BWW Interview: KT Sullivan And Jeff Harnar of SULLIVAN AND HARNAR SING HARNICK AND STROUSE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
Hope and Crosby. Fred and Ginger. Kathy and Mo. Show business is full of duos, partners, teams -- friends who step on a stage or in front of a camera, where a spark is created that reaches into the hearts of the people watching, affecting a memory and an emotion that stays long after the stage or screen has gone bare.
KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar have been helping cabaret audiences make memories and feel feelings for a while now, with duo shows that focus on the writers of great music. From Noel Coward to Stephen Sondheim, Sullivan and Harnar have entertained in nightclubs and country clubs, on cruise ships and at conventions, and even done a little television with their PBS shows on Stephen Sondheim and about Christmas music. These respected and treasured artists have legions of fans who will turn up to see them live, whether in a solo show, a group show or one of their duo shows, and those fans will get a chance to see Sullivan and Harnar together again when they open Sullivan and Harner Sing Harnick and Strouse at The Laurie Beechman Theatre on September 10th at 7 pm. With musical direction by Jon Weber and stage direction by Sondra Lee, the show will focus on the songs of two musical theater composers who never actually wrote together, uncovering lost gems, presenting well-known songs in a new light, and making merry fans of their musicals Fiddler On The Roof, Bye Bye Birdie, She Loves Me, and Annie.
Before their opening night, I caught up with the esteemed colleagues in Ms. Sullivan's Manhattan high rise on one of the final days of summer to talk about their work, the world of Cabaret and living an authentic life.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
KT and Jeff, can you remember, off the top of your head, exactly how many Sullivan/Harnar shows there have been?
J: Noel Coward - we opened the Firebird Cafe, we did the Bernstein's New York, we did a cabaret concert of Stop the World I Want to Get Off AND On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Then came Sondheim one, two and three.
K: I think it's nine. We must be missing something. As far as shows, it might be nine... off the top of my head right now, it's nine.
What was the very first one?
K: And it's Noel Coward!
And that's how you ended up as a partnership?
K: I was in a show down in Philadelphia, and it was a blizzard, and you came down on the train and we rehearsed down there. Alex (Rybeck) came with you to see the show that I was doing and we rehearsed down there. There are SO many lyrics in a Noel Coward show, and we were somewhat new - I might have known two Noel Coward songs. Donald had that power, he could say "do this" and we would do it! We were young...
J: I told Donald I don't KNOW any Noel Coward and he said "Well you'll LEARN! The most awful thing Barbara Cook ever said when we were doing wall to wall Cole Porter, I said 'what would you like to sing' and she said 'I don't have one Cole Porter song in my repertoire'."
K: That can't be possible.
J: She said "I can do Easy to Love", that's it".
K: That's amazing!
You've just mentioned the Noel Coward lyrics, but you've done so much Sondheim and Porter and all those intricate lyrics. How do you keep them straight?
J: We have different ways of doing it (laughing).
K: We do.
You mean like a mnemonic device?
J: I do mine when I'm exercising, in particular, jogging, because I literally feel like the lyrics become muscle memory. And I do them over and over again. The secret is it takes a lot of effort to master: it's repetition, repetition, repetition, so that part of your brain can be free and the life can come through. There are Cole Porter songs that are just now feeling like I've mastered them and I've been doing them 25 years. It takes a long time.
K: First I get the character (laughing) and the lyrics kind of come last, unfortunately, because I want the character first. The mnemonic thing I don't do because there's SO many words. I have visual things that work for me.
After you did your Noel Coward show did you know immediately that you wanted to continue doing shows together?
J: For me, no. There was a one-nighter ... and then we opened at the Firebird Cafe and that was a real run.
K: The show was directed by Barry Kleinbort at The Firebird.
J: As much as I've always loved working with KT, the revelation came with the Sondheim show. It was her idea to do it in the first place. I'd been so intimidated by his material all my life, and then we had this conversation where I said "I don't want to sing love songs to you" -- before, we had, we had done he loves her, and she loves him, and I said "The only thing is I love you as a friend, but I want to sing the correct pronouns, which opens up a whole bunch of songs that were written for women to sing that I can now sing, so let's be two friends".
K: I got to sing Joanna. I loved it because I always wanted to sing Joanna!
J: And so she gave me the courage to come out. Really. The Sondheim show has been the most liberating thing I've ever done as a performer, because it's the most authentic me that's on stage.
K: And I think it helps having Sondra Lee as our director.
J: She always says...
K: "Tell the truth".
J: "State the facts, tell the truth". She's like a machete to our schtick.
K: (Laughing) "You stop it!" She knows what we do, how we please our audience and she just takes it away from us. You know I think, Jeff, I just thought of this for the first time, I don't think we could ever have done a show for Donald like that. Donald liked pronouns... he liked not changing pronouns.
J: I bet he would.
K: I hope so. There was one guy at the Cabaret Convention one year and he sang ... this was 20 years ago ... he sang to "he" in the song, and he dedicated it to his lover at the time, and Donald was upset by that, he said "I don't want to hear about his love life!" and he never sang at the convention again.
J: I'd like to think Donald would have evolved.
K: I hope so. I hope so.
J: I mean, I was mortified, back in the 90s when the Blade Magazine in Washington D.C. wanted to write a story about me, but only if I would talk about being openly gay. I said "That has nothing to do with the 1959 BroadwaySongbook -- I am openly gay, but that has nothing to do with it". We really butted heads about it.
J: I'm really grateful to KT because going forward in my own shows, like this Comden and Green show - we are changing it. I used to sing "I met a girl" from Bells Are Ringing. That's gotta go.
K: Good for you!
J: I'm not going to sing that. Just with subtle things but changing the pronouns to the way they were originally written.
K: In this show, he gets to sing Vanilla Ice Cream and I get to sing If I Were a Rich Man.
So the show has become gender fluid.
J: Without changing a lyric.
K: No lyrics changed! Sheldon was happy. Sheldon came last time, he liked it.
J: Cause I sat on his lap.
K: (Laughing) That's how rumors get started.
J: I sang "I'm gonna marry the very next man" and I sat on his lap.
K: He and Margie both liked it.
Is there a lot of gender fluidity in the show?
K: There is a big surprise, don't give this away ...
(The recorder is turned off at this point to discuss a funny bit in the Harnick and Strouse show.)
K: And we've been extended!
You haven't even opened yet.
K: Everyone likes this show!
Do they ever not like your shows?
K: Well, some get more attention than others. When we went into this show I wasn't that excited. I'm thinking ... Harnick and Strouse? I mean, I love Sheldon Harnick ... and I thought Charles Strouse... But Jeff and I are both mad about Sondheim. We did three different versions of the Sondheim show. We are MAD for Sondheim. It's hard to go on after Sondheim. Where do you go after Sondheim? So. We had no idea this show would be so exciting.
J: It's very accessible material. It's just joyful. It's not quite so cerebral.
K: People get tired (Laughing)
You mentioned Sondra Lee a moment ago, does she direct all your shows?
K: She started with Sondheim.
J: Three Sondheim's and Harnick and Strouse.
Tell our readers why a director is necessary, even though you are seasoned pros who have worked together so many times that you could go off your own instincts.
K: One thing is - Jeff and I agree - we bring in Sondra later because she is a visual director. We know all the songs and we know how they should be done. We work out we want to sing them, we work all that out with Jon Weber. She comes in to look, after we've done all that.
J: We put our arrangements together before she gets there. She structures the show, she stages the show, she edits the show. For me, her exact words are "You two are so ingratiating and you've just got to cut that out".
K: Mmm-hmm! Mmm-hmm!
J: "Just tell the truth, state the facts", and that's revolutionary for me. I always thought it was about how to entertain them! (Laughing)
K: (Laughing) Yeah Yeah!
J: You're losing them! You're losing them! Drop your pants! Whatever!
K: (Laughing) She also ... there's a few times when we always want to sing, we're singers, and she says "Speak this" - oh no, that's wrong! Oh god, no! I want to sing it! No! No! We can't! And she's right.
J: There's one song I'm singing, she said "I want you not to sing it until halfway through, and your subtext is that you're at a memorial service and you're giving a eulogy" and I said "No I'm not, it's a love song, a love song!" She said "No you're talking about someone who's dead and you're in front of friends" and it just opened up.
K: She gave me something and I said "Oh NO! That's not about him!" because she mentioned my father and I thought NO, that's so... then I was singing it and I thought "My GOD, she's RIGHT". She's an actor's director, she works with actors.
J: Both of us have theater... KT clearly has theater background but that was my training as well, so it's always been my choice, whenever possible, to have a third eye out there. And you need one, you need someone who's an objective...
K: Because we can't see ourselves. Hope Hardcastle. When I was doing a show at the Algonquin I'd have her come in. She knew nothing about music, she had some theater background, I'd have her come in and look at things, she gave me some wonderful things that would have the audiences in hysterics every night, things a singer wouldn't think of.
Did the three of you write the show together, or did you two bring the finished product to Sondra and have her take up the reins?
K: When you say "writing the show" ... Most of the show is music. We have very little dialogue.
J: In all of our Sondheim shows and this one, there's one sentence of patter.
K: There's nothing to write.
J: Everything's in the lyrics.
K: The writers are Sheldon and Lee Adams, who never did a show together.
J: We say "They never worked together but tonight we're putting their work...
When you aren't working together doing shows, each of you has been known to pair up with other artists. Which of each others' shows with different people have you really enjoyed?
J: (Laughing) I can start, right away, with the Noel Coward, it's a national treasure, it should be in the library of... whatever.
K: Thank you!
J: I'm not kidding, it should be preserved, it should be archived somewhere where people can go and see this is how it's done. It's that style being handed down.
K: Thank you, thank you.
J: Two masters, masterfully directed, celebrating the master.
K: I'm having a wonderful time, and we just finished with 8 performances this week, sold out every performance. Nobody could get tickets. We're hoping to do it again, Steve Ross wants to do it till he dies. And it's one role you won't outgrow, I'm playing Elaine Stritch and Marlene Dietrich, and others and Steve can play Noel Coward til he dies. He's not playing any juveniles! And I'm not playing any ingenues! The Irish Rep will probably have us back.
KT which of Jeff's other duo shows did you like?
K: I thought his show with Shauna... The Mickey and Judy Show.
J: Shauna Hicks, she and I do "I Got Rhythm: Mickey and Judy's Hollywood".
K: You knew Shauna before you knew me.
J: That's right. She had the idea and we did it at the Firebird Cafe, just with a piano, we did it on cruise ships with a seven-piece band, and then we did it with symphony orchestras, we've done it with 8 symphonies.
K: I loved it! It's very special.
Away from performing, you both keep very bus Jeff, how's your directing?
J: Great! It's well informed by working with Sondra...
K: Oh yeah! Wow.
J: One of the things Sondra has really taught me is that your show should stand on its' own without talking. That's my bar now, for myself as a performer and for the people I'm directing, is it should really all be there in the music. I love that - challenging yourself so that it's that autobiographical, that if you didn't say a word, it's personal. The flip side of it is that it allows the audience to go where they need to go.
K: Yes! I think that's what Mabel did. Mabel didn't speak at all, and I think people actually made it their own scenario, what that song meant to them. She didn't tell them what the song means, the song spoke through the lyrics.
J: People would come up to her and say "How do you do it till three in the morning, all those emotions you're singing" and she would say "No, it's your emotions".
KT, it must be very rewarding being the artistic director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation.
J: Best thing that could have happened!
K: (Laughing) Thank you!
K: In 2012 we lost Donald Smith. So starting 2012 we were at Lincoln Center, we're in our 8th year and very successfully. I like getting out and seeing people, seeing new people, I try to find people, and I hear things that are right for the convention. There are 29 songs from 1929 and now they're ninety years old, and most people will know every damn one of them. They're still being done. Besides the singers, the songs are what's important.
What does it feel like, standing back and watching each year's cabaret convention flourish?
It's exciting! It's exciting backstage. People talk about cabaret is a dead art, it's always the invalid, theater has been too! Broadway's been dying for years! But it keeps coming back. There are people who still want to go out and see shows, there are still people who want to go see cabarets and there are young people who like to hear these songs, and I hear rumors that cabaret is doing pretty well! (Laughing). And Young people want to sing these songs! We've got to get young people in the seats. The kids from Juilliard want to come because Stephanie Blythe is on this year! Stephanie Blyther loves cabaret. Stephanie Blythe teaches master classes and she tells these opera singers "There's not enough roles for you in opera! You should do cabaret!" She says she would give up singing opera today to have a cabaret career. She loves these songs and she doesn't sing them like a classical singer. She's on the Judy Garland night. This is exciting. We have some kids from LaGuardia High School, we have this girl who is 15 years old, we have a girl who's 16 years old, and if their friends come see, there's a future, and that's exciting.
You both specialize in keeping alive the music of a bygone era... are there any present-day recording artists that you listen to?
(Laughter from both).
K: On the radio?
J: Does Stephen Sondheim count?
K: Well I'm not listening to rap. (Laughing)
J: There are a lot of wonderful songwriters.
K: I think the standards are the anchors. We have a show, these are our anchors. Within the show, you do one or two new things but you can't do too many. I had one show that was all new songs - it wasn't good. People have to listen all the time - it's tiring. They'd rather relax to a song they know.
J: We worked for an agent years ago who booked us country club gigs and she'd leave us voice messages "This is a very sophisticated audience, they only want songs they know". And it's actually very true. Alex Rybeck says you want to make your audience feel smart.
KT, I was once at Avery Fisher Hall to see the Gay Men's Chorus sing in a show called The Man I Love, and you were a guest artist, dressed in a beaded pink gown.
K: I remember that.
I was with a gaggle of gays to see the show and, when the lights came up for the Act Break, one of my friends said, rather loudly, "I'm not an expert, but that KT Sullivan has a really nice bottom"
Do you know this story?
And the man sitting right in front of us turned around and said: "Thank you, I'm her husband". Did he never tell you that story?
K: (Laughing) NO!! OH! That's my hubby! He didn't tell me. Isn't that adorable?
J: She's got two octaves.
(Laughing from both.)
K: Do you know who else has told me I have a nice bottom is Mark Nadler. He's an expert on bottoms.
I read that somewhere.
K: (Big laugh)
You both have also solo shows coming up at Birdland, don't you?
K: He does.
KT, you don't have a solo show?
K: I have a special show I've been doing every year since 2007, this is its twelfth year. In 2007 I did "1907 It Was a Very Good Year" - every year is a hundred years ago. This year is 1919. We look at people who were born that year. So this year is Liberace, Nat King Cole, Howard Keel, Tennesse Ernie Ford. It's a group show, I change the cast every year, I have the best time.
Jeff, Comden and Green?
J: It's a show we did thirty years ago, it's the show that got me out of showcase rooms. I was at 88's for 9 Friday nights, and then it moved to The Ballroom.
K: I read your review. I was backstage at Threepenny Opera in '89, I didn't know you then, I was reading your review and I was reading about Jeff Harnar at The Ballroom in this show. It was amazing.
J: It was an amazing review, it changed my life. Didn't have to wait tables anymore.
Jeff, you've been hailed, year in and year out, as the most youthful man in the business. What's your secret to staying so young?
J: I'm always jogging to memorize lyrics. And it's genetic. It's my parents.
You mentioned a moment ago that, because of KT, you're getting to live your most authentic life ever, how does that feel?
J: Great. I feel very young at heart. I think doing what you love to do...
K: That makes you feel good, doesn't it?
J: It's the best way to stay young.
KT, how many hats do you own?
K: OK! Come over here! You have to go in here... This closet is just summer... Here and here and here. That's all summer. Some are hanging up and some are in the boxes. And all the winters are here, in boxes.
What would you guess?
K: I'd guess a hundred.
J: That's including fascinators?
Of all of the Sullivan Harnar Theme shows, have each of you had a favorite?
J: Whatever one we're doing that night.
K: It really is Apples and Oranges, you can't compare Sondheim and Sheldon Harnick. It's like your favorite child. I don't have children but if I did! I don't think my mother could tell you which is her favorite child.
To what would you attribute the strength and fortitude of cabaret?
K: For one thing, Donald Smith. He always called it a fragile art, not a dying art. He created the Cabaret Convention, which is where we get the money, the support. We need support. These are small rooms, you can't make a lot of money. So we have the one big event in the fall. People go to the big event and then go to the smaller rooms. It inspires them to go to the smaller rooms. So I thank him for that. But also I think people want to express themselves intimately. They love looking at someone's face when they sing.
J: Mary Cleere Haran used to say it's like a mother singing a lullaby to you when you go to a cabaret. The intimacy of someone singing to you is ... there's nothing like it.
Sullivan and Harner Sing Harnick and Strouse plays The Laurie Beechman Theatre September 10 through November 2.
KT Sullivan: 1919 It Was a Very Good Year plays Birdland November 1.
Carried Away: Jeff Harnar Sings Comden and Green plays Birdland November 15 and October 27.
The New York Cabaret Convention plays Lincoln Center Rose Theater October 28 through October 31
Follow KT Sullivan on Instagram @sullivan.kt
Follow Jeff Harnar on Instagram @jeffharnar