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BWW Interview: MAC Award Winner Janice Hall Talks Dietrich and the Thrills of Cabaret Performance Prior to Her Upcoming GRAND ILLUSIONS Revival

BWW Interview: MAC Award Winner Janice Hall Talks Dietrich and the Thrills of Cabaret Performance Prior to Her Upcoming GRAND ILLUSIONS Revival
Janice Hall performs in her MAC and Bistro Award-winning show
GRAND ILLUSIONS: THE MUSIC OF Marlene Dietrich. Photo via Hall.

In a 1959 interview following a show at the Théâtre de l'Étoile in Paris, Marlene Dietrich, the German-American film and cabaret superstar who raised many a bar for both art forms, reflected on her decision to leave her native Berlin and come to America. She was driven by her love and longing for the American popular song (such as Irving Berlin's "Always" and Turner Layton/Henry Creamer's "After You've Gone"), which she considered "the great poetry of the country."

The move was a catalyst for one of many reinventions for Dietrich, but perhaps her most significant switch came several years later. During her early career in Berlin and America, she had been constricted to only what she was allowed to perform in her films. However, in her transition to a nearly-exclusive cabaret career in the early '50s, on her own performing where she wanted and singing the songs she loved, she had agency, completely in charge of what would come next in her life.

"You see," she told CBC's Kerry Ellard, "here, I'm my own master."

No matter the song, style, or setting, so is Janice Hall, the multi-talented opera singer, cabaret chanteuse, and character actress who broke into the cabaret scene in 2010 in a big way. She is the 2011 Bistro Award Winner for Best Tribute Show and 2012 MAC Award Winner for Best Female Vocalist. The show that earned her those awards? GRAND ILLUSIONS: THE MUSIC OF MARLENE DIETRICH which Hall debuted in 2010 and will revive for one night on September 13 at 7:00 pm at the Metropolitan Room as part of Stephen Hanks' monthly New York Cabaret's Greatest Hits series.

Directed by Peter Napolitano, with music direction by Matthew Martin Ward and featuring Ritt Henn on bass and ukulele, Grand Illusions is a tour through the illustrious life, career, and music of the oft-imitated Dietrich. Hall doesn't try to be Dietrich, nor does she need to. Instead, said William V. Madison of Opera News, "She evokes the great star in other, far subtler ways... It's remarkable to hear how she applies her superior range and musicality to the song, while still respecting Dietrich's essence."

Before Hall takes the stage this upcoming Tuesday night, we sat down for a discussion on career invention, reinvention, and versatility--- both Dietrich's and her own.

This interview has been condensed/edited for length and content.

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AS: When did you start performing?

JH: As far back as I can remember. I wanted to be an actor and a singer and it was just always part of me, but I started to study seriously in high school and then in college. I went to Boston Conservatory and I had thought I was focusing on musical theatre, but eventually I discovered classical music and fell in love with opera and realized I could do that. That's what I majored in.

AS: How would you describe your relationship with music growing up? What did you listen to? What did you enjoy performing the most?

JH: I have always listened to all kinds of music. I'm old enough to remember when there were variety shows on television and you could hear opera, you could hear pop, you could hear jazz, you could hear pretty much everything. And I didn't like opera when I was a kid; I thought it was just loud and weird (laughs), but that changed later.

This leads into Marlene Dietrich. As a teenager, I started going to record stores and just looking for things that popped out at me and I discovered Edith Piaf and I discovered Marlene Dietrich. I had known her from watching movies, but it's interesting: I bought this album that was all in German, and I had no idea what it was about, but I loved listening to it. It was an album of all her stuff and it was mostly German music that was not well known. There were a couple of American songs that were translated into German, but mostly it was just obscure German songs that I didn't know.

AS: That's very redundant, "obscure German songs."

JH: (Laughs) Yes, yes. When I was putting the show together, I went back and listened to one of the songs that I had liked ["In Den Kasernen," or "In the Barracks"]. At this point, I had lived for a long time in Germany so I spoke German, and suddenly the lyrics of this song were so amazing to me. It's an anti-war song and I had no idea that that's what the song was. I was like, "This has to be in the show."

AS: I was going to ask what your first exposure to Marlene was. Do you remember what film you saw of hers first?

JH: I don't know that it was the first thing I ever saw, but the one that I remember is a movie called BLONDE VENUS, which came out in the '30s. I was fascinated with Hollywood in general and there were a lot of movie stars that I really was fascinated with, but she was a special case because she was so glamorous. Then, later I realized also she seemed to just have everything her way in life. She was in charge of everything and everyone and it just all went her way. At the end of her life, she kind of paid a price for that, but it was really fascinating to me.

AS: You were in Germany until 2007. When did you go over?

JH: 1983. I had a contract at an opera house, which is the reason I went. I had not expected to stay more than two or three years, and it just kept going. I came back to the US to sing a lot of opera performances, so it wasn't like I was completely gone, but I was living there for all that time.

It was a struggle. I think living in another country, speaking in another language, is going to be a struggle for anybody. There was a lot about Germany that I didn't like. I didn't like the weather (laughs). It was always rainy and gray. I had a difficulty with the mentality; it was very different than what we're used to. Eventually, I grew to love a lot of things about Germany and really appreciate a lot about it and the language, as well, but, at first, it wasn't that I loved living there so much as just that I didn't see any reason to leave because a lot of my work was over there.

AS: You made your Off-Broadway debut in Monica Bauer's MY OCCASION OF SIN a couple of years ago [in 2012]. What was that experience like?

BWW Interview: MAC Award Winner Janice Hall Talks Dietrich and the Thrills of Cabaret Performance Prior to Her Upcoming GRAND ILLUSIONS Revival
Hall and Rosebud Baker in Monica Bauer's MY OCCASION OF SIN.
Photo: Ben Hider

JH: That was great. It was a new play, it was the premiere of it, and the challenge of it was that I played a very unlikeable character and I had never done that before. The audience reaction was really very strange because they equated me with that character. People were very cool to me (laughs) and it was interesting, but I loved doing it. When I came back from Germany, my aim was to reinvent and explore different uses of my voice, like for cabaret, and to act, which is what I had wanted to do as a child before I discovered opera. I'm kind of going back to my first love.

AS: And you still act in opera, just much more extravagantly, I would say.

JH: Yeah, and that acting portion of opera was always important to me. But when I came back to New York, I went back to real acting school [at The William Esper Studio] (laughs) and I thought, "Yeah, I know what I'm doing. I'll just refresh," and I realized this is very, very different. I'm very grateful to have discovered that.

AS: Let's talk about the show. Obviously, you've done this before (laughs), having won both the Bistro and the MAC Award. Can you talk about your collaboration with [Director Peter Napolitano and Music Director Matthew Martin Ward]?

JH: Peter and I had met at an open mic which is called The Salon, which is a wonderful open mic that still happens every Sunday. We had been talking about putting together a show for me and I ran a couple of ideas by him, and when I got to Dietrich, he said, "Oh, that's the one you should do," and I said, "Why?" and he said, "Because even if people don't know who you are, they'll know who she is and they'll come (laughs). They'll be interested." And he was right. We have a wonderful collaboration. He really is my set of eyes outside me and he tells me when something's not working and when it's too much and when it's enough- all of those things. It's been a real pleasure working with him.

The original music director was Paul Trueblood, who, shortly after our initial runs of the show, passed away, and it was a great pleasure working with him. But I'm very grateful I've got Matthew now, too, to do the show with me because we've done another show together [2012's I'D RATHER BE DOING THIS] and we work together a lot.

AS: This is a tribute show. You're not imitating Marlene and you're not doing a parody, which is already tremendously refreshing because I would imagine it's so easy to drift into parody with her, where you end up looking like Madeline Kahn in BLAZING SADDLES.

JH: (Laughs) I only wish I could! For me, that's really not easy and I think it's just because I'm coming from the music itself. I gave all that up at the beginning. I went, "Whatever people expect here, I'm going to interpret these songs in my way." And, yeah, some of them are in the style of her, sure. You can't do a lot with "The Boys in the Backroom," really. It is what it is. But it never was a problem for me to avoid impersonation because I just can't (laughs) with her. When people think of a Marlene Dietrich show, they think of someone impersonating her and I don't do that at all because that would be ridiculous (laughs). I'm dark, I'm short--- I'm not her.

AS: I understand. I'm German-American, but I'm 5'2" and a redhead, so trust me, I understand.

JH: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. But the thing that fascinated me and is the focus of the show is the fact that music was actually such a big part of her career, which a lot of people don't realize, and that she sang a very wide repertoire of music. She sang jazz, she sang popular songs, she sang the German cabaret songs, she sang folk songs--- just a very wide spectrum of music.

AS: And she crossed genders.

JH: Well, yes, there's that, too (laughs).

AS: Well, I brought that up because I was listening to an interview earlier. She was talking about she would dress in tails and a top hat because she couldn't go on stage as a woman and sing Frank Sinatra playing drunk in a bar because it would look ridiculous. So she'd wear the top hat and tails. I've always found fascinating about her performance style, that she'd make that distinction.

JH: Yeah, that was a big portion of her whole aura. There was a period in Las Vegas where she did a show where she did the first half in a gown singing women's songs and the second half in the tux singing men's songs. One of the songs she did, which is in the show, is "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and she did it, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" [dressed in menswear].

AS: Your show in between, you stepped out of character and did your own thing. Why return to the tribute show?

JH: I'm very comfortable, first of all, doing this kind of show, which is less about me and more about something else, and it's somewhere between theatre and cabaret. It's a more dramatic presentation. That's kind of what I enjoy the most. I did this show last in 2012 in Denver and it's a wonderful show, which is why I'm really happy to have a chance to bring it back, but going through and thinking about some things I might want to change and improve or whatever, I was watching the video of the performances we did before and every time I came to one of those places where it's like, "Okay, this, I want to change," I looked at it and I went, "No, it's just right the way it is." There's very little change. There's a little bit but not much. I was just happy to see that the structure of the show was so good.

AS: That's interesting. I was reading an old interview of yours where you'd gone back to watch your Dietrich show and you said it felt more formal and that you were more removed from it, so I was definitely interested in what your approach was on this revival and how you felt about it now versus then.

JH: That was my very first cabaret show, and coming from the opera world, which is very much about perfectionism--- I was behaving like Marlene. I wanted every little bit to be under my control. It worked beautifully, but this time, I'm hoping to be a little looser with it, a little more comfortable, a little less focused on everything being absolutely perfect. One of the things about cabaret that's fun once you get used to it is that whatever happens--- and things go wrong, they go wrong for everybody--- you just use it. You work with whatever happens and you just roll with it. Once you get that, it's fun.

AS: I noticed you had started doing a blog on your website, so I find it funny that you're talking about being perfect when the intro of your first blog post is talking about getting yourself over the fear your writing won't be perfect. It seems like that carries over into your performing, as well.

JH: Yeah, it's a big theme, and it's something I think I'm finally old enough and comfortable enough with myself to let go of all that. Again, it's a big part of being trained in opera because you're never perfect enough in the opera world. That's another thing. With film and theatre, it's also been an education because in the opera world, you know everything you're doing, you know every note of your music, it's all memorized, it's all ready to go, it's in your voice, there's no fooling around, and then you stage it. In theatre, you don't do that (laughs). Usually you don't do that, and certainly not in film. So it was a big shock to me to loosen up and not be over-prepared for everything.

AS: Going from opera to cabaret, you've done it rather seamlessly, or so it seems. When you first made that transition from opera to cabaret, what went into that?

JH: It's a vocal transition and it's still a work in progress as far as I'm concerned. There are still vocal things that I would like to improve and become more comfortable with. When I went into cabaret--- and this is another reason the Dietrich show was good--- I was working in a lower range of my voice than I did in opera and my goal was just not to sound like an opera singer, basically, which worked pretty well but then eventually you have to learn how to blend the two sounds and become comfortable with higher notes that may not sound operatic but they sound like a soprano. It's just finding the right balance for that and using your voice expressively. I think that's really the point of cabaret, is to interpret, is to get something across in a very intimate setting to an audience.

BWW Interview: MAC Award Winner Janice Hall Talks Dietrich and the Thrills of Cabaret Performance Prior to Her Upcoming GRAND ILLUSIONS Revival
Hall sings Dietrich in GRAND ILLUSIONS.
Photo via Hall.

AS: Sure, especially since you don't have to be the most remarkable singer or most remarkably technical singer.

JH: Right, that was another thing that fascinated me when I was first listening to all these people when I was a teenager. Lotte Lenya is another one. It was these people with these sort of... I don't wanna say broken, damaged voices but kind of and, yet, they could break your heart and I loved that. I loved listening to that as much as I loved listening to Maria Callas or Mirella Freni or some perfect... There's no such thing as perfect, but you know what I mean (laughs).

AS: Dietrich herself was this master of reinvention and was always ever-evolving. Do you think that's a necessity as a lifelong performer, especially within cabaret and theatre and opera?

JH: I think it's a really smart thing and a wonderful talent to be able to have, and that's actually one of the things that we talk about in the show, is the fact that she reinvented and this illusion that she created and that she kept perpetuating for years and years and years--- longer than she should've. It's fascinating to me and there are some performers that really have a gift for that. Is it necessary? I don't know. I think what's necessary is to be true to your vision and that's the main thing.

AS: Coming out of opera, coming back from Germany, and reinventing yourself, was that in the cards? Was that your vision to make a change, or was it just, "This is what I want to do next... Onto the next thing... This is what I want to do next?"

JH: That's an interesting question. An opera career is a little bit like a dance career. It goes on longer than a dance career, but at some point it has to end because your voice just can't sustain doing that forever. I'm a performer. It's what I do, it's what I know, it's what I love, and as long as I'm performing, I don't care if it's opera or cabaret or theatre or film or whatever, I just love to be performing. This was, for me, just kind of the logical next step. Now, you'll have to stay tuned to see how this works out (laughs), but that's at least what I'm trying to do.

AS: Do you have any regrets in your career, or are you ultimately satisfied?

JH: I do have regrets, but I don't think I want to talk about those, just because I like to try not to focus on the negative. If there are regrets, it's just what I didn't know, being somewhat naïve in the business and being somewhat naïve about vocal technique, in a way. My voice was so able to do everything right out of the gate that there are certain things I never really focused on technically, and that gets you in the end but nothing you can do about it now.

AS: I'm assuming stepping into a character alleviates it, but did you ever get stage fright when you first came to cabaret?

JH: When I first started to, yes. Not excessive, not like some people. With me, it's always totally manageable, and when I've been in situations where either I was very sick or something was wrong with my voice and I had to give a performance, that's when I, oddly enough, become very calm and just go, "I'm a human being, I can only do what I can do, and whatever happens, happens." But yeah, I remember the first time I got up in public and sang a non-classical song in my other voice and it freaked me out. That's the wonder of going to open mics, going to places where you can try out songs. Just getting up and doing it is the key to that. You discover a community of people and then you just take it from there.

AS: What's next (laughs)? I know that's a loaded question sometimes.

JH: That's a very good question (laughs). In true actor/theatre tradition, I have no idea at the moment. I'm doing some teaching and I have a couple of avenues to explore maybe with some voiceover, audiobooks--- have to see what's going on there. Otherwise, I'm just like everybody else. I'm auditioning for things and I hope there'll be another show in the not-too-distant future. I have lots of ideas and I have one show that's three-quarters finished and I'd like to finish it, but we'll see.

AS: What's the show? You know I was going to ask.

JH: It's another Hollywood theme, but it's much different. Once again, the Golden Age of Hollywood because that's where my focus is--- just the media manipulation, basically, of all the things that were going on in that era and all the dream, fantasy stuff that was portrayed, and then the reality of what that was. It's a big theme.

AS: You seem very driven to old Hollywood and the like. For lack of a better way of putting it, do you feel born in a wrong era?

JH: I've thought about that. Maybe not. You think about that and you automatically go, "Well, of course, I would've been there among the stars if I'd lived then," but maybe not. I don't know that I would really have wanted to live then, but it does fascinate me. It's like I have to work all of this out of my system before I get to other themes (laughs).

AS: Before the next reinvention.

JH: I do have other themes in mind, but first, these.

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Janice Hall performs in GRAND ILLUSIONS: THE MUSIC OF Marlene Dietrich at the Metropolitan Room on September 13 at 7 pm as part of the New York Cabaret's Greatest Hits series (produced by Stephen Hanks and Associate Producer Fr. Jeffrey Hamblin, MD). For reservations and information, go to www.metropolitanroom.com.


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From This Author Ashley Steves