BWW Interview: Liz Callaway Rings in Summer With Her New Feinstein's/54 Below Show SETS IN THE CITY
From stage to screen and everywhere in between, Liz Callaway's four-decades-long career has been non-stop. That includes numerous cabarets, and, hot off the heels of her hit solo show A HYMN FOR HER, Liz Callaway gets even hotter with SETS IN THE CITY, an eclectic mix of old and new favorites written by Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Burt Bacharach, and more.
Alongside a group of her regular collaborators that includes director (and husband) Dan Foster, musical director/pianist Alex Rybeck, Jared Egan on bass, and Ron Tierno on drums, Callaway will score New York through her eyes--- from her arrival 40 years ago to present day.
Ahead of her four-show run, Callaway sat down for a phone conversation about nostalgia, what summer in New York looks like for her, and "getting out of the darkness and into the light."
The following interview has been edited for content and length.
Tell me about the new show and how it came to fruition. What can people expect to see?
The folks at Feinstein's/54 Below are always nice and always asking me to come back, so I thought, summer in the city--- a nice time to do a show. Originally, I was planning on doing the show with no theme because I've done some shows in the past that have had a very strong theme. [But] one of the things is you have to have a title. My husband actually came up with the title SETS IN THE CITY. And then, whenever I do a show, I do a query on Facebook and I ask people for song suggestions because I inevitably get some great, great ideas from that, and almost all the suggestions were, like, urban songs. So, I went, "Oh! (Laughs) They think, because of the title, that it's a show about the city." Then, I made a really long list of songs that I might wanna do in the show, songs that I've never sung before but I've always wanted to do, and then I went, "Oh! There is somewhat of a thread here," a theme, and it was New York.
So, it sort of morphed into a show about New York, songs from shows I've done in New York, and it's very eclectic. I think it's gonna be a really fun show. Some of the show is talking about my early years in New York because I've been feeling very nostalgic about some of the things I did early in my career. All my shows are always songs and stories, so it's gonna be that.
You mentioned nostalgia and feeling nostalgic about the early parts of your career. I love when people do a show about the city, or at least tangential related to the city because I love hearing about people's relationship with it. Tell me a little bit about when you first came to New York and the music you associate with that time.
I moved to New York in the fall of 1979 with my sister, Ann [Hampton Callaway], and I was 18. One of the things that I found in boxes--- I'm going through boxes of my parents' things and I've discovered... they kept all these reviews and cassettes and videos of everything I've ever done. And I found something I did, like a club act I did, and I discovered I sing all this disco (laughs). It was the late '70s, the early '80s, it was a lot of disco, a lot of really great pop music. I've always loved '60s pop music. It's what I grew up listening to and I've done shows and albums of '60s music, and to me, that was a part of what I felt then and now. I associate downtown and Burt Bacharach music, and that, to me, I associate with summer and New York.
One of the things I'm talking about in my show is, there used to be a club called Rainbow and Stars, and back in the day, that was the place to hear people sing from Broadway or major music people--- kind of like Feinstein's/54 Below but instead of the basement, it was on the 65th floor. But it was very glamorous. It was a different world there. So, I'm talking about that, singing a song from the show I did in 1992 there, and just talking about how the city has changed. Some places aren't there anymore, but it's nice to remember them.
What inspires you about the city, or---I know you're from Chicago---cities, in general?
I'm from Chicago, but when I was a kid, I moved to New York--- not in the city, but I lived in Huntington, Long Island, and Riverdale for five years when I was a kid, and then moved back to Chicago. So, I've always had a connection to New York even though I'm from Chicago. I loved New York. The first Broadway show I ever saw when we would be in New York was COMPANY---
And then your first show was MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG!
Right! And then my first show was MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, the same theatre with Sondheim, directed by Hal Prince, book by George Furth. It was just amazing and just an amazing coincidence. And when I decided I wanted to do theatre, when I really got into it, which really wasn't until my junior year of high school---I came to it late---I used to go to New York for the weekend by myself---I don't know how my parents used to let me do this---and (laughs) I would go to the half-priced booth and I would buy a ticket, and then I'd stay in a really cheap hotel and I'd have pizza for my meals.
So, I loved going to New York by myself when I was, like, 16, and I just always felt at home and felt... I don't know, there's something energizing and inspiring about New York. And I'd go to the Drama Book Shop before seeing a show, and there was something so... I won't say glamorous, but there was just something so exciting about it. And this fall, September 13, will be the 40th anniversary of my moving to New York, which makes me feel like the oldest (laughs)--- it's like, "Oh my god, how is that possible?" because I feel like it was just yesterday.
So, I am feeling nostalgic for the excitement of moving to New York and starting your life, starting your career. My sister and I always remember our anniversary. Plus, we moved together, so it was really like MY SISTER EILEEN or WONDERFUL TOWN, it really was. We had some crazy adventures in our first year in New York.
The idea of summer in New York always brings up very specific imagery for different people--- different sights, different smells, things to do. You've created a set for summer in the city, so what imagery is that set scoring in your mind? What does summer in New York look like for you?
It's sunshine in Central Park. It's warm breezes. Back when I moved to New York, summer in the city meant no air conditioning on the subway (laughs), garbage in the streets. And it's changed. But it's, like, everyone outside cafés, people spilling into the street, waiting to get into their favorite restaurant because everyone wants to be outside. You go from winter to summer; we don't necessarily have four seasons anymore in the way that we used to. So, to me, it's a relief. It's like getting out of the rain and getting out of the darkness and into the light.
You know, I've had a lot of conversations lately where that's been the theme, either literally or figuratively.
Yeah. Well, honestly, it's on our minds. Not every single song I'm doing in this show is a New York theme. There are a few songs that just, I want to sing! "This is a song I want to sing." I don't get political in my show, though it's no secret how I feel about the state of our country and the state of the world right now. So, we actually have a couple of songs that represent my philosophy on dealing with difficult times. They're subtle, but it's something I want to express in the show.
That's another thing is, when you put together a show you go, "Okay, what do I want to sing about? What's going to make me excited to sing? What's going to challenge me? What's some new stuff I've never done? And what do I want to share with the audience?" Because, really, the show, at least when I do a show, it's such a two-way street. It's not me doing the show and then there's the audience. It's a very two-way street. That's what I like. It's so different from theater where you are presenting. My co-stars in this show are the audience, and I've grown to really love that, to have the communal experience that everyone's coming together to hear music, and at the end, it's like we will have all had dinner together to kick off the summer. And it's really how I feel. I want people, at the end of seeing my show, any show I do, to feel like they've had an evening with great music, but they feel like they just had dinner with me.
Liz Callaway's SETS IN THE CITY will play at Feinstein's/54 Below on June 12-15 at 7:00 PM. For tickets and information, visit www.54below.com.
Ashley Steves is BroadwayWorld's Cabaret Editor-in-Chief and a freelance arts and culture writer. You can find her on Twitter at @NoThisIsAshley.