Michael Feinstein on 54 Below, Cheyenne, and Couples Counseling

Michael Feinstein

One of the top proponents of the American Songbook, Michael Feinstein has long applied his creamy vocals to standards, both in concert halls and at his own clubs. The Ohio-born singer/entrepreneur—who started out by working for Ira Gershwin as a researcher/cataloguer—performed solo or with partners like Barbara Cook and Cheyenne Jackson at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, his long running cabaret room which closed at the end of 2012. And now that he’s partnered with the Broadway-themed cabaret/restaurant 54 Below, in the old basement of the legendary disco Studio 54 (it’s now called Feinstein’s/54 Below), he’ll do an act there from December 20-30. As for his other partner, Feinstein married health care facility owner Terrence Flannery in 2008, the ceremony officiated by none other than Judge Judy, which means it must be true. I asked Feinstein about all of that in a fab phoner.

Musto: Hello, Michael. How did your 54 partnership come about?

Michael Feinstein: After we closed Feinstein’s at the Regency, I decided I wanted to find a venue that’s a perfect setting for the nightclub experience. Much as I loved being at the Regency, that was a room that every day had to be turned into a nightclub. It took two hours to move in the stage and the piano, and then two hours to tear it down. I decided the next place would be a dedicated club. Over the next two years, I went through many different permutations exploring possibilities, and none of them were ever what I deemed to be perfect. It became clear that this would be a mutually advantageous partnership, so we’re delighted it worked out.

Weren’t you supposed to open a room at the Times Square club Birdland?

Yes, but we became flummoxed by the building permits and the time it was taking to start construction on the new room. To this date, I don’t know if [the club’s] Gianni Valenti has started construction. We remained very good friends, but it was a matter of timing. In that period of waiting, 54 came along.

The theater people are freaking that the prices at Feinstein’s/54 Below will quadruple. Will they?

Not at all. With Feinstein’s at the Regency, it was a five-star hotel and a union hotel. To open that room, there was tremendous expense. I never made money in the nightclub business. It cost $150,000 a year to set up the room—it required union people. That’s because it was that space. But we always had $20 seats because it was killing me that it was priced in a way that prevented people who didn’t have as much money to come, and that’s usually younger people for whom we have to keep this art form alive. One of the great things about 54 Below is it’s a completely different price structure and it will continue with that. Of course, if an artist commands a higher salary, the prices may be somewhat higher for that, but there’s no intention of changing the essence. We’re just adding to what already works beautifully. I’m not a fool.

You’ve been on Broadway, but you’re not Broadway per se. You’re better known as a recording artist and cabaret performer. Does your upcoming engagement there change the tone of the room, which was previously “Broadway’s living room?"

I don’t think it’s strictly anything. It’s a great music room. Certainly they have the identity of being connected to Broadway, and that’s the goal, but the goal is to bring quality entertainment. I work in concert halls. Some people call me a cabaret performer, but the only ones I ever play are ones that have my name on the room, like my club in San Francisco [Feinstein’s at the Nikko]. I don’t do nightclubs.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to…

It’s not pejorative. I don’t care what you call me, as long as you call me by the right name [laughs]. My goal is to just bring great entertainers there. I’d like to bring more downtown artists. At Feinstein’s at the Regency, we had the Downtown/Uptown series, with people like Bridget Everett. The thing that will keep nightclubs and cabarets going is to keep a diversity of entertainment going and to keep pushing the envelope.

Will your December act consist of the American Songbook?

I’m still figuring what I want to do, since it’s my first engagement there. Special material is an endangered species—thank God Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman write it brilliantly. But there was a time when everybody’s nightclub act had somebody writing it. [He names a long list of great writers of special material from the old days.] I’m going to include some of that material as a homage to classic nightclubs, because the material is so brilliant.

Sounds special. Meanwhile, let me throw some names at you and you can give me a quick response, OK? Would it be fair to say you started at the top by working for Ira Gershwin?

Yes. He was my teacher and my mentor. He taught me most of what I know about interpreting popular song. I didn’t really appreciate the words deeply until I met Ira.

Dame Edna [a.k.a. drag actor Barry Humphries]? Would you say your 2010 Broadway show with her, All About Me, was unjustly maligned?

I don’t care what people say about it. Of course it should have run longer. Barry and I a had a ball and we were proud of it. People have different expectations of things. A lot of people loved the show and there were critics that didn’t. I still loved doing that show. [New York Post writer] Michael Riedel created this whole fiction that we were having a feud; that was completely false. We stayed friends—I just had dinner with him in London—and I wrote a song, “The Dingo Ate My Baby,” and Edna put it into her tour. Barry said, “Edna’s doing her farewell tour.” I said, “Just call it the Reincarnation Tour.”

You did a great act at the Regency with Barbara Cook.

She’s someone I’ve revered for so long. When I was 22, the first time I ever sang in New York was a Gershwin tribute at Carnegie Hall. I was working for Ira Gershwin, so I got to sing in the show, though I wasn’t ready. Barbara was in that show and I got to meet her, and I’ll never forget the tingling I felt the first time I heard her. It was a transforming experience.

Cheyenne Jackson? You did a wildly acclaimed act and CD with him.

Cheyenne is such an extraordinary talent. His voice is made by the gods and he has such stage presence and is great looking. That’s an example of a collaboration that stretched me musically in ways, which is great. You have to be secure in yourself to collaborate. In sharing the stage, you give it over to them so they shine brightly. It’s important that you shine equally together and apart. You have to make compromises, like which key to do a song in.

Speaking of which: What’s the secret of your marriage to Terrence?

The first word that comes to mind is respect—and willingness to listen and to adapt. I didn’t meet Terrence until I was 40, and we became a couple when I was 41. At that point, I was pretty set in my ways, and I was enjoying being single, and I learned that you have to learn how your partner communicates in that we immediately went into therapy for the purpose of clarifying our relationship and starting out on the right foot. I’d never been with a long-term partner before—not more than six or eight months. I had to learn that because his response to something was such and such, that it didn’t mean…

That he doesn’t love you?

Yeah. To learn how to disagree, and it doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the relationship. And to learn when it’s important to compromise.

How did you come up with Judge Judy Sheindlin as your wedding officiator?

I met Judy many years ago at, I think, a birthday party for Cindy Adams. She said, “Oh, I love your work.” I invited her to my show at Feinstein’s at the Regency, and she came. We had dinner and spent time together and discovered we really liked each other. I love Judy and her husband Jerry, and they’re crazy about us. We’ve taken vacation trips and cruises together. She’s the one who said, “When are you gonna get married?” I said, “We’re not in any rush.” She said, “I want you to do it, and I want to marry you.” Even though we’d been together for a number of years at that point, it was incredibly powerful in a way that neither of us expected. The other one who officiated was Gabriel Ferrer, Rosemary Clooney’s son who’s a minster, and he was  wonderful.

So Judge Judy is basically a marshmallow?

She speaks her mind, and that’s what people love about her, but she’s a kind person. Even on her show, she’ll never be unkind to someone who’s vulnerable in a way that can damage them, or with a young kid, to whom she’ll say, “Look, you can get your life together.” She’s usually angry at someone doing the wrong thing or trying to pull something over on her. She said, “Thank God for morons” because they get in trouble and come on her show. [laughs]

That also makes up my dating pool. Thank you, Michael. See you at your club!

GAY TIDBITS FROM THE NEW YORK FESTIVAL

For hits from the American Filmbook—and the world filmbook, in fact—I always turn to the New York Film Festival, where LGBT nuggets inevitably pop up in all the instant classics. To wit:

In Steve Jobs, the computer titan (played by Michael Fassbender) rhapsodizes about the genius of Alan Turing, the gay scientist who died by biting into a poisoned apple. Jobs says that every school kid should know Turing’s name, after which a coworker asks him if that’s how the then-Apple logo was born. (“A rainbow flag apple with a bite in it”). Jobs replied no, “but wouldn’t it be great if that was the story?”

I bit into the hilariously deadpan futuristic comedy The Lobster, with Colin Farrell as a guy checking into a hotel complex where single people have to find a mate or they’re turned into the animal of their choice. On admission, he’s asked if he’s gay or straight—the only available choices since the “bisexual” option has been summarily abolished. He admits that he had one same-sex encounter way back in college, so he then has to think for a long, long time before finally deciding on…“heterosexual.” The wry spoof of political correctness is perfect for a movie in which another character admits he went to visit his mother in the zoo. Michael Moore’s doc Where To Invade Next has some whimsical moments, but also a lot of potent stuff about countries around the world that seem to treat their citizens better than we treat ours with regards to education, employment, and health care. Moore speaks to a leader in Tunisia, who says gay sexuality is not the government’s business since they don’t deal in private matters, and the opinions of religious people on this subject are completely irrelevant. And I have a strong feeling Judge Judy would agree!

Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda

Sam Rockwell & Nina Arianda in 'Fool for Love' | Photo by Joan Marcus

PINTERESTING PRODUCTIONS ARE UPON US

Straight sexuality is dissected in two current revivals of short, spare, hormonally charged dramas by major playwrights. Harold Pinter’s 1971 play Old Times is back in a Douglas Hodge–directed production, with Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly, and Eve Best as a man, his wife, and the wife’s old friend, all coming together for a concentrated bout of flirting, recollections, lies, taunts, and power plays. Reilly’s character can barely remember her friend (though they seem rather intimate), which quickly establishes the play’s theme about the flaws in human memory and the fact that the things you remember might not have happened at all. Woozy choruses of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and mental treks back to the movie Odd Man Out are two of the running threads, as the characters navigate their way through the labyrinthine prism of their conflicting interpretations of the past. It’s an elegant piece of writing, and Owen is resourceful, while Best goes for flashy glibness, all on an expressionistic vortex of a set that too explicitly marks the action as surreal. The result is slight but heady—or at least that’s how I remember it, lol.

You get one more character in Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, which also dabbles in memory, interpretation, and obsession, as a thug named Eddie (Sam Rockwell) tracks down his on-again-off-again girlfriend May (Nina Arianda) in a seedy motel and tries to restart their love connection. As the characters rough each other up and try to wear each other down, it becomes clear that Eddie is a fantasist who’s always trying to bring May back into his arms, only to come down with some romantic form of ADD and vanish like a deadbeat. Both actors are game, but Arianda could use more subtext of “Please don’t go” every time she demands that he leave; otherwise, all that sniping threatens to wear out its welcome as much as he does. Sitting on the outskirts of the stage is the Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss), who clearly haunts Eddie’s memory and is there to offer commentary on fact versus fiction, in addition to his own versions of seedy goings on from the past. (There aren’t enough “Spoiler alerts” in the world for me to go into the trashy antics of the characters involved, even after all these years.) In comes May’s dim witted new boyfriend (Tom Pelphrey), and things become funny, then explode with dark dramatics. Still, one senses that this is minor Shepard being given an only serviceable retread.  

Basil Twist

SISTERS ARE DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES

I’m a fool for Downtown legend Joey Arias and master puppeteer/director Basil Twist, who collaborated on the mind blowing multi-media show Arias with a Twist in 2008. Well, they’re back together—and joined by the appealing Julie Atlas Muz—in Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, “the ultimate October ghost story.” The show has groundbreaking Neighborhood Playhouse founders Alice and Irene Lewisohn returning to haunt their theater (which is now Abrons Arts Center) a century later. But that’s just a framework on which to hang a succession of routines and numbers, filled with floating personages, projections, modern dance, a camel, and reworked classics from “Go Ask Alice” to The Dybbuk. Throughout, Arias and Muz go to dizzying extremes, and the stagecraft is stunning (including Machine Dazzle’s costumes), providing the most elaborately thought-out theatrics in town, along with Hamilton. It’s like an old Pyramid club show, but on a budget, and the result makes the avant garde accessible again.

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