When Michael Feinstein sings, Great American Songbook fans listen
Everything’s coming up roses for Fresno-area fans of the singer/pianist Michael Feinstein. They’ll get to hear him in person.
“I haven’t seen him live and am thrilled to be able to attend a concert,” Johnson says.
She agreed to take a few minutes to share her enthusiasm with us.
Q: Feinstein calls himself the “Ambassador” of the Great American Songbook. Can you help explain what the songbook is? Do many people these days know what that means?
A: The American Songbook refers to classic American songs — “standards” that came from Broadway, Hollywood or Tin Pan Alley, mainly in the 20th century. The songs were by such composers as Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers (both with Larry Hart and Oscar Hammerstein) and others. I would add Sondheim and Jerry Herman.
I suppose most younger listeners would not be as aware of what a treasure trove these songs are, which is why it’s so important that Michael Feinstein is intent on showcasing them. Other singers like Harry Connick Jr. and Tony Bennett focus on these classics too. And then there are the “Standards” albums released by pop/rock singers like Sting, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney and Cyndi Lauper, to name a few.
Q: How long have you considered yourself a Feinstein fan?
A: About 20 years. I first became aware of him as a Gershwin expert. He worked for the Gershwin estate for years, cataloging and archiving material. The first Michael Feinstein album I bought was a Gershwin collection.
Q: Why do you like him?
A: I have always been impressed with his musicality. He’s a great pianist. And I think he is unequaled in his ability to get inside a lyric and interpret in a way you may not have heard before. His voice is evocative and his range is impressive, and I love the way he takes time within a song to emphasize the emotions.
I also admire him for creating the American Songbook Academy, which takes in high school singers every year for an intensive workshop in how to sing songs from the American Songbook. It’s great that this sensibility is being passed on to a new generation. (University High School graduate Emily Estep got to attend the academy several years ago.)
Q: Let’s say you get to go to dinner with Mr. Feinstein. What are three things you’d ask him?
A: I’d ask about his days working for the Gershwins. What was the most exciting find?
What is your favorite lyric to sing that you think has different interpretations?
Can you compare the lyrics of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Ira Gershwin?
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Q: What is your favorite Michael Feinstein version of a song?
“I Won’t Send Roses,” by Jerry Herman, from the musical “Mack and Mabel.” Most of my musical theater friends adore this score, and I do, too. I’ve seen the show twice — once with the original cast of Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, and then much later I saw a revised version at The Shaw Festival in Canada. Sadly, the book to this show is problematical. Which is why it’s not done more often even though the songs are glorious.
Feinstein’s version of this song is beautiful and poignant. (By the way, it’s on Amazon Music.)
Q: Anything to add?
A: I wish more people knew about Michael Feinstein and the valuable work he is doing. Sure hope the concert is well-attended!