Interview: Marilyn Maye at 54 Below: Still Going Strong at 96!

The Cabaret Queen is celebrating 96 years starting on April 9th!

By: Apr. 08, 2024
Interview: Marilyn Maye at 54 Below: Still Going Strong at 96!
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The legend. The lady. Miss Marilyn Maye

Interview: Marilyn Maye at 54 Below: Still Going Strong at 96!
Marilyn in concert

Interview: Marilyn Maye at 54 Below: Still Going Strong at 96!
Marilyn with the author of this interview

I ADORE Marilyn Maye. I mean, who doesn't? I'd have some serious doubts about anyone who didn't. After all, she's brilliantly talented, she's hilarious, she's charming and she is the definition of an "Auntie Mame" type. She walked into my life 10 years ago, while I was doing my Dame Edna cabaret show in Fort Lauderdale. She was brought to my show by two of her dear friends. When they announced that she was there, I nearly died. I knew her recordings. In fact, I owned most of them. (I now own all of them). Above all, I knew that she was a DIVA singer. I have a lot of respect and affection for those ladies who can belt a song out of the park and come back for more. She is one of those great dames whose repertoire and voice can charm an audience. 

Frankly, She can do more than charm an audience; she can mesmerize it. That was more than proven last year in her solo debut at Carnegie Hall. She was raved about by every critic worth their salt in every publication smart enough to have been in attendance. She received reviews that performers work a lifetime for and never receive. It was the pinnacle and celebration of a cabaret legend who isn't finished by a long shot.

I sat down for a interview with Marilyn. Well, it wasn't an interview in the strictest definition of the word. It was more of a visit with a dear friend. In between the laughter and the reminiscences, I got in a few questions and some insight into what makes this legendary lady tick. One thing you'll notice in this article is that Marilyn teaches as she talks. She has such an innate way of describing he performing process, you can't help but admire the facility with which she works.

Marilyn's annual birthday show begins performances tomorrow night at 54 Below. Get your tickets now. And read our conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So, you're coming home to 54 Below again. You've made it your semi-annual stop as you traverse every other venue in the city. How long have you been doing this at 54 Below?

This is our 11th year there. My first engagement was 2013 in March, and we did, not consecutive, but we did 12 days, we did 10 in March and 2 more days in April and then each year after that, we do 2 engagements. You know, usually April, because they try to build it around my birthday, and then in October we always we do another 10 days. And it's always a 10-, sometimes 12-day engagement.

And this one coming up is going to be a biggie. 96 years!

Every single one is a biggie! Don't even say it out loud.

Are you are you in Kansas City now? Or are you in New York?

No, no, no. I'm here all the time.

I mean, you've kind of made New York your home lately.

Well, I don't know, the last five to six years, definitely. You know, I go home for Christmas with my daughter and I worked there last October at the Folly Theater. I did three shows there and that's the first time I've been home all year long. I didn't even have time to go to my house. I was working at the theater, staying at the hotel across the street and and I didn't even have time to go home. And so I've been here, you know, partly for the gigs, and and partly for the teaching you know that I just stay here.

So now that you've made New York your home, I've noticed almost every time I look  online or check out the papers I see that you're participating in something almost weekly. The American Songbook Association, Birdland, Broadway Bares. You name it; you've become rather ubiquitous.

The American Songbook Association has given me TWO lifetime achievement awards Which I'm thrilled with, but you know, that's been going on for this many years thinking that I was gonna go away, I guess. And I just don't. I just don't go away. I just keep singing. I just keep moving and keep singing and and keep inspired. You know? There's so much to do. There's so much work to do and I'm enjoying it.  

I mean, you don't seem to tucker.

Well this is what I was meant to do I think, and the fact that I've been doing it for so many, all my life really. I mean, I sang my first professional gigs when I was 12. My mother and I were alone and and there was a booker in Des Moines, Iowa that was the husband of the woman that I took dancing lessons from and and he saw me dancing and he said well, you know, I know how to put together an act, I would sing and he would put me on, club dates, conventions and that kind of thing, and I would do maybe three or four songs and and get paid. My mother and I needed it.

You made your Carnegie Hall solo debut last year. What must have that been like for you?

Oh my. Did you see the reviews? I am so proud of them because they were incredible. Well, it was fun. We sure had a triumphant night. We sold out, you know, in the big auditorium - over 2,000 seats in the Stern. We had an 80-piece orchestra and the Mayor decreed that day as Marilyn Maye Day in the city. It was such a thrill for me.

A lot of people don't realize that in addition to your career as a performer, you also teach and direct.  What are the lessons you have learned as a teacher from the people you've taught?

Oh, how hard it is to breathe! (laughs) It's amazing, you know. You teach the breath marks, but it's hard to get them to take them and know how necessary they are and how hard it is to look the audience in the eye, you know? This shyness comes into it and insecurity and all of that.

I have some wonderful people that I work with. They're all great in different ways, you know. I even have one who's a lawyer. I always say some people play bridge, some people play golf, some people want to sing. Well, it's wonderful to them and wonderful for them and it's very healthy to work on an act because it gets your mind and and your body really working and it's harder than they think that it is. 

When you build your shows, what goes into that for you?

I write a lot of special lyrics, you know. And then l do the arrangements. My convoluted arrangements and you know, lots of medleys. Of course I believe in medleys.

And it's been so inspiring to me. You know, I've learned a lot because I've had to learn things that I do just automatically without thinking about it. I've had to learn how do I do that? And what's important in the performance of it. I have such specific ideas about about the performance. You know, no fourth wall. There's not a fourth wall. You gotta entertain the people. That's why they came. The story of each song is something that the audience can relate to.

I think something that you do exceptionally well is that you don't just act a song. I mean, you really are a storyteller. That's something I've always noticed about you and that's something that I really don't know that can be taught.

Well, you know, I'm certainly trying! (laughs)

It comes with their connecting with a lyric. You have to connect with a lyric and it's not about you or what you did yesterday or what you're gonna do tomorrow or or any other thought that you have it. It has to be what you're saying at the at that moment. You know your head has to be where your lyrics are. You have to think about what you're saying and that and that will that will come if you only do that and that's what's hard. It is focusing your mind to to that story.

You do a lot out of the American Songbook.

That's what I do, is the American Songbook.

Which is wonderful, but you do pull in newer ones like "Butter Out of Cream" from Catch Me If You Can. How many composers have you sung for that have said your version of one of their songs that you've performed think that you have had the definitive performance for them?

Well, I don't know the answer to that. I do know that Walter Marks who wrote Golden Rainbow has been in my audience several times. He's a darling man. He wrote a special song for me, a birthday song, which I have yet to do.

Of course Marc Shaiman who wrote "Butter Out of Cream." We did a television show at that big theatre in New Jersey there (NJPAC). We filmed a television show and I did "Butter Out of Cream" and I added an ending. I wrote it with special lyrics and Mark Shaiman said, "Oh, you Marilyn Maye'd it." I don't think he was offended. He was darling. And I'm trying to think of other composers. I'm sure they've been very kind. Jerry Herman, of course. When I recorded the whole show (Hello, Dolly!) I called him first and he said "what a great idea." I said, has anybody done that? He said, "Oh no." And I said, well, yeah, I want to. And he said, "I'll write the liner notes." And he did. Oh, God, he was precious. We had a lot of wonderful conversations.

Instead of asking you which of your songs would be a favorite, which of your songs defines your philosophy?

"It's Today" [from Mame].

But God, I'm wondering... that's a great question. I've never been asked that before with the writers, but Jerry especially.

Not many composers. Although when I was recording [with] RCA, they would have to get their blessing because I wrote a lot of extra lyrics - intros and endings - and the A&R man loved it and then they had to get the composer's permission.  I did that with "Put On a Happy Face." We had to go to Charles Strouse. He loved it.

This woman I knew would give these lovely parties and I've been invited to several and he was always there. People get up and sing. I did "Put On a Happy Face" and with the whole interlude that we had to get his permission for. So, I start singing it, you know, in the living room of this party. He immediately knows where it where it comes after the first verse. And he'd say: "I didn't write this, but I like it a lot."

You know, but the one I would have loved to have met?

Johnny Mercer. Johnny Mercer.  And I came close. He left a note with an engineer while I was recording. He was in the RCA building.  And he left a note because he wanted to meet me and I was in in the main studio recording. So he just said give her this note when she's through. When I found out, I said : Oh my God, he was here??? I loved his lyrics so much. The note said: "Your version of 'Misty' is the best." - Johnny Mercer. I recorded it on my first album. He didn't even write "Misty," but he liked it.

Which singers inspired you when you were up and coming in the business?

Ella [Fitzgerald], of course, and the fact that we became very dear friends was wonderful. She came to see me and I went over to the to meet her and and we became real good friends. And when we were in the same city we would make sure that we would sit in dressing rooms after our shows.

Jo Stafford was another one. She called  after seeing me on Steve Allen, which was the first national television show I did. She called him and said: "Who is that Kansas City singer?" And then as time went on, I got to meet her.  Her intonation was absolutely dead-center of the notes, you know, and that's why I loved her. Her intonation was perfect.

Debbie Reynolds was so cute and so talented. And then I got to meet her. She sent me flowers. She would always come to see me in Hollywood. She would come and we would sit for a long time after my shows, and sit and exchange stories.

This might seem trite, but what is the secret to 96 years as a singer?

Just keep moving. That's the secret to being 96. You gotta keep moving.

A lot of people comment on this is how clear and how pure your voice still is. It hasn't aged. 

Well, I think, you know, because I've used it. I've used it so much. I don't think you can quit singing and then pick it up. You know, I don't think that happens. And I've just been nonstop, not even thinking about it. It's just what I do. It's just what I am. It's what I do, you know, this is what I'm about. My whole life is about and and I think that comes into play with with my performance and with my teaching and and everything in my life. I've worked so much. I've worked so very much.

You might think, after 96 years, a music legend known for her health and vitality would have a peaceful and consistent morning routine. What is yours? 

Up and coffee! Then I frantically put on the face and into the cabs. 

Now, one of my favorite things that you do is the mash up of "Guess Who I Saw Today?" and "Fifty Percent." Just when did that come to you? That is such a wonderful combination. Such a natural. [For the uninitiated, "Guess Who I Saw Today?" is about a wife discovering her husband has been seeing another woman. "Fifty Percent" from the musical Ballroom is sung by what would be the "other" woman.]

Of course I've been doing it forever. "Guess Who I Saw Today?" is my most requested song you know, and I knew the composer of that, incidentally. Murray Grand. 

"Fifty Percent" came, of course, many years later.

And now, I've put "Too Late Now" in the middle of those two songs.

My recording of "Too Late Now" was chosen by the Smithsonian Institute as one of the best recordings of the 20th century and the Best Song. Best Song and best version of that song. And if you if you start out with the with the bridge - see, this is, this is how I think- if you start: "all the things we've done together, I relive when we're apart." Well, that's the wife.

So, when combined, it becomes a song cycle, basically.

Well, if you start out with a bridge. "All the things we've done together. I relive when we're apart. All the tender fun together stays on in my heart....Too late now to forget your smile..." She's not gonna leave him. She's not leaving him. That's perfect for the wife to sing after "Guess Who I Saw Today?"  And then and then comes the other woman with "Fifty Percent." Isn't that kind of fun? 

The way the way you perform "Guess Who I Saw Today. Especially when you sing the ending "I saw you!" and you just point. It's devastating.

So many people sing the song and they're sad from the beginning. She's not sad from the beginning. And that's why it has to be a surprise. "I Saw You". If they if they sing it in a deliberately sad or in a very negative way, you give it away before you get to "I Saw You!". You shouldn't give it away. She's calculating and very together and that, "Let me fix you a quick Martini. As a matter of fact, I'll have one too." You know, she's very, very determined in telling him about this but there's a there's a seathing fire underneath her, you know, she's not gonna give it away until she says "I Saw You!"

This is an interesting question, and I don't even know if that you've got an answer to it either, but are there any of today's singers who you enjoy?

God, honey, I don't have time to listen to anyone. [laughs]

There's this kid from Canada - David Marino - he just did Birdland. He did Susie Mosher's show a few weeks ago and then he did his own spot in the in the big room upstairs on Monday night. He's fabulous. He's great. I'd kill to get my hands on him [performance-wise]. He's just brilliant and his singing is just wonderful. If this were 20 years ago he would be a star. He would be a star by this time there would be a major recording company and and he would have done an album by this time. You know, it's just the business is so different now 

You know, the big clubs across the US are closed now. That's why I'm so grateful to New York. That's why I moved here. I know I can continue my career here. I worked the Fairmont Hotel chain that had those big wonderful showrooms with big bands. Well, that's no more. The businessman's expense account ran out and they decided that wasn't gonna be anymore. Certainly one of the reasons. And it was lovely to play those hotels and those big rooms.

I'm doing 13 nights at 54 Below. Then, I'll be doing a concert in the summertime at 92nd St. Y. I'll be going back to Provincetown for one performance only at Town Hall. I was there at The Art House for 13 consecutive years, for two week runs, but now they've closed, so there's another one we've lost. Yeah, so that's why I'm singing as fast as I can.  We're already planning the fall engagement for 54 Below. I'll be at Birdland again this coming New Year's Eve. This is the fourth New Year's Eve. We did seven shows in four nights. There's a lot to do here and I'm and I'm grateful for that. It's always fun because people will walk by me on the street and say how much they enjoy my work.

Have you got anything new planned for the for the birthday shows?

Well, it's all Broadway. It's all songs from Broadway. No, I've never been on Broadway, but so many of those Broadway shows, I've recorded the songs from them and my albums were full of Broadway show songs and so you know so that's that's my plan for this engagement. Of course, I've got Tedd Firth, my musical director, Tom Hubbard, my bass player, and Mark McLean on drums.

I'm grateful to the people that come to hear me. Honey, I'm so grateful. Without them, I couldn't be, of course. 

Beginning on April 9, The Marvelous Miss Maye will return to Broadway's living room -54 Below for her semi-annual residency. She'll be appearing April 9-12, April 14, April 16-20, May 2, 5 and 6. All performances are at 7pm. Her April 10 show is a special Birthday show with a $95 special prix fixe menu. For tickets, visit www.54below.com.




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