Cabaret king Michael Feinstein returns to Ravinia Festival this month with singer Haley Reinhart in her Ravinia debut. Songs will span over decades of the music Feinstein is known for playing.
As the ambassador of the Great American Songbook, Feinstein has earned many accolades over the years including five Grammy nominations and two Emmy nominations. He won a Drama Desk Special Award in 1988. He's performed at The White House, Hollywood Bowl and Buckingham Palace in the past.
In 2008, Feinstein made Carmel, Indiana the headquarters of The Great American Songbook Foundation. Its mission is to preserve, research and exhibit the physical artifacts of music in an archive and reference library. The Great American Songbook refers to the standards from the 20th century in popular music and jazz. He brought the Songbook to the Pasadena POPS in 2012 where he was named principal POPS conductor, with his contract ending this year.
His memoir The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs was about him working with Ira Gershwin and he's appeared multiple times as a host on Turner Classic Movies over the years.
Feinstein called to discuss his upcoming concert and projects that are just on the horizon.
Windy City Times: It's been a while since we talked. You are a New Yorker these days?
Michael Feinstein: I'm originally from Ohio, but I divide my time between New York, LA and Indiana where I have The Great American Songbook Foundation.
WCT: How do you decide on a set list for Ravinia?
MF: The first thing we decided on was using a big band for this gig, because it's so much fun to work with a big band. It's justified with the setting for Ravinia, the size of the place and it's acoustically spectacular. I started working on a repertoire that's a combination of Great American Songbook and Broadway. There will be some contemporary music, meaning dipping into the catalogue of Carole King and James Taylor. There was a second wave of classic American songs with these artists.
We have the incredible addition of Haley Reinhart. Christine Ebersole was supposed to do the engagement, but she got a television series and had to cancel. I was flummoxed by that. Christine is a dear friend and she was upset by that. She is from Winnetka and was looking forward to a reunion with friends.
It occurred to me that maybe Haley would be interested. I have admired her work from afar with videos of Postmodern Jukebox. She performed with Jeff Goldblum down the street from me in L.A. I was thrilled when she said yes. She can sing anything from pop songs to standards.
WCT: I just talked to her a few days ago. She's sweet. How many times have you played Ravinia?
MF: I don't know. Last year was with Kristin Chenoweth, then before that it was with Pink Martini. Back in the day, I can't count the number times I have played Ravinia.
WCT: Did Kristin bring her dog Thunder with her?
MF: No. She brought her boyfriend, but not her dog!
WCT: How do you create a song for such a big space like Ravinia?
MF: Microphones! It's funny, I started my career playing piano bars. A year after my success in New York, I got an offer to play at the Hollywood Bowl and I learned to do the same things that I did in a smaller venue. You fill up the space mentally and spiritually. There's a way to make your aura larger. I went from playing intimate spaces to 17,000 people.
From that point on, I have played large venues. The only clubs I play are the ones I own, because I still like those intimate settings. To play a large space doesn't require fundamental change because singing a song is still intimate communication. It's connecting to the audience that makes them feel you are singing to them. I'm blessed with the gift to be able to do that.
WCT: Is there a new Broadway show that you like?
MF: I have not seen Hadestown, but everyone says that's the one to see. The last thing I saw was My Fair Lady with Laura Benanti. That was fantastic.
WCT: How was working with Cheyenne Jackson in a nightclub act?
MF: Cheyenne is one of the most talented people I know. He has a God given voice that has a range that's multi-octave. He's part of a generation that can sing anything. He can sing traditional songs and can croon. He has the flexibility vocally to sing any kind of pop stuff.
To me, he's one of the most versatile and talented people on the planet. He's a very nice and easy to work with. Unfortunately, he's very unattractive, but other than that he's got a lot going for him…
WCT: [Laughs] Poor thing.
MF: Yeah, my heart bleeds for him.
WCT: Tell me one fun fact about the person [who] married you and Terrence FlanneryJudge Judy!
MF: Judge Judy celebrates life. She takes nothing for granted, because this major shift in her career didn't happen until she was 50 years old. She's a kind person. Some people might be surprised by that because she lays it on for the television show.
One day, Terrence and I were driving to Judy and Jerry's house in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. On the car radio, the announcer gave a list of top 10 people to not spend thanksgiving with and Judge Judy was number two. I told her about it when I got there and she asked, "Who's number one? I don't want to be number two!"
WCT: I didn't realize her husband is named Jerry also.
MF: Yes, but it's actually Gerald. He's a judge too and one of the first authors to write a book about DNA evidence in trials. They are a brilliant couple together and their kids are all wonderful. I just performed in Wyoming and Judy's eldest son Adam has a gorgeous house there and he threw a big party for us.
She's also very quietly philanthropic. It's all under the radar.
WCT: How are you friends with all these people? I mean Barry Manilow is your bestie…
MF: I was just with Barry last night. We connect because of the music. Barry, like me, cares about the history of American song. When we met we had that connection.
I just forge relationships with people that come from the heart. I have been very lucky to connect with people that I admire.
WCT: Is there one thing you would like your career to be remembered by?
MF: I think it's folly to want to be remembered, because everything in life is so ephemeral. The only thing that matters is what we do when we are here.
I just try to keep the heritage that I embrace going. I try to keep classic American music alive, because if there weren't advocates for it then it could get lost. I'm so proud of The American Songbook Foundation because we have our annual high school Songbook Vocal Academy where we have kids from all over the country come and are coached about American popular music. It's like planting little seeds. These young people share it with others and it helps to keep it alive.
Helping to keep the art form alive of something that I care about is where I hope to leave my mark. Performing the material is important to me, but keeping it alive for the next generation is most important.
WCT: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
MF: I'm finishing a new album with duets with country stars such as Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley and Lyle Lovett. That will probably come out next year or late this year.
I will be conducting the orchestra at the Pasadena Symphony and POPS in September and going to Australia in November. I'm working on a book that's due early next year, so I have to up my game.
Oh, Terrence and I will be moving into a new house in Pasadena in the fall. We have been renovating it for a year and a half. It will give me space to store my music collections, which have been all over the place!
We just opened a new Feinstein's at Vitello's in LA. So now he have a Feinstein's in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and one opening in Indiana soon. We are announcing an international one, so continuing the nightclubs. I hope we find a space in Chicago eventually.
Tickets for the upcoming Feinstein gig on Thursday, Aug. 29, at Ravinia Festival, 418 Sheridan Rd, Highland Park, can be found at Ravinia.org .
More about Feinstein can be found at MichaelFeinstein.com .