Writing about the performing arts gives me a front-row seat (on the aisle) to some of the best shows and access to some the biggest names in the entertainment business. Such was the case again the other day when I had an opportunity to chat by Zoom with one of my favorites, the renowned, award-winning singer-pianist Billy Stritch. He is headlining in “Billy’s Place” as part of the ATI LIVE at FEINSTEIN’s series at Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael in Carmel for one night only on Thursday, August 26. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30 p.m.
Having seen him perform at The Cabaret several times and at the Palladium in 2019 (the last show I saw before the pandemic began), I am more than familiar with Stritch’s stellar body of work, as are audiences across the country for his many solo-concert performances and as accompanist and musical director for Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Marilyn Maye, Linda Lavin and Christine Ebersole. He has created his own weekly Facebook livestream music show called “Billy’s Place.” Every week, he spotlights a different composer or performer from the Great American Songbook.
The person responsible for Stritch’s Feinstein debut is Don Farrell, co-founder of Actors Theatre of Indiana. Contacted by email, he wrote, “Billy and I have a friendship that’s grown over time and I am looking forward to hosting him while he is our guest in town.”
Farrell went on to say “Just as we have presented in the past world-class talents such as Sutton Foster and Chita Rivera for our community here in Central Indiana, my fellow co-founders Judy Fitzgerald and Cynthia Collins and I, prior to starting Actors Theatre of Indiana in 2005, are blessed to have worked side by side with and know so many amazing talents. We look forward to presenting more friends and colleagues as a part of our ATI LIVE at FEINSTEIN’S series. Each amazing performer is right at home in such an elegant supper club as Feinstein’s and we are confident our patrons will immensely enjoy each act we present.
Concluding his comments, Farrell said “As such, we are pleased and honored to present our new, dear friend Billy Stritch this Thursday evening, as he makes his Feinstein’s debut with his wonderful show ‘Billy’s Place.’ We are equally excited about what the future holds as we continue our wonderful partnership with Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael in adding to their already-exciting programming and together presenting world-class entertainment for our community.”
Below is an edited version of my conversation with Stritch, who was calling from his Upper Westside apartment in New York City.
How did the show come about?
Through Don Farrell, whom I met a few months before the pandemic started. I was in Carmel doing a show called “Four Girls Four” with Faith Prince, Maureen McGovern, Donna McKechnie and Andrea McArdle. Faith and Don are good friends; so, one night, we all went to dinner. Don and I got on great, and we just stayed in touch and he was the one who cooked up the idea for me to do the night. I was thrilled because I could not wait to play that club.
You have played all the clubs that grace Feinstein’s name, have you not?
Yes, I have played the one in New York, San Francisco and Vitello’s in Studio City in L.A. I have played all those spaces and am eager to play this one. Friends Marilyn Maye, Liz Callaway and her sister Ann were there and I am getting terrific reports about it, so I expect it is going to be a wonderful night.
Once the pandemic began to wane, did your performing schedule pick up again?
Yes, it’s roaring back. I have already been on the road quite a few times. Actually, during the pandemic, I had a chance to go with Marilyn Maye to Kansas City on a couple of occasions last year when nobody was flying, but she arranged three separate events, virtual, where she did a pre-recorded show for livestreaming. So, she was on stage with her band in a beautiful theatre with an audience. Everyone said “Are you crazy? You are getting on an airplane?” There was nobody on the plane and in the airport and I was fine with that. It really didn’t bother me, but once I returned home, I had to quarantine for a few weeks each time. So, I traveled with Marilyn three or four times, went to Minneapolis and did a few gigs. I went to Nashville and recorded a new album and then I went to Florida a few times this past spring. So, even though it slowed down dramatically, it didn’t totally stop for me.
Then, of course, there were those who had a strong online presence, including yourself, and you are still doing it, correct?
Yes, “Billy’s Place.” We started the show on Thursday nights on my Facebook page on May 7 and coming up next Thursday will be our 59th show. It’s been a wonderful outlet for me. It’s been daunting to come up with new content every week because every show is different. I try to do a tribute to a different composer or artist or style. Some weeks I plan a request show and get those ahead of time. I don’t like to repeat myself. It’s been a lot, but it’s been great.
You have reached a world-wide audience as a result, haven’t you?
That was the wonderful byproduct. When we started this, that didn’t even occur to me. Initially, it was on an iPad and now we have advanced a lot. I now have a backdrop and lights and good sound. After about a month, I realized I was getting feedback from people in California, London and South America. I am originally from a small town outside Houston, called Sugarland. All these older folks, my parents’ age, people I went to school with, were able to watch me every week. They don’t get to New York, so they were able to watch me. It was fantastic. Those first few weeks, we had thousands of views of our live shows. We always upload them to Facebook and we get new viewers. Since it was all such a new thing, I was getting tremendous amounts of viewership. Now, it has leveled up. I get 500 to a thousand a week, which is great and, you know, I am reaching more people than I ever could reach before.
Were you able to monetize your show? Do you have a tip jar?
I sure did. That was a big impetus to start the whole thing. I thought, I got to do something to get some money coming in because there really wasn’t any live work. Ninety percent of my income was stopped. People have been wonderfully generous. They can go through Pay Pal or Venmo or send me checks and that has been great. I always say if this had happened 30 years ago before the miracle of the internet and livestreaming, who knows what we would have been able to do?
So, I take it you got used to playing to the red light on your camera?
I have that little camera and it has a little light. I have gotten very used to playing to that and I know people are watching, but when I go back on the stage, you just reminded me of the wonderful immediacy of the give and take, and the performer gets so much energy, and it goes back and forth, and you can’t quite get that from a livestream. You end the song and there is no applause.
That emotion people are expressing now that live performance has come back, is it dissipating?
Well, I think like everything else…we always said, “Oh, we’ll never take this for granted.” When we could fly, “Oh, I’ll never take air travel for granted again.” We are just human. In a year or two, when we are really back to normal, there won’t be quite the level of emotion, I am sad to say. But certainly, we won’t forget the last 15 months, but I suspect it will be a lot like the pandemic of 100 years ago, then the Roaring Twenties came in and I think people tried to put it behind them.
Did you continue creating during the pandemic? Did you write?
I do write. Mostly I arrange and through “Billy’s Place” I was doing Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter, and Peter Allen, and you name it, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. And then I did a whole season of Christmas shows because there were five Thursdays leading up to Christmas Eve, which was on a Thursday. So, it has mainly been existing material. One of the songs on the ‘Billy’s Place’ album, I wrote with co-writer Sandy Knox called “Since you Left New York” and we actually wrote it a while ago, but the lyrics totally made sense during the pandemic because of the imagery, like turning the lights off on Broadway, and the jazz and the music had stopped, and the cabaret, and no New Year’s Eve in Times Square. So, that’s, quite literally, what happened and then I did write a theme song for my show. Weeks in, I thought, what I need is a theme song. So, I am writing a little bit, but mainly, creating my own arrangements of well-known songs. I was doing livestreams with Linda Lavin. She had an apartment three flights above me, so we spent the darkest days together.
She was part of your pod?
She absolutely was. My partner and all of our dogs and Linda were our little pod, so we felt comfortable enough to perform together in her apartment. For the first couple of months, we stayed six feet apart. We were concerned, but we didn’t want people to see us getting close on camera. We did about 10 or 11 of those and then one Monday, she said, “You know, I am just not feeling it. I just want to take a week off.” So, I grabbed that spot. I did it that Wednesday afternoon in my apartment two times and that’s when I thought, “You know what? I think I can create my own show and if she still wants to go on, we can still do that.” So, I picked Thursday night and then she and I went on for another month and then she went back to L.A. to work on a sitcom and her world opened up. We did 13 shows together.
What does your Feinstein show consist of?
It’s going to be a real mix of stuff. I’ve done tributes to Mel Tormé and Cy Coleman, and what I really like to do is, I really like not being bound to one particular theme. Through the course of the livestreams, I have re-encountered material that I love. Some of it I recorded on the new CD. And I tell stories every week, experiences I have had or people I have worked with. It’s going to be basically that, a mix of well-known songs, Hoagy Carmichael, Rodgers and Hart. I do “That Old Feeling.” I think I’m going to do my big medley of “Singin’ in the Rain” because people love movie musicals. And in the meantime, I tell lots of stories, so I call it “Billy’s Place.”
What are your thoughts about Tony Bennett, whom you worked with, and who recently retired?
There was an article that came out last spring in AARP magazine. That is where they kind of announced that this (Alzheimer’s disease) is what he has been dealing with for four years. I worked with him in 2016 and 2017, and after I read the article, it kind of made everything come together. I was already seen signs of it. I’d experienced it with family members. There are times he would be very with it, and at rehearsals and he would know where he was and who I was, and there would be days when he would not be sure who I was. But again, when he would get on stage and sing and hear that music, all of that would fall away and he would be on the money. I am not surprised he is retiring at this point because I know the progression of that disease and that it doesn’t get better. And I love that he went out on a high note with two shows at Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga that were filmed and are going to be on in the fall. And there is an album coming out with her next month, so I would wish him nothing less than that seven decades of performing. It’s the end of an era. He is the last of that generation.
What does the future hold for you? Any new projects?
I love revisiting my solo performing. I look to be doing more of that. I just finished a weekend at a club in Minneapolis called Crooners, and in October, I am back at the Purple Room in Palm Springs. I am delighted to work as a soloist. I am going to Provincetown in a few weeks with Miss Maye. I love Provincetown. I think this is going to be our 11th or 12th year there. This week, we are going to be there for two weeks. She really plans her month being at P-Town.
Any recording you want to do?
I have another CD that will probably not be recorded until next January or February.
What did the pandemic teach you as an artist?
Having all this free time to put out what I wanted, but not what is expected of me, I found out that basically I could do anything. And getting feedback, “Oh, I loved it when you did this particular pop song.” Material that maybe I would not have considered before. That is what I learned personally as an artist. Not to limit myself and as long as it is authentic to you and comes from your heart, then it is valuable. It’s balanced.
What are your thoughts about Actors Theatre of Indiana and its mission?
They are providing a need and a great service to the community and to the theatre and anything that is pro arts is perfectly wonderful.
For information about Billy Stritch, follow him on Facebook. For information about Actors Theatre of Indiana, visit atistage.org. For tickets and information about “Billy’s Place,” visit feinsteinshc.com.