BWW Interview: Marilyn Lester of TO LIFE! CELEBRATING SHELDON HARNICK at The Pershing Square Signature Center
The American Songbook is a term that could be used loosely to describe just about any music coming out of America, that's how vague it is. As long as there are writers of American music, that music might as well be considered a part of The American Songbook. Yet, anyone asked what The American Songbook is knows that it originates from the rich music coming out of the last century - music by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, The Gershwins and all of their contemporaries. It is the music people call "standards" - music from Broadway, from movie scores and soundtracks, music sung by the vocalists who made the songs Popular Music. There are songwriters today who write this kind of music, people like John Bucchino and Andy Roninson, whose songs can, with ease, be added into the American Songbook and secured for generations of music lovers to enjoy, as the music of Rodgers and Hart, Jule Styne and Jerome Kern has been, all these years. The American Songbook Association seeks to protect, preserve and pass on this music for now and all time.
The ASA was born out of what was, once, simply the wonderful magazine Cabaret Scenes when Marilyn Lester and Carolyn Montgomery saw an opportunity to make more of a non-profit organization by bringing the music out of the vaults and to the people. After tireless months of paperwork and administration, the ASA developed programs to do all these things - to preserve the music, to share the artistry, and to honor those who created it.
In 2018 the ASA created a star-studded gala honoring one of the greatest singers of all time (and this writer's personal favorite), Marilyn Maye. The evening, also a fundraiser for the ASA, was so successful that the not-for-profit set out to create another gala for 2019, choosing as their honoree the legendary Sheldon Harnick, composer of (among other things) Fiddler On The Roof and perennial favorite She Loves Me. That gala is set to take place on September 16th at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street. Before the glitzy and glamourous evening takes place, I caught up with Marilyn Lester, Executive Director of the ASA, to find out how things are going, both at the office and at the Signature Center.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Marilyn, you are the Executive Director of the American Songbook Association: tell our readers who don't know, what is the mission statement of the American Songbook Association?
The mission of the ASA is much like others - it's just the way that we execute it. In a world where budgeting for culture is eroding, we are committed to maintaining the music of America, and when I say "maintain" we mean propagating, raising awareness toward, protect, further it - and by American music we mean popular music, classic songbook, new songbook, music written for the theater, jazz music... It's an entire scope of what this country has given to the world, as a gift, which is our music.
How long has the ASA been active?
The nonprofit actually established in 1979, and the name at the time was Cabaret Scenes magazine. The ancillary part of the not for profit was the education outreach program which was (activated in) spring of 2017. Carolyn Montgomery and I (independent of each other) approached the editor of Cabaret Scenes and we said: "Cabaret Scenes is part of a not for profit that has a mission of education, so what can we do?" Carolyn was empowered by the board of directors to establish an education program, and I wrote a program for the board -- they liked it and hired me as the executive director. We changed the name to reflect the broader scope and it went from The Cabaret Scenes Foundation to the American Songbook Association. We got a new letter of determination - that all came through January 1st of this year, but we were active through 2018, establishing the education program. We've been able to hire a grant writer and he's securing grants, so we're really moving forward with force.
The ASA website makes reference to educational programs in New York City public schools, what does that look like?
Since June 2017, Carolyn Montgomery (Director of Education and Outreach) has done a bang up job of moving this monthly program - we serve public schools in the city of New York. We have expanded from Manhattan schools into all five boroughs. We've reached 16 public schools and 1500 students. We developed a program with the YMCA based in PS 121 in Harlem. We target Kindergarten through 12th grade: Carolyn goes with at least two professional artists and a music director, and they go into the schools, the kids have been assembled and there's a 45-minute interactive program focused on the American Songbook, music that is contemporary as well as the standards. They introduce jazz and musical theater, they present one or two songs from each genre, give information about the composers and the lyricists. They introduce topics like improvisation, arrangements, and what goes into making a song. They interact with the kids, they encourage them to ask questions, to get up and dance, clap their hands, do anything that moves them, in terms of the music. The response has been amazing. These kids are so hungry for this stuff, a lot of them have not even ever heard anything like this. They listen to rap, stuff they hear on Top 40, a lot of them have no idea that this music exists. And when they hear it, they're excited about it, they love it, they want more of it. This is tremendously exciting for us. It gives us hope for the future of American Music.
The ASA has a big gala coming up, honoring Sheldon Harnick, how's the party shaping up?
OH! Fantastic. This is our second gala. Last year we did one for Marilyn Maye, it was incredibly successful. We are absolutely delighted at the response that we've gotten for Sheldon Harnick. Everybody, when I called them, to ask if they could participate, the response was "Anything for Sheldon". He is so loved. We're packing a lot of punch into a short time, to get people on stage but we're good at keeping it going. He's amazing! He's fantastic.
The list of celebrities performing at the gala is extensive... but I hear there might be some last-minute additions. Do you have any tantalizing tidbits we can tease our readers with?
(Laughing) I don't know .. I was kind of asked to not mention names... As much as I'd love to...
I understand the ASA creates regular performance programming.
We have the Margaret Whiting Award. It's one of our programs. It was, heretofore, given by the Mabel Mercer Foundation. There are three not for profits who do the work of preserving the American Songbook. The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook Foundation and us. We all know each other and we have spoken to each other and our feeling is the more the merrier. Each of us exercise the same mission but in a different way. We each have a piece of the pie, and it's a big pie. When the Mabel Mercer Foundation decided that we would be the better home for the Margaret Whiting Award, we happily took it on. We have that and we're thinking about a Songwriter Program. We have a scholarship that is being funded by one of our board members - that's in development. And we have plans for an ongoing program for senior citizens that we hope to make interactive for some people. In that regard, we have developed a program where we will have school kids who will be going into the National Council for Jewish Women to present for their senior citizens the songs of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. That will play again at the 92nd Street Y, for their Friday afternoon program for senior citizens.
The ASA is the origin place of the magazine Cabaret Scenes, which is truly quality publishing, you must be very proud of it.
Extremely so, because that was the anchor, it still is. That magazine will reflect some changes to make it more feature-heavy, to give it some more gravitas in terms of reportage.
Has the creation of digital reading platforms affected the popularity of the physical magazine Cabaret Scenes?
No. The magazine has grown its readership. Because it is a niche publication, we've been on the upswing. We anticipate more of that with the restructuring of the magazine itself, with more feature stories and in-depth interviews. Whereas things like news stories and reviews can populate the web.
And you yourself are actually a contributing writer for the magazine - how are you able to balance your writing for the publication with your work as Executive Director? Don't you get tired?
I'm a workaholic! (Laughing) My core training is as a journalist. I love to write, I LOVE to write. I love to do it all. I know it's a cliche but it's not work for me, it's just great stuff to do!
Your tribute to Tex Arnold was beautiful.
Thank you very much. What a loss. It's heartbreaking.
How many nights a week are you in a club?
Now, maybe four nights a week.
Are there still tickets available to the Sheldon Harnick Evening or is it sold out?
We're doing very well. Since the box office opened it's been steady sales. I got a report earlier - we're about 80% sold, so there's time left!
Marilyn, do you have a personal favorite when it comes to contributing composers to what is known as The American Songbook?
Anybody who knows me knows that I think Duke Ellington is a god. I could bore you from now till Sunday with things Duke Ellington. I have come to understand that his genius is extraordinary. I have observed in concerts that you can have a variety of music and the minute that Duke Ellington comes on people listen to it, you can see the energy of the room rise. There's an energy to it, the way he harmonized and structured his music. So. Duke Ellington.
The ASA has chosen a particular focus on the young, by going into schools, and on the elderly, by going into senior centers. Why these two bookends?
That's an interesting question and a good question. It was suggested that we should not exclude older persons who know this music, and who love this music, for two reasons: to support them in having access to the music - our aim is to allow them to have access to it at a reasonable rate because the cost of living can preclude a lot of the older generation from enjoying this music live. It's very costly. The other reason is: having an inter-generational mix of older with younger would be beneficial for both, especially in allowing the younger people to get a more respectful point of view in terms of where this is coming from. We all, now, stand on the shoulders of someone who came before. That's what we hope to accomplish with the senior citizens' program, making it interactive so that these kids get an appreciation of that.
At the gala, will Sheldon Harnick be performing? He's such a lively fellow.
He is going to sit in his chair and be entertained. He will be getting up to receive his award... When he receives it, (laughing) whatever he does is TOTALLY up to him!
To learn more about The American Songbook Association visit their Website