spring. It's based on a concert of songs by John Bucchino presented at Lincoln Center in which Andréa participated. This Moment" was cut from Johns show, Lavender Girl. In its original context, its sung by the ghost of a young girl who has come back to savor life for just one night. To me, its always described how Ive felt watching my baby grow, and how every second is 'precious, fleeting,'" reflects Andréa
It's Only Life reunited Andréa with key participants in Songs for a New World: director Daisy Prince and performers Billy Porter, Jessica Molaskey and Brooks Ashmankas; Songs For a New World's composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown even provided two of the arrangements. There was also a 10th anniversary reunion concert of Brown's show last year, and the group is a big part of her life. She considers them family. "Brooks is, in fact, my sons godfather. But the most intense connection of that experience was with Jason Robert Brown, whom I had known since I was 11 when we were aspiring kids at a performing arts summer camp called French Woods. Every time Jason and I perform together, I feel like we bring those kids we once were with us onstage and the experience becomes even more magical. I cant tell you how many times over the years weve looked at each other and said. 'Wow! Can you believe were here?' You can imagine how we felt on the national tour of Parade - a show he wrote that I starred in while he was in the pit conducting! Now that its been an actual decade since since Songs For a New World, I now feel this shared history onstage with Brooks, Billy, Jessica and Daisy as well. The reunion concert was emotional for all of us."
One offstage memory is a special one, as it involves the night Andréa's son, Hudson, was born. As things worked out, Hudson came into the world on Christmas Eve and the group was celebrating together. Andréa's husband called to deliver the good news that Andréa had delivered a son. "They promptly gathered around the piano, along with even more of our dear friends and sang 'Christmas Lullaby' into my answering machine. I adore those guys."
This year, Hudson's mom has also been anointed as a "Dance Diva" with the song "100 Stories" now a Top 5 song on the Billboard Dance chart. It's also on a compilation album called Femmes Fatales: Divas of Dance Music and is also available on iTunes. "My brother, Mike, is a music producer and songwriter in L.A. and is deep into the electronica dance music scene there. For ages our parents have pressured us, 'Why dont you two collaborate on something?' Wed always roll our eyes in response. Although we have enormous respect for one anothers talent, we just felt our worlds were way too different. I had no desire to pant, 'baby, baby' over a pounding drum and bass arrangement (all those years of vocal training for this?!) and Mike would say. 'The last thing I want is Liza Minnelli belting her Broadway out over my music!' Finally, the parental guilt got to us and I flew to L.A. for a few days to 'create'." They even filmed a video just for their parents, whose response was, '"Why don't you send this to MTV?"
Getting back to theater music, I asked Andréa to comment on working with Stephen Sondheim on Saturday Night, a show he wrote in the 1950s but was not produced for four decades. "When you work with one of your idols, it is shocking to learn that they are still aspiring to be better at what they do. It seems impossible that one of the greatest songwriters of our time - a genius - would turn to me and say, 'I think I can write you a better lyric here, let me work on it', but he actually did. Steve is the real thing, an artist with insecurities, passions and aspirations about his work. I admire that. I loved that the work was always more important than his ego or reputation, etc. I had the same experience with another idol of mine, his longtime collaborator, Harold Prince" [who directed Parade].
The character of Celeste in Saturday Night reminded her of her grandmother. The similarity made the role "a tribute" and "effortless to play." Andréa's first professional job at 18 was playing Maria in West Side Story, singing Sondheim's lyrics and Leonard Bernstein's glorious music - including "I Have a Love," which she'll revisit on Monday (some people say to her, "I never knew you had a legit soprano voice!"). She has played Maria and also Laurey in Oklahoma! at the St. Louis Muny Theatre (among other roles), and thinks the audience that knows her there would be surprised to hear her as an alto or wise-cracking character. A very recent stage role was the character created by Judy Garland in the film The Pirate, with a Cole Porter score.
Andréa enjoys the range she's been allowed to show, and this winter will find her in the Off-Broadway production of In The Heights, a new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the Latin-American community in Washington Heights, at 37 Arts. "Im half- Venezuelan, half Jewish. For some reason people are always shocked by one or the other." Andréa likes the idea that in her new night club act, "I get to be myself - all the versions - in one evening!"
For more on Andréa Burns, visit her website www.AndreaBurnsOnline.com. Her club act is at The Metropolitan Room at Gotham, 34 West 22nd Street, on Monday, August 14th at 10 p.m. The phone number for reservations is 212-206-0440 and the website is www.MetropolitanRoom.com.
Photo: Denise Winters