Two giants of American song are being warmly saluted in New York this month. Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen were great songwriters who were also personal friends. Both were professionally inactive (in ill health and rather reclusive) in their final years, but they wrote private songs for each other and chatted regularly on the telephone. They died within a few years of each other in the late 1980s.
Martha Lorin's nights at The Encore are the latest in a series of Arlen 100th birthday salutes. A few comments on that engagement follow this column's main feature, a look at Maude Maggart's salute to Berlin both in person and on a CD entitled simply Maude Maggart Sings Irving Berlin.
It's too bad that Irving Berlin, who lived to the more-than-ripe old age of 101, never got to hear Maude sing his songs. With her quick vibrato and sincere singing style absent of artifice, she is a perfect fit for Berlin's earliest songs. Maude has had a long love affair with material from the first few decades of the 20th century. Her current act at the Algonquin and her new CD are 100% early Berlin and 100% delightful, as is the lady herself.
"I did a lot of research," she says of her preparation, but it's clear that this is a student who relishes doing homework. The fruits of that labor are shared with her audience as she puts the songs into perspective, telling what she learned about the writer's life and attitudes. Maude is especially intrigued by Berlin's breakthrough in emotional writing, the cathartic "When I Lost You," created upon the death of his new bride. "It poured out of him," she tells the crowd, and when she performs the number she successfully channels that emotion all these decades later. When asked what came as a surprise in her research, Maude said, "He saw songs as business ventures. He always talked about wanting 'hits'." Considering the beauty of his love ballads, she says, "it was a little disillusioning" to learn how his main focus was marketing and sales. But it's Berlin's first hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," that she especially loves singing and in performance she really cuts loose with that number, shaking her shoulders as her shiny jewelery bounces along ("It's on loan," she says of her glittery necklace with its diamonds).
As for the non-hit numbers, Maude points to "Yiddishe Nightingale" as one that particularly attracted her. She found it in sheet music and brought to her pianist, Lanny Meyers, who is so simpatico in the act and on the CD. "He didn't know it either, but I asked him to play it for me and I just loved it." The quaint, oddly touching number about a man's worship of his lady's voice made her want to emphasize the sweetness and to downplay the humor.
Selecting from the composer-lyricist's vast catalogue wasn't as daunting a task as might be imagined. First of all, she decided to only do material from the first chunk of Berlin's career and only wanted to sing songs she loves to sing. The weeding-out process is "not that difficult once you get a storyline for the act." She decided to focus on how Berlin "learned to satisfy" what the American public wanted to hear. In her spoken comments the night I caught her show, she said, "He knew how to validate our feelings before we had the language to explain that process." I wondered if she'd had a chance to meet one of Irving Berlin's daughters. "Very briefly," she told me, "but I was very close to her, and I could see his face in her face."
Maude is the protegee of cabaret diva extraordinaire Andrea Marcovicci who has passed on her love for old songs and research, elegant stylings and the occasional gown. They've shared the stage in the past and will do so again in a Kurt Weill program in November at the 92nd Street Y's Lyrics And Lyricists concert. In reflecting on how her performance style has developed, Maude admitted to emulating her mentor. "In the beginning, I was afraid to show my own personality. [Andrea] is so eloquent, articulate and has such intelligence. I held to that standard for a while, but it's not naturally me. I'm more of a goofy girl."
What else has changed? "I used to be so concerned with getting people to like me." After glowing reviews and audiences returning for another listen, she says "it's easier when you've got some marks in your favor." Some of the best advice she ever got was from her father, actor Brandon Maggart: "My dad said, 'just do what you do.'" Going with her instincts seems to work, as she certainly keeps an audience enthralled with her charm and arresting soprano. Though she's relaxed she still seems to have an innate elegance despite any de-Marcovicci-izing.
A major influences has been another mentor, Michael Feinstein, who presented her as a guest at Feinstein's at The Regency. "Before I knew him, my friends and I used to listen to his albums over and over. In a way, I model my phrasing after him. He's so simple and doesn't show off. I hate when singers show off." Maude's simplicity in phrasing and simply beautiful vocal instrument have brought her many fans. Because she sings mostly old songs, "people often buy my CDs at a show and say it's for their grandmother. I get a lot of that, but that's OK."
When customers purchase one of her three recordings (Look for the Silver Lining, With Sweet Despair, and Sings Irving Berlin) at www.cdBaby.com, they have the option of typing in a message to the artist, and she's received many interesting comments. For older fans, the comments are usually about how her period-perfect renditions bring them back to an earlier era, or from young people to whom songs of Irving Berlin or the 1920s are a new experience. Some come out of a curiosity factor, knowing the work of her sister, the singer-songwriter Fiona Apple.
At the risk of being melodramatic, I asked if she ever felt like she'd been born in the wrong era. "Not really," she replies, admitting to liking modern conveniences and guilty pleasures likes the TV show Starting Over and pop singer Christina Aguilera. She also likes some contemporary Cuban and hip-hop music. "But sometimes I think I could have been another Helen Morgan if I'd been born at another time." The past is a nice place to visit, but she doesn't want to live there. Still, she's happy to visit great songs from earlier decades. She's part of a Noel Coward show being put together soon, and is looking forward to the Kurt Weill show. She's singing some of his romantic material, but not the heavy ones. "When I was a kid, I remember listening to Nina Simone's version of 'Pirate Jenny' during a thunderstorm with all the shades pulled down. It scared me to death!"
And what might people not know about her? "Nobody knows that I'm a dancer!" - she studied ballet and jazz dance for years. She plays guitar, too and in her current show, she strums a ukulele in one number. Speaking of strings, her Irving Berlin outing has the benefit of Andy Stein playing violin, which pleases her enormously and adds greatly to the emotional impact. And it provides her with a cute moment to smile at him with a look of mock apology as she sings the line, "So you can keep your fiddle and your bow!/ Give me a p-i-a-n-o..." in "I Love A Piano." But what she really loves are these wonderful Irving Berlin chestnuts like "Always," "Remember," "You'd Be Surprised" and "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody." And in case you haven't seen her, she's a very pretty young lady herself, worthy of that Ziegfeld Follies salute.
Maude Maggart continues at The Oak Room at The Algonquin, 59 West 44th Street, through October 8. Reservations: 212-419-9331. For further info, visit www.maudemaggart.com.
Photo: Eric Grush
With a jazz band, Martha Lorin has been holding court with a revolving and evolving set of Arlenia at the Encore (one performance remains, on October 5). Unleashing more vocal power than she usually does on her fine recordings, she wails the blues and regales in the strength of the standards. Occasionally asking the audience and the musicians what songs they might be in the mood for, she is open to anything in their big stack of Arlen sheet music. Whether revealing an especially raw "Stormy Weather" or creating the opposite mood with an irresistible invitation to "Get Happy," she is exciting to hear.
Watching Martha perform, I got the feeling there is a strong personal connection going on. She sometimes closes her eyes and the sound that comes out is intense in every sense of the word. She explains, "I have found singing Harold Arlen tunes brings me closest to the music I learned from my mother, whose mentor was Willard Robison ('Old Folks'). Arlen's music definitely meshes with Robison's 'Deep River' music, touching the heart of the blues but also lending its music to popular musical construction. It absolutely feels natural to me and gives me the opportunity to think deeply into the song and lyrics as I am actually performing."
When I asked about her interaction with the audience, she told me she "just can't" memorize neat little spoken introductions to songs and do them the same way each night. She has that in common with Maude Maggart. Both prefer to be "in the moment" and to just be who they are. As performers, both are compelling to hear, bringing out the essence of their chosen songwriters' work.
Martha Lorin sings at The Encore, 266 West 47th Street on October 5 at 7:00 pm. Reservations: 212-221-3960.