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BWW Interviews: BWW Critic to Crooner Stephen Hanks on the Eve of His Final Don McLean Tribute Show

A few weeks before Cabaret Reviewer and Columnist Stephen Hanks was about to stage the opening night of his debut solo cabaret show on May 31, a number of cabaret performers asked him if he was going to write about the experience in some way, with some even encouraging him to keep a diary. "It might be really interesting to read how your perspective about cabaret performers and performing might have changed and how it might impact your reviews now that you're doing it yourself," one singer told him.

"It was a fascinating notion and one that I had already thought about," Hanks admits, "but between a full time job, attending shows, writing reviews, taking vocal lessons, rehearsing, etc., finding the time and the energy to keep even a weekly diary was not in the cards."

Hanks certainly didn't think he'd forget even the little things that have gone into making his journey what he calls "an amazing, fantasy-fulfilling, almost surreal experience." On the eve of his last performance of his three-show run (over three weeks) at the Metropolitan Room of Beyond American Pie: The Don McLean Songbook, sat down with our lead cabaret reviewer to get his insights and perspective on what's it been like to be on the performer end of things.

BWW: So, Mr. Hanks, after two performances of your Don McLean Tribute Show, you've received some wonderful testimonials. Are you surprised by the reaction and is the show and the experience exceeding your expectations?

Stephen Hanks: How could I not be surprised and even a bit overwhelmed by the praise? I'm not experienced and confident enough as a singer and performer to be so cocky that I expected such a positive reaction to the show. Naturally, my goal was to be the best I could be and if people left the club thinking, "Wow, he was better than I thought he'd be" then I'd consider it a success. But equally as important to me was celebrating the songs of the vastly underrated Don McLean and hopefully revealing what a great songwriter he was and perhaps create some new fans. When people come up to me after the show and say, "I didn't realize Don McLean wrote so many beautiful songs other than 'American Pie,' I feel I really accomplished something because it confirms what I always believed, and that I was a decent enough singer to get the meaning and the emotion of the songs across.

BWW: When did you begin thinking about doing this show?

SH: I've probably fantasized about it in one way or another since I was about 16, when I became a McLean fan after the American Pie album was released and realized he was way more than a one-hit wonder. Of course, I didn't know what cabaret was then so the idea of doing this kind of show really took hold right after I started reviewing shows almost three years ago. And I've always been a proponent of one living out their fantasies. I just had to find the right time in my schedule to do the show and give myself enough time to work on my vocals to the point where I could be confident I wouldn't embarrass myself. I found a wonderful vocal coach in Jamie Leonhart, who is a great singer herself, and in six months she got me to a point where I was ready to get on a stage and sing.

BWW: Had you had any singing or performing experience before this show?

SH: Well, not as a professional but I've been singing in front of audiences off and on my whole life. I was in my high school chorus as a tenor for three years. Between 2002-2010, I produced an amateur workshop called the "Broadway Musical Fantasy Camp," and did staged-reading productions of shows like Damn Yankees, Guys & Dolls, South Pacific, and Fiddler on the Roof. In Guys & Dolls, I played Sky Masterson and then Nathan Detroit in two different productions. I also took a bunch of cabaret workshops at the 92Y, directed by Collette Black, and performed at Don't Tell Mama and the Laurie Beechman with four or five other singers each time. Since I've gotten involved in cabaret reviewing, I've sung in a lot of open mics just for the fun of it. And last February I did a couple of numbers when I hosted the BroadwayWorld Cabaret Awards Show at the Metropolitan Room. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

BWW: Have you always wanted to sing? Who have been your biggest influences?
SH: As early as I can remember my mother would sing around the house all the time, singing along to records of great women singers and Broadway show cast albums or just bust out singing for no apparent reason other than for the joy of it. And she had a terrific voice. She probably could have been a professional singer if she didn't do something crazy like getting married at 19 and having me when she was 20 and my brother two years later. My mom grew up in the same Bronx neighborhood and went to the same high school--Taft--as Eydie Gorme, who was four years older. So Eydie was my mom's singing hero and when my mom would sing she sounded just like her. As far as wanting to perform, I think the biggest influence was seeing the film The Jolson Story when I was 10 years old. I was mesmerized by Jolson as played by Larry Parks and became a life-long Jolson fan.

BWW: What was the reaction, when you began telling people in the cabaret scene you were going to do your own show?

SH: On the surface, it was universally positive, although you never know what people are really thinking or saying when you're not with them. It's not difficult to tell which people are sincerely supportive and which ones think the idea is a joke, but I expected people would feel both ways and you can't worry about it. When I told one accomplished cabaret director I was planning on doing my own show, they didn't do a particularly great job hiding their skepticism, which is totally understandable. This person practically scoffed at the notion, suggesting that since few could possibly take it seriously, I approach doing the show as a George Plimpton-esque journalistic exercise in experiencing how the "other half" lives. I was taking the show much more seriously than that. Of course, this person also wanted to direct my show. [Laughs]

BWW: You ended up not bringing on a director. Wasn't that a big gamble given your lack of cabaret performing experience, especially since this was your debut show?

SH: It's reasonable to look at it that way, but I'd been thinking about this show for so long, knew what songs I wanted to sing, how I wanted to put the set together, and what I wanted to say in my script, that I didn't want a director having me second-guess myself. And since I felt so strongly about how I wanted to do the show, I felt my budget would be better spent on my band and rehearsals and vocal lessons, etc. It wasn't like I didn't have friends who served as sounding boards. I also ran some ideas by people I respect and trust and I knew I'd get valuable feedback from Jamie and Sean Harkness, my musical director and an amazing guitarist. One of the best notes I got on my script came from my 20-year-old daughter after my first show and she was right and I made changes. But if I do another show, I'll probably bring in a director because I won't know the next one so totally in my bones the way I knew this McLean show.

BWW: This provides a good segue into a question that you can answer as both a reviewer and now a performer. How important do you think it is to have a director for a cabaret show?

SH: Wow, isn't that a loaded question? Can you leave now? [Laughs]. At this point, after having seen and/or reviewed a couple of hundred shows, I didn't need to become a performer to have a perspective on this one. Putting aside the issue of finances--which shouldn't be the obstacle if you really need a director--the answer is that a singer/performer has to totally know their show and be honest with themselves about everything. And even then it's a tough call. I've seen great shows where the performers didn't have a director and awful shows where there was a director involved. I've watched shows where halfway through I was saying to myself, "God, why on earth did this performer not hire a director?" And I've talked to directors who've told me that the performers wouldn't listen to their advice anyway, which is unbelievably foolish. So it's really all over the map. I guess the answer is, unless you know your show inside and out and trust your instincts, error on the side of hiring a director and make sure you pick the right one. And even then, it's a bit of a crap shoot. Did I hedge enough on that one? [Laughs]

BWW: So given that you felt you knew exactly what you wanted to do in the show and that you didn't have a director, what was your biggest challenge in putting it together and performing it?

SH: Before the opening night show, whenever people would ask me how the process was going and how I felt about it, I'd give my standard self-deprecating but also honest response: I felt confident about everything except the singing. [Laughs] I said that to a Musical Director I really respect and he said, "Stephen, you've been reviewing cabaret shows for almost three years now. You know it's not just about the singing. As long as you can carry a tune and know your lyrics, the singing may be the least important factor. It's about your stage presence, how you communicate with the audience in an intimate setting, how you tell a story with music, and expressing the emotion in the songs and revealing how you feel about them." Of course, he was right and it made me feel so much better preparing for the show. I started to feel that if I just made sure my vocals were solid that would be like icing on the cake.

BWW: Speaking of the "process," what was that experience like for a first-time cabaret performer?

SH: It can never be as much of a high as you get from actually performing the show, but it was an absolutely educational, challenging, and joyful experience on so many levels. Working with Jamie Leonhart on learning how to use and improve my vocals was amazing, not just because of all the interesting concepts she imparted and the exercises she had me do, but because she was so patient and totally engaged and supportive. She would laugh whenever I used a sports or athletic metaphor for some concept in vocal training, and like a good sports coach she knew when to coddle me and when to kick my butt. She seemed to instinctively know what I could handle based on my experience and ability level. I know I'm never going to be a great singer, but I also know I can become a lot better and Jamie has been wonderful in helping me get there.

BWW: What about the experience working with Sean Harkness as your MD and with a four-piece band?

SH: What can I say other than it's been unbelievable? The first time I ever heard Sean play guitar, I said to myself, "If I ever do that McLean show, that's my guy." So working with a musician I really respect has been a total trip. Since Don McLean was a wonderful guitarist and the instrument is so ubiquitous in the set, I knew Sean had to also be the MD and do the arrangements and he did a great job writing charts that are very true to the original McLean recordings, which is how I wanted to deliver the songs. But he's also given them just enough nuance and flavor to make them sound original. And his guitar riffs during certain songs are magical. The rest of the band, Ted Kooshian on keyboard, Skip Ward on bass guitar, and Rob Mitzner on drums, turned out to be a terrific team and it's been a blast rehearsing and performing the shows with them. Watching and listening to the guys tweak arrangements on the fly and adapt to how I want to handle tempos, etc, has been another great part of my education during this process.

BWW: Have you learned a lot about what it takes to stage a solid cabaret show when you're reviewing shows?
SH: Of course, how could I not? It works both ways, though. When you review so many shows, you also learn a lot about what doesn't work and what NOT to do. But the first year or so of reviewing shows I think I learned things more by osmosis and through writing my critiques. I only started watching certain shows with a performer's eye the last few months. As a reviewer, I have to be careful not to get caught up in focusing on what I'm trying to learn from the show as a performer or the review might suffer. But how can watch veteran cabaret stars like Marilyn Maye, Ann Hampton Callaway, Barb Jungr and Amanda McBroom and not learn what performing a great cabaret show is all about? I've also picked up valuable tips watching some of the younger stars like Carole J. Bufford, Lauren Fox, Lorinda Lisitza, Marissa Mulder, Adam Shapiro, and all those unbelievably talented singer/actors in the Joe Iconis "Family" group.

BWW: So I guess the question performers would want to ask you is: How will going through this process yourself and the whole experience of staging a show change your perspective when you experience future cabaret shows and perhaps inform your reviews?

SH: You know, when some people ask me that question I think there's a certain answer they want to hear. I think they want me to say that now I might be more understanding or more sympathetic about what it takes to put on a show and about the difficult process they go through and maybe that will make me more forgiving of flaws in the show. The first part of that is somewhat true, but I'm not sure if this experience will change much about what I look for and expect from a good cabaret show and if it will alter how I approach my reviews. Without a doubt, working on my own show will make me more knowledgable not only about the process, but about many of the technical aspects, like vocalizing and arranging, for example. But when I attend a show to review it, I'm there as a very informed audience member who can articulate the performance well in the written word.

I've always felt my first responsibility is to the reader/potential audience member and my number one goal is to write a review that is entertaining to read. It's not about showing off what I know about cabaret or nightclub performing or helping or hurting any performer's career. And it's also vitally important--at least to me--that the reviews be authoritative as well as a fun read. A couple of months ago, someone posted a comment on Facebook in response to a very positive review of a show with something like, "Facts aren't really that important when someone says nice things about you." I've got to tell you, when I read that I almost lost my lunch. I don't care how well written a review may be or how positive or negative it may about the performer, if the review is filled with factual mistakes it's credibility goes out the window. It's like saying it doesn't matter if a singer drops lyrics all through a show as long as his or her voice sounded good. Anyway, the bottom line is this: Sure my show experience will make me a more informed reviewer, but it won't change much about how I approach and write my reviews, which is to always be as fair, honest, authoritative, and entertaining as possible.

BWW: So, on the eve of your last show of this debut run, are you already thinking about doing a new show down the road?

SH: I don't think there's a cabaret performer or would-be performer around who isn't noodling the next show idea. Sure, I'm thinking about another one. But right now, I want to savor tomorrow night and this whole experience for as long as possible because it's turned out to be one of the joys of my life--until that first really negative review! [Laughs] Now we should probably end this interview . . . I have to do my vocal exercises. [Laughs]

Stephen Hanks will be performing Beyond American Pie: The Don McLean Songbook, Saturday June 22, 9:30pm at the Metropolitan Room. Call 212-206-0440 for reservations.

Photos by Stephen Sorokoff

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