Friday, May 25, 2012
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: DEFENDING BING AND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK
“When I was a teenager in Ohio, I would buy a record and hide it in my shirt as I walked home,” he says.
Feinstein, 55, smiles shyly and shakes his head as he thinks of it. “I was afraid that if any kids saw what I’d bought, they’d ostracize me or make me feel like a fool.”
Those records included songs sung by Sinatra or ones written by the Gershwins. But for the last few decades, Feinstein has been proud to let people know what music he’s always loved.
He’ll share it this Saturday night with New Brunswick audiences at the State Theatre’s annual gala benefit concert. Songs from his recent DVD “The Sinatra Project” will be part of the mix, as well as plenty of songs from Broadway shows.
“And Gershwin, who was the most nominated in this year’s Tony Awards?” he says, eyes gleaming. (Both “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which uses his music, and “Porgy and Bess” each got 10 nominations.)
Feinstein knows some parents will dutifully bring their children to his concert. “I do play to multigenerational audiences,” he says. “Of course, some of those kids absolutely tune out and are completely bored. That’s because they don’t know how to listen to lyrics. I wish someone would teach a course on ‘How to Listen.’ ”
Actually, Feinstein is doing his part, with his Carmel, Ind.-based Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative. “To acquaint the younger generation, we’re doing educational outreach, master classes and vocal competitions,” he says. “I know that there are kids all over the world who feel as disenfranchised as I did because they love ‘different’ music.”
Feinstein says he was much more worried about keeping this music alive a quarter century ago, just when he was breaking out as a major artist.
“It was my first New York gig at the Algonquin Hotel,” he recalls. “I looked out and saw so many late middle-aged people at the tables. I thought, ‘The audience who appreciates my music is going to be dead in 20 years.’ I really thought that, and wondered if I’d have a career in 2006.”
Not to worry. He has caught the ear of young people as they aged and matured.
“I don’t think that today’s pop market is going to change and return to ‘my’ music,” he says. “However, I really believe in planting musical seeds. You never know how they’ll grow and who they’ll influence.”
To that end, Feinstein recently started “Song Travels,” a series on National Public Radio. “It’s 50 percent music and 50 percent talk,” he says. “I’ve had on such guests as Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler, who really loves to talk about good music.”
Feinstein says that such exposure is vital. “There was a time when Bing Crosby was the No. 1 record-seller in the world, the No. 1 radio-star in the world and the No. 1 film star in the world,” he says, with more than a little awe in his voice.
Now comes the sadness: “Today, aside from ‘White Christmas,’ so few people know who he is,” he says.
Feinstein believes he knows why. “When I was a kid,” he says, “my whole family would sit around the TV and watch those variety shows. Now those shows are long gone, but even if they weren’t, a lot of families wouldn’t be able to make the time and sit and watch them as a unit. That’s why it’s important that we all be together in one large space to share the music — like the State Theatre on Saturday night.”