by MK Scott
Pull out your evening wear for a top-notch night when Bellingham’s Mount Baker Theatre (104 N. Commercial St., Bellingham) welcomes one of music’s major forces to their main stage! Michael Feinstein has built a dazzling career as a singer and pianist bringing the music of the Great American Songbook to the world. Expect musical greatness from this powerhouse artist who has garnered five Grammy Award nominations; Emmy-nominated PBS TV specials; an acclaimed NPR series; and appearances at the White House, Buckingham Palace, Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and the Sydney Opera House.
I was lucky enough to chat with and attend both of their separate shows in the past year, so it will be a treat to see them both perform at the same time next weekend. I had a chance to chat with Large by email this past week. I’m also including segments from my previous interviews with Michael Feinstein in February 2018 and with Storm Large in November 2017 in this article.
MK Scott: Can you give the audience a preview of the show?
Michael Feinstein: Our show is a combining of two different musical sensibilities finding rich common ground! Storm is a musical chameleon and can sing anything and I learn from her. It was will be a loving combination of the best of the Great American Songbook as well as Rock and Roll sung by Storm with fervor and heart. It’s very interactive with the audience and I take requests at one point. It’s casual fun and very rich musically
MK: Storm, how did this collaboration with Michael come about?
Storm Large: Michael and I have been friends for years. I am a huge admirer of his work, his talent and his incredibly huge, generous heart. Conversations about working together went from ‘…wouldn’t it be so fun if…’ to ‘Shaken And Stirred’. It’s such a joy to get to sing with and just hang with Michael and his whole crew/family, and it’s really fun for his fans and mine to experience the unique alchemy that happens when the most brilliant singer/champion of The Great American Songbook meets a spiffed up punk rock street urchin. A Pygmalion of sorts. a My Fair Crazy Lady.
MK: What do you like most about working together?
Large: Just getting to be around him, getting to watch him work is like a free education…with hugs and snacks!
Feinstein: I most enjoy watching how she interacts with everyone at a show backstage and seeing the entire crew fall in love with her one by one. She might be the most honest person I know, as well as the most committed to making the world a better place. She lives that and carries it with her onstage and off.
MK: What is your favorite song to perform together?
Large: I love ‘Stormy Weather/When the Sun Comes Out’ but really, everything is fun. It all challenges me to really step up my game.
Feinstein: My favorite song to share with Storm is “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love” by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager. I always think of my close friend Liza Minnelli and her relationship with Peter, and how they had to break up but stayed in love with each other for the rest of their lives. Storm sings it so tenderly and it is hard for me not to cry when I look in her eyes and sing it.
MK Scott: Michael, I read that you were mentored by the iconic Ira Gershwin. What did you learn most from Ira?
Michael Feinstein: I worked for six years for Ira Gershwin who was 80 years old at the time and wrote all the lyrics to these classic Gershwin songs that I grew up hearing in my home. And he taught me about the importance of telling a story when you sing a song, that each song is like a three-act play. They’re little slices of life. And they express emotions, heightened emotions, that we can’t always express personally. They say things that we aren’t able to say as eloquently. And it’s interesting because Liza Minnelli, who is a friend of mine, recently said ‘When I meet someone who knows a lot of songs I know that they had a lonely childhood,’ because they embrace music. And that music became sort of their friend in their expression of so many things. And I thought that was a very canny observation.
MK: Because you are called the father or the keeper of the Great American Songbook. I loved watching the three-part series that you hosted on PBS years ago. What makes these songs so timeless?
Feinstein: I think that these songs are timeless because they express fundamental emotions that never change, the human condition, the wit, the humor, and the expression of romance, all of these things never change, you know, as the song ‘As Time Goes By’ – it says ‘The fundamental things apply / As time goes by.’
You know, certain things do not change. And I think that regardless of where music goes, this music will always be strong and thriving because it speaks to the heart in a unique way that does not replace or supplant any other kind of music, it’s just another kind of music that people desire to hear. There’s something about the eloquence of Cole Porter writing: ‘I’d sacrifice anything come what might / For the sake of having you near / In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night / And repeats and repeats in my ear.’
You know, those sorts of expressions are so incredible and people appreciate the craft and the work that went into creating them. And also, these songs, they are adaptable. So they can be performed with a contemporary beat by a jazz combo, by a symphony orchestra, or a big band with percussion accompaniment. You know, the songs are changeable so they are performed in thousands of different ways. And that’s what keeps them alive. You know, they’re not staid and solid, they’re not stuck in one style, they evolve, as we do, the music evolves with us. And that’s a wonderful thing.
MK: With Tony Bennett still active and there’s the new generation with Josh Groban and Michael Buble keeping the genre going. What does the future hold for the Great American Songbook?
Feinstein: It will always survive. I don’t know about how popular the songs will be, I mean, as far as going mainstream, but that doesn’t matter. They’ll always be present and important to a segment of the population. And I helped start an organization called The Great American Songbook Foundation, and every year we have an annual high school song book academy where kids come from all 50 states and take a week long workshop learning how to interpret and perform these songs.
So young people embrace them. And now there’s more, it’s more possible for young people to know this music than ever before because of technology. So I’m meeting – and there’s always lots of young kids, young people, I should say, in my audiences because they discover the music somewhere. And they’re interested in it because it appeals to them. So it will be around as long as good music is around.
MK: I always ask this. In this current political climate right now, what is your theory about what’s going on and how can we resolve that?
Large: I feel that things have been – information has been turned into entertainment. And the news cycle has to be histrionic and intense in order to maintain viewership. And it isn’t always necessarily propaganda, but it is, you know, I mean, there is definitely huge swaths of people trying to, you know, keep a certain demographic, giving them red meat, so to say, so to speak. But things have become like bumper sticker symbol. And it seems that no one has, that people are not encouraged to have, any kind of complexity and thought. They’re encouraged to pick a side and pick up a rock, and a stick and torches, and taunt and go after the side that is not theirs. And there’s no nuance, there’s no conversation, there’s no discourse. And I’m saying ‘there is no,’ of course, there is, but not in the streets, and not what we are seeing. I mean, for example, they’re saying like ANTIFA is a terrorist element, but it’s anti-fascist.
That means all of my grandparents were terrorists, but they were fighting Nazis. So things are turned into misnomers and lies; and things become catch phrases until they become part of your mitochondria, until they become part of this every day speech; that it doesn’t, that the words don’t even make sense anymore, but they are words tattooed inside your tongue. And for whatever reason it makes everybody feel safe. So, at the end of the day, every human being wants to belong. Wants to know where they are in the world. Wants to be loved, wants to be accepted, wants to matter. Every life wants to matter. And – but at the same time there are forces that profit from fear, and profit from manipulating that desire and make it seem like that is being threatened. And, so like Ari [Shapiro] said in his show, these things go in cycles, and people become, and it’s not exclusive to America, it’s exclusive to humans.
It’s exclusive to fucking humans. And I think that maybe some primate war-type shit, like this, but we are really good at getting freaked out and hurting a lot of people. And I think that’s where we are in history at this tipping point right now. We’re on the edge of some scary shit. And scary shit is already happening. It won’t burst and pop off a nuclear disaster, or you know, any kind of massive catastrophe like that. But it’s a tough time to be a human.
MK: Michael, you married your partner Terrance in 2008. As a gay and Jewish man, what are your thoughts on the current political climate?
Feinstein: Hmm, it’s a time where it’s very, very important, simply, to live the truth of who we are. I think that the most important thing that anyone can do is be true to themselves. Just as years and years ago, when George W. Bush was President, I was asked to perform at the White House on Valentine’s Day, and I turned it down, for personal reasons. And Terrance said, ‘Well, I’ve never been to the White House, and I want to go to the White House.’ And I thought, well, you know, the White House belongs to all of us as citizens, and I called President Bush’s social secretary and I said, okay, I’ll come and perform on Valentine’s Day if my partner and I are treated as a couple, we are photographed together, and that we are treated in the same way as you would treat any other couple.
And they agreed. And so we went there and I feel that by going there with my partner, with my life partner, it might’ve changed the perception of some people in how they think of same sex couples. Because it was – that particular performance was a private event for the President. It was all of their friends, so they were almost all very conservative Republicans. And I felt very good being there with my partner, because that’s another way that bridges are built.
And I try not to demonize people with whom I do not share the same point of view. If they are violating my freedom and my rights I can get pretty loud and will fight for my rights to the death. Yet the most important thing is how we behave moment to moment.
Tickets for ‘Michael Feinstein: Shaken & Stirred with Special Guest Storm Large’ run from $45.50 to $99.50 and are available by phone at 360-734-6080, online at www.mountbakertheatre.com and in person at the Mount Baker Theatre ticket office, 104 N. Commercial St., Bellingham. Mount Baker Theatre also offers 50% off ‘student rush’ tickets.