On the Phone With Michael Feinstein

On the Phone With Michael Feinstein

Michael Feinstein at his beloved Steinway at Feinstein’s/54 Below

The newly formed alliance between Michael Feinstein—singer/pianist/guardian of the Great American Songbook—and 54 Below—the  three-year-old Theater District nightclub—is a partnership made in entertainment heaven, at least that part of it that resides in NYC. Shortly after announcing the club’s new moniker, Feinstein’s/54 Below, the man himself talked to IN New York about his love of nightclubs, why he’s hitched his wagon (and name) to 54 Below, his plans for the club, his brand-new holiday show there (Dec. 20–30), cabaret performers of the past and their successors for whom he is an invaluable mentor.

Francis Lewis: It’s been three years since Feinstein’s at the Regency closed. Welcome back to the local cabaret scene. Excited?

Michael Feinstein: I love nightclubs. There’s a special ambience that is important to me to help sustain.

FL: How so?

MF: I can see the eyes of everybody in the room. It is that tremendous feeling of connection that is unique to a small setting, that creates a very different kind of experience for not only the audience but also the performer because it is the most honest performance one can give. You can’t hide anything. In a big setting [Feinstein performs regularly at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center], I won’t say it’s harder, but it’s different in that, as a performer, one is conscious of reaching the entire audience. It’s wonderful just the sheer number of people. And that communal experience is great. But the connection with an audience in a nightclub is more like you’re with family. And that’s why many performers are scared of working in nightclubs. Even Broadway veterans I’ve known and asked to appear at Feinstein’s sometimes have begged off because they’re not comfortable: one, being themselves as opposed to having a character, and, two, they don’t like to be that close to the audience, where they can look into the whites of the eyes—and the whites of someone’s eyes are looking back at them. Having worked in piano bars in my early incarnation, I love it.

FL: What prompted you to partner with 54 Below?

MF: It’s a gorgeous room. It’s a throwback to classic nightclubs and classic supper clubs. It has an elegance to it that is sometimes lacking in clubs. If you drink a fine wine in an expensive crystal goblet as opposed to an ordinary glass, it will taste different. It’s the same thing with a nightclub.

FL: Do you plan to make any changes in the club's programming?

MF: Other than myself? [laugh]

FL: Perhaps someone you’re keen to get up onstage or a certain kind of performer that you would like to introduce there?

MF: Definitely a certain kind of performer: good! [laugh] 54 has had a great formula and what I want to do is just augment it because, as the old adage says, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’d like to bring in more name entertainers for longer runs. Alan Cumming, for example. I also want to have master classes. I’d like to have programs for kids in the business to learn how to develop their art because to perform in a nightclub and to sing classic songs is something that you can’t easily learn in other situations.

FL: Would you like Feinstein’s/54 Below to become a forum for new music as well as the classic American Songbook?

MF: One of the things I love about 54 Below is it has had a lot of new music. People always ask me about the Songbook: What is it? The Great American Songbook is ever evolving. There are songs being written today that will become part of the Great American Songbook, but it is only time that determines that. When you look back 20 years from now, if a lot of people are singing a song written today, that means it has some permanence to it. It’s not a specific pedigree that’s required, it is enduring popularity. I have no snobbism about music. If it’s good, it’s good. Louis Armstrong said it best: There are two kinds of music: good and bad. There is no limitation or requirement as to what kind of music is heard in a nightclub, especially one as eclectic as Feinstein’s/54 Below.

FL: What about other aspects of the club?

MF: My goal is to make subtle tweaks in the room's seating, food and hospitality.

FL: Elevate the menu?

MF: Not elevate: The food is great. I’m a vegan. And I’ve been a vegan for 12 years. I want to have things on the menu that people can eat that are vegan, that are gluten-free. The big thing for me is to take the extraordinary food that we have and offer more alternatives for people who have dietary concerns. And also make it gourmet.

FL: What about the seating?

MF: I would like to add some more round tables and smaller tables as well. That’s one of the things we’ve discussed. Again, it’s a subtle, step-by-step process. I want to change the piano just because I have a particular taste in pianos. These are all subtle things that someone might not notice immediately.

FL: What is your piano of choice?

MF: I’m a Steinway artist. Every single piano is different. That’s the mystery of the piano. I was in the Steinway showroom a couple of years ago choosing a piano, and they had three pianos next to each other that had been manufactured at the same time. And each one was completely different in sound and touch.

FL: Are you planning a completely new show for your first engagement at Feinstein’s/54 Below this month?

MF: It will be a new show. It will have a number of things I haven’t sung before, which is easy to do because there are hundreds and hundreds of songs out there that are great and that I would never be able to sing if I were to start right now and sing them back to back. When you consider that the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter each had around a thousand published songs per, there’s a lot of material out there, as well as more contemporary material, and I’ve been looking at special material that has been written for nightclub situations, material that is rarely heard today. There’s such wit, cleverness in this material. There will be a few holiday things, too. I am not a person who likes to sing the same holiday songs year in year out. People expect to hear certain things and that’s understandable. So I’m always trying to find a way of celebrating the holidays without it being so on the nose. I want people to leave having a great feeling of celebration that comes from this time of year but without being obvious. You’re not likely to hear me do “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” [laugh] I’ve done “Christmas Night in Harlem.” I’ve done “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.” I’ve done the song Judy Garland sang, “Till After the Holidays,” which is the most depressing holiday song ever written. I’m always finding ways to evoke the holidays with a fresh eye.

FL: How often will you perform at Feinstein’s/54 Below?

MF: Definitely two times a year, maybe three. I’m not sure yet. I’ll do engagements that are obviously spread out throughout the year. I only work in nightclubs that have my name on them. [laugh]

FL: Looking back, has there been a nightclub act that has been particularly magical for you?

MF: There have been many through the years. Gogi Grant is a forgotten name. She’s still with us. She’s in her early 90s. I heard her sing “The Man I Love” in a nightclub many years ago. A song that is iconic and that I’m tired of hearing, and she made that song the most heart-wrenching, soul-searing performance I’ve ever heard. I’ll never forget it. Any time Rosemary Clooney was onstage she had a magic about her that I adored. Tony Martin when he played Feinstein’s at the age of 96: It was extraordinary seeing a legend who really delivered. The first time I heard Barbara Cook I was thrilled beyond words. Of course, Elaine Stritch. One night at Feinstein’s, it was an Alan Bergman show and Elaine was a guest and she sang “Fifty Percent” from [the Broadway musical] “Ballroom,” which is my single favorite moment of hers. I don’t think she had ever sung the song before. It was dazzling. Mary Cleere Haran was an incredible performer [and] gone much too young.

FL: Would you say that part of your mission at Feinstein’s/54 Below is to bring on the next generation of cabaret artists?

MF: Everything is a continuum. That’s why I have the Great American Songbook Foundation, where we have annual high-school competitions. We’ve found some incredible talent. Nick Ziobro, who’s now 19, was 16 when I first heard him. A dazzlingly gifted kid. Nick is going to be a big star. There is talent out there, but it does take nurturing. And one of the things that I want to do in partnership with the nonprofit Great American Songbook Foundation is bring a lot of these young talents to [Feinstein’s/54 Below]. It’s exciting for people to see that there are young performers who really understand and can sing standards as well as contemporary music.

Feinstein's/54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 646.476.3551, 54below.com. Michael Fesistein performs Dec. 20–30, including Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) and Christmas Day (Dec. 25).