The day after Thanksgiving, I enjoyed a brief conversation with Finn Sagal, the 2017 Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador, at Lucas DeBard’s (the 2015 Songbook Youth Ambassador) solo show debut presented by Magic Thread Cabaret at IndyFringe Basile Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Those who follow me know that I wear many hats, including that of producer. My business partner, Dustin Klein, and I have a company, Klein & Alvarez Productions, which operates Magic Thread Cabaret.
In my capacity as an arts writer, I met Sagal, an 17-year-old La Cañada, California High School senior in late July at the Palladium in Carmel, after he won the annual Songbook Academy’s high school vocal competition, which I have covered since its inception in 2009. Besting 39 other vocalists from all over the country, Sagal won the competition created by Great American Songbook Foundation founder and world renowned entertainer Michael Feinstein. The five-time Grammy Award nominee is also the artistic director of the Center for the Performing Arts.
About Sagal, Michael Feinstein, his mentor, says “Finn’s versatility as an artist makes him special. His first love is opera, and yet he can swing like a jazz singer. He’s also a talented saxophone player and performs weekly in a jazz combo. He is a passionate and focused young man. I saw how hard he worked during the Songbook Academy, and he really took to heart all the feedback he received that week. I think Finn will be a success at whatever he chooses to do. He’s only seventeen! He’s got time to decide.”
Originally, I interviewed Sagal shortly after his performance at the Palladium with Feinstein and Kristin Chenoweth at the Songbook Celebration Gala in September. For various reasons, I had to delay publication of this story. As it turned out, Sagal and his parents, David and McNally, were in town for his appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium where he sang the national anthem in front of 70,000 fans at the Colts vs. the Tennessee Titans game. While in Indy they also decided to see DeBard’s show.
Upon seeing him and his parents at the show, I asked Sagal if he would send me answers to questions I sent by email so I could update our interview. Here is an edited transcript consisting of our combined phone and email communications.
First of all, what was your impression of Lucas’s show?
Lucas’s show at Magic Thread Cabaret was incredible. I very much look up to him for his amazing talent, hard work and charismatic personality. All three of these characteristics were on display at this show and it made it an absolute joy to watch. He’s a true performer and it was truly special to see someone close to my age do something that professional.
What have you accomplished most recently?
The past couple of weeks have been very busy for me. I recently sang with Michael (Feinstein) at the Valley Performing Arts Center near L.A., at Feinstein’s at the Nikko jazz club in San Francisco, and recently sang the national anthem at the Colts’ game. So, it has been an extremely exciting couple of weeks. Each gig is such an amazing opportunity that I am so grateful for and I had a blast doing them.
What was it like singing the national anthem at the Colts’ game?
That was a completely surreal experience. I believe I handled the pressure relatively well, however, because I had practiced so many times. For that reason, I was able to look calm and collected on the outside, while my inside was going crazy. I couldn’t even believe what I was doing. I will never forget it.
Have you applied to colleges yet? Which ones are you interested in?
Yes, I am just about done applying to all my schools. My top choices are UCLA, Indiana University, Northwestern, and Carnegie Mellon. These schools have some of the best voice programs in the world and are renowned for being incredible universities. They also have a rich and diverse campus life which I want to be a part of.
Tell me about your parents and their influence on you.
My dad is the reason why I first started loving jazz and right now, he is really working hard. He has been a great saxophone player all his life and practices at least two and a half hours a day. He has a group called David Sagal Jazz Trio and they play in venues around L.A. My brother Boris who is a guitarist, my sister Nora who is a singer-bassoonist, and I, regularly perform with them. My mom has a B.A. in acting from Boston University. She appeared on Broadway and has had a really great career in acting. She is one of the reasons why I love performance. (McNally Sagal, is best known for her role as Margaret Murphy in five seasons of the FX show “Sons of Anarchy.” His paternal aunt, Katey Sagal, became a household name in the eighties for portraying Peg Bundy on “Married with Children.” She is currently on the CBS sitcom “Superior Donuts.”)
Have your parents ever pressured you to to follow in their footsteps?
Absolutely not. My parents are great at making an environment for me to choose what I want to do. I absolutely love it.
How has the competition changed your life?
Before attending the Songbook Academy, I knew I was going to be working with great professionals. I wasn’t thinking about competing. I wasn’t trying to win. I was trying to learn about and get a sense of what the music industry is all about. It made me realize that maybe this is something I really can pursue and be successful at. That was really powerful for me because in my head I am always thinking of “I’m not very good and I am never going to be good enough.” And obviously, after the competition, I realized, “Oh, I am good.” The competition made me feel, “OK, this is something I can do.” It was a validation.
How has Michael Feinstein helped or influenced you?
I think Michael is so generous for doing this all for us associated with the Songbook Academy. He is so talented and amazing at what he does. He could so easily just do that and be praised, but on top of that, he has managed to put together this incredible foundation and academy. I am just so appreciative. I am the luckiest kid that I get to do this. I am just so happy that he has encouraged me and the other kids to love this music and made it possible for us to gather together to perform.
Do you stay in touch with your Songbook Academy friends?
I try my best, but I’m not the greatest at texting or social media. It’s just something I’ve never really developed a skill for. I just really hope to see many of them in person as soon as college apps are done. I made some of the best friends of my life at Songbook and I really want to make sure I stay in touch with them. I am happy to say that I have seen Lucas Debard on two separate occasions since meeting him at the finals. He was very welcoming and supportive to me when I went to visit IU this fall.
Do you feel you have grown since the competition? If so, in what ways?
Yes, I’d say I’m very gradually getting better at nerves. Nerves are something I can always control on stage; it’s just the moments leading up to performing that often give me grief. Recently, however, I’m getting much better at relaxing and not thinking about it until I’m literally walking out on stage.
What is your career game plan?
For now, my priority is to get into the right school where I plan to study opera. At the same time, I plan to take advantage of opportunities to perform gigs with Michael and make the best of it. This entire year is such a big one for me. On top of auditioning for schools, I am going to perform in all kinds of incredible venues. It might all go by in a second, so I want to make sure that I soak it all up.
What would you say to those thinking about entering the Songbook competition?
The Songbook competition was the greatest experience of my life. Every single day is a complete joy that you get to spend with incredible people just like you. The environment is incredibly supportive, the students are amazing, and the mentors give you advice you will take with you your whole life. You get to learn so much and have the time of your life. If that doesn’t entice someone to audition, then I don’t know what will! I would say to anyone who is thinking about trying out that they should go for it!!
What does the music of the Great American Songbook mean to you?
The American Songbook to me is like Christmas every year. It is like my birthday every year. Every Friday, my dad is playing at some club. It has been such a huge part of my life. It has meant the world to me.
For information about the Songbook Foundation and the Songbook Academy visit thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.