Have you spent much time in Baltimore and at the Meyerhoff specifically?
I have been in Baltimore frequently through the years. My first time at the Meyerhoff was right after I started to gain some notoriety, so I guess that would have been around the time I played Broadway, maybe late '80s, early '90s. I played solo and fell in love with the hall, fell in love with the city, and always looked forward to being there. I worked with Jack Everly a number of times as well and I love his work and the fine orchestra and the city. The last time I was there I found a great vegan restaurant so I was happy.
Well, that I agree with. Which restaurant? Do you remember the name?
Let me think. It was sort of like an African Caribbean…
Was it Land of Kush?
Yes, that’s exactly what it was.
So are you a vegan?
Yes. I have been for nine years. It’s life-changing. It’s great. I’m very happy eating plants. [Laughs]
I agree with that. What brought you to that decision?
My body wasn’t feeling great, and at the same time I was reading a lot about animal issues, about the treatment of animals, so it was really the confluence of the two coming together. I was just on my way to Japan and I got very ill and I just stopped eating everything. Now, deciding to become a vegan in Japan is not an easy thing to do because there is some form of fish in everything. But that’s actually when I started. And it’s been great. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
Your album, The Sinatra Project, focuses on songs written for Sinatra that were not recorded by him. Am I correct in saying it’s been very well received?
Yes it has been. It’s some songs that he didn’t record, but a lot of them he did record. It’s hopefully a happy mixture of songs that encapsulate the era of the ‘60s in which he had become iconic. I wanted also to do a recording that included songs sung by people he influenced and people who influenced him. So there are some Sinatra warhorses like “The Lady is a Tramp” and “For Once in My Life”—which he sang in almost every concert for the last 20 years of his life—“Luck Be Lady,” which was very associated with him. And then I did things like “The Way You Look Tonight,” which he did as an up-tempo swing arrangement, and I recorded it as if he’d done it with Antonio Carlos Jobim. I love his album with Jobim. So I recorded it as an imagining of what it might have sounded like if Frank had sung it with Jobim.
I think there were two songs that he never sang on the recording, that he never sang at all. One is a song called “C’est Comme Ca” written by Duke Ellington and Marshall Barer. I included that because the lyricist Marshall Barer was a friend of mine, and he told me that he wrote it with Sinatra in mind as a classic Sinatra saloon song. The other one that Sinatra didn’t do was a song called “Thirteen Women,” which I discovered from my friend Ann-Margret, and wanted to do that as a nod to the crazy vibe of the '60s.
Do you have any favorite songs?
Hm. I like “Thirteen Women” because it’s so uncharacteristic for me and it’s gotten wonderful response. And I like “I’ll Be Around,” which is a song by Alec Wilder written in 1942. I did that simply. Most of the songs on the recording are done with a wonderful big band and with an orchestra with strings. But this cut is just with a bass, and a violin as well, and it’s very quiet and intimate and sad. Sinatra loved that song, and I loved doing it very simply and heartfelt.
You spent time with Sinatra, did you sing with him?
I never sang with him. His wife, Barbara—who was very sweet, as well as Frank for that matter. I know “sweet” wasn’t necessarily a term connected with him but he was with me—Occasionally when I was at the house she would ask me if I wanted to sing, but I was always so intimidated by the thought of singing in front of him that I couldn’t do it. I guess anybody else with more moxie or nerve or chutzpa would have done it, but I never did, and I guess I should have, but I didn’t. [Laughs]
I don’t think too many people would blame you. You’re something of a Gershwin aficionado as well. Are there any parallels between these giants of the American songbook that you would be able to speak about?
Sinatra certainly sang a lot of Gershwin songs through the years and on my previous CD, The Sinatra Project—I guess now it’s Part One—I included “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” one of Gershwin’s songs, but we wouldn’t know that song if it weren’t for Frank Sinatra. Sinatra recorded the song initially 20 years after it was written. It was written in 1928 and he recorded it I think in ’48. It wasn’t until Sinatra recorded that song that it became popular and became one of the most beloved Gershwin songs. Ira Gershwin, for whom I worked from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, a six-year period until his death in 1983, he always talked about how Sinatra made that song a standard and how, without people singing the songs, they don’t live.
Rosemary Clooney was a major influence on you as well. How does her work compare with Sinatra and Gershwin in terms of influencing you and your work?
Rosemary was my favorite female singer, maybe my favorite singer of all time, because of the combination of her beautiful voice, her interpretive ability, her connection with the lyric and just something about her energy, if you will, that created a very deep connection in my soul. She became my second mom, and she used to call me her sixth kid. Rosemary was a very, very generous lady who took me under her wing. We toured and performed a couple hundred shows together through the years. She taught me a lot about interpretation and I consider her to be one of the major influences on American pop music even though (like many people who are no longer with us) she isn’t as well remembered as I wish she were. She is a singer whose voice I most love to listen to. And she loved Sinatra. I was with her the night that Sinatra died, which was very comforting because she had sung with him and worked with him and knew him very well. It was nice to be able to be with someone with whom I could commiserate at that time. Rosemary lived next door to Ira Gershwin and, the day Ira died, Rosemary heard an ambulance go to the house at seven in the morning and called me and told me that Ira had died. So she had always been there for me at times when I most needed someone for love and for comfort.
What it is about the cabaret life that has held your interest for all this time?
I’ve had a nightclub for 11 years now, and I love that I have a place that has just become part of the fabric of New York and is a place where people can hear performers in a smaller setting with all of the advantages of being in close proximity to the performer—seeing their facial expressions, being able to feel really connected to a performer in a way that isn’t quite the same in a large hall. Though a large hall is also wonderful because of the communal experience. There are certain places that allow more of a connection than others. Certainly the Meyerhoff is one of them.
I perform only twice a year in my nightclub. I perform there the month of December and I’ll be doing that with Barbara Cook who is getting the Kennedy Center honor, which makes me very happy. I’ll do a couple weeks in the fall in September when the season opens. Other than that I’m touring and playing in other venues, usually in large halls. So it’s nice to get back to a smaller venue sometimes. But it’s interesting, no matter where I play—this past year I played at the Hollywood Bowl, and Carnegie Hall and many other iconic theaters, I was in Australia at the Sydney Opera House—yet people will often refer to me as a cabaret performer, which is odd to me because I don’t really play in nightclubs anymore, except for my own room occasionally. But I guess it’s a compliment because the repertoire is such that it’s some of the greatest music in the world.
Can you tell me about your performing arts center in Carmel, Ind., which opened this year?
I was name artistic director of this extraordinary new concert hall. It’s a $170 million performing arts complex that is among the most incredible in the world. I was thrilled to be named the artistic director, and for the first time I’m involved in decisions about venues and performance that are on the other side of the footlights, if you will. And I love the challenge of that.
But also the reason that I’m in Carmel is because I started an organization for the preservation of the Great American Songbook and it’s called the Feinstein Initiative for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook. That is very close to my heart because we are going to be building a museum, a physical place where people can come and see artifacts and memorabilia connected to the Songbook mainly consisting of the core of my collection, which is a major collection of memorabilia and music but also we’ve had donations of collections of many other songwriters including Henry Mancini, singer Margaret Whiting, Peter Allen’s music library and all kinds of amazing things.
The organization is very concerned with teaching kids. We have competitions every year and master classes. I meet so many high school kids who love this music and don’t have an outlet for it. So that’s the reason I’m doing it: to help keep music alive and teach it to new generations. The headquarters is in Carmel but of course with our web presence and the scholarship competition year-by-year growing state-by-state it will hopefully have a national influence.
You and your partner were married by Judge Judy. How did that come about? What is she like outside of the courtroom?
She’s a wonderful lady. We actually had dinner with her last night. We see Judy and her husband Jerry frequently. We became friends a long time ago, probably 12 years ago and Judy is a very devoted friend and a kind person and absolutely tough on her television show because that’s how she ran her courtroom. She does not suffer fools. She’s the one who actually spurred Terrance and I to get married because we’d been together for a while and she said that she had a bad feeling about the law in California being changed and the possibility that marry could go away.
We didn’t feel any great rush to get married, like many people, because state legalization of marriage does not give the federal advantages and all of the things that would make it truly equal to any other marriage. But she pushed us to do it because she felt and feels that it should be legal on a national level. And she said “OK. Get out your books—we’re going to make a date.” And we got out our books and made a date. She made sure she had legal authority in California to sign the license, and beautifully performed ceremony. She wanted to make a statement by virtue of performing the ceremony to let people know she was in support of marriage equality. Barry Manilow sang and Liza Mennelli sang, and it was a life-changing experience. Because even though we had been together a long time there’s nothing that could compare to the feeling that I had of being with 150 people who are our closest connected intimates and friends, who were there supporting us with unconditional love, which was something as partners many of us never get to feel.
Is there anything else you like Gay Life readers and Baltimore to know about you or your upcoming visit?
The show itself is one of my favorite shows to perform. The big band sound, which is endangered these days, is very exciting. It wonderful to see the reaction of the audience in response to the swing sound and for people who haven’t ever experienced that sound it’s just one of the greatest things in the world. People are practically dancing in the aisles from the joy of the music and the swing experience.
For people who might not have seen my show, it’s filled with a lot of humor and fun and sometimes I take requests from the audience. I guess for people who haven’t seen me perform live and only know my recordings they’re usually struck by the humor and the casual nature of the show. That makes it more of a celebration than anything else. So it will be fun to be back in Baltimore, especially for several days, to go to the Land of Kush and hang about in the city a bit.
Well Baltimore welcomes you.
Thank you very much.
Thank you so much for taking the time.
You’re welcome. It was nice speaking with you and thank you for writing about me.
Absolutely my pleasure. Have a wonderful day and a very happy Thanksgiving.
Thank you, the same. Have a happy vegan Thanksgiving.
Michael Feinstein Sings Sinatra
Nov. 25, 26, and 27 • 8pm (3pm Sunday)
Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
1212 Cathedral St. • 410.738.8000 • BSOMusic.org