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54 Below, New York - May 31, 2016

Huffington Post Arts & Culture
Maye Her Force Be With You: Marilyn Maye at 54 Below



Café Society is alive and well and thriving on 54th Street in Manhattan, specifically at Feinstein’s 54 Below, the epicenter of New York’s cabaret scene and, dare I say it, the world’s. Enter an unpresuming metal door with minimal signage, descend down an uninviting staircase, open the interior door: a wave of frivolity bursts forth, and for a brief moment, “Life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful.”
Sadly my quote from Cabaret seems all too prescient, for Trump got his 1237. Maybe this is how the people in Berlin felt as they entered their cabarets during the Weimar Republic. They could forget the reality outside. For an evening, at least.


I was able to forget the outside world at 54 Below numerous times in the past: I saw Broadway star Lee Roy Reams and met his dancing feet; I saw the great male actress Charles Busch in the funniest show I’ve seen since Bette at the Palace; I even saw Metropolitan Opera stars Patricia Racette, Charles Castronovo, and Paulo Szot strut their non-classical stuff.


But perhaps my favorite show there — and maybe my favorite one-woman show since Lena Horne’s, a hundred years ago — was just the other night. I was lucky enough to see the legendary Marilyn Maye bringing down the house.


These days, you can’t mention Marilyn Maye’s name without bringing up her age: 88! But just like the number of keys on a piano, each of her 88 years only adds to the musicality of this great artist and makes for an essential part of the whole.


I had never seen her perform in person; my friend Bruce became a fan of hers by way of her many YouTube clips and persuaded me to go. As he said, “I’m not sure how much longer she’s gonna be around.” Well, if last week was any indication, she’ll be going on and on longer than the Energizer Bunny.


Maye appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a record-breaking 76 times. He referred to her as “Super-Singer,” and the name stuck. Now, she seems to be at the height of her powers as an entertainer, with her phenomenal, still-in-tact voice, her effortless phrasing, and perfect intonation. And let’s not forget that remarkable sense of rhythm.


She bounded on stage in a dazzling silver outfit (very Bob Mackie); she glittered, and the crowd went wild. I was seated with two strangers and asked if they were fans of Marilyn’s. They replied instantly, “Who isn’t?!”
She opened with some special lyrics written to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” which was pleasant. Oh, but then! Then, she kicked into the swingiest arrangement that I’ve ever heard of “On the Street Where You Live,” and she had the audience eating out of her hand. I’ve always loved that song but never imagined it could swing so hard. (And, lest the reader forget, she’s 88 years old!)

She told the sold-out crowd how she doesn’t really like to talk to the audience, because they came for the singing. Given her charming banter, I rather didn’t believe her. She did, however, say that this show was going to be different. She said she had a lot of stories to tell and she figured she better start telling them before time ran out. So we were treated to her life story through song.


She talked about her several husbands, all of whom were (euphemistically) “fun” and (not so euphemistically) alcoholics. Ah, the life of a singer! But it certainly gave her a whopping back story to sing about. And her “love medley” of “My Romance” (which may be my favorite Rodgers and Hart song), “Why Did I Choose You?” and “That’s All” constituted a master class in the art of song interpretation. She brought out every nuance in the lyrics, every subtle change in the harmony, all effortlessly. The combination of her instant rapport with the audience, a sexy and wise attitude, her honesty, gorgeous blue eyes, fluid gestures punctuating every thought, and hip sense of humor (she was always in on the joke) was unbeatable.


She was joined on stage by Musical Director Billy Stritch, who is a consummate performer in his own right. The two of them couldn’t remember if they’d been together 35 or 36 years. I loved it when Marilyn scatted choruses, but I almost jumped out of my seat when Billy started doubling her scat, a third down, in perfect sync. Another highlight of the act!


She double-entendre’d her way through a Fats Waller medley. It’s really hard to hear these songs and not be reminded of the great revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’, or the way Fats used to sing these songs himself. But here was a white woman, sneaking around the stage, making sure the audience enjoyed every innuendo that lyricist Andy Razaf dropped into the song. And she turned the jazzy melodic lines of Waller into her own personal property — a remarkable achievement.


Perhaps my favorite part of the show was when she talked about the ‘60’s — when the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion knocked Sinatra, Martin, and other exponents of the Great American Songbook off the charts. However, Broadway audiences then still had some record-buying clout, and publishers would often come to Ms. Maye to record one of the songs from their latest upcoming show, to get it on the charts before the show opened and hopefully generate some noise for the fledgling musical. Imagine a time when the song “Cabaret” was unknown! Well, Marilyn was given that song, and she made it into a small hit even before the show had opened.
The publishers also gave her “Step to the Rear” from the ill-fated How Now, Dow Jones. The show failed, but Marilyn recorded the song with great success: not so much on the charts as with a car commercial. Her singing this song with special lyrics about a Lincoln-Mercury made her the most money in her career. She happily told us that we should always do a commercial every now and then to pay the bills!


The show ended with the inevitable “I’m Still Here,” though I’m not sure we needed that summation. The entire show was a tribute to her still being here. And boy am I glad!