BWW Interview: Avery Sommers in FOR SENTIMENTAL REASONS at Laurie Beechman Theatre
Avery Sommers has had a fantastic career so far, appearing on Broadway in Ain't Misbehavin', Show Boat, Chicago, and Platinum, and in the national tours of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Ann-Margret and Chicago with Chita Rivera and Joel Grey. Avery was also seen in Regina Taylor's Crowns at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, and Hairspray at Actors' Playhouse. This versatile actress has had a great success with her solo show, For Sentimental Reasons, in South Florida, and for just one afternoon, she'll be bringing this acclaimed act to the Laurie Beechman for her New York solo debut. I couldn't wait to ask Avery some questions about her renditions of some great classics we all know and love.
Amy: I would love to ask you some questions about your upcoming New York solo debut. First of all, you've been on Broadway, in great shows like Ain't Misbehavin', Chicago, and Showboat. What inspired a cabaret act now?
Avery: It's a very interesting thing, I told myself I wanted to stand in the crook of a grand piano, in a ballroom gown and sing the songs I wanted to sing where I wanted to sing them.
Amy: Was there a certain story from your life that inspired the theme of For Sentimental Reasons?
Avery: I've always loved to sing, so it's been great putting my own spin on the wonderful songs we have at our disposal now. There are so many beautiful songs, and I wanted to be able to say " I wanted to do this and that song." My show has wonderful tunes from the '60s, and from Broadway shows that I love, so that's what inspired me.
Amy: Do you have an especially favorite song you'll be singing?
Avery: Well, I love the show Cabaret, and one of my all-time favorite songs from that show is Maybe This Time. It's just an amazing song; the lyrics are just perfect. It fits my voice and that's why I chose it.
Amy: Were there any songs, that to make especially personal, you found yourself changing certain lyrics, or you did want to stay true to the songs as they were originally written?
Avery: I don't think I am capable of changing anybody's songs! These songs I'm doing have beautifully crafted lyrics. I think it's been perfect to stay true to the lyrics and that showcase the gift of songwriting and expression.
Amy: Were there certain composers that really spoke to you that you felt especially compelled to pay tribute to?
Avery: Cole Porter is one of my all-time favorites, as is Richard Rodgers too, and Rodgers and Hart. These composers really spoke to the type of songs I was trying to do. I tried to bring some of my own thoughts to the lyrics and these extraordinary people.
Amy: You seem to be paying tribute to the Golden Era of Broadway, where all the great classic songs come from. What was the process like for creating the musical arrangements?
Avery: I worked in South Florida with my musical director Phil Hinton, and Phil worked with the BBC and worked with a lot of the wonderful British performers. We put these songs together listening to what he had heard when he was in Europe, and he always did an amazing job of orchestration and putting songs together that form a story - that's what he loves to do - he's a storyteller and that's what I am. That's how this show got its legs. I'm really excited that we could put together a string of songs from the '60s. He did arrangements for Shirley Bassey in London, and he's an amazing musician. He would put his musical arrangements together, and ask "what do you think about this, or that" and how did this fit in my voice, so we did a lot of prep work before this show was put together.
Amy: I can imagine - putting a solo show together is no small feat. How long have you been working on this for?
Avery: About a year and a half.
Amy: This is the first time you've done the show in New York. How did you pick the Laurie Beechman?
Avery: Last year, I was invited to be part of Richard Skipper's series, "Richard Skipper Celebrates" at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. I sang two songs for it, and when we finished, he asked me about doing a possible show in New York. When we talked about it, we thought the Laurie Beechman would be a great venue for me and for my show.
Amy: Now, you are no stranger to the stage. Of the many - and incredibly versatile- roles you've played, which one has been your favorite role to play? I imagine you must be asked this question a lot!
Avery: [laughs] Yes! But, my answer is that my favorite role is the show I'm doing at the time. That's a very honest answer because the roles are always so different and so wonderful and the music for each one is so different, that it's hard to choose. I love doing Ain't Misbehavin', and Mama Morton in Chicago, they're all so different and the songs are so different and the attitude of each performer is so different, so it hard to choose.
Amy: Will you be paying tribute to any of these characters?
Avery: I'm doing songs from those shows, but I won't be playing "characters." These are songs that I've chosen to do, so I don't treat them as a character, they are all part of the 75-minute show I'll be doing.
Amy: When you prepare to do these songs, how is your process, as a performer, different for cabaret versus preparing for a theatrical role?
Avery: I really love singing the songs I've chosen, and at that grand piano I can really do the song as I wanted to do them. In this cabaret show, I really have the opportunity to perform them as my own expression. I can really dig into the lyrics more. When I'm performing a role in a show, I have to convey a certain character. I have a different frame of reference and need to consider how the song relates to character in a show. But there are a lot of different ways that a song can be sung in different venues, styles, and perspectives. In a theatre piece, I couldn't just extend the note and give it my all- because someone has a cue!
Amy: Right! Doing a role in a theatre show takes a tremendous amount of energy. How does that amount of type of energy change when you're performing in a musical, versus a one-woman cabaret act - what is the difference in energy?
Avery: Great question. Each song requires some energy of course. Doing a cabaret show is a very high-energy performance because that's who I am as a performer. That's a kind of personal energy - that's a way I like to approach a song or a performance. It's important to me to give the audience something more than what they would watch on TV or sitting at home listening to music - that's one thing. But when they come to see a performer, I'm giving them a performance as well as just singing. There's a difference in understanding that.
Amy: For your cabaret act, have you chosen to share any stories about your personal life? Is there a certain personal arc that you feel links these songs together?
Avery: The show I'm doing is "For Sentimental Reasons" and yes, there's a personal story about my mom and dad who met in college. He was a senior and she was a freshman, and they danced beautifully together. One of their favorite songs was For Sentimental Reasons, so at the top of the show, I talk about that, and for the button of the show, I close with a tribute to my mom and dad.
Amy: Amazing. So it sounds like your show is, in a way, a tribute to your parents.
Avery: They both loved all kinds of music and they exposed me and my siblings - three other people - to all kinds of great music. My mother loved gospel music my father loved the big band sound and always played that kind of music, so I grew up listening to all of that. It had a profound effect on me as far as the music that I chose. I wanted to include this and pay a tribute to them. That's how we came up with For Sentimental Reasons.
Amy: Tell me a bit more about your parents' role in influencing you and inspiring you as a performer.
Avery: My parents inspired me from the beginning. I sang in the church when I was five.
My mom just said to me, "Get up and sing!" At that time, children didn't disrespect parents and their wishes. So she said get up and sing, so I got up and sang! My parents were always encouraging. They told us we could do whatever we wanted, and always said that if we are away from home, we could always feel free to come back home. So it always felt safe to follow my dreams, because I knew I could go home, be comfortable and they would treat me well and encourage me. I wanted to show them that I could to do what they thought I could do, and be respectful of my ability to do that.
Amy: Now what do you think music's role is in bringing families, communities and in general, bringing people together, creating a certain respect for one another?
Avery: I always feel music can bring people together. I believe we are trying to get back to playing music that can help lift people's moods and make them feel happier. I think we're past the "boom box era," as I call it. I'm from the generation of, not the big bands, that was my dad, but that's what I grew up with. It was a big part of my life - listening to what I call "great music." Lyrics and music that are beautiful, that you could actually dance with each other to, and hold hands and think about what beautiful music does to everyone else's life - it makes you feel good, you know?
Amy: Yes, definitely. Do you feel the younger generation can feel something in that beautiful music of the 60s, big band, and the classics of the Great American Songbook
Avery: Oh yes. Every generation can find something to benefit from in that music.
Amy: Was there one song you ended up choosing that really surprised you?
Avery: There's a particular song at the end of my show, Solitaire. It has amazing lyrics. It's from the music of Neil Sedaka. I have several songs from him - he was one of my all-time favorites. His song, Solitaire, made me cry the first time I heard it. So, it has such a special place in my heart.
Amy: This sounds like a collection of songs that really speak to you, and can speak to all of us.
Avery: I love every song in this show, and when putting together the show, I'm trying to let the music speak for itself. I wanted the music to speak to people and set them on a journey and really enjoy the moment. This particular show I've done enough times, and I feel it inside. The people have loved the songs.
Amy: So this is a tried-and-true success.
Avery: Yes. I do "Downtown," remember that old song? Really great old classic songs and I also included a really great tune which Louis Armstrong did - What a Wonderful World...
Amy: Wow! I'd love to hear your rendition of that.
Avery: Yes, such a great tune.
Amy: For a song that's been sung many times in many different renditions, how did you approach your own interpretation?
Avery: When I sing the song, I love the lyrics so I tried to put that passion into the lyrics that I want the audience to hear because they might have heard the song a hundred times, but they don't really hear the lyrics.
Amy: Right, sometimes it takes a new version for people to stop, listen, and realize, "Wow, what's that song is actually saying!"
Avery: Right. That's what I tried to show them. I tried to focus on the lyrics, what it all means. That is what I love, I hear his voice in my head and I let him lead the way.
Amy: Wow, that's what every cabaret artist needs to hear - "Follow their voice and let it lead the way!" Well, it sounds like a spectacular show that New York audiences are going to love.
Avery: Thank you!
Sommers will showcase her formidable vocal talent in a one time only performance on Saturday, November 2nd at 2PM. There is also a $20 food/beverage minimum per person.
Downstairs at the West Bank Cafe
NEW YORK, NY 10036