In his 1995 book, "The Song is Ended," author William G. Hyland declared the American popular song dead and proceeded to bury it with a three hundred page obituary. When a good portion of the book showed up in The New York Times Magazine, it was the icing on the cake or more accurately, the wreath on the tombstone.
For decades, American popular songs came from the musical theatre and film musicals. In recent years, fewer theatre songs have made it to the mainstream population's ears. But new theatre songs are still being written- And reports of the popular song's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Two organizations in New York have banded together to provide life support to singers and songwriters of newly written theatre songs and the prognosis is optimistic. MAC (The Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) and ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and publishers) have been pumping new blood into what ASCAP's Michael Kerker calls brand new "Great American Songbook" songs.
For this article, I spoke with Kerker, who directs musical theatre and cabaret activities for ASCAP, MAC president Jamie deRoy, and ASCAP songwriter, Marcy Heisler.
During prohibition, there was an unholy alliance between musicians, club owners and the underground. Cabarets and nightclubs flourished despite the law banning alcohol, because they were protected by organized crime.When prohibition was repealed, organized crime had its foot in the door of clubs and was not about to leave.
Any number of New York City laws were enacted to police the underground element that had infiltrated nightlife. Over the years, most of the arcane laws had been repealed, save one, which was threatening to kill off the Renaissance of Cabaret in the early seventies in clubs like The Duplex, Reno Sweeney, and Don't Tell Mama. A regulation stayed on the books that prohibited more than three performers on stage in a cabaret. Worse yet, if a pianist who accompanied a singer happened to sing, he was counted as two performers. So a number of cabaret and club owners banded together for the purpose of fighting the law, which in effect prohibited a trio from accompanying one singer. And MAC was born.
deRoy recalls: "Marcia Mallamet was performing at Reno Sweeney with two back up singers, which was already breaking the law, because she had a piano player. She had just written a song with Peter Allen, who was in the audience. She tried to sing the song, but couldn't remember the lyric. So Peter Allen said, 'Forget it, I'll do it myself,' and got up on stage. Well, the owner, Lewis Friedman, who should have been overjoyed having Peter Allen appear, was having a conniption and everyone heard him saying 'Omigod, I could get busted.' A lot of clubs were closed because of that law. MAC and the Musicians' Union helped get it off the books."
deRoy was one of a handful of performers who was allowed to be MAC member. After she helped win the fight over the three performer regulation, she wanted to get more entertainers involved with the organization, so she started giving performance seminars. When deRoy started singing in clubs, she was encouraged to do comedy songs, but found there was a dearth of material. She was inspired to sponsor an evening of new "speciel material" at Don't Tell Mama and got a handful of writers and performers together. (Francesca Blumenthal, who's currently one of the MAC-ASCAP star songwriters, had a song in the very first program.)
The initial Songwriter's Showcase was so popular that deRoy scheduled a second program and added ballads in addition to comedy material. The audience multiplied and under the non-profit umbrella of The Society of Singers, deRoy moved the series to the Lincoln Center Library's Bruno Walter Auditorium. During the two years at Lincoln Center she featured guest performers Sylvia Syms and Lesley Gore which drew twice the crowds that the Lincoln Center Auditorium could accommodate. deRoy presented songwriter Julia Gold performing her Bette Midler hit "From a Distance", two days after the song won a Grammy. "From A Distance" was the first song to cross over from cabaret to the mainstream.
ASCAP COMES ON BOARD
It would seem logical that an organization representing the rights of writers, composers and publishers would want to encourage a Songwriter's Showcase, but it took Michael Kerker's insight and perseverance to make it happen. In l990, Kerker not only brought ASCAP's prestige to the programs, but was able to get new writers' songs to established performers like Andrea Marcovicci, Michael Feinstein and Margaret Whiting.
"The joy of my role at ASCAP," Kerker told me "is not only working with great writers like Cy Coleman and Jerry Herman, but being able to encourage new talents like John Bucchino, David Friedman and Francesca Blumenthal. It's harder and harder to find places for good songs. There's only one New York radio station, WQEW, that will play a new David Friedman song or a new Brad Ross song, so performance in cabaret is all the more important."
But Kerker still believes there is a new audience for well crafted, intelligent songs that can live and thrive in a world dominated by hip-hop, rap, rock and heavy metal. And his efforts are paying off. Not only are major recording artists paying attention to work from the Songwriter's Showcase, but Kerker's endless work as a liaison between performer and writer has helped begin a mini-renaissance in new standard popular songs.
Barbara Streisand performed a song written by MAC-ASCAP writer Anne Hampton Callaway at the Democratic Convention. David Campbell and Barry Manilow have recorded Craig Carnelia's "The Kid Inside". Marlene Ver Planck and Margaret Whiting have recorded Francesca Blumenthal's "The Lies of Handsome Men". Michelie Berman's "My Favorite Year" has been recorded by Michael Feinstein and Margaret Whiting.
Kerker has instituteda series of Showcases in Los Angeles where transplanted Broadway stars Carol Lawrence, Nancy Dussault and Karen Morrow have served as hosts for the occasions. The series is so popular that he's had to move twice to larger accommodations.
He joined forces with New York's 92nd Street YMHA's Lyrics and Lyricists program and helped create an evening saluting "The New Breed", including "Ragtime" writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and "City of Angels" lyricist David Zippel. In addition, he just concluded a Sunday night series at Rainbow and Stars which saluted established composers Charles Strouse, Carol Hall and Burton Lane as well as newcomers like Steven Lutvak.
AN UP AND COMER
Lyricist Marcy Heisler has been a member of MAC since l989 when she first came to New York very soon after she ended college. Heisler told me: "It was a very nice entree into the world of songwriting and especially
"You don't come out of college and write a Broadway musical," Heisler told me, "So it's wonderful to take advantage of the opportunities that MAC and ASCAP aEford. I've always considered cabaret as theatre setting and it's a wonderful supportive ground where you can really try things. I think that one of the most important aspects of cabaret is experimentation. With the cabaret setting you really get a chance to see what flies because you're right there, emotionally with the audience."
Heisler's latest show "Harmony Again" (in which she and composer Zina Goldrich are also performers) has had three outings at Don't Tell Mama. One of the songs from the show "Boom, Boom" written as a love letter to their bass player, Chris Higgins, was in the most recent MAC SHOWCASE at Catch a Rising Star.
She and Goldrich are currently adapting material they've done at MAC showcases into a live theatrical piece for young audiences entitled "Edwina's Guide to Life and Stuff" as well as a full length show entitled "Trumpets in the Sun", a Romeo and Juliet story set in stone-age Denmark.
But it's an uphill battle in a musical world dominated by music aimed at urban youth and suburban mall rats. How does Heisler resist the temptation to write for the pop charts?
"Once you experience the joy of finding the right words, and knowing that joy awaits you again, it keeps you going. There are plenty of nights when the words don't come and I cry into my pillow but there are also nights when I say 'This is amazing and life is amazing.' One of the greatest gifts you can give to a writer is to know that they're not alone.And that's what I get from ASCAP and MAC, from Michael and Jamie. Maybe it's us against the world, but it's us and a lot of people who support us. It's hard, but it ultimately gives great joy and it's worth it."
The Songwriter's Showcase is broadcast on "Jamie deRoy and Friends," seen in Manhattan on Thursdays at 3PM on Cable Channel 17 and 2AM on Cable Channel 69. The show is also carried by TCI Cable in Westchester, Cablevision of Yonkers, Century Cable in LA and Washington's DCTV. You can visit MAC'S web site e http://members.aol.com/jamiederoy.
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