BWW Reviews: 'HEY-O!' MARILYN MAYE's Heartfelt Musical Tribute to Johnny Carson at 54 Below Also Celebrates Her Own Legendary Career
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Cue fantasy "Carnac the Magnificent" sketch from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson:
Ed McMahon: "Heaven has no brighter star than our next stellar guest. Presenting that great seer, sage, and soothsayer from the East, and former diversity consultant to Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling, Carnac . . . the Magnificent!" (Carnac enters, stumbles on step up to desk and crashes into it.)
McMahon: "Welcome, once again, Oh Great Sage. I hold in my hand the envelopes. As a child of four can plainly see, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed. They've been kept in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall's back porch since noon today. NO ONE knows the contents of these envelopes, BUT YOU, in your borderline divine and mystical way, will ascertain the answers having never before seen the questions. Here is the first envelope." (Carnac, visibly impatient, snatches the sealed envelope, holds it up to his forehead topped with a large feathered turban, and reveals the answer to the question inside.)
Johnny Carson as Carnac: "I must have absolute silence . . . 76!"
Carnac: "Yes, that's what I said."
McMahon: "I'm just trying to reinforce it, Oh Magnificent One."
Carnac: "Yes, well, may Kathleen Sebelius be put in charge of your website!"
McMahon: Let's see . . . 76. Hmmm, it could be the number of trombones in the song from The Music Man, the varieties of Heinz ketchup, or the number of times the Republican Congress has tried to repeal Obamacare."
Carnac: "Heinz is 57 Varieties, you fool."
McMahon: "Many pardons, Glorious One. You were saying . . . 76."
Carnac would not have had to put another comedic curse on the studio audience for groaning about that answer (or is it the question? . . . whatever). The audience would have been wildly cheering, probably the way they were last night at 54 Below, as ageless 86-year-old cabaret superstar and living legend Marilyn Maye performed her second show of yet another run at the club (which continues May 9 and 10 at 8:00 pm, and May 13 at 7:00 pm), this time built around a tribute to the iconic comedian and talk show host whose pet name for Maye was "Super Singer." (See the exclusive BroadwayWorld preview video of Maye's show here.)
Of course, anyone who has attended a Marilyn Maye show the past few years, or heard her name mentioned when she's an audience member, would have known the answer to Carnac's bit, as that factoid about Maye being the singer with the most appearances on The Tonight Show is seemingly announced wherever she turns up. (For you true trivia buffs, the late comedian David Brenner holds the all-time Tonight Show record with 158 guest appearances, either as performer or guest host). Maye probably figured if everyone was going to bring it up, she might as well turn it into a new cabaret show. (Since years ago, Maye had already self-produced a CD tribute to Carson; see photo, top.) And with Musical Director Billy Stritch as her own Doc Severinson (with Tom Hubbard on bass and Ray Marchica on drums), her energetic, adorably nostalgic performance would have made Johnny teary-eyed at his famous desk. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Carson was a drummer and passionate fan of great singers and he really knew his stuff musically. So nobody could take Johnny's opinion lightly when after Maye sang "Come In From the Rain" on a show during the mid-1970s, he allowed Maye to take mulitiple bows then peered into the camera and said, "If there are any young budding singers out there, get her recordings, listen to her--she knows how it's done!" Carson probably appreciated Maye even more once pop, rock and roll, and disco ruled America's musical roost because she had a powerful voice, a fantastic sense of rhythm, could swing or do a jazz riff at will, and could, as they used to say, really put over a song. Maye may not be able to consistently hit the higher register notes and sustain them as she did in her prime--at her age, who could?--but she's still got the interpretive and performing chops in spades. And she is so relaxed, comfortable, and conversational on stage, you just want to kidnap her and make her your own personal at-home singer you can switch on any time the spirit moves you.
Frankly, right from The Tonight Show theme song that kicked off the set, the show was as much a celebration of Maye's amazingly long career as it was a celebration of Johnny Carson. There were video highlights from vintage shows aplenty (probably supplied by Marilyn herself since likely due to rights issues you can't find them on YouTube), including one shown--before Maye entered the room--of her 74th appearance (singing "The Song Is You") where she looked quite the hottie. The video was cleverly set up so that it was Carson introducing Marilyn to the 54 Below stage, where she promptly offered her famous parody lyrics during "Let Me Be There," mentioning both Carson and the club in the song.
"Tonight I wanted to sing every one of the songs I did on those 76 shows," Maye quipped, "but then we'd be here for hours." The audience reacted as if that would have been totally fine. Then Stritch supplied a lush piano arrangement on Melissa Manchester and Carole Bayer Sager's "Come In From the Rain." Overall, Maye's set was pretty much a greatest hits compilation of songs she's performed in cabaret for years, just tailored to the Carson tribute theme. Some of the numbers were astutely arranged as thematic medleys, which allowed Maye to cover many of her old standbys and conserve her voice and energy. One group of songs dedicated to Carson included connecting "Easy To Remember," "That Face," and "I Remember You," which was followed by a section exploring Maye's rocky relationship history with men ("I was taught that you gotta have a man, so I married three of them," she joked), and included the classics "My Man," "Can't Help Loving That Man," "The Man That Got Away," and "Losing My Mind."
While Maye related some interesting, yet brief, anecdotes about Johnny, Ed and Doc (even backup bandleader Tommy Newsome got a shout out), it might have been really fun to hear Marilyn get a bit dishy. Did Johnny ever come on to her? Did she ever make Ed McMahon shout "Hey-O!" Did Doc Severinson ever want to make a house call? Over 76 appearances over a couple of decades there wasn't any juicy behind-the-scenes gossip? Marilyn Maye is obviously a classy and discreet lady who confines her best storytelling to the delivery of her songs.
One of the highlights of the set came when Maye paid tribute to the first Tonight Show host, the great Steve Allen, who actually gave the singer her first exposure on television. At the end of a mash up of the Allen hits, "This Could Be The Start of Something Big" with "I Love You Today," Maye reached back for a belt ending, and followed that with a playful duet with Stritch on Allen's "When I'm In Love." (Marilyn: "I'm much less rude." Billy: "I haven't noticed that." Billy: "I eat less food." Marilyn: "I haven't noticed that!") But there was one number in particular, more than halfway through the show, where Maye once again proved why she is still the epitome of the experienced pro and one of the masters of her craft. Just when you might have thought our Marilyn might be spent, she produced a magnificent mash up of "By Myself" (Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz) with Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive," which ended with another belt. Marilyn Maye fatigued? Who are we kidding? During her encore of "It's Today" from Mame, she was doing leg kicks, for crissakes.
Maye's end of show love letter to Johnny was delivering his favorite song, the Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Burke classic, "Here's That Rainy Day," which she sang three times on The Tonight Show, before seamlessly transitioning into "Too Marvelous For Words," during which Marilyn interjected special lyrics for the late King of the Celebrity Talk Show. "Johnny, you were marvelous . . . just too marvelous for words," she offered straight from the heart.
Funny, Marilyn, we were just thinking the same thing about you. Hey-Ooooo!