The Great American Songbook Foundation, founded by Michael Feinstein, will present all seven previous winners of its summer Songbook Academy® vocal competition, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, for its first ever Songbook Academy® AllStars Concert, at the Palladium in Carmel.
Most of the singers, called, Ambassadors, have launched professional careers and include: Julia Bonnett (2009),of Carmel; Annie Yokom (2010) of Chicago: Nick Ziobro (2012) of Manlius, N.Y,;Julia Goodwin (2013) of Baldwinsville, N.Y., Maddie Baillio (2014) of League City, Texas, who recently played Tracy Turnblad in the NBC production Hairspray Live!, which aired on Dec. 7; Lucas DeBard (2015) of Lebanon, Ind., who is student at I.U.’s Jacobs school of music: and Brighton Thomas (2016) of Burbank, Calif., who will perform throughout the U.S. over the coming year.
Feinstein, in an email about the All-Stars concert, wrote “The bonds formed at the Songbook Academy® are very deep. To see these kids get together and share their mutual love of music is fantastic. These young people have affected our society on such a high level – more so than I ever imagined. To see not only their personal transformations, but the success they have on a grand scale, is something quite wonderful. I’m so proud of them!”
Recently I spoke by phone with new Great American Songbook Foundation vice president Chris Lewis who replaces retiring Karen Kelsey. She led the organization for five years during which time Lewis served as the foundation’s director of programs.
How does it feel to have all the Ambassadors assembled together for the first time?
We are so excited about it Tom. Every year we are asked…”what about so and so?” “We saw her two years ago.” “Where is Nick? “”What is Maddie doing?” It’s an idea that has been percolating so this is the first we have been able to bring back all seven Ambassadors. It is so gratifying for us to see the history of the organization’s growth and to see what these kids are doing. They are all doing amazing things.
What will the program consist of?
I want it to be as much about the kids as the music as possible. During the first half I am going to introduce the Ambassadors. We are going in order of year starting with the 2009 winner and then we will proceed to this year’s winner. They will all sing songs and talk about their experiences. Then in the second half they’ll each sing a song and talk about their lives. At the conclusion there will be a big group closer with all seven of them.
Who is producing and directing?
I am producing and directing. The concert is a Center Presents show so it is going to be presented here in the Palladium with our top notch production team. Ted Firth is our music director. We have worked with him through the years.He has worked with Michael and each of these alums in different performances around the country. Ted helped me put the music together.
Is Michael participating?
Michael will not be here. He wanted the kids to have the opportunity to shine and that is really the whole focus of the evening. These outstanding students got their start here at the Academy and each went on to do amazing things. When I introduce each student, I will talk about where the program was. In 2009 it was just a two day event. It was a regional event. It was Indiana and three surrounding states. There were ten students. So I am just going to explain how the program has changed and I will talk about the winner of each year and let them talk about all the incredible things they have done since then. I want to give he audience a sense of who they are, where they are from and then I will let the kids tell their stories.
Nick (Ziobro) and Julia (Goodwin) have become quite a duo haven’t they?
Yes, they now have their own show. They just did four nights with the Naples Philharmonic in Florida. They were the headliners.
Do the Ambassadors all know each other?
Pretty much. The first two years were 2009 and 20010. There was a break in 2011 when there was no competition. So there was a little bit of a break so Julia came back as an intern for the Academy in 2012 so she got to know Nick and later Julia but for the most part the others have know each other because they performed together at the Songbook Academy.
What have the seven accomplished in terms of the Songbook’s mission?
Well, I think these students embody our mission. I know that Michael never envisioned the scope of what these students would do. When he started the Songbook Academy, the whole mission was to teach this music to students who may not know it so they would fall in love with it. That happened but I think no one could have foreseen these students not only embracing this music but also enjoying so much professional success. Every single one of them from Julia Bonnet who is a regional musical theater star to Nick, Julia and Lucas, who performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center. Maddie made her national debut in “Hairspray” and told the world that she learned everything about interpreting a song from the songbook Academy. It’s extraordinary. It is not only fulfilling our mission to have young people embrace this music but we are inspiring and educating others through this music and it really is an embodiment of our mission in a way that none of us every imagined.
Did Maddie’s appearance on NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” generate major press for the Academy?
Yes. Maddie won that role through an open call. I remember being so proud of her and thinking, “Wow, that is amazing.” I wouldn’t take any credit for that. The, when she called to tell me the news, I said “Oh, please, don’t forget us and she said “Are you kidding me? You (Songbook Academy) were the only thing on my resume. And I said, “Well, tell the world” and she did. I track all of our press and when she was announced I tried to pull all of the pieces that mentioned her. In just about every print piece, the “Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador” or “Songbook Academy winner Maddie Baillio, was mentioned. Maddie continues to be so passionate about this program. She did come back after they announced her in the spring. She came back the Songbook Academy this summer just to meet the students about her experience in New York and about the audition process. She has remained active with our Songbook alum group
Will she be performing any concerts with Michael in the near future?
They are working on that now. NBC is working with her and she’s now is in L.A. for pilot season auditioning for TV shows and films. This is an exciting time for her.
What is Brighton Thomas doing these days?
Brighton just made her New York City debut performing with Michael at Feinstein’s 54 Below. I was there opening night and she brought the house down. She also performed with Michael for a series of shows that are going to be aired on PBS in the New York and New Jersey markets celebrating the American Songbook. She’s done another performance with him in Scottsdale, Arizona. Brighton is a senior in high school so she’s busy starring in her high school musical and performing with her choir.
The All-Stars seem so grounded.
They are all very mature. I think the kids who are drawn to this program are special and I think this music requires a certain level of maturity and sophistication. For these students it is not all about becoming a pop star or ask what the music can do for them. The kids connect with this music and want to tell a story. That is a higher level of sophistication most kids their age.
How do you like your new shift into arts administration?
Well, Tom, today is my first day on the job so I will tell you in a month. No, I’m kidding. I have been working with Karen for the last couple of months as we have transitioned. I always tell people landed in my dream job five years ago and this is the next phase of that. I so believe in what we are doing and now to put my stamp on it and to be a part of the vision and the strategy is very exciting.
For tickets to the Songbook Academy® AllStars Concert call the Center for the Performing Arts at 1 (317 843-3800 or visit TheCenterPresents.org