BWW Interview: Lisa Viggiano Comes to The Beach Cafe on January 4, 2020
When Lisa Viggiano opens her show at The Beach Cafe on January 4th it will be the third show she has performed in just over a year. A tower of industry in the cabaret community, Viggiano is constantly at work, creating new shows, lending her voice to group shows and benefits, and constantly striving to reach new levels of excellence in her work as a musical storyteller. It's a double life for Lisa Viggiano because by night she leads the glamorous life of a nightclub singer, and by day she uses her voice as a speech-language pathologist, helping special needs students to find their voices.
Curious to know how an award-winning singer and mother of two balances home, career, and calling, I emailed Lisa, asking for a phone interview to discuss her life of details, and lucky for all, Lisa Viggiano could not have been more accommodating, sharing a good long chat that yielded a generous look into the life of a true artist at song and at life.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Lisa, I noticed that in 2019, you performed two completely different shows. You started the year out doing a Bruce Springsteen show and then you finished the year with your...
So you started the year with one show and you finished it with another. For so many people it's difficult to sit down and write a new show, but you managed to do two in one year.
I actually just wrote a new one for January 4th, too, because Yas and I are doing a set -- Tracy (Stark) won't be in town, and I just decided to do a whole new set with Yas. So that's how I kind of operate. I love creating new things. The Bruce Show was really a 2018/2019 project. What happened was... I have about a hundred shows in my mind that I want to do and, depending on what happens in life, is how I get a show up on its feet. My cousin passed away at the end of September 2017. And my elder son looked at me and said, "Well, I guess it's time. You're going to have to do the Bruce show," because my cousin, who died of ALS, was a huge Bruce fan. My oldest son, David, read him the Bruce Springsteen book at his bedside when we went to visit. So that was how the Bruce show popped out. And while I was doing the Bruce show, this just grew out of it immediately because, once I figured out it was John Hammond who discovered Bruce, and he also discovered Billie Holiday, I was like, "Wait a minute..." So I started doing research on this guy and I couldn't believe it! And there was so much music, I had to do it. It was burning in me and the playlist just populated itself 'cause there's just so much to choose from. So because of the nature of my life... there's a lot of waiting for the boys. Like, if I bring someone to practice, or basketball practice with my younger son, Sam, and I have to wait in the car for an hour or something like that, what I end up doing is, I learn songs and I write shows. My workday is over at three and I have time after work. I have the summers off. So I get to throw myself into my music. I think those are a few of the ways that I get the show out quickly.
So you spend your days teaching and taking care of your family and writing cabaret shows
When do you rest?
Well, I meditate and that helps. That recharges me. And I just recently started doing a fiveK program. That gives me more energy. I get a good night's sleep. I need seven or eight hours of sleep or I'm no good.
I did clue into the fact that your first show was a Bruce Springsteen show and then this show had some Bruce Springsteen in it. I found myself wondering how you ended up in cabaret instead of rock and roll.
Over the years I've sung in many different venues, and when I was younger I did too. When I was 12 there was a record producer/songwriter who brought me to California to try to do some rock and roll, and they were going to call me Destiny Powers. (Laughing) There was this whole plan. It was pretty funny. It did not pan out. But cabaret ended up becoming the thing that I do because once I decided not to do musical theater full time, I decided that I wanted to do something. So I sang with a big band for a few years. Then I was teaching singing and one of my students' parents brought me a cassette tape and they said, "You need to listen to this and you need to do this kind of music." And I listened to it and I was like, "Oh, I don't know about that. I can't do that." He's said, "You sound like this person." It was Nancy LaMott that he gave me a cassette of.
This does not surprise me.
When I first listened to it, I was like, "Oh, I don't sound like this woman. And I don't know if I can do that." And then I went to graduate school and I was still singing in the big bang. Once I finished graduate school, I picked this cassette up again... and that was in 1996. I went to Tower Records and I looked her up and I said, "Oh my goodness, this is amazing." I bought all the albums, and when I went to look her up to try to find her to go see her, I found out that she was gone. So I was devastated. I found this group online... they were a Nancy fan club, and somehow I was able to get Christopher Marlowe's mailing address because at the time he was unlisted. I wrote him this love letter about his work and how I hear the songs the way he does -- like "Surrey With The Fringe On Top" was one that I remember going, "Oh my god, this is brilliant. This is exactly what the song is about." And I was so passionate about it. I wrote this musical love letter and gave him all my contact info, and he wrote back. He wrote me an email and he said, listen, I'm not really picking up new clients right now. It was just two years since Nancy had been gone, and he just wasn't really working that much with people. He said but I think we should meet. So we met and we became fast friends. I call him my brother from another mother. We did two or three shows together, and then we wrote a lullaby CD together. Then I moved to California. Then I came back, and then he moved to California. And my kids were little at the time, so I stopped for a while. About four or five years ago, I started singing again. I kind of told myself "Okay, it's okay that Chris isn't here, you can do this." I gave myself a little talk. So I did! I love what I do with cabaret. I incorporate some standards, of course, with Broadway, of course, and patter type songs that are cabaret songs that people write, Christine Lavin type songs. But I always like to include a little rock and roll 'cause those are becoming our American songbook -- slowly but surely -- I mean Bob Dylan 50 years ago
For the benefit of the readers who don't know this: you and I have actually only met once in passing and we don't know each other very well. And when I first saw your show and reviewed you, I said that you reminded me of Nancy LaMott, completely without knowing that you had this personal connection to her.
When you wrote that, I felt my face flush and I was like, "Oh my gosh!" And then I sent the review to Christopher and Scott Barnes and they both said, "Did you know that he photographed Nancy?" I was floored. I was definitely floored when you said that because, first of all, it's an honor and I can't fathom that I would remind anyone of her, but I appreciate the compliment so much. It's very humbling and I appreciate it very, very much.
Well, clearly something about you is reminiscent of Nancy because that friend of yours in '96 said that you sounded like her, and then I spotted the same quality in you. So it's time for you to just own that maybe Nancy LaMott is your spirit animal or something because clearly there's something there.
Well, definitely, if I'm calling in my angels before a show I include her,
You are the rock and roll chick of the cabaret scene. Where do you find your inspiration when you're putting together a new act? Three in one year, no less.
Where do I find my inspiration? God, you know what I've learned to do with every part of my life as I've gotten older, and as I meditate, is I go to what feels good and what is calling me. Whatever I'm drawn to at the moment, when I can feel my passion happening, then I know that that's the show to do. I have ideas upon ideas. I have folders of different types of shows, song lists, et cetera. I hope I get 'em all done before I'm dead.
Well, if you do three a year, you sure will! I think if you're following the ideas that make you passionate, then you know that the shows are authentic to you.
Yeah. I know I have a lot of intellectual ideas that would be a great show. But if I can't wrap my heart around it, then I can't move forward with it.
It seldom works out when you try to force a theme into a show. A forced theme, in the small, intimate setting of a cabaret will read forced to your audience. But if it's an idea for which you have passion, they're going to be with you the whole time.
Yeah. I think it's like if you're hanging out in someone's living room and you're having a conversation, the most meaningful and deep conversations are the ones that people are passionate about. It's not when someone's giving a lecture, you know? You haven't seen any of my shows where it's just a collection of songs, like this one I'll be doing in January.
Yeah. So you saw the one that was more educational, I guess. I'm doing From Lady Day to The Boss again in February and I incorporate a lot more personal stuff now because I'm so passionate about John Hammond! The voices that he put into the world were not just voices, they were voices of passion and protests, you know?
I visited your YouTube channel and noticed a fair amount of musical theater. Is the musical theater something that you listened to earlier in life, or something that came to you as you entered the cabaret community?
I grew up on musical theater and doing plays when I was young... when I was a freshman, I played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. And as a kid I did this kiddie cabaret up on... it was in the '70s on First Avenue. It was a place called Something Different. The cabaret was called Young Stars. I don't know if you've ever heard of a coach Bob Mark, but he ran it. And some of the other young stars were Debbie Gibson and Sarah Jessica Parker and Seth Rudetsky. It was a lot of fun. I did a lot of musical theater in those cabarets. I grew and I did listen to it a lot. And we always watched the classic kids with my mom, my family.
Do you still do any acting?
I love my life but right now there's not been a lot of room for acting, but there will be someday. That's going to be my empty nest activity.
I don't imagine there's a lot of room for rehearsals when you have two teenage kids to raise.
No, I'm doing a lot of that at home, and thank goodness the musical directors that I have worked with have been so patient with me in the past few years. When I first came back I worked with Jeff Harris and Tim Di Pasqua. I'm working on this with Tracy Stark, and I'm going to be doing a couple of things coming up with Yas Fukuoka. They're all so patient with me because basically, we meet, I get a bunch of tracks from them -- I tell them my ideas for arrangements, we do quick arrangements, and then I go home and practice with my tape with just the... they call them TV tracks or karaoke tracks. I call them music minus one. The young ones look at me and go, "What?" I say, "You know music minus one." And the directors I've worked with - Scott Barnes and Tanya Moberly - have also been super patient with me. They understand it would be great if I could spend tons of time with the director and musical director, crafting a show, but because I don't have that kind of time at the moment... someday I will. But for now, I do a lot of the writing on my own at home.
Put a picture in my head. What does it look like? The creative process when you're creating a brand new show from the ground up.
So remember that paper that was yellow with the blue lines that you'd write on in grammar school? I get a ream of that at a time and I call it my thinking paper. I start writing... if I, all of a sudden, get ideas, I'll put them in my notes on my iPhone if I'm not near my thinking paper, and later I'll just start writing, outright. I'll also be populating a song list on my iTunes, a playlist of all the ideas that are coming to me. Then I try to find which songs I have some truth in. That's how I start to whittle them away. I ask questions like what do we know? What does this mean to me? Who am I talking to when I'm singing this song? Is this important to me? That kind of a thing. That's how songs get cut. I don't think it's unique necessarily to me. I think that probably is a similar process that people have. I don't know.
It would be interesting to put a bunch of cabaret performers in a room and ask them to share techniques. I'm sure you would find various similarities, but a lot of differences too. Everybody has a different modus operandi when it comes to the work.
I've noticed that you do a lot of group shows. You've done the Cabaret Convention and you've done Richard Skipper Celebrates and some stuff at 54 Below. What is that like, being so in demand that you go from one show to another show while raising your family and creating your own works?
I do a couple of things. One is I make sure I don't have too many commitments at once because obviously, number one is, obviously I have to work, but beyond anything is my kids and being mom. So, if I'm not committed too much that particular month or if it's something that I feel passionate about. Scott Coulter did this Bowie show and I love Bowie of course. So that worked. I love this Blue Wave Show because I'm really passionate about voters' rights and that kind of thing -- if it's something I'm passionate about and it's something that I can fit in, I'm thrilled to do it and I feel so grateful to have an opportunity to perform in something that I'm not necessarily, producing myself because I kind of show up. I get to have the comradery of the other artists. I've made some amazing... Meg Flather has become like a sister to me. I'm just grateful for the opportunity, so appreciative of it.
You mentioned a little while ago how you have two different directors that you work with and you have a few musical directors that you work with. I know people that have had the same director and the same musical director their entire careers. What is it that you find is the benefit of working with different people?
I'll be honest with you. It was hard for me to break away from Christopher. But I moved to California for a little while, while he and I had our working relationship. I was lucky enough to sign a musical director there named Ben Prince, who I really loved. And it was the first time that I realized I can do this. You know, I can still do me... because there was a time when I thought I could only do what we were doing in the show, you know? Then I realized, "Oh, wait a minute, you've done all these parts and musicals, you've been in these different bands. it's you, it's always you. You're there, you know?" When I got back, of course, I worked with Chris again and we had this brother-sister relationship that was just super easy. When he moved to Palm Springs, I was forced into independence, and it was scary at first, but it's been a really joyful experience to collaborate with different people because everybody brings something different to the table. So as much as I resisted it after he left, it's actually been a gift, because these group shows, a lot of time there's a different musical director there, so you have to be ready to do your thing no matter what.
Speaking of moving around, I've noticed that you've done many of your shows at Don't Tell Mama, but you've also played Pangea and you've got the beach cafe coming up. What's the dynamic when you have to go into a new room that you haven't worked before?
We typically get a soundcheck so you get a sense of the room and it's usually a room that I've gone to see something in. So there's that familiarity. You don't really know until you do the show, what's going to be born in that particular room. There's always a different feel. Depending on just the vibe of the room or the lighting or the sound... and the one place that I have always gone back to, where I call it home... My home is Don't Tell Mama. And I always say that the brick room has been tempered by Sidney Myer because he was sitting there for 18 years just sitting there, you know, baptizing the space. That was his office for those 18 years. And then he turned it into a room where people could sing. I kind of always knew that, but during the November show that I did, I woke up the morning of my last show and I said, "Oh my God... that's why I love The Brick Room so much because Sydney's office was there for so long and I've been playing there for 20 years." It's where Sydney gave me the talk. Did you get the talk from Sydney? **
It took two hours.
Oh my goodness. I love it. He must've been thrilled to have you.
We were just in love with each other.
When you said in your show that Sidney said, "You belong here with us," ...he creates this magical community and he's really such a big part of the heart of our community. We're so lucky. There's something very special about what Sydney brings to this community.
Do your kids find your work as a performer glamorous? Or do they just not even care?
(Laughing) Oh, it's probably a cross between both of those things. When my younger son was little (and every once in a while now) he would Google me. He'll occasionally still do that. (Laughing) So he was like, "Oh wow, you're famous!" (Laughing) And I say "Noooo, I'm not famous." I'm like, it's a very small world. And my older son, it's so funny cause as a little one I would bring him to rehearsals on a regular basis, and he would sing when he was little. Then he kind of stopped singing and I thought, "Oh am I pushing him away from music because I am always singing?" He recently started singing and he just got an award for excellence in vocal music. So I guess, um, you know, I guess they both appreciate it in their own way.
Trickle-down talent, eh?
Yeah, and my little guy, he's interested... he did a little bit of... it took a class with Corinna Sowers Adler's Nicori and he loved it. But now he's really into basketball. So maybe in a couple of years, he'll do the same as David and start singing again.
What do the other moms at the PTA think of your work?
It's funny because there are a few moms who do come in and see the shows and I appreciate it so much because it's like, so my other life and they know me as the mom in the carpool or volunteering. And some don't mention it at all, which is great cause you know, this way I feel like they see me as the other moms.
What can your audience look for on January 4th?
There are some standards. There's a little bit of Broadway. There's a little rock and roll, but more mellow, and it's a cross-section of all of my shows. It's sort of like a review for me. it's been 20 years of cabaret this year. So it's like a little scrapbook. And I was able to put them together in an arc and a storyline that works for some of the things that I've done. It's going to be fun. It's going to be warm on a winter's night. I really feel like it's a really joyful show and it's eclectic.
When you're up on the stage, what's the relationship like between you and your audience?
I just love connecting. So whether it's the patter and chatting, I'm interested, you know, if someone talks to me from the audience, I'm happy to continue the conversation.
I've seen you do it.
And the songs, again connecting in that I feel like, if I'm relating to this, then you must have had this experience too. You know the common experience.
So here's the million-dollar question. Do you sing songs that Nancy sang?
Oh, actually, one of Nancy's songs is in here. There is one in here. When I first did my first show, I did a handful of them. And Chris gave me a few charts that she hadn't recorded, that I was using at the time. I was happy to do it, but I felt it was important to find my own hits, you know? I was actually flown out to San Francisco to do the Help Is On The Way benefit. It's San Francisco's version of BCEFA. 18 years ago when I was pregnant with my son David, I sang we can be kind for their holiday benefit. And then they called me a few weeks before this benefit and said, you know, I feel like the world needs to hear that message again, would you come out and sing We can be kind again. And it's ironic, you know, my son's now going to college and my friends Joe and Ken who run that benefit... it's called Help Is On The Way because Nancy sang Help Is On The Way. I unfortunately never got to see Nancy in person.
Thank goodness for video footage.
Nancy once told me something... I was at the Algonquin and she was singing her Merrily We Roll Along medley and George Furth was in the house he wrote the play Merrily We Roll Along, and she went for a high note and she did not make it. Afterward, she had told me, "I don't care if I don't make the note, as long as the emotion is real."
I agree. 100%.
She was one of the good ones. I'm glad that you've had Christopher and Scott Barnes around you to shower you with the gifts that they showered upon her.
Yeah, they definitely taught me how to strip away my own nonsense. Not that I do it all the time. I have my moments where I'm not getting to the lyric as much as I should be. But they really taught me how to get there. I can listen to myself or watch myself and know... "You're not doing the work, pull it together." That's what it's really about. It's about doing the work.
** Sidney Myer, the booking manager for Don't Tell Mama, sits down with every newcomer to the club to get to know them before signing their show. It is a legendary talk that every performer who plays Don't Tell Mama looks forward to.
Photos of Lisa Viggiano in FROM LADY DAY TO THE BOSS by Stephen Mosher