Two-time Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated Michael Feinstein returns to Feinstein’s at the Nikko with a special salute to the one-and-only Judy Garland for four performances only, September 28–October 1. Celebrated singer and actress Lorna Luft, the daughter of Judy Garland, will join Feinstein onstage nightly throughout the engagement. Together, the two remarkable talents will take audiences on a nostalgic musical journey performing songs from throughout Garland’s illustrious career.
Feinstein, Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, has built a dazzling career over the last three decades bringing the music of the Songbook to the world. From memorable recordings to television specials, his work as an educator and archivist define him as one of the most important musical forces of our time. In 2007 he founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, which is dedicated to celebrating the art form and to preserving it through educational programs. Feinstein serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, which ensures the future of America’s sound recording heritage.
The most recent album from his multi-platinum recording career is A Michael Feinstein Christmas from Concord Records, featuring Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Alan Broadbent. Feinstein earned his fifth Grammy Award nomination in 2009 for The Sinatra Project. His Emmy Award-nominated TV special Michael Feinstein – The Sinatra Legacy, which was taped live, aired nationally in 2011. The PBS series Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook was broadcast for three seasons and is available on DVD. His most recent primetime PBS television special, New Year’s Eve at The Rainbow Room—written and directed by Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry—aired in 2014. For his nationally syndicated public radio program, Song Travels, Feinstein interviewed and performed alongside music luminaries.
Feinstein was named Principal Pops Conductor for the Pasadena Symphony in 2012. He launched an additional Pops series at the Kravis Center in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2014. The Gershwins and Me, Feinstein’s book from Simon & Schuster, features a new CD of Gershwin standards. As if all of this was not enough, Feinstein is also Artistic Director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts, a three-theatre venue in Carmel, Indiana; Artistic Director for Carnegie Hall’s Standard Time with Michael Feinstein in conjunction with ASCAP; and Director of the Jazz and Popular Song Series at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.
On his birthday earlier this month, Feinstein generously agreed to an interview with the San Francisco Bay Times.
San Francisco Bay Times: The Great American Songbook, like Dorothy having Kansas in her heart, seems to represent an enduring optimism and belief in love that we “never really lost to begin with,” and can return to via music if we so desire. Is it possible then that the Great American Songbook is still evolving and is not limited to certain music of the early 20th century, or is it important to set boundaries around this canon for the sake of history, preservation and other factors?
Michael Feinstein: The Great American Songbook is constantly evolving. I’ve never seen it as a body of work that has a beginning or an end. The songs that make up the nucleus of that Songbook were written in the 20th century, but I believe that there are songs being written today that will eventually become part of that canon. It is determined by time. In other words, a song that we are still listening to and humming and singing in 20 years is one that endures and therefore becomes part of the Great American Songbook. It is music and lyrics that have transcended the time in which they are written and still have pertinence and meaning for audiences that are new.
San Francisco Bay Times: Who were some of the earliest composers and lyricists, and who are some of the later ones?
Michael Feinstein: I suppose that the Great American Songbook began in the early part of the 20th century when the classic pop song found its musical form, thanks to Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin wrote early hits like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “I Love a Piano” that are still songs that a lot of people know. As far as later ones, the 20s and 30s were considered to be the Golden Age into the 40s, with such writers as the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Schwartz, Sigmund Romberg, Hoagy Carmichael, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh and Harry Warren. The list is formidable and goes on and on. But the 70s were a period of great creativity for the Songbook with Billy Joel, Carole King, Jimmy Webb and Elton John. There were also Broadway writers creating great songs like Jerry Hermann and Stephen Sondheim. That was certainly a Golden Age (too). So there are different periods where there seems to be a great flurry of creativity of songs that last.
San Francisco Bay Times: Years ago we loved to listen to your wonderful Broadway music show that aired on an Emerson College radio station. Are you still hosting a radio program?
Michael Feinstein: At this moment I am not hosting a radio program, but my show Song Travels, which I recorded for three years, is still available online through NPR.org and I think on iTunes. I loved doing those shows, but they took such tremendous time to prepare; to prepare not only for the interviews, but also for the music that I performed with the guests, so it was a show that eventually I had to give up because I could not keep up the extraordinary schedule of doing it. But I do hope to get back to radio soon.
San Francisco Bay Times: What is your earliest musical memory, and is there a particular song that you loved as a child that perhaps sparked your later exploration of music?
Michael Feinstein: I guess it is in the basement of a home that I grew up in where I was playing records that I found that my parents had, 78 rpm records and such. I remember being carried away by those early records that I heard. They had a cast recording of the show Finian’s Rainbow, a recording of Beatrice Kay singing “Hello My Baby,” and a Glenn Miller record of “Little Brown Jug.” It was a whole mish-mash of things, but they made me interested in Broadway and different kinds of piano playing as well as different songs.
San Francisco Bay Times: We are so honored to be working with Feinstein’s at the Nikko. What led to your choosing San Francisco as a location for one of your namesake venues?
Michael Feinstein: San Francisco has always been sort of a good luck charm for me. I had my first major success as a solo performer, as opposed to being a piano bar performer, in San Francisco when I played The Plush Room starting in 1985. I have always felt a special affinity with audiences in the Bay Area for reasons that I can’t necessarily verbalize, but remain strong. The feeling is just the same as it was when I first came to the city, and I hope that it goes on for long time.
San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of your favorite things to do in San Francisco?
Michael Feinstein: I love the topography of the city. It’s such a beautiful place. I love the many parks and the water, of course. I don’t do touristy things. Being a collector of music, I will always try to make a trip to Amoeba, one of the last great record stores anywhere. That’s a lot of fun. I just love exploring the city. One of the things that’s great fun is to sit in the park on Nob Hill across the street from the Huntington Hotel at around 5 o’clock and watch the congregation of all the dogs and their owners. It’s so much fun to watch the canines play and interact with each other, and to try and match the dogs to their owners.
San Francisco Bay Times: Feinstein’s at the Nikko offers audience goers such an intimate, memorable experience. Do you think that this more direct connection between artist and audience is beneficial? As an entertainer, for example, how does such a venue affect your performance?
Michael Feinstein: Feinstein’s at the Nikko is a fine room for entertainment. We made a number of tweaks in the room when it became Feinstein’s to up our game, to make it the best nightclub that we possibly could. That involved subtle changes to the lighting, a new sound system, the seating … all the things that are under the radar that people aren’t necessary aware of that add to the enjoyment. I feel that the smaller setting is special. It’s a way to connect with an audience that necessitates the greatest honesty on the part of a performer because you have to be completely naked when you are that close to people. Artifice becomes immediately evident, and so it’s important not only to be honest and clear in what one does, but to be open to what happens in a setting like that because it’s different than playing in a big theater. I love big theaters. I love playing the Hollywood Bowl and big venues, but there is a special something that happens in venues like Feinstein’s at the Nikko, I think.
San Francisco Bay Times: Your collaboration with Lorna Luft is a match made in heaven. How did it come about?
Michael Feinstein: Lorna Luft is someone I’ve known as long as I’ve known her sister, Liza Minnelli. I knew Vincente Minnelli, Liza’s father, very well, and eventually met Liza through her dad. After I became friends with Liza I became friends with Lorna. We’re like family. I haven’t worked much with Lorna through the years. It just never happened, for various reasons. We were on different trajectories. But at this point we decided that it was time to do it. We wanted to spend more time together and we love San Francisco, so it just felt like the right time.
San Francisco Bay Times: What are some of your favorite songs that Judy Garland performed?
Michael Feinstein: Aside from the chestnuts, I’ll mention some of the lesser known songs that she performed that are favorites of mine. “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning” is a charming song that Johnny Meyer wrote for her. Some of the collaborations that Garland recorded for Capitol Records with Nelson Riddle, I think, are great. These include songs like “This Is It” and “Lucky Day.” They are all perfect combinations of performer, song and arranger. I also love some of the great songs that she performed in some of the MGM musicals, songs like “Friendly Star” from Summer Stock, or the beauty and delicacy of “The Boy Next Door” from Meet Me in St. Louis, or “Better Luck Next Time” by Irving Berlin from Easter Parade. They are all great songs tailor made for her. She was a formidable interpreter of anything that she tackled.
San Francisco Bay Times: Please share a bit about what’s in store for lucky audience goers at your and Lorna’s tribute to Judy Garland.
Michael Feinstein: Lorna and I will be doing a duet medley that we’ve put together that I’m looking forward to. I don’t know off the top of my head what songs Lorna is going to do, but I’m putting together some medleys and combinations of familiar and lesser known songs that I’m combining thematically to create an overview of the music of Judy Garland. I dearly hope that people enjoy what we present.
The performance schedule is as follows: Wednesday, September 28, at 7 pm; Thursday, September 29, at 8 pm; Friday, September 30, at 8 pm; and Saturday, October 1, at 7 pm. Tickets range in price from $80–$100 and are available now by calling 866-663-1063 or visiting www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com
More Upcoming Shows @ Feinstein’s at the Nikko
Jim Brickman October 7 & 8
Patina Miller October 15 & 16
Robert Klein October 19 & 20
Betty Buckley October 21 & 22
Julia Fordham October 26
Adam Pascal &
Anthony Rapp October 27–29
Jonathan Poretz November 3 & 4
Erich Bergen November 5 & 6
Alysha Umphress November 11 & 12
Ronan Tynan November 13
Franc D’Ambrosio November 17
Vonda Shepard November 18 & 19
Linda Eder December 1–3
Jane Lynch December 8–10
Amy Hanaialli December 14 & 15