Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Marilyn Maye of BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY Premiering May 8th On 54 Below Premieres

Once called Marvelous Marilyn Maye, this powerhouse performer is keeping the nickname by living up to it.

BWW Interview: Marilyn Maye of BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY Premiering May 8th On 54 Below Premieres

Marilyn Maye is a force of nature, and anyone who knows her, has seen her onstage, or just passed her on the street will be more than happy to substantiate this claim. The legendary performer who has been paid high compliments from Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Carson is one of the most respected singers of all time. At a time when many people, whatever their vocation, choose to retire and take it easy, Marilyn Maye continues to astonish rooms full of fans, both long-term and new, with her boundless energy and powerful vocals. Regarded as a kind of diva goddess by the nationwide community of nightclub and cabaret performers, Marilyn Maye is actually a very down to earth woman who likes her feet on the ground, her music impeccable, and the musicians around her to be cool... and the musicians sure do love her. Everybody loves her. That's because Marilyn Maye is the coolest, the hippest, the grooviest Lady in town.

Marilyn recently returned to New York to hang out with some of her favorite musicians on the stage of Feinstein's/54 Below, where they were filming her new show BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY for the club's in-house production company 54 BELOW PREMIERES. That show will premiere May 8th HERE and stream through May 29th. Before the big day when the film goes live, I got on the phone with Marilyn to talk about the music, the high kicks, and how she recently played the fanciest club of her life: a driveway.

This interview has been edited for space and content, and features a collection of photos by Kevin Alvey, all shot during the filming of Broadway, The Maye Way.

Marilyn Maye, welcome to Broadway World! What an honor to have you here - how are you today?

I'm just wonderful. Thank you, Stephen, I'm so glad to hear from you.

You didn't get to sing for a year and now all of a sudden you're singing your little butt off. How's it feel?

(Laughing) Well, I did sing in Provincetown in September for five shows, which was magic. That was my first time since February - my last engagement was at Dizzy's at Jazz At Lincoln Center in February; then we went to St. Louis and had four nights there with a 17 piece band in a wonderful club that I work quite often called Jazz St. Louis, then we were going to Palm Springs. Jazz St. Louis was March 9, 10, 11, 12. By the 10th, we were hearing that Palm Springs was canceling everything - well, postponing. My plan was to go from St. Louis to Palm Springs and come back to New York to fulfill lots of engagements that I had for the year 2020. And everything just went blank. It was very traumatic for me because I don't know "time off" - I don't have that kind of time off, ever (Laughing heartily)

Your work ethic is so strong. Where does that come from?

Probably my mother. I've always had to work. My mother and I, we divorced my dad when I was 11 and moved away from Kansas to Des Moines, Iowa; we had to work - we didn't have any money, I didn't really have any support other than what I could earn. I did club dates when I was 12 and 13 years old (not in clubs, an agent booked me into private conventions or private parties, that kind of thing). The agent was the husband of my dance teacher (laughing) so we did a lot of work in Des Moines. We had to have the money and I wanted to work anyway. I loved it.

So, from a very early age, you were a strong, empowered feminist woman.

(Laughing hard) I don't think of myself that way, but you said that! (Laughing)

I'm happy to say it. Tell me something: you're never shy or coy about your age. You put it in your shows and everything. I've heard people say that a woman's vocal instrument diminishes as she gets older, but that is not the truth with you.

Thank you.

How do you keep your voice so strong?

Well, first of all, I am shy about telling my age... in the early days, when I was in my seventies... but as time went on, everybody else was telling my age, and I thought, "I don't like playing the age card, I don't want to." Also, my lawyer, Mark Sendroff, names my shows. I always say "I don't think they're going to come to see some old woman stand on a stage and sing." So, it's been kind of a pro and con thing with me about, about telling my age - yet, he names my age in the shows, and it seems to work. By this time, everybody knows that she's an old lady who sings (laughing) and that's fine.

You don't sing like what people perceive as an old lady: you get up on stage, you do those high kicks during the number from Mame, you are the least "old lady" lady I know - where do you get all the energy?

Thank god for my energy and my health - I take a lot of vitamins, and I have great motivation to keep moving, and that's my philosophy. I'm very positive about life and work.

Were you an avid exerciser when you were younger?

No. No, my exercise was to run around, pack and unpack, and just get it together to do the next show.

What about when you did musical theater? Was there a lot of dancing in the shows that you did

There was, and I took a lot of dancing lessons in my early days and I had a good time. In fact, I was so honored that that was the first thing Wynton Marsalis ever said to me: we came off the rehearsal and he said, "Man, you got time!" (Laughing) And I was quite honored because 'time' means you can phrase a song and forge ahead in the song, or lay back in the song to make the lyrics more meaningful. So, I never was much of an exerciser - I did love to water ski, I guess that's my main sport that I did love.

Have you ever gone out and forgotten to do the high kick during "Its Today" and the audience got disappointed?

Yes! (Both laughing) Actually, yes! And they'll say "You didn't do it," or sometimes I'll only do two kicks. It's interesting because some of the people come quite often, and sometimes I'll do three kicks, sometimes I'll do four or five. Now, when I do three, I just hold up my fingers and turn to Todd or Drew or any of the people that come to see me often, and they know what I mean by three. (Laughing) And if I do five, I see their hands go up with five before I count it. (Laughing) So it, it's kind of an inside joke for us.

BWW Interview: Marilyn Maye of BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY Premiering May 8th On 54 Below Premieres

Your fan base is devoted to you.

I'm really honored about that, thrilled and pleased and thankful. That has happened in New York more in the past 10, 12 years - it's been very prevalent that they are so loyal. As a matter of fact, in Florida, people came from California, and from Texas, and from North Carolina, and from Philadelphia, and lots of people from New York came down to the Wick Theater where I was appearing in April. We were held over for another night because they had distance seating, and they wanted to honor the people that couldn't get tickets on the original four nights. Talk about loyalty. One couple came to Feinstein's Cabaret in Carmel, Indiana, they always come to Feinstein's/54 below - if we do it twice a year, they're there twice a year. They were at Feinstein's Cabaret in Carmel, Indiana - they came from Atlanta. Several couples came from New York - it is a joy to have those people in the audience that are so loyal.

Have you found that your fans' ability to connect with you has been very different since the advent of the internet's social media?

More connection, more connection; the cards and phone calls and flowers that we receive for no reason at all... (I got) bouquets of flowers at home - I was at home in Kansas city from March 12th all through the year until we came to New York to do the virtual show. We did do PTown in September, and Minneapolis, The Crooner's Club in October of last year but Crooner's Club was in a tent! And then in Kansas city, I worked a driveway! (Laughing)

A driveway.

The musicians would go to this house, and one of them called me and said, "Marilyn, we're playing in the driveway, with an electric piano," and the guitarist who is my normal guitarist said, "Do you want to come?" I said, "I want to come and hear you." He said all the people bring their lawn chairs, and they put money in the kitty, and that's how the musicians kept making some money - playing the driveway. So I said, "I'd love to come to the driveway." So, we pulled up in the car, and some of the audience got out of their chairs and came over to the car and said, "You're going to sing, aren't you?" I said, "Well, no, I really came to hear the musicians." "Oh, no, no, you're going to sing!" By that time, the guitarist came over and said, "I've got your set list, let's go." So I got up and sang.

Well, Marilyn Maye, you've finally made the big time.

(Laughing joyfully) At least, for a minute during COVID in Kansas city! (Laughter continues)

A little over a decade ago, you started your whirlwind of a cabaret career in New York at The Metropolitan Room. Let's set the record straight on this: you were not retired at that point.

No, I was never retired. That's a misnomer that a lot of people think. I never was retired, Stephen. I worked one club in Kansas city, two or three times a year for two or three weeks at a time; I worked Quality Hill Playhouse, which is a darling theater in Kansas City, for multiple nights. I worked a place in Houston, Texas, every other month, for the whole month ... (laughing) and all the wonderful Rolls Royces were lined around the building! (Laughing) It was wonderful! So I was never retired. That really is a misconception - I was always working. And in Kansas City, they would come from New York and be my accompanists! I had another accompanist in Houston that I used, another accompanist in California, all wonderful. I was working - it was not "retirement, and then come back to New York" - it was retirement from New York because there really wasn't any club that was right (for me) to be working. The last club I worked was Michael's Pub, and that closed. And I worked The Living Room, I worked the Copacabana... they were all closed, so there wasn't any place until The Metropolitan Room.

BWW Interview: Marilyn Maye of BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY Premiering May 8th On 54 Below Premieres

You just mentioned that you have a number of musicians who play with you. I have heard that all the arrangements you sing, you create yourself, and they play for you. Is that true? You create all those arrangements?

The form of the arrangements - I don't write them, Tedd Firth does the actual chordal progression of them - but the structure of the arrangement. There'll be things like I'll add an ending or I'll do the bridge before I sing the whole chorus, or the medleys - I put those together, they are my ideas, and the structure of the arrangement is mine. But I don't write the actual music to it. Thank goodness I have Tedd Firth, who does a lot, and Billy Stritch loves to add chords when he works with me. It's kind of hard to explain, but as far as the style and the music and the way I sing it all, that's mine.

Is it fair to call you a jazz singer?

Well, there are lots of jazz nuances that we add all the time. I worked in Kansas City for 11 years in one little (jazz) club, five nights a week; in summertime, when my daughter was growing up, when she would get out of school, we were booked in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, then we'd go back to this little club and work. So I'm certainly influenced by a lot of jazz, and I think there is certainly all the jazz nuances all through my songs (laughing) - I never quite sing the melody exactly as it's written - that's not necessarily always true but I certainly have jazz nuances.

The reason I asked that is because you've also done a lot of acting in musical theater, and I wonder, as a singer who really does your own spin on all your songs, what do you find is different about performing music when you're in character and performing the same compositions when you're on a club stage?

The nice thing about that is: I did Dolly, and I certainly did it my way. In Hello, Dolly! I didn't sing those songs exactly as Jerry wrote them, and that's kind of why they hired me: it was a different Dolly, it was a kind of a jazzy Dolly. That's what they said too: they wanted me to do it that way. I wasn't on Broadway, so I think the idea was not so strict in Texas - we did it for four summers in a row there. I did it in Kansas City first, at Starlight Theater, which is an amphitheater that seats 7,000 people... and we did Pistache, we did Can Can; Pistache was my first outing in a Broadway show, it was very successful. They even added a Cole Porter song so that I would sing more in the show. I sang it my way, which was not too different from the way it was written, but just phrasing - you know, phrasing can make it a different song.

Did you enjoy the acting?

I did. I loved it.

And now you're teaching others how to do what you do.

I enjoy working with people that love to sing, that love to perform. It's not singing lessons, it's performance, and I have a theory about performing, and right or wrong, that's what I try to pass on.

One of our writers saw a show before the pandemic and he called me up and said, "This is what cabaret is all about ... and guess who directed it?" I said, "Who is that?" He said, "Marilyn Maye."

Aww.

He was just crazy over the Amy Beth Williams show. How did you start directing?

Well, that's just part of the lesson. If they want to really delve into it, they come to me and I'll design the show - I'll find out what their range is, they choose their songs but if I think, in some way, that it's not a perfect tone for them, we'll choose another song. We try to do songs that are age appropriate and songs that are the right thing for them to sing. So, we do that and if they say, "I really want to do a performance," I say, "I would love to put together an act for you." There's one girl, she's a lawyer, and she said, "I really want to sing." She'd been listening to music all her life, mostly blues music, and we put together a show for her (it was very successful) she performed at Don't Tell Mama. We've done six shows together, she does four nights in a row and people come and love it.

Marilyn have you ever had a composer come to you with a song they wrote just for you?

No, I don't think so. Although Walter Marks came to the club our last time at Feinstein's/54 Below, and I told the names of my shows, which were created by Mark Sendroff, and they're all about age. So I said, "Next April, I'll be back here at Feinstein's/54 Below doing a show called 92 AND I'M NOT THROUGH"; Walter Marks sat in the audience and he went home and wrote this darling song called "92 And I'm Not Through" - so certainly he wrote it just for me. (Laughing) He did a demo of it - he told me that he started it before he went to sleep and he just kind of finished it in his sleep, whatever that means. (Laughing) It just was so automatic for him, and he's so cute, and of course he wrote Golden Rainbow.

(At this point in our chat, Marilyn told me a story that she shares in her upcoming 54 Below film BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY - I have expurgated the story from this article because people really should see the film HERE and have the benefit of hearing Marilyn tell the story herself.)

You just mentioned that you told that story when you made the film for Feinstein's/54 Below that premieres on May 8th. How did you like the experience of going virtual?

BWW Interview: Marilyn Maye of BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY Premiering May 8th On 54 Below Premieres It's difficult because my philosophy is that you sing to the audience, not for them. So there isn't any audience to sing to except the cameras. I did a virtual in Kansas City in December, and the cameraman applauded (laughing) which I sort of loved. This time, you finish the song and there's nothing, so I did laugh a lot - my uneasiness that there was no applause made me laugh and talk - I usually don't like to talk a lot in a show but this time I did. I'm thrilled that they did it and that they wanted to do it. I think people are very hungry to hear live music, I think it's part of their life - it's terrible to have music missing out of their life. I think it's just as important as food and air.

I keep a playlist in my phone of music that, if I'm in a bad mood, I know it will make me happy, and one of the songs on that playlist is your recording of Hello, Dolly.

Oh gosh, thank you so much. Well, I believe that's my job. I think there can be some sad songs in the show, but basically the nicest compliment I receive is when they say, after the show, "I'm sure glad I came. I almost didn't because I've had a terrible week and I was really tired, and I just thought, I'm not going to go tonight, and I'm so glad I came because I feel so much better." And I say, "That's the nicest thing you could say to me." Because that's our job: it's our job to make them happy, to entertain them, to connect with the audience and make them know that they're loved, just as much as they are giving love to me.

A few moments ago you mentioned that during the filming you felt uneasy. I see all of your shows and you always present as very strong and confident. Are there times when you have nerves before during a show?

Oh, sure. Oh gosh, yes, lots of nerves. I tell people in my performance classes, you gotta be honest, you gotta convey honesty. And I think nervousness is what makes people take on a phony persona - all of a sudden there's somebody else onstage... because of nerves. I must say, when I do walk on stage, what you see is what you get. And what I am is just the same onstage as it is off. I just think that it's our duty to be honest and real and deliver the song. Just tell the story as it is

BROADWAY THE MAYE WAY debuts May 8th and streams through May 29th. Find info and tickets HERE.

Visit the Marilyn Maye website HERE.

BWW Interview: Marilyn Maye of BROADWAY, THE MAYE WAY Premiering May 8th On 54 Below Premieres


Related Articles View More Cabaret Stories

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

From This Author Stephen Mosher