BWW Feature: At Home With Dorian Woodruff
Dorian Woodruff has sat in almost every seat in the cabaret theater. He has been behind the piano, upstage with the back-up singers, in the solo spot, and out in the house. The nightclub world is where Dorian has found the greatest expression of his love of music. With each show, Woodruff seeks to tell a story as special, as unique, as fascinating as the life he has lived and the life he has seen. With stories the like of which Mr. Woodruff has to tell, it's a wonder he hasn't written a memoir - except Truman Capote taught us all what happens when you turn your social observations into the story hour. So Dorian Woodruff keeps his storytelling to the cabaret stage, a place where he can take songs written by other people, apply them to the experiences he has had, and provide audiences with a beautiful night of melodic, entertaining, and abstract storytelling -- abstract enough to keep Dorian from raising any eyebrows.
I caught Dorian at home in the eighth week of quarantine to see what he is up to and, more importantly, whether or not he is wearing any of his jewelry while sheltering in place.
This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced as received.
Name: Dorian Woodruff
First Cabaret Show (Title, Year, Club): (once I became serious about cabaret) I Believe In Love, 2015, Metropolitan Room and Don't Tell Mama. Davenport's in Chicago and The Jazz Cave at the Nashville Jazz Workshop.
Most Recent Cabaret Show: Welcome Home: Everybody Has a Story, 2018, Pangea, and Beach Café. Davenport's in Chicago.
Website or Social Media Handles: I am very bad about social media. I know I should be better. This is on my list to rectify in 2020.
I Believe In Love, A love song can stamp that moment in time for us. I Believe in Love is a journey of how we have loved, fallen in love, fallen out of love, and no matter what else...cherished that love.
Welcome Home: Everybody has a Story, Stories, and songs about my lifelong, nosy fascination with interiors and all things opulent. From fabrics and fixtures in duplexes on the East River to furniture and wallpaper in crumbling mansions on the St. Lawrence River, other people's homes have always been my playground.
Dorian, how's life treating you as a person under quarantine who is continuing with their job, via remote?
Life is treating me well. I have enjoyed being at home. Closets are cleaned and organized. I thought I would paint my bedroom but I've chosen to be less industrious on that front. I have been cooking a little which I do not do often. I make a mean taco salad and my signature dish is spinach stuffed flank steak with new potatoes and asparagus tips. I also have plenty of vodka and wine. I'm good.
Not to go into specifics, since your job involves other peoples' privacy, but what you do for a living is very intricate, does working by remote present great challenges?
I am part of a team of about 30 people who work closely together and so much of what I do is based on social interactions with many, many folks. I do not have any two days that are the same. I may be called upon to facilitate a travel schedule which involves multiple stops and many jurisdictions; I may be called upon to organize a last-minute function involving a dozen calendars; I may be called upon to attend a charity function on someone's behalf (have tux, will attend) and I may be called upon to change the batteries in the remote for the television. Working remotely has sidelined most of those functions and interactions. Tasks have been focused in other directions. Finding new ways to work has been the challenge. I have my office set up a certain way with all of the tools to do my job. Working from home has meant that I've had to find other ways to do my job. It may take twice as long but, I get it done.
Music is an extremely important part of your life, are you able to make music on a regular basis these days?
I am making music. I am fortunate that I have a piano and I play very well. I have been able to spend more time playing and researching new music. I have four filing cabinets full of music and I have sat at the piano and played through every piece. Some are great. Some...well, not so great and I don't know how the music ended up with me. I enjoy taking a rock tune, folk tune, or even a country tune and turning it into a jazz tune. However, taking a jazz tune and turning it into a rock tune is not good. I also listen to music every moment available. I love discovering a new singer or a new tune. Or, maybe an old tune that I'm now able to sing because of life experiences.
Between being a vocalist and a musician, does one style of making music bring you more relaxation and comfort than the other?
I am respectful of all types of music. Some may not be my cup of tea... BUT..I understand, respect, and I'm appreciative of the process to create music. My favorites are those that have two essential characteristics. They are driven by the lyrics and the melody. The lyrics MUST tell a story. That story should be timeless. The melody MUST enhance the lyric. There are reasons the music of such composers as Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Harburg, Van Heusen, The Bergmans, Harry Warren, et al. have stood the test of time. They convey a story and have beautiful melodies. I am fortunate to have a friend, Alex Hassan, who collects original sheet music from Tin Pan Alley and tunes before 1940. He is an amazing pianist and from time to time he will send me a fat envelope of these great novelty tunes from the early 1900s. I love these and the amount of innuendo is great. Those post-Victorian folks had some crafty (dirty) thoughts.
How are you surviving without your favorite restaurants to patronize?
Oy! This has been a challenge. BXL Zoute on 22nd street is my favorite and they make the best French martini in all of Manhattan with competition from Joe Allen on 46th St. I have been making my own and they aren't bad.
Through our quarantine, I have been thinking about my grandmother lately. She was born in 1904 and lived through WWI, the Spanish Flu which took the lives of five of her immediate family, The Great Depression where they couldn't buy meat. She would tell me how they would substitute Aubergine (eggplant) for protein. WWII where they had ration coupons to buy meat, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. I never knew her to complain.
So, if I need to stay in quarantine for a while longer I will gladly comply then, I can go to BXL and have my martini and visit with friends.
You are a great believer in continued growth through education, continuing to study your craft in cabaret, well into your career - why is that so important to you?
If you don't continue to study you become stagnate. You also need to listen to other singers, watch how directors work, and watch how coaches work. What are their ideas? Will those ideas work for you? Will you glean anything which can feed your growth as a singer, a performer, a storyteller?
I have attended numerous master classes, seminars, etc. over the years and one of three things will happen. 1.) You will connect with everything being taught and take away every idea and apply it to you. 2.) You will not take away a single idea that will work for you. 3.) You may take away one thing that will work for you.
I have had a lot of folks come in and out of my musical life. Some, I have learned a great deal. Other, not so much. I have musically connected with Dame Eva Turner. (I thought I was going to her home to simply meet her but, after tea, she said, "It's time for your lesson." I almost had a coronary.) Here was a great lady who sang at the coronation of King George V and premiered Turandot at The Met in 1936 and she was giving me a voice lesson. I listened and I learned. She had a saying, Application Plus. It was the combination of Application plus Perspiration plus Dedication. Then there is Lori Mechem who taught me about having a conversation with the piano. You tell a story with your lyric and the piano answers you with tone and colors and dynamics. Then there is Lina Koutrakos who can get inside your head and scare the hell out of you. She helps you to understand the lyric and get behind, inside, underneath, and on top of the lyric. VERY important.
Then, there are those passing conversations you have with KT Sullivan about the placement of the verb in a phrase. This was incredible and made me rethink every lyric I had sung.
Then there was my grandmother, Pearl Elizabeth Sadler Woodruff. She taught me great tunes of Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook and how to accompany myself on the piano.
I had a voice teacher in college, Miss Elsa Porter. She wrote out a series of vocalises for me that I use to this day. I sing them through, letting the vibrato do what it does naturally. I then repeat them, taking out the vibrato and adding in other colors to the voice. I do all of this wearing Hearphones. These direct the sound back into your ear and you can hear exactly how you sound. I learned about these from Liz Johnson in Nashville.
Funny, it seems everyone I've been learning from are women.
You see a lot of cabaret - what provides you with the perfect audience experience in a club?
Personal connection, personal connection, personal connection!!!!! I want to know why a certain tune is in your show. I want to know that personal connection you have to that tune. I want you to tell me your story, not someone else's story. Why are you on stage? What do you have to say? I want to know about you. YOU are the reason I'm here.
I don't want a history lesson. Tell me something new and something about YOU!
Carly Ozard had a great show about her Bette Midler fascination in middle school. Mary Sue Daniels, Straight Outta Conda. Joanne Halev, Like a Perfumed Woman. Dawn Derow, Legit. Stacy Sullivan, A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles. Lisa Yeager, Jersey Girl. KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler, The Music of Jerome Kern.
These are some of the shows that had personal connections. These are shows that are the gold standard because they taught me something about each of the performers. They chose music to elevate the story. They sang the tunes in a new and fresh way. They all had something to say and said it beautifully.
Also, Tune. The. Piano!!
As one of the industry's most fashionable men, are you spending this time at home in comfortable clothing or are you still making yourself pretty every day?
This is funny. I do shower every day and do my skincare regimen. There are days I emerge from the shower and put on my robe and the phone rings. It is work. I'll sit at my desk and start working forgetting I have not dressed. I've been making a concentrated effort to dress every day. I will say, there are days where a pair of silk pajama pants and a flowing kaftan-like shirt are a good alternative to fully dressing. I do miss getting dressed to go out on the town. Once this is over, I am going to make an excuse to put on a tuxedo and simply go for cocktails. I'll start at the 21 Club then on to Boulad then on to Le Coucou and then maybe finish the night with a walk on the beach at Coney Island carrying a bottle of Reisling with the wine glasses we may (or may not) have lifted from the last place. Perhaps even a ride on the Wonder Wheel. Who knows?
Tell me a little bit about your amazing jewelry collection.
There is a lot of it. Cufflinks, rings, bracelets, watches, brooches, necklaces.
My first pair of cufflinks were from my grandmother. They belonged to her son who had been killed in an automobile accident. They were the cufflinks from his dress Marine uniform. I then became fascinated with 'cuffers'. I think there were 730 pairs at last count. I also have 197 singles that I mix-match on a theme. I also take vintage earrings and have them made into cufflinks.
Brooches are another jewelry passion. OWLS! Especially owls. I think there are over 400 owl brooches. Everything from fine jewelry to costume. In the cooler months when I am never caught without a jacket/blazer, I always have on an owl brooch.
I only have about 30-35 rings. I sometimes rotate them. There are a few rings I wear that are very special. I wear an emerald-cut amethyst on my right hand that was a gift from my mother and grandmother when I was in the 4th grade. It is not a great stone but it is the first piece of jewelry I ever owned. I also wear four rings on my right-hand pinky. These are small bands. They each have a special story behind them. One is a platinum band with little diamond chips all the way around. This is the ring which my grandfather proposed to my grandmother with in 1930. I wear it between two gold bands to protect it.
I wear two chains around my neck. One contains a piece of Lapis. Lapis is a healing stone for the voice. The other has a 1908 U.S. 2 ½ dollar gold piece. I found this among my grandfather's things when he passed away. It was in an envelope with a note from his father, "To my son on his birth." Sharing these necklaces are a gold owl and 1953 NYC subway token.
I tell myself not to buy any more jewelry......this is difficult when you have a friend who is a vintage jewelry dealer. So......If I add pieces to the collection, I choose discerningly.
I think I may do a book on my cufflink/brooch collection. That's a terrible idea! Don't you just love those? (my movie buffs...name that film.)
Dorian, what is the secret to a perfect day of antiquing?
Some folks say to dress comfortably. I say, look your best and walk in as though you own the place. Start the day without an agenda, but with a little breakfast. Get in the car and just go. Do not go looking for a specific item. You won't find it. When you aren't looking for it, it will appear. Take. Your. Time. If you rush through places you will have a bad day. Relax. End the day with the best dinner and a fancy cocktail.
Thankfully, I have the great stylish and elegant Joanne Halev to go on antiquing excursions. She is the best.
Dorian, why owls?
I can remember back to age three and being fascinated by owls. My parents said that anytime I would see one my face would light up. I think they are the most regal and majestic bird. They have followed me through my life. Several years ago I had my spirit cards read. My protector animal and the top of my totem turned out to be the owl.
An owl feather is silent. You cannot hear the owl when it flies, but it's prey definitely knows when it strikes, for its beak and talons are razor sharp.
When I was 16, my grandfather gifted me with the Audubon snowy owl etching.
All photos provided by Dorian Woodruff. Top photo by Graham Gerdeman, Headshots by Helane Blumfield.