Interview: Anything Goes at THE BENNETT & BARTON SONG SALON at Pangea

Golden age Hollywood, Broadway and swing, with plenty of drop-ins, at Pangea this Thursday

By: Jul. 09, 2024
Interview: Anything Goes at THE BENNETT & BARTON SONG SALON at Pangea
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For years, Elena Bennett and Fred Barton have been entertaining audiences with The Bennett and Barton Song Salon. Bennett & Barton will perform from their vast repertoire encompassing Hollywood, Broadway, and the Golden Age of swing. They’ll be joined, as always, by some of New York’s brightest stars who typically drop in to hear the show, and contribute to it with some songs of their own. The next show is this Thursday, July 11th at 7 pm at Pangea in the Cabaret Room, with no cover. For more information on the show and how to make a reservation, visit Pangea’s website.

We spoke with Bennett and Barton about the upcoming show and their favorite moments of the Salon dating back to the 1990s. Read our conversation below.

How would you describe your upcoming show at Pangea?

FB: The Bennett & Barton Song Salon consists of two components: We’ll pull songs out of our very large repertoire, somewhat at random, and perform them off-the-cuff – but in our long-honed style. I play what I call “Big Piano” (as in “Big Band”) – either brassy big-band style, with the emphasis on big, or in a lush full-orchestra style for the ballads. Our repertoire consists of hits, rarities, novelties and classics from the Golden Age of Swing, Broadway, Hollywood, and Radio. It’s something Elena and I just hit on when we met, way back at Eighty-Eights – she knew 5,000 songs, and we found out I knew 4,999 of them, and she taught me the other one. The second component of our show consists of our guest performers; we never know who's coming any given show, or what they’re going to sing, so the game of it is to weave all our guests and their particular showstoppers into ours to create a seamless evening that seems as if it were all planned – which it’s not!

EB: Well, it's hard to improve upon that summation!  Fred references his "Big Piano" style, which was what immediately caught my ear and my heart all those years ago.  I'd worked with some wonderful pianists, but he was the first to really capture both the Big Band-type arrangements I'd learned so many songs from and heard in my head!  On top of that already tip-top style, he also plays theatrically, emotionally, and dynamically nuanced – all of which figure profoundly in the music I love, and in the way I sing.

So, the upcoming show is a throwback to our early days at Eighty-Eights, which led to the original incarnation of the “Bennett & Barton Song Salon.”

Fred and I just happen to know some very talented people, and we love making music with them & sharing their gifts with our fans, so reviving the Song Salon is always great fun for us! 
 

You’ve been doing this show for quite some time, and you get a lot of drop-ins. Do you have a favorite moment from the show so far?

FB: Oh, how to pick? Back at Eighty-Eights in our earlier days, Liza Minnelli came one night and sat with us for two hours; so did Phyllis Diller – who didn’t do standup, but talked of her time in the biz, and demonstrated the little-known fact that she was a concert-level pianist. Perhaps my favorite musical theatre moment was when I was playing a song from Once Upon a Mattress, and a young man approached me and said, “Would you be willing to let the gentleman I’m with get up to sing with you? He wrote the show you’re playing.” He pointed to a rather elderly fellow across the room, and it was indeed none other than Marshall Barer, who wrote the lyrics to Mary Rodgers’ music for Once Upon a Mattress. Of course I was thrilled, and Marshall got up and sang “Sensitivity,” the hilarious song he wrote for Wicked Queen Aggravain (which of course I knew cold by heart. I know all the wicked queen songs...)

More recently at Pangea, we’ve had drop-ins from Richard Maltby Jr. and Austin Pendleton, the original Motel the Tailor in the original Fiddler on the Roof 60 years ago. And of course, we have a grand selection of super-talented friends who have become our regulars.

EB: Those were good ones!  Ms. Diller was beyond enchanting!  Liza's visits were always a blast!

Albert Hague & his wife, Renee Orin became dear friends of mine.

Margaret Whiting and her husband were around a lot. 

Lots of fabulous cabaret pals – Jim Caruso, KT Sullivan, Mark Nadler, Jeff Harnar – far too many to name – have dropped by over the years, and still do!

A favorite moment of mine, for sure, was Mary Rodgers walking in & staring at me as I was singing “I'll Tell The Man In The Street,” by her father, then having lighting designer Matt Berman come running to tell me that she said "where was she when we were casting 'Mattress'"; and Jack Wrangler hearing us do "Guilty" and going to get Margaret Whiting so she could hear me sing her father's again.  The intergenerational weaving of joy and artistry in the music we love so much makes it even more beautiful.

Our best nights are all about the bonhomie of everyone hanging out and enjoying one another – all through wonderful music.  Many times, it feels quite magical!

How do you normally plan each show? What went into the set list selection for this one?

FB: Elena usually creates an ad hoc set list of songs which we’ll draw from over the show; we have so many, it helps to narrow down the 5,000 songs to something more manageable as we start the evening. We’ll shift, deviate, and change what we’re going to do on the spur of the moment, depending on what goes over best for each audience, what we simply feel like doing, our train of thought, and what goes best with the drift of the show as our guests contribute their material. 

EB: That's about right. We'll kick off with a few I've sketched out, and then it's really about whatever pops into either of our heads really – it might be a song we haven't done in ages, or it might be a new gem we've been having fun with. Then, as Fred says, we adjust and adapt to whoever joins us.  Their song choices will often inform what we do next, in order to keep the evening flowing as it should.   It's always exciting!  

I also really love watching and listening to people sing with Fred for the first time (or first time in a while).

They are so ...startled, sort of... by what he does, because no mere accompanist does anything like it!  He really does accompany them, rather than just having them sing along with him, and it's a beautiful thing to witness their excitement!

What have you each been listening to lately?

FB: I’m always listening to a steady stream of Ella Fitzgerald, the #1 purveyor of exactly our kind of music – swing, Broadway, Hollywood, and of course the standards, jazz and otherwise. And for me as a pianist, I literally taught myself to play this music from listening to Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Ella – then gradually I expanded to a large number of orchestrators and arrangers from Broadway and Big Band. My old saying: You are what you listen to. And most critical for me is classical music; at the moment I’m playing and listening to a ton of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and being of Czech descent, Dvorak and Smetana. It’s really the classical that gives me the chops and the dash and the panache in my playing for Elena!

EB: Ella is certainly among my greatest influences, as well as someone I listen to pretty much all the time.  Like Fred, I learned so many songs from her!   I'm also a musical gallivant, and am still constantly discovering singers and songs that are new to me.  I'll listen dozens of different singers in a week, usually, and often saturate myself with great ones for weeks on end.  This week it's been the (sadly) under-recorded Toni Arden, India Adams, and Susan Johnson, as well as Beverly Kenny, and Western Swing legend Rosalie Allen.

I rarely go a week without listening to Édith Piaf, Ethel Ennis, Doris Day, Dakota Staton, Nancy Wilson, Helen Forrest, Margaret Whiting, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba; well, suffice to say, I could go on and on, and that's not even counting cast recordings & soundtracks! With the internet, it's a never-ending sonic smorgasbord!

What are you most looking forward to about this show?

FB: Every single show, even after all these years, I look forward most to collaborating with and playing for Elena. There is practically no voice like hers in the world, especially nowadays. I never know exactly what I’m going to play on any given song with her; we make it up as we go along – but there’s something about this “thing” we have together that’s bigger than both of us, and I’ve never played so well or creatively in my life as I do when I’m playing for her.

EB: There is a pretty perfect place that Fred and I travel to together when we perform, and we don't really even know how we get there.  Choices we make, musically, lyrically, dynamically, physically – often without even thinking – are bursts of comets that just sweep us up.  Fred plays in a manner unlike anyone else, and it's our combined sensibilities that create this Shangri-La.  When we can take our audience along with us, it's just the best, and he and I will sometimes look at each other as if we've woken up from a dream, and we can see on folks' faces that they dreamt it too.
 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

FB: Sometimes I feel a bit beleaguered that the music I love is being sidelined. This has been true for years, of course, but never more than now; certainly on Broadway. It’s hurt my writing, although I know I shouldn’t let it; and I know I sound like Gramps saying “get off my lawn” to the kids, but I do believe a great deal of baby has been thrown out with very little bathwater. So the Bennett & Barton Song Salon is my little underground bunker when I’m feeling under siege! It’s plush, beautifully lit, with the things I love most in the world: a grand piano, a bunch of the greatest songs ever written, some like-minded people to listen, and a truly great singer to play for.

EB: No one can convince me that the music we love is outdated.  It wasn't "the thing" when I was a child in the 1970s and '80s, of course, but it reached me then and had held me ever since.  

People of all ages and backgrounds respond to it with the same amazement as Fred and I have.  The lack of venues nowadays is distressing, to be sure, but as long as we are getting out there and sharing what we love, I know that our musical time machine will keep sweeping people into the melodic multiverse right along with us.


Visit Pangea’s website for information on how to make a reservation.

To learn more about Fred Barton, visit him online at www.fredbarton.com.

Learn more about Elena Bennett here.




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