The unsinkable Marilyn Maye is back in New York with a show called "Her Kind of Broadway," chock-a-block with emphatically upbeat Broadway show stoppers, performed with a trio of musicians at the very intimate Metropolitan Room cabaret. It shouldn't work, but it does.
Broadway and cabaret have an uneasy alliance -- although some of the material may overlap, traditionally, the Broadway-style performer is all about razzle dazzle showmanship, brassy belting and the full frontal attack; whereas cabaret is more intimate, sometimes precious, and allows the singer to delve deeper into the subtext of a song.
It's this essential difference in approach that causes most Broadway-themed cabaret acts to misfire: either the arrangements and the playing of the musicians can't compensate for the lack of the 40-piece orchestra that many of these songs seem to require, or the singer belts as if playing to the balcony -- which may work at the Shubert, but when the tiny room doesn't even have a balcony, the audience is simply flattened against the wall. Miss Maye's trio (led by the ever-astonishing Tedd Firth) made the Metropolitan swing so hard that even a full brass and string section couldn't possibly have been anything more than superfluous; and while Miss Maye herself let loose with the kind of belting that made every show tune queen in the house alternately turn green with envy and start swooning with delight, it was never at the sacrifice of her warm, intimate connection with the audience. We can think of no other performer who can bridge the gap between Broadway and cabaret so seamlessly, satisfying both crowds equally.
This 82 year old dynamo comes on like a tornado right from the start, opening with a sizzling arrangement of "Put on a Happy Face" from Bye Bye Birdie. As performed in the show, it's a cute, perky number which comes perilously close to taking its lyrics so literally that it can sound like a nursery rhyme. In Marilyn Maye's hands, it's almost defiantly upbeat, raucous, intense -- a command, rather than a suggestion. If the power of positive thinking will result in our looking, sounding and high-kicking as spectacular as Miss Maye when we're in our eighth decade, we'll gladly follow any directions she gives us.
Maye's hearty optimism and full-throated style are ideally suited to the music of Jerry Herman, so it's no surprise that she has essayed the role of Dolly Levi countless times on stage -- although, as she admits, never actually on Broadway. Listening to her poignant take on "Ribbons Down My Back," or watching her slyly camp her way through "Elegance," one wonders how the Great White Way powers-that-be possibly overlooked Maye for a starring vehicle on Broadway.
Frank Loesser, who would have celebrated his centennial this year, is treated to a lengthy clutch of songs from Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella. "Luck Be a Lady," from the former, is effectively wrenched from Sinatra's singular hold -- no mean feat, that! From the latter, a haunting "Joey, Joey, Joey" was a master class in painting pictures through words: as Maye sang, you could positively smell the Oregon cherries, Texas avocado, and Arizona sugar beets.
Nearly every number was a bona fide crowd pleaser, but perhaps no segment was more disarming and delightful than a string of songs which Maye recorded for RCA in the 1960's, before the Broadway shows they were written for had opened. "Cabaret" was a major Adult Contemporary hit for Maye back in 1966, not only before the show opened, but long before you-know-who starred in the film version. "She knows it's really mine," Maye wryly remarked; and you got the feeling she was only half-joking! Similarly, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" was written for the score of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's Broadway bow, Promises, Promises, before becoming a hit for "that Warwick girl," as Maye commented dismissively in jest; and, yes, Maye got there first. "Sherry" was the title song to an ill-fated musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner; the show was a flop, but the single was another turntable hit for Maye, and an utterly charming one, at that. Capping things off was the flag-waving "Step to the Rear," an unrelentingly celebratory number from another obscure show, How Now, Dow Jones; it was another Adult Contemporary hit for Maye, but more important, was picked up as a commercial for Lincoln-Mercury for four, lucrative, residual-earning years! Maye began the song straight, then treated us to the re-written jingle lyrics.
The emotional highlight of the program was undoubtedly Maye's gut-wrenching interpretation of Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" from Follies. For all of her sunny optimism, Maye is no Pollyanna; her determination to focus on the positive comes from understanding the reality of life, not being blind to it. And when she sings of loss and heartbreak, the effect is absolutely devastating. Also from Follies, albeit from a completely different character and motivation, is the warhorse, "I'm Still Here" -- de rigeur in any cabaret act performed by a female of A Certain Age. Frankly, we thought we could live another hundred years without ever hearing anyone try to tackle this song again; it's become such a cliche. When Bea Arthur did her one woman show on Broadway a few years back, she pointedly informed the audience that she would not be singing "I'm Still Here"! But, ah, the magic of Maye -- she can make almost any song not only sound better than ever, but also fresh and new and exciting. Marilyn Maye can now claim to completely own "I'm Still Here" -- just as she owned it at Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall a few weeks back, when Maye brought the house down and was received ecstatically by the audience with a thunderous ovation.
Of course, the final number was another Jerry Herman chestnut, "It's Today" from Mame, which finds Maye not only exhorting the crowd to "live life all the way," but also indulging in high kicks that a Rockette would envy. It was a thrilling, 90 minute whirlwind of an evening, and better than most of the actual shows on Broadway today! Adding to our excitement was being seated next to one of Miss Maye's most loyal fans, Freeman Gunter, who has been following the great lady's career since the mid-1960's. Freeman was kind enough to share this utterly fabulous photo, taken backstage during Marilyn's engagement at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., circa 1967. We want his tie, and her caftan!
And, coming full circle, last night at the Metropolitan, Miss Maye gave a slightly-less-hirsute Freeman the souvenir of a lifetime:
The marvelous Marilyn Maye is packing them in for just one more night, December 7, at 7:00 p.m. We hope we'll see you there!