BWW Interviews: Jazz Star and Musical Theater Lover Jane Monheit in Concert in the O.C.
I am not ashamed to admit it. Though I am able to be a professional, proper journalist at all times, I still, occasionally, get a little tongue-tied around entertainers I admire. For a fleeting moment, I cease being a BroadwayWorld correspondent, and instead morph back into that geeky fanboy that loves musical theater and kick-ass vocalists that are oozing talent out of every pore. I mean, I am, after all, a fan first and a writer second.
One of the nicer perks of being a writer for BWW is having many opportunities to meet my idols—and to be able to ask them questions about their chosen careers, how they achieve their art, and, of course, to briefly convey my genuine admiration, even just as a passing statement. It's happened quite a few times since I started my contributions to the site, and recently, I was afforded the privilege to do just that when I had a lovely chat with my favorite singer of all time, two-time Grammy nominated songstress Jane Monheit.
Monheit is set to appear in Costa Mesa on Friday, October 5 for a one-night-only concert at the Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall alongside fellow jazz star John Pizzarelli as part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret series.
An accomplished, world renowned jazz vocalist with a clear affinity for musical theater—as evidenced in her multiple re-imagined renditions of tunes from the world of stage and screen musicals across several albums spanning the past 12 years—Monheit first earned notices as the first runner-up at the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute's celebrated vocal competition. Two years later, she released her superb debut studio album Never Never Land to rave reviews (its title track is taken from the stage musical version of PETER PAN).
Often mixing Brazilian sounds, playfully sophisticated uptempo jazz, and stirring, gorgeously-rendered ballads that often tug at the heartstrings, Monheit has repeatedly been acclaimed as an innovative interpreter of timeless standards, bringing a sense of moving theatricality to every performance. After enjoying continuous chart success with every album release, her fame further skyrocketed in 2004 when her riveting, orchestral version of the classic "Over the Rainbow" appeared in the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and her album of stage/movie musical treasures Taking A Chance On Love (Her first take on the song appears on her second album Come Dream With Me, which also contains a surprise vintage recording of Monheit as a young child singing the song).
These days, Monheit continues to tour heavily around the world with her band which includes husband—and band drummer—Rick Montalbano (The couple's four-year-old son often tags along on the road with them). Her last studio album Home was released in 2010, marking the ten-year anniversary of her recording career. Recently, she joined several high-profile musical theater stars for composer Scott Alan's latest album Scott Alan Live.
But before her anticipated return to Orange County, Ms. Monheit agreed to a few questions from a really big fan.
BWW: Hi, Jane! I have to say, I am a huge, long-time fan of yours and it's such an honor for me to be talking to you today!
JM: Oh, thank you! [Laughs]
So it's been a while since you last did a show here in Orange County. I believe it was your fun jazz-in-jeans show at the Coach House down in San Juan Capistrano. This time you'll be performing at the Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with John Pizzarelli. Can you talk a little bit about that show?
Well, I do a lot of double-bills with John—we've done many of them over the years. I really, really like double-billing with him. It works for so many reasons. I mean, number one, we just like each other! Plus, I mean, he's a great guy, I love his music, and we like singing together. All those times we've done it have been really fun. When we [sing] duets, we always have a great time. And all the guys in [both] our bands know each other. Everybody is friends with each other. So it's beautiful, you know... there's a great vibe. And it's nice for the audiences, too, because it just really works. People who like me like John, and vice-versa... although I think quite a few more people are aware of John than me [Laughs]. So when that happens... when people come to see John and they haven't heard of me before, generally, you know, they like it because we work in similar veins. We both play the Great American Songbook and we both play Brazilian music. We play the sort of great pop songs that fit with the Great American Songbook. We take the composers and the lyricists very, very seriously... and we sing in an honest way. But we like to joke around and have fun with the crowd, too. So our approaches are very, very similar. It makes for a really nice show.
Great! And you've collaborated with John in the studio as well, right?
Yes! We recorded a duet on my album Home which came out in 2010. We did a version of "Tonight You Belong To Me." It's a really famous tune that's been done a million times by everybody from The Bird and the Bee to Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters [from the movie The Jerk]—which is my favorite version. Actually, anything with Bernadette is automatically my favorite anything. [Laughs]
Awesome! Now, as I said earlier—and my apologies for totally gushing a lot—I'm such a huge fan. Actually, to be honest, I consider you one of my most influential idols as far as the musical choices I've made as a performer. Now, for you growing up in Long Island, which singers and artists influenced you a lot?
Oh my gosh, so many of them! Oh, and thank you so much for saying that, by the way. I'm, like, going to float now through the rest of the day! [Laughs] There are so many different people, but for me, Judy Garland was just an enormous influence from the time I was tiny. For one, she has such an incredible instrument—and an incredible skill with the instrument, you know? But she was so fearlessly honest—and was really a helluva jazz singer—even though people don't realize that about her. She sang and hung out with jazz musicians. She just loved jazz. And so that was part of her world even though a lot of people aren't necessarily aware of that. And, you know, all the great jazz singers have influenced me in one way or another—most specifically Ella Fitzgerald... Sarah Vaughan... Helen Merrill. And also a lot of people from different genres. Bonnie Raitt is a huge influence.
But I've learned so much from the great musical theater singers as well, especially Bernadette Peters, Barbara Cook, and other people like that because, you know, for me the interpretation of these [standards] is very, very important. It's not about proving my knowledge as a jazz musician or improvising—and I love to improvise quite a bit—but I'd like to do it in a way that's respectful of the composers and the lyricists. So the theatrical versions of these tunes and a lot of the original cast recordings of these songs are basically most of the Great American Songbook. I mean, they're basically showtunes. These original versions are very important to me because I wanted [my interpretations] to be sincere and to tell the truth. And if I'm not telling the truth, I want to be a really good actress [Laughs]. So, I think, now and then, it's okay to do that, too, you know? I've certainly have sung tunes that were not necessarily my life experience, but I think it's okay to kind of extrapolate a little bit and have fun with them. So yeah, I've been influenced a lot by not only great jazz singers but musical theater performers as well.
Cool, I'm glad you mentioned being influenced by musical theater because as a writer for BroadwayWorld, I think I would be remiss if I didn't mention that a lot of the music you've recorded over the years—from your debut album to even your most recent one—have roots in either stage or film musicals. I take it you really love musicals?
Uh, there really aren't words to adequately express how much I love musicals [Laughs]! I mean, I love them so much! You see, I used to do a lot of theater growing up. And, yeah, I haven't done a show in a long time, but it's been something I've been looking to possibly do again. I've come close a couple of times to do some things—Broadway and things like that—but it's never worked out for me... yet. But one of these days, I'd like to do something like that again. You know, I love singing jazz so much. But for me, I really think of myself as sort of a neutral person. I just want to be known as a good singer, you know? For me, it doesn't matter what genre that's in. The labeling is... [Pauses]... that's for the ease of everyone else. They'll know where to find you... find your album. The record company knows how to market you. It's a business these days where it's necessary for all of us to promote our music. But inside myself, I'm a totally neutral human being that performs a lot of different things.
And I can understand that with all the different kinds of songs you've sung through the years. I think the first time I heard one of your songs very early on, I tried to look for your album in a record store—when they still existed—and someone there had to point me towards the separated jazz section. Now, getting back to theater music... what are some of your favorite musicals?
Oh my gosh, there are so many... but of my mega, mega, super-crazy favorites, I love INTO THE WOODS. I had a dream the other night that I was cast as the Witch in the revival on Broadway! It was time to go on and I didn't know my lines and I couldn't remember the words to, like, the Act One piece about the garden and I was freaking out! I was, like, "gosh, I'm finally playing the Witch and I don't remember!" [Laughs] Let's see... oh, I love CAROUSEL—it's one of my all-time favorites. I'm a Rodgers and Hammerstein fanatic! And, you know, I also love Sondheim and Webber and all the modern stuff that I grew up on. I was born in 1977 so I was right in the thick of all of that stuff. But my favorites really run the gamut. I mean, PORGY & BESS... I live for. My love for musical theater really runs the gamut and covers everything, but when it comes down to my super-super favorites, it's probably the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff. Oh, and THE MUSIC MAN! I can't leave out THE MUSIC MAN! [Laughs]
Great choices! Now, if you had a chance to fulfill a dream role in a Broadway musical, which one would it be?
Oh, the Witch! The Witch! In INTO THE WOODS... or the Baker's Wife. Someday, someone will realize that I was born for that! [Laughs]
Well, here's hoping this article will be seen by the right people! [Laughs]
Yeah! Oh, you know, I have to give you one more because I forgot to say one of my favorite musicals of all time—and I have to say it or else I'll feel bad about it to myself later—which is CITY OF ANGELS!
Oh, that's a good one!
It [features] some of the best female roles and [the show] is just so strong and awesome. Okay... sorry... [Laughs]
No, please, no need to apologize!
I get a little excited when I start talking about musical theater, and I don't get to very often.
Well, I'm glad to be able to provide you an outlet for it today! Okay, so I'm dying to know... when is the new album coming out?
Well, we're going to record it in November. We don't have a release date right now but it will probably be sometime during the early beginning of 2013. With the recording happening in November, they'll probably have it out by sometime in the early Spring. That would be my best guess. It's hard to say right now because we haven't chosen an official release date. But it's going to be a very cool record. It's going to be produced by [jazz artist] Gil Goldstein who is a genius. And we're tackling material that's really been chosen for its lyrical content. It's a lot of very heavy, heavy tunes.
Ooooh! I can't wait to hear it!
Yeah, it's gonna be a dark one. It's going to be like "crying in the middle of the night" ... or "staring out the window at the rain" kind of stuff. [Laughs]
Oh, I totally know what you're talking about. You know, admittedly, I've done those lonely crying sessions to your music plenty of times over the years. I'm not sure how many times I've put on your haunting rendition of "It Never Entered My Mind" whenever I needed to cry. That's my go-to song when I feel a bit blue. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Awww, thanks!
You're welcome! So, looking back at your entire catalog—from your first, Never Never Land, to your last one, Home—which songs do you consider your favorites as far as performing live on stage?
Oh, gosh. You know, I always really love performing the Brazilian tunes live. They really... just feel so good, especially the ones in Portuguese. In fact, my album Surrender—which has a lot of Brazilian music—is my favorite album of all of my records. And, you know, also the duets I sing with my pianist Michael Kanan are always very special for me. The shows [I perform] are always made up of whatever my favorite stuff is right then. So whenever you hear a song live, it's always because I really feel like singing it, you know? [Laughs] And, of course, I love singing "Over the Rainbow," which is, you know, part of why I'm even here still doing this. It's why I wasn't just a flash in the pan. Everytime I sing that song, I feel incredibly grateful, and I just remember how I felt when I was a kid. That never goes away.
Your version is hands down my favorite arrangement of that song. I'm really hoping you'll grace us with it in Orange County.
Oh, I definitely will. I never go on stage without that song.
Awesome! Well, I'm even more excited now! So, as far as current artists today—even those outside of jazz—who do you like listening to?
Well, honestly, I haven't been listening to a ton of music for myself because I have a son—he's four years old. So my husband and I generally play music that, you know, he's into listening to. So for, like, a year now, my son's been obsessed with John Williams film scores! At any given time, it'll be Star Wars or Superman! [Laughs] I mean, it's brilliant music. I love John Williams. He's just one of the most incredible writers...ever. His music is amazing and even the incidental music which you don't tend to notice because it's underneath dialogue—when you listen to it, there's some incredible, really beautiful stuff in there. So it's been sort of interesting. For my son, it's just his most favorite thing in the world! But generally, when my husband and I are somewhere without my son and we're listening to music, we tend to listen to a lot of Brazilian music. But then, also, we're really nostalgic, so we'll be on the Sirius XM 80's Channel and listen to New Wave.
So how about taking an 80's song and jazzing it up?
Well, I don't have any current plans right now but I did do a duet a couple of years ago with Tony DiSare on "Bizarre Love Triangle" which was totally cool! It was really fun when we did that.
Oh, that's right! I have that on my iPod! Okay, now before I finish the interview, it's time for... THE LIGHTNING ROUND! I'll ask you some quick, short questions and all you have to do is give me the first thing that pops into your head. Is that cool?
Cool. So who is your favorite singer of all time?
Oh... Ella Fitzgerald.
Great! You know, I actually tend to listen to her Christmas album and your Christmas album back to back during the holidays! It's got this same cool vibe! But, I digress... sorry... So what song do you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?
Oh, showtunes! Like anything from CHESS... maybe "Someone Else's Story" or something like that. That would be a big shower tune! [Laughs]
Oooh! Wow! Okay, what scares you the most?
Driving! I don't know how to drive. I will never learn. I do not drive and that's it. There's literally nothing else that frightens me at all.
[Laughs]. Well, you really don't need to drive in New York, do you?
Yeah, I don't. In fact, we moved Upstate for a few years and we're moving back because I can't stand it. I'm just like... that's it! I need my freedom! We're moving back to the city now, thank you.
Ha! Okay, what is your one guilty pleasure?
Oh! Gosh, you know... celebrity gossip websites! Yeah, like Daily Mail. Oh, but then there's the terrible television that I watch, too... like Honey Boo Boo. Yeah, I like me some trash! [Laughs]
Ohmigosh [Laughs], that's awesome. What do you like doing when you have some down time or a day off?
I read incessantly. But, I really don't have any down time anymore because of my son. So it's funny... recently I was thinking about it, and I was, like, I don't remember what I liked to do. Although, whenever I can get free time on a Monday, I always go to Birdland for Jim Caruso's Cast Party. That's one of my favorite things to do that I do just for myself that's not as a mother or as a working person. It's just pure, pure fun. That's the one thing.
What or Who irritates you the most?
Irritates me? Ohmigod... everything! Just kidding. Oh, you know what? Not being in control. I'm a total control freak. Whenever anything is out of my control, I start to get a little bit rushed.
And the opposite of that... What instantly puts a smile on your face?
Oh, gosh, my band—getting to play music with my band. And my son! And, you know, he's with us on the road so it's just like the whole group of us. It's such a joyful thing. Everyone down to our tour manager... we're all best friends. My son is there. Knowing that I get to be with that group of people is my instant happiness.
Sounds great! Now, if you weren't a performer, what other career do you see yourself doing?
You know, I would probably like to do something really creative. [Pauses] You know, I would've probably ended up being a makeup artist. It's sort of like a hobby for me. But, then I look back at my past and remember the things that I've done while I was in school. If I hadn't turned to music in school and had gone down a different path, I would have ended up probably in Marine Biology or something like that. I was a very big science nerd. But now, if I were to choose and someone told me that I could never sing again, I would probably do something more in the creative side of show business and help other people feel beautiful.
Nice. Alright, one last question... What's the one piece of advice you'd like to impart on a younger person who wants to pursue the same career you have?
Study music and—for singers, especially—be the best musician you can be. It is so important, no matter what genre you're in. If you can hang on the level with all of the instrumentalists that you're working with, and if you can be responsible for yourself musically, it gets you everywhere. It gains you a lot of respect and it makes it much easier to operate in the world. You know, I'm a conservatory kid. I've been studying music intensely my whole life and it's led me down a very different path as a singer. It's been easier for me to gain respect in the musical community because I have the same abilities as the instrumentalists do. I tell all young singers: make sure that you know your craft.
Follow Michael L. Quintos on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photo courtesy of SCFTA.
The Segerstrom Center of the Arts' Cabaret Series presents Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli on October 5, 2012 at the Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at 8:00 pm. Ticket prices start at $26 and can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For more information, please visit SCFTA.org. For all things Jane, visit her website at janemonheitonline.com.