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Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd

"All of us who perform here in New York are performing where everyone else in the country wants to perform. That's humbling."

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd

It has been said that if you say, out loud, what you want from life, the universe will conspire with you to make it happen. Sue Matsuki has been working in service of others for years, while balancing her own work as an artist, and happy to maintain that balancing act. In the year 2022, though, the longtime cabareter had a conversation with herself and with her universe and, together, they all decided that this moment was Sue's. Almost immediately, Matsuki was booked into Feinstein's/54 Below and The Green Room 42, with splashy new shows that have her fans and followers excited to watch her take her career to a new level that promises great things for the woman known as The Godmother of Cabaret.

As the days wind up to Sue's Feinstein's debut, the (nearly) four-decade veteran of the cabaret and concert industry chatted with Broadway World Cabaret about self-doubt, asking for what you want, and the maternal instinct that guides her through her life as a matriarchal figure in the community.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Sue Matsuki, welcome to Broadway world.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

We are talking today because you are such a busy lady that you've got two shows coming up this year and - I think that I'm right when I say this - each of your shows is your debut show at each club. Is that right?

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
With Gregory Toroian

Yes, the first show, June 2nd, is a debut for Feinstein's/54 Below that's called 38 Seasons Of Love, and yes, it's my first time there doing the solo show. I've been in group shows there and, of course, Gregory and I did the Ella And Me show, back in the day, at Feinstein's at the Regency on Park Avenue. So we were part of the Feinstein's family, but we're really thrilled to be a part of the 54 Below family. And in October is the Julie Wilson Tribute Show that I'm doing called But Beautiful: it's with all the Julie Wilson Award winners, starting from the year that I was the first recipient and going straight up to this year's recipient. That will be at The Green Room 42, which is my debut for Green Room 42. I'm thrilled about that as well.

Why did it take so long to get up onto the stage at 54 Below - 10 years?

Well, I have to tell you: I didn't ask. You know, performers get in their own head sometimes, and a couple years ago, after I had done Feinstein's on Park, and then it closed down and Michael reopened and went into collaboration with the people at 54 Below, I didn't think to ask. I was working other rooms, smaller rooms, and happy to do it. And with the bump up in whatever's been happening over the past five years, in how people are viewing me, I just felt like it was time to ask. And I asked and they said yes immediately. And I'm like, "Well, DUH! I should've done that a few years ago." (Laughing) I really had to let it happen.

So this begs the question - you just said you get in your head. And I think this is something that a lot of artists go through, and you have been successfully navigating the cabaret industry for 38 years. Is it fair to say that you still have self-doubt?

I think when you stop having self-doubt, you don't do your best work. That's kind of a quote directly from Ella Fitzgerald - the minute you get too confident in where you are in your standing, you get lazy about doing the work. I wake up every morning thinking, "What can I learn today? What song can I challenge myself with today? What am I not doing correctly?" And Gregory had an amazing vocal coach and teacher in class last week, and there were four of us that sang with her and just watching what she does, I'm like, "Oh my god, I'm such a baby in this business. I have so much to learn." And it was a little off-putting and it was exciting. You know what I mean? It's not that you're not confident with where you are and what you're doing, it's just that when someone like that performs in front of you, you're like, "Wow, there's so much more still to explore and learn." And I hope I never lose that. So in a way I wanna be confident about what I do in my product that I put out, of course, but I never wanna lose that desire to keep learning and to be humble about how much more there is to learn

The duality that you experience as a performer who has a certain amount of self confidence and a certain amount of self-doubt but longing to learn more; do you find that you have that in your day-to-day life?

Yeah. You know, not to get on the couch or anything, but it goes back to: my big issue in my life outside of singing has always been, "Am I enough?" and most type A's and overachievers go through that. Am I enough as I am? Am I enough? You know, when it comes to physically, how you look, am I enough? Am I enough? And it's exhausting. There comes a point at a certain age where you say, "I am enough. Exactly as I am, right now, where I am." It doesn't mean that you're not going to stop and try to further your bar, raise your bar, or continue to keep looking at those things. But you have to, at some point, say "I am enough. This is what I have to offer. This is my talent. People seem to enjoy it." And it's really all about the people. So if you're entertaining people and they like what you do then, to me, you're doing your job, you know? So that's kind of where I am when I face these green eyed monsters - that's what I call that my jealousy button, when I have a green eyed monster. I let that sit for a minute and then I say, "Okay, how can I use that to better my own work?"

So, you asked and they said yes, and that must have felt really good.

Well, the fact that they said yes so quickly... I actually booked LA first. I was supposed to be playing at Feinstein's at Vitello's in LA on February 9th. I booked and they said yes, and I had a date, and then at the end of last year, I kept trying to contact them and say, "Hey, I need information." and they didn't come back to me, and finally I called and the gal that I was working with had left the operation and somebody else had taken over, and I was never passed off to her. So, clearly, I just got lost in the shuffle. But when I got booked there so easily, and when I called that first girl I was working with, she said, "Oh yeah, I saw you at Cast Party. We'd love to have you here," - just that made me say, "Okay, cool. I'm Feinstein's caliber." You know? That quick acceptance of someone that saw my work and said yes immediately gave me the confidence boost to say, "Well, why not New York?" I was going to make this a tour of LA, San Fran, and New York, all Feinstein's. As you know, in this business, you make 500 calls and get three back. So, I'm still thinking about trying to make (The West Coast) happen but I'm also really happy just to perform here in New York. I went to see two gals last night at Don't Tell Mama's, who were here from out of town, and their joy at performing in a club in New York reminded me of the fact that all of us who perform here in New York are performing where everyone else in the country wants to perform. That's humbling. That's exciting. That's such an honor to see, I can't even tell you what an honor it feels like to know that I'm doing it at the best clubs here in the city that everybody else wants to perform in. To see those gals be so delighted to be performing at Mama's, just because it's in New York, it reminded me that I have to really lift my head up when I'm in those moments. When I step on stage at Feinstein's, I wanna lift my head and say, "Look where I am. Look what I did." It's a far cry from 38 years ago.

So 38 Seasons Of Love.

Mm-hmm

Tell me what we can expect.

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
With Marilyn Maye

Well, the "seasons" part of it is a little catchy hook. We're looking back at the "seasons" of my career. Fall, summer, and spring, and spring will be where we started at the Village Gate 38 years ago, singing at the Village Gate, and then coming up, but backwards, starting from the last show I did and going backwards to where we started, and revisiting some of the material and some of the moments and songs that people really related to throughout those years, and a couple of signature tunes that attached to me. That's the gist of the show. I make a joke at the top of the show about the fact that if Marilyn Maye is 94 and still singing the way she is, I'll come back in 30 years and do my winter show. So we're gonna start with fall and go backwards. And god willing in 30 years I'm like Marilyn on stage at Feinstein's at 90, doing my winter show. So that's the gist of it - it's not kitschy, there's not summer, winter, spring, fall songs: it's just a look backwards at how I got to where I am today,

In the months before the pandemic and the lockdown, you were doing a show that consisted of your opening numbers throughout the years.

Yes.

Does it concern you, looking back?

You mean in relation to having done that show?

Well, there was that show. And now there's this show, another show where you are looking back at your past, looking back at your history, and there are those who say we should spend our time looking forward.

I did actually think about that, Stephen, because it's a completely different show. Inevitably, you'll hear maybe one or two songs that you've heard before in other shows, but the next show we do will be one hundred percent, 17 news songs; we're already working on that and going forward for that. But because I wanted to show my best at Feinstein's, to make that first impression on them, and because we have 38 years of material - trust me when I tell you, we really don't have to repeat anything. When we were doing the open mic, we went for a year and a half, both doing shows at The Beechman and Pagnea. and we didn't repeat a song, that's how much material we have: maybe over 300 arrangements.

So there'll be some stuff that a few people may have heard, but then there's still so much more to look back on. And the thing is it can't be the same, by nature of the fact that I'm a different singer today. So, for example, the tunes that were my signature tunes at the Village Gate, back in the day - how are we doing them now? You know what I'm saying? So it's a progression of where they've come to, along this timeline. The THIS BROAD'S WAY show that I did coming out of the pandemic - we were actually rehearsing that one and the pandemic hit and we put it up as soon as we were able to get back in the clubs. Those were all tunes I had never done before. That was a brand new show of all new material, and material I'm not known for: show tunes.

I'm glad that you mentioned This Broad's Way because that was my next question. The advertising for This Broad's Way was very clear about this being a departure for you. I didn't get to see the show live, I had to watch a video and it looked like you were having so much fun. Put me in the picture of what it was like, taking that chance and doing that new material.

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
With Julie Wilson

Well, the one song that comes to mind is "So In Love" - Lina Koutrakos, my director, said, "I want to do this like the penultimate classical Broadway standard belt showstopper number," and we didn't know what that song was going to be or how it was gonna fit in the context of the sketched out script that I had. But when I started to work on that song, the fact that Julie Wilson was my mentor, and she was in that show (Kiss Me Kate), and I don't think her character sang that song, but it just brought back a lot of history in my life of that little girl in Waterbury who really wanted to be a Broadway singer. You know, all of us upstairs singing "I'm the Greatest Star" in our bedrooms... and whatever was on your record player at the time; I had a combination of Tower of Power and Barbra Streisand so, there you go: that was me. The shows were always such a big part of my life and the want to be on Broadway, but not growing up with the skillset or the confidence. I have this strange form of dyslexia, it's minor, but it inhibits me from reading music. I don't know how to explain it, but the characters are on different staffs, so if I know where I'm starting, I can kind of sight read the music, but sometimes my eyes see something funky or inverted. So I wasn't really able to pick up music and read it, like you would have to do if you were going in to audition for Broadway, so I've had to work around that problem. I loved singing every single song in This Broad's Way, and of course we did jazz up a lot of them. We did them our way, which was the point, but a couple of my strengths were that I sang straight ahead, theatrically - as much as I can be theatrical. It was really wonderful to visit new material, which is why I really want to take a look at stuff I've never sung before for the next show.

So there you are, you're this young woman being mentored by Julie Wilson, you want to sing Broadway and you have the realization that it's not in your future. So you build up a reputation as a jazz singer. How much work did you have to do to change your mind, to mold to this new format of interpretation?

It's interesting, Stephen: I don't refer to myself as a jazz singer. I always say it's for other people to decide what they think I do, because, when I look at Gabrielle Stravelli, and I look at all those who are real jazz singers to me - and it's not just because they scat, cause jazz is so much about more than just scatting. It's time and it's all the other things that I think I do have as a singer. I have great time, I have good phrasing, but I'm not the instrument type jazz singer that, say, Gabrielle is, and Gabrielle actually comes from a theatrical background. So it's even more interesting - this question would be more interesting for her, but I embraced cabaret because there's such a big umbrella under cabaret that I can be what I jokingly refer to as caberjazz.

I'm a caberjazz girl, but I don't call myself a jazz singer. I think I'm a jazz stylist. I think I'm a jazz standard singer, but I'm not, like I said, the instrument jazz person that some of the other people in our business are. So cabaret has enabled me to look at all kinds of music under this great big umbrella, to explore without having to define what my style is. I'll do a country song, I'll do a small ballad in my higher voice, a gutsy blues thing in a lower register - that's the kind of show I like to see. I don't wanna hear the same song 14 times in the same part of my voice, in the same - for any singer, not just me. I try to mix up vocally, I try to let the lyrics determine where I place the song. For example, if it's something vulnerable or something belt, those go into two different places of my energy and my persona, which happen to go into different places in my voice. That's what I find interesting in my process. I can't speak about that to everybody else, but cabaret's been such a godsend because I don't have to be defined. I can just do what I do.

You have invited two of your personal favorite singers to appear in the show with you as backup singers.

Yes.

You have been a great champion to Maria Corsaro and Kati Neiheisel, which makes me think about what a champion you are to the community at large. I know that someone jovially gave you the nickname, The Godmother of Cabaret, but when I see what a benefactress you are to the community, I find it very appropriate. Where does the instinct come from that takes you to see so many shows and takes you into the clubs and makes you such a supporter of the up and coming artist. Where does that instinct originate?

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Maria Corsaro

Honestly, probably because I'm not a mom. I had seven brothers; I grew up with all the tools to be an amazing mother. I had to because my mother had a form of mental illness that kind of put a lot of responsibility for running the household on me. I had five younger brothers, so I had all these great stills to be a great mommy, and it just didn't happen in my life. It was very difficult, when I was like 35, 38 and it was a decision that it wasn't gonna happen. I don't know, I guess the love that I have for talent and the love that I have for art and the love that I have for these people that have surrounded me and that I have surrounded in their careers brings out the mom in me, if you will. The Godmother comment came from a reviewer that was trying to indicate that I was older than the other people in a category for a MAC nomination, and it wasn't meant to be a compliment, but I took it as a tremendous compliment. Because my mentor, Julie Wilson, was a Godmother and a Fairy Godmother to me. The actual moniker of the Godmother of Cabaret once belonged to Jan Wallman. Jan Wallman was another champion. I got to play Jan's original club right before she closed it. I did one set of show tunes and one set of standards, and Jan, after the show, said, "Darling, stick to the standards," because she saw that and heard that in my voice. So she was a champion of mine. So, to, even jokingly... and now. seriously, people refer to me as that a lot... to take on that label that was Jans', who was very special to me, means the world to me. It means the world to me. And there's a responsibility that comes with that, but it all boils down to my love of talent.

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Kati Neiheisel

For example, Maria and Kati... forget about it. I love these women like sisters. They are both, individually, incredible solo singers, so there's a little risk of having voices like that on stage singing backup for me. (Laughing heartily.) I told them not to sing TOO great! (Laughter continues.) No, I'm kidding. They're awesome girls, but I wanted to give them... we like to sing together. We like to be together in a room. We like to take classes together. So it just seems natural to ask them to do this with me. And when I turn around and see my family, Skip, David, Gregory, Maria, and Kati, my family who I spend a lot of time with on that stage with me, is just gonna be so special that night. I can't wait for that moment.

I enter everybody's room as a fan. I don't enter as a career cabaret or I don't enter as an ex reviewer. I don't enter as anything but someone who loves music and wants to be entertained. When I see something special, I don't know, something in me goes to the mom mode and just wants to help them get on the map, if you will, to be noted by other people,

You have turned the desire to put others in the spotlight into quite a groovy thing happening at Pangea: the Jazz Brunch. How does it feel to have something that you created take off with such success?

It's awesome! We have anywhere between 30 to 50 people every time we put this open mic up, and it's now starting to be that not everyone is a singer - some people are just coming in. There was a table of four that brought their mom in for mother's day, and turns out she's always wanted to sing. So she was impressed with how safe an environment it was and how she could come and feel like she could make mistakes or learn something new. So, she's gonna come back, and little by little we're building that way with people who just kind of have a dream to sing, but they don't have the nerve. They come in and they kind of check us out and see what it's about, and they see that some people make mistakes. They see some people of all levels, great singers, and up and coming singers, and they feel better.

We do it once a month, not every week like other open mic shows that have to fill the rooms every week. That's a huge, huge undertaking. We do it once a month. We have our regulars and of the 30 are regulars, if we get another 10 people who are (what I call) stranger peoples or new singers or non singers, we're doing well. Pangea is delighted: it's a Sunday afternoon, a great brunch, we sing for two hours, and if there's a singer whose show is going up any time after that date of the open mic through to the next date, I usually give them two songs in the middle of the show so that they can help promote their show. I look at who's coming up that are regulars in our community and see if they wanna do two numbers so they can help promote their show a little bit. But yeah, it's going well. And I think having a bass player is really great because people don't usually use bass players and people who come to this open mic don't get the opportunity to work with a bass player - and I think it's really helping them. We take a moment to teach about open mic protocol, how to prepare your music, how to get what you need from musicians, and how to count off. We take a moment when someone has an issue with that to say, "Okay, let's all learn this," because it's part of my book and part of what I do as a teacher. That's been appreciated too. We're very proud of it.

During the last year, you made the difficult decision to step back from your work with Cabaret Hotspot so that you could focus on your art and your career.

Mm-hmm

Tell me a little bit about the importance of making decisions like that based on your personal needs.

Well, my mantra for 2022 was take a breath before I say yes, because the godmother in me wants to say yes to everything, I wanna go to everyone's show, I wanna be there for everyone. I wanna take two hours out of my life to tell you how to promote your show. I want to do this, but by doing that, I don't have those two hours that I need to do my own promotion, to make that call to Feinstein's, and, honestly, Stephen, declaring that as a mantra: look what happened in the first two months of 2022 for me. I don't wanna use the word selfish, but I think that we have to self love ourselves, sometimes, when we overextend ourselves. Cabaret Hotspot was a joy. David Sabella is my brother, I love him desperately, it's a great website. It's an online magazine, but as a writer, I was spending 30 hours a week just getting the newsletter ready, going to see shows, writing reviews, keeping everything updated. I was like, "Wow, I can't do this anymore." I spoke to David and David was incredibly supportive and loving. He said, "Of course, of course, of course," so it was just time for me to put my foot down with myself and say, "I can't," and then your time has value. So that's just kind of where I am right now with that.

Sue Matsuki, what has been the key to a successful 38 years working in cabaret?

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Sidney Myer

Lord... persistence, growth, education, and, honestly, for all of you who've never had a review before: being open to constructive criticism - not hurtful - you're never as good as your best review. You're never as bad as your worst. Roy Sander was a champion for me for years and he gave me my first mixed review, and in that mixed review were a couple things that changed

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Jan Wallman

how I performed, forever. I just invited him as my guest to come to Feinstein's because for him not to be in that room, as having been such a huge part of getting me to where I am today, felt wrong, you know? And having certain people, Sidney Meyer, god willing, will be in the room that night. Julie will be in the room in my heart, as will Jan Wallman. Everyone that's contributed to who you are walks on that stage with you, and then you let it go, you look out, and it's all about who's in front of you. It just becomes about them, everything that you've done, taking that first step on that stage, goes with you and you stand there and it's just about giving them the best time you can give them. I always say, "Whoever's in my audience, I hope it's the best hour of their day."

Sue Matsuki 38 SEASONS OF LOVE plays Feinstein's/54 Below on June 2nd at 9:30 pm. Information and reservations can be found HERE.

The performance will be live streamed and THIS is where to get information and tickets.

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Sue with Gregory Toroian
Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
David Silliman
Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Skip Ward
Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd
Sue with Kati Neiheisel and Maria Corsaro

Interview: Sue Matsuki of 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below June 2nd


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