April 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
Curating the canon

Michael Feinstein concert
7 p.m. Sunday
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society
Tickets $40-$75
202-785-9727 or wpas.org

Ol’ blue eyes is back. And Feinstein’s got him.

Michael Feinstein, that is, the multi-platinum selling, five-time Grammy nominee. The cabaret-style interpreter not only of Sinatra but also Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, the composer famous for his work with two separate lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein III.

And a raft of others — especially the Gershwins — in the canon of Americana’s classic popular music, a genre that Feinstein himself, at a youthful 54 (still slender and boyish and with a legendary million-dollar smile) has done so much to keep alive.

(Photo courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society)

He’s been called “the ambassador of the great American songbook” and married his partner Terrence Flannery in a 2008 ceremony officiated by Judge Judy (Judith Sheindlin).

And he’s back keeping the Sinatra legend alive. It started on his 2009 album “Sinatra Project.” It will continue during his Sunday night concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

“I’m doing Sinatra for sure on Sunday,” Feinstein says. “But it’s reminiscence, not a copy, because its folly to copy him.”

The show will be “very high-energy,”  says Feinstein, “with new big band arrangements, a tribute to Nelson Riddle,” the longtime American arranger and bandleader who worked with Sinatra as well as Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney and so many other vocal stars of the mid-20th century. And it will be fllled, he says, “with anecdotes about Sinatra’s life and career, which lasted from his beginnings as a swing-era idol of “bobby-soxers” in the 1940s, through his Capitol Records albums like the legendary “In The Wee Small Hours” and “Only the Lonely,” and then the master of top 40 hits, and later his Rat Pack years with Dean Martin and other Hollywood B-listers in the “Ocean’s 11” film — a tribute to his long-time base as a headliner in Las Vegas clubs until his death in 1998.

Feinstein has famously taken a classic song, “We Kiss in a Shadow,” the weepy old chestnut from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” where two clandestine lovers yearn “for one smiling day to be free,” and rendered the ballad of exquisite sexual longing as an appeal for same-sex marriage rights. He sings it in a duet sung, gazing into each other’s eyes — with Cheyenne Jackson, also gay, the 35-year-old heart-throb from the 2007 Broadway musical “Xanadu”  and the Elvis Presley sound-alike on stage in 2005 in “All Shook Up.”

Feinstein and Jackson, also a series regular in both Fox’s “Glee” and NBC’s “30 Rock,” performed together in the show “The Power of Two,” in 2009 at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency on New York City’s swanky East Side.

Though they each have their own partners, Feinstein and Jackson elicit sparks when duetting.

At one point, during “We Kiss in a Shadow,” they turn to each other and exult, singing together “behold and believe what you see.” And audiences did. Timed for the debate in New York State over marriage equality, Feinstein and Jackson were sending a powerful message to the uber-powerful folk who saw their show, but they did it with badinage and playful patter, realizing that if you want to “send a message, call Western Union,” don’t put on a show.

In that same show, light of heart and packed with so much pizzazz, the two of them, each with matinee-idol looks and dressed dapperly in matching black suits, white shirts and black ties, the two shared the spotlight with buddy songs like “I’m Nothing Without You,” from the show “City of Angels.” But in solos Feinstein brought his own low-melting-temperature vibrato to Cole Porter’s “So In Love” from “Can Can,” and also threw in some hilarious impersonations, mimicing Paul Lynde and Carol Channing. He also sat at the piano  and crooned another anthem, this one written directly to advocate for LGBT rights, Marshall Barer’s and Mickey Leonard’s “The Time Has Come,” written as a response to the Stonewall riot.

Feinstein’s roots are, of course, in cabaret, that musical genre that mixes Tin Pan Alley with Broadway show tunes and also the ambience of Weimar Republic gay-friendly precincts of Berlin’s “kabarett” in the 1920s. As Feinstein sees it, “American Idol’s” former viper-tongued wicked-witch-judge Simon Cowell, is totally wrong-headed when he habitually denounces anything he thinks sounds old-fashioned as “cabaret.”

Where did it all begin for Feinstein, this passion for the greatest American classic popular songs? In the American “middle-west” heartland of Columbus, Ohio, where he was born in 1956, the son of an amateur tap dancer (his mother) and a Sara Lee Corporation sales executive (his father). He credits his parents as “for exposing me to this music,” in a way he compares to the Suzuki method of teaching the young to play the violin by ear, “before they even know it’s music,” he says.

At age 5, he studied piano (still his instrument today) for several months with a teacher who sought in vain to get him to read sheet music and was angered when he didn’t since he was simply more comfortable playing by ear. His mother backed him up and took him out of lessons allowing him to learn to love music in his own way. By his teenage years, he says, “I had already diverged from my age group in taste.” When his sister listened to Carole King’s album “Tapestry,” he says that he was collecting 78s. As for the Beatles, he says he is not overly impressed. Ge calls “Yesterday,” for instance, “a great melody, but it’s a bad lyric, maudlin at best, a good song wasted.”

After finishing high school, he worked in local piano bars for two years and then moved to Los Angeles when he was 20. There he soon met June Levant, widow of the legendary concert pianist-actor Oscar Levant, and through her he was introduced to Ira Gershwin, who hired young Feinstein to catalogue his extensive collection of phonograph records.  This assignment led to a six-year assignment working at Gershwin’s Beverly Hill home, preserving the legacy not only of Ira but also that of his composer brother George, who had died four decades earlier. From there he got to Gershwin’s next-door neighbor, singer Rosemary Clooney, with whom Feinstein formed a close relationship lasting until her death in 2002.

In 1986, Feinstein recorded his first CD, “Pure Gershwin,” followed soon by “Remember,” featuring the music of Irving Berlin” and later he embarked on his ambitious “songbook project,” where he would perform the music of a featured composer — such as Jule Styne and Jerry Herman — accompanied by the composer. Later, he would record two other albums of Gershwin’s music, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “Michael and George.”

“I’ve spent my life immersed in this music,” he says of all these composers and lyricists and their songs standards, “out of love for it, not even thinking about a career.” These songs are, he says, “are still pertinent to our times.” He wants “to keep the music alive for other generations,” a project that took major form in January when the Feinstein Foundation-funded $150-million Center for the Performing Arts, where he is artistic director, opened in Carmel, Ind. The complex includes a 1,600-seat concert hall plus smaller venues and houses his Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook, including also a library and archives storing his and other collections of rare recordings, orchestrations, sheet music and other cultural artifacts about songs.

Today, he is the owner of the Manhattan nightclub, Feinstein’s at the Regency, a showcase for cabaret performers, where he performs himself in sold-out shows every Christmas. He also has an interest in Feinstein’s at the Shaw, in London. Recently he completed a six-part Warner Home Video series for television that depicts the history of the American popular song through 1960. He is also finishing a book about Gershwin’s music as well as working with producer Marc Platt  (“Wicked”) on a movie project about the composer’s life. And on top of all that, he directs a newly launched pop music series at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, where he and his partner live (they have a second home in Los Angeles).

Next up, either this autumn or maybe early next year will be an updated version of his PBS series, “Michael Feinstein’s All American Songbook,” which aired on the network last fall. He says they are now filming three more segments which will be broadcast with the first three and linked to a new and growing website available at no charge which the show’s executive producer and historian Ken Bloom has called “the ultimate companion for the documentary” and “a guide for the 21st century.” He calls it a “goldmine” where browsers can click on any song or performer for further information, plus audio and video links to their work.

For the past two years, Feinstein himself has also sponsored through his foundation the Great American Songbook High School Academy and Competition, a master class and contest for teenagers in seven midwestern states — in events attracting hundreds of entries. The winner gets a free trip to New York City and an opportunity to sing at his nightclub there.

For Feinstein one thing is clear. This music will thrive, he says, “because it never went away.”

For  more info on Feinstein and his many recordings and diverse projects, go here.

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