Grammy Award-winner Melissa Manchester is in Carmel, joining Broadway stars Laura Osnes and Michael Elroy and Great American Songbook Foundation founder Michael Feinstein and other music professionals, to serve as professional mentors at the Songbook Academy. This year’s summer intensive, which is in its 10th year, commenced on Saturday July 13 and culminates with the finals on Saturday, 7 p.m. at The Palladium. The only youth music program of its kind, it focuses on enduring jazz, pop, Broadway and Hollywood standards.
Forty, top, high-school vocalists from 16 states have spent the past week on the campus of the Center for the Performing Arts in classes, workshops and rehearsals led by the mentors, music directors and vocal coaches. They learned music history, as well as performance techniques, and song selection and interpretation, all in preparation for the finals, where they will compete for titles and opportunities to perform at renowned venues across the nation.
Today, I caught the tail end of a workshop, singer-songwriter Manchester, known for such hits as “Midnight Blue,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Through the Eyes of Love,” conducted in The Studio Theatre. All 40 finalists were there for the session, during which a handful of students individually performed a song of their choice after which Manchester provided them constructive criticism.
Following the workshop, she and I sat down for a brief, yet substantive, chat in the theatre dressing room. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What is your history with Michael Feinstein?
My parents knew his parents and I came to know Michael the morning after I won the Grammy. I was out to brunch and he came over to my table and introduced himself. He said, “I’m Michael Feinstein. Right now, I am the assistant to Ira Gershwin and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness. May I have an autograph, please?’” And good to his word, he sent me one of Ira’s last autographs. Along with he accompanying letter from Michael, which I have framed in my house, it is so precious. We have been friends for decades now. I actually hired him before he was “Michael Feinstein” to sing at my late dad’s 65th birthday for 200 bucks (laughs) and he made everybody nuts with all the lost verses he knew and his piano playing and regaling everybody with his stories about the composers. And at the end of the evening, he would not take the money (laughs).
What do you make of the Great American Songbook and Foundation?
I think it is splendid. I think it is such…this gold mine that is uniquely American. These are treasures that need to be protected and God bless him, he has crawled through every grandma’s attic throughout the nation pulling out these 78s and old sheet music and original manuscripts. His commitment to this is beyond a passion. It’s a calling.
I read that he is happiest when he is rooting around basements and attics for these items?
Correct. Correct. Yes. Yes, It is remarkable that he has become the nation’s archivist and codified it all into this place…this beautiful place…and that he has attracted all of these people to help support him and the foundation. All of these children who want to become part of the learning process of mentoring. It is just phenomenal.
You attended the High School of Performing Arts in NYC. What would it have meant to you if you had experienced the Songbook Academy back then?
I don’t know what it would have meant. I know what it means in retrospect. See, the thing about being in a performing arts high school, you are already around like-minded kids, black sheep of their family, nerdy kids who really love the American Songbook or musical theatre. But to be able, through avocation and competition, to be part of a week like this for this intensive mentoring and guidance and all of that is thrilling, because to be in an instant community, where you know there are other kids like you is very sweet and gratifying. Not only a sense of being energized by it all and exhilarated by it all, but also at the same time, to have a chance to relax and know that you are not alone. That’s really good.
Do you identify with these kids?
Yes, I absolutely identify with these kids. Sure. You know, if I hadn’t been raised in New York City, if I hadn’t had the unusual parents that I had, my father being a bassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera, my mother being a fashion designer, if I hadn’t known about the High School of Performing Arts, if I hadn’t been raised in an interesting version of normal (laughs)…You know, I don’t know…I guess I would have found my way, but somehow I was in a community, where my way was not apart from society, but certainly a part of society because I was surrounded by museums and theatres and encouraged by my parents to do what I needed to do, to be who I was. I started working when I was 15 as a jingle singer. I was a songwriter when I was 17. I was very busy.
What is the most important feature of the Songbook Academy?
The important thing about these programs is regardless of what happens to these kids, regardless if they take this artistic path…because most don’t. Most can’t…it’s really hard. You have to have no plan. But the important, overriding thing, in my experience, is to have the memory of this place and to have the memory of these feelings; they carry you no matter what you do in your life because these feelings of deep connection become your North Star. You always want to find that in your life somehow and it doesn’t matter if you become the world’s hippest plumber. If you really are connected with that, if you really can create a meaningful village out of that, it doesn’t matter, the fact that you planted these seeds now. The other part of it is, of course, the part of someone’s basic education to work with great people such as Michael, to sing great music such as the American Songbook. It creates this platinum standard of what excellence sounds like. You can veer from it, but you always come back to it.
What does it mean to you to work with students?
Well, the thing about teaching that is so touching is that…I did not see this part in my adventures at all. I have been adjunct professor at Thornton School of Music at USC and artist-in-residence at Citrus College. The thing is, I have been doing this for 50 years now and students can’t imagine what 50 days from now is like and I know how to give them very simple strategies to keep this fresh because if all you are doing is performing a bunch of notes and a bunch of words, this will get very stale very quickly, but if you can keep it thrilling for you, then I assure you, it is thrilling for the audience. You know it’s this true magic. It’s the true alchemy of intention. The true magic of acting like it is the first time. The life of an artist is one of great vigor and mostly you hear “No” and mostly you have to reinvent yourself. However, they, the students are in the golden age of the independent artist and if they can conceive of it, there is a chance they never have to wait for a recording contract. They can post something on YouTube and become a huge star without ever being played on the radio. It’s phenomenal. My students taught me how to become an independent artist and I am. It’s amazing and it’s inconceivable. I talk about these times for reinventing the wheel, but it doesn’t come around the way we understood it to be, those of us who started in the 70s. I teach them what I know.
What do you tell them about surviving the long haul?
The thing about the long haul is that life teaches you what you want to know. It teaches you that if the same issue, whatever it is, keeps showing up, I assure you that is what the universe wants you to learn, whether it is an approach to business or a relationship issue, if you want to have kids or don’t want to have kids. As an artist, what is your comfort zone? Do you not want to be out front? Do you really want to be a background singer? You realize you don’t want to be an out-front performer. You really want to design the lights….it’s a world. It is not just performing. It’s about creating a world. As a writer, you are sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and whatever amount of time later you have created a world that didn’t exist prior to you. Well, as performers, you are servicing the writing, you are servicing the playwrights…I call songwriters “playwrights”…to come along on that journey.
For tickets and information about the American Songbook Finals Concert, call (317) 843-3800 or visit thecenterpresents.org