BWW Cabaret Conversation: 2016 MAC Award Winner MEG FLATHER Is Always Looking For the Lessons In An Unconventional Career
"I was trying to come up with my union name and I thought Flather was pretty strange. In his thick Boston accent, my father said, "Now wait a minute. Meryl Streep is going by Meryl Streep. That's an unusual name. Why can't Meg Flather go by Meg Flather?" So, because Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, I'm Meg Flather."
"My given name is Margaret Hall Flather. When I was trying to be a legit actress, I wanted to be Margaret Hall. But she already exists. I actually met her in auditions. She's a wonderful Irish actor. I remember meeting her and saying, "'You got the name!'"
"I could have been Margaret Hall Flather but that's just too much. I was always Meg. I publish my music under Margaret Hall music. But if I had been Margaret Hall, I know it would have made me walk in the room differently. Meg Flather gives me permission to be . . . Meg Flaaaaather."
So, who is Meg Flather?
How much time do you have?
Meg Flather is a singer, songwriter, actor, and author of the memoir Home Shopping Diva . . . Lessons, Lyrics and Lipstick. She is an expert in the field of cosmetics and has been a beauty products brand ambassador on QVC. She currently represents the Japanese beauty brand Tatcha. She grew up in the Philippines, the Boston area, and New York, the city she calls home. But perhaps of more interest to cabaret aficionados, Flather is also reigning champion of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Award in the "Best Song" category (which she won last night at the Awards ceremony at B.B. King's), and last year she was named the recipients of the 2015 MAC Hanson Award (which usually goes to a performer who has had a significant career in the art form).
Flather has been performing on cabaret stages in New York City since 1984. I first saw her a couple of years ago at Don't Tell Mama, where she performed a mixture of pop cover songs and her own original material. To open the show, she walked up to the stage from the back of the room--as most performers do in that darling brick room at Mama's--but Meg was carrying her purse. It was as if she just strolled in from a Sunday afternoon of shopping and museum going, and said, "Oh right, now I'm going to do a show." The entrance was completely fresh and charming. Then she opened her mouth to sing and, accompanied only by her go-to guitarist John Mettam, out came this pristine, natural, rich voice. They delighted the crowd with surprising choices, from a faux angry version of the Partridge Family song "I Think I Love You" to a stripped down, revelatory version of Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money." Introducing her own songs, Flather hooked the audience with her tender personal anecdotes about the challenges of caring for her incapacitated mother and the angelic nurses who help with those duties. Then in a flash, Flather could spin us in another direction, describing her (and all of our) late night addiction to Facebook flattery, with her song "Like Me." As Joni Mitchell (a favorite of both mine and Meg's) says in her song "People's Parties" from the album Court and Spark, "Laughin' and cryin', you know it's the same release . . . "
Last December, Flather revived her 1993 show "Portraits" as part of Producer/Publicist (and BroadwayWorld.com New York Cabaret Editor) Stephen Hanks' monthly Metropolitan Room series New York Cabaret's Greatest Hits. A more traditional cabaret show, "Portraits" (directed anew by the multiple Award-winning Lennie Watts) consists solely of cover songs, mostly deep singer-songwriter cuts from the 1970s and '80s, mixed with contemporary musical theater tunes of the same period. For this show, Flather clearly raised her game, rocking the house with her stunning virtuosic belt and her riveting, well crafted, and impeccably delivered patter. Accompanied by Paul Greenwood, the show's original pianist, and Mettam on drums, Flather had clearly been working to develop and showcase different facets of her talent--both her vocal instrument and her on-stage persona--than she had been using the past few years for her singer/songwriter style shows at Don't Tell Mama.
The revised version of Portraits has been Meg's latest triumph. Victoria Ordin in Cabaret Scenes Magazine said, "Flather brings the depth and presence of a stage actress to her interpretations of songs . . . a show I will not soon forget." In TheaterScene.net, John Hoglund, who reviewed Meg's original show in '93, wrote: "Flather brought back Portraits [after 23 years] and carried it off with aplomb and a knife-edged professionalism that is missing in many cabaret acts today . . . Flather is dynamic; a terrific mix of intelligence and high energy wackiness who can also break your heart with a gut-wrenching ballad . . . An engaging and totally fun hour." After the Met Room show, Meg opened a 2016 run at Don't Tell Mama, which has drawn audience raves and continues on April 4 at 7 pm.
Witnessing this transformation made me curious to talk with Flather about the roads she has travelled on her artistic journey. We met on a cold night in February at one of Flather's favorite spots, a cozy neighborhood restaurant in Hell's Kitchen called Route 66. Over a couple of glasses of red wine, Meg opened up about her performing life. Well-versed in delivering long, uninterrupted monologues on TV, Flather does not need much prompting to get the conversation rolling. She is the first to acknowledge that she likes to talk.
Meg Flather: I had the plan--it was all about musical theater--the goal was to play Mame and Gypsy. But I didn't really understand how to sing. I didn't know how to use my range when I was nervous, anxious, or sick, and the thing about a final call back for a musical is you have to show them your legit voice. I would croak under pressure. Secondly, I was a freak! I was a 5-foot-9 brunette character actress waiting to grow into being the love child between Rosalind Russell and Bea Arthur, playing both Vera and Mame at the same time . . . but then again, maybe all of this is really under God, because if I'm honest with myself, I was on a pretty good track to getting cast at a young age in summer stock and some equity theater. But if I'm really honest, once the show opened, and once I began auditioning for other things, I started to feel very stifled, because I felt I had something to say and I didn't know how that was going to be expressed.
Early on, Meg realized she had, what she calls, " a certain arrogance"--she didn't want to have to pay her dues doing all the requisite material on her way to plum roles. She only wanted to sing what she thought was great, and she didn't want to travel to perform roles she didn't love.
MF: So, at a very young age, I was willing to lead a double life that included being a performer while also having a career in skin care. I always say if you teach a woman to close a sale for a product she believes in, you don't just give her that sale you give her her life. She learns how to negotiate everything. On the cabaret side, thank goodness for Christian Daizey, who approached me and said, "Let's be Leather and Flather and do this cabaret act at this place called the Duplex." He bought me my first Joni Mitchell album, my first Suzanne Vega, my first Blondie, James Taylor . . .
Remy Block: Up until then you had only been listening to show tunes?
MF: Yes! Okay, this is the great joke of the interview: When I hung out with my cool friends at Music and Art High School, everyone would want to put a cool album cover on their jean jacket. My best friend had the Rolling Stones on her jacket. Mine would have been the front cover of A Chorus Line! That was MY rock band. When Christian exposed me to singer/songwriters, the funniest thing began to happen--especially with Joni Mitchell--a C above middle C would be an issue in Rogers and Hammerstein--but not with Joni Mitchell, because I couldn't look at the sheet music. Christian didn't need sheet music. He was a genius. Something started to happen. My voice was telling me it was happy--still limited, still precious--still needing to be on vocal silence with my humidifier all the time. What's awesome about cabaret is you can change the key, you can sing the male lead song, and you can make the "Sound of Music" about climate change. For me, singing in front of 35 people is the greatest turn on. I think I would be lonely if the houses were bigger. As a child, performing was complicated. It's how I got attention. I love my parents so much, but they were very, very busy saving the world and improving upon themselves constantly. The way I got them to stop was to perform Gypsy as a one-woman show in the living room. Performing can be very lonely and about attention and approval--Dance for grandma, dance for grandma--but cabaret, since I was a part of a duo act, wasn't lonely. It was about connection. So at the old Duplex [on Grove Street in the West Village], something began to heal and click.
One night, after a show, a woman, emboldened by her two-drink minimum, pulled Meg aside and told her presciently, "If you don't start singing your own songs, you're going to be a very bitter woman." The words stung, but also hit on a truth that Meg recognized.
MF: So I started writing my songs, and the first ones are downright painful. Songwriting is not taking your journal and putting it to music. So this was the experiment: When I assigned myself a song that wasn't necessarily about me, they were stronger. I've written songs about 9-11, autism, Alzheimer's, mental illness. I am the melancholy hopeful person. I left the cabaret world and started playing places like the Bitter End and Sidewalk Cafe, which were very good to me.
After some time, a friend came to see her perform downtown and remarked that Meg's shows were becoming more and more like cabaret shows. Maybe it was time to come home. Again, Meg recognized a truth, and returned to the cabaret stage, incorporating her own material into shows she called "Viewpoints," which paired cover songs with her originals. In the spring of 2015, Cabaret Show Producer and Writer Stephen Hanks was mapping out plans for a monthly series at the Metropolitan Room called New York Cabaret's Greatest Hits, in which established cabaret artists would bring back an Award-winning or well reviewed show. Hanks has been a Flather fan since he first reviewed her Home Shopping Diva show in 2011 and asked if she wanted to revive the Bistro Award winning Leather and Flather.
MF: Christian Daizey wasn't available, but I told Stephen I had this show Portraits from 1993, which was when I was also working behind the counter of Yves St. Laurent at Bergdorf Goodman. See these earrings I'm wearing? I bought these in 1993 with my employee discount. Anyway, at that time the Oak Room at The Algonquin was sniffing around and Don't Tell Mama and the Duplex were very loyal to their singers. They knew what good work that was going on; they'd see that you showed up and did these shows season after season after season. Don't Tell Mama said to the Algonquin, "You should check her out." So-there's a lesson here!--I was doing my Portraits-y thing-blues, comedy, singer/songwriter and folk-rock and story telling-but as soon as I heard the Algonquin was coming, I said "Ah! I gotta do a show that's right for them. So I bought myself a cocktail dress and pearls. I learned some standards and I put together this show. It was a good exercise, but I was not being myself. On the night they were supposed to come, the person who was sent to see me wasn't happy and didn't stay for some reason. He didn't see the show. I had spent hundreds of dollars putting this show together. I was devastated because I thought I was on my way to the Oak Room. But I got a couple of new story songs and a couple of new character pieces out of it. A couple of months later The Ballroom [on West 28th Street] called. It was like an elegant Bottom Line. Headliners like Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt and Karen Akers sang there and it had a hip quality. The booking manager said, "Would you like to do a run?" My heart was racing because that is where I saw Karen Akers perform, and I realized I really wanted to do it. I liked the feel of that room and I liked the size of that room, but I knew I couldn't fill that room. But I liked the fantasy of it, so Christian and I got together and realized that my strongest material were storytelling songs that painted a picture so that's how the show became Portraits. We got some nice reviews and some constructive criticism. The truth of the matter is, at age 29 I had no business singing songs about experiences and feelings I hadn't lived.
RB: It was like you were psychic . . .
MF: When I brought in Lennie Watts to help me re-mount the show, he said to me, "Wouldn't it be something if all along you put this show together THEN to bring it back NOW?" It really was a foreshadowing of everything in my life off stage. I mean, in a crazy random way. And what was really cool-the material was cool then, and now it's cool again because it's retro-Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, David Wilcox, Janis Ian, and the contemporary musical theater of the day, Maltby & Shire and Jaques Brel. And our generation that knew all that music then, and frequents cabaret now, has enjoyed revisiting this material. It's been this crazy affirmation that none of this is up to you. You can work so hard to make something happen, and then it doesn't happen and you feel angry and cheated and disillusioned. Then something falls into your lap, and the timing is right, and what's the lesson? You are still supposed to push and promote and create-and then something happens so easily. Part of you is relieved because there is the sense of the universe being in charge, but part of you is insecure because you feel like you're being lazy. It's just not up to you.
RB: When you were preparing to bring back Portraits for the New York Cabaret's Greatest Hits series, how were you really feeling about doing it again?
MF: It was a huge undertaking because I hadn't worked on this material or used this part of my voice in 23 years. On top of that, I was terrified to be on that postcard first postcard Stephen put together that included great singers like Mark Nadler, Julie Reyburn, and Maxine Linehan. And then I found out this year there would be shows from Karen Oberlin and Rosemary Loar and Laurie Krauz, etc, etc., and it felt a tad intimidating. I know I have my value and I love and am proud of what I do, but I never felt like I was part of the cabaret clique or the club. I've always felt like I was on the outside looking in. But I didn't want to let Stephen down and so I hired Lennie Watts as director because I was afraid of making an ass of myself; that the show wouldn't be relevant and that I wouldn't be able to sing the material authentically-it was amazing how scared I was. This was a big project to give this back to myself. But Lennie calmed me down and said, "This is a really good show and really good material, and it shows you off really well--right now at 51. So stop this worry and fear. Let's make this more specific and get you to crawl into these songs even more."
I guess the real lesson of this whole Portraits thing is that I clearly had ability. There was clearly a voice and a skill and an ability to connect with songs and people from the stage. But I needed to find an ability to carry it through with confidence and professionalism. That is what the art form of cabaret requires. People are not going to go to the Café Carlyle and pay the cover charge and major bucks for dinner to watch you put yourself down on stage. In cabaret, audiences want to see a star. They want to see you walk on that stage and justify the money they are paying--and rightly so.
Capitalizing on the success of "Portraits" at the Metropolitan Room and Don't Tell Mama, Flather is preparing to follow with the return of the show she introduced at Don't Tell Mama last year, Carly and Me, featuring Flather's original songs mixed with the Carly Simon songs that influenced her own songwriting. Visit megflather.com for more information on Meg and her music.