Celebrating the Crooners
Songbook wiz Michael Feinstein pays tribute to swoon-worthy jazz artists.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Can you define the difference between a “singer” and a “crooner”? Maybe not, but the answer to that query comes easily to Michael Feinstein, the longtime keeper of the Great American Songbook flame.
“To me, a crooner is someone whose style of singing is intimate and who projects a certain kind of gentility,” says the award-winning 62-year-old singer and pianist, who is devoting an entire afternoon to these special vocalists in Celebrating the Crooners, an all-new presentation at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall on Sunday, October 28.
So what exactly should NJPAC audiences expect from Celebrating the Crooners?
“I can be my own hardest critic when I am creating a new show for a specific venue,” he admits. “Sometimes, I just come up with a title first and flush out the actual idea later. My mentor, Ira Gershwin, always used to say that ‘the title is vital.’ And once I come up with that, it’s so important to me to write a show that fulfills the idea of ‘vital.’
“I think about whether it has to be chronological, what surprises should be in there, what songs work well with a band and what ones are good for just a piano. Putting a show like this together takes months, with ideas going back and forth in my brain day and night. I am constantly working, often until the last minute, to put together the best show possible.”
What constitutes Feinstein’s “best”? “There are so many reasons I am really excited about this show,” says Feinstein. “First, it’s going to be with a 17-piece band with the great Tedd Firth at the helm, which will allow me to use some of my favorite Nelson Riddle and Billy May big band charts that I rarely get to use,” he notes.
“And secondly, my special guests and I will get to salute so many great singers – some of whom I knew personally. We’ll go back as far as Al Jolson and Bing Crosby to Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Tony Martin, Steve Lawrence, Vic Damone, Jerry Vale, all the way to the 1970s with singers like David Gates of Bread. And we won’t leave out the ‘broads’ either, to use a term of the time: Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, they were all great crooners, too.”
The afternoon’s program will include selections such as “For Once in My Life” and “Just in Time.” Naturally, Feinstein will also pay tribute to the greatest crooner of them all: Frank Sinatra (with whom Feinstein also had a personal and professional relationship).
Does he feel any pressure about performing the Chairman of the Board’s songs in his home state? “I am absolutely aware that there is a heightened appreciation for Frank in New Jersey, and that’s the way it should be,” he says. “But I don’t think of it as pressure; I look at it as keeping me honest.”
Choosing the singers has been easier for Feinstein than picking the actual songs for the show, he admits.
“Let’s face it: I have a collection of music that goes on forever, so it’s never easy for me to narrow down what will go into one show,” he notes. “What’s most important to me is that I find a way to present any song in the right context. And I always want a show to feel fresh, which is why every concert – including this one – will have some ‘surprise songs.’ There are a lot of great tunes out there that people have rarely or never heard.”
Given that this is the production’s debut, is he at all nervous about what will happen on October 28?
“Not really, because I am always so prepared, and whether it’s NJPAC or Feinstein’s/54 Below, a good show always comes down to making a connection with the audience. I try to look at everyone and make the show feel like a collaboration between me and them,” he says. “As for worrying, I used to spend months worrying about how a show would come off. Now I just worry the night before. I realized the amount of time I worry isn’t going to change anything!”
Celebrating the Crooners takes place at 3 p.m. Tickets are $39-$79 here.
Brian Scott Lipton is a New York-based journalist specializing in theater and the performing arts.
Sept. 12, 2018