Interview: Sally Mayes of NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER at The Green Room 42 December 2nd

"I do things I want to do with people I want to do them with in places that I want to see and the material's gotta be great. "

By: Nov. 28, 2023
Interview: Sally Mayes of NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER at The Green Room 42 December 2nd
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Interview: Sally Mayes of NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER at The Green Room 42 December 2nd

Sally Mayes is one of the industry’s most highly regarded artists.  An actress who can sing Broadway and scat Jazz, who can soar in a musical or go full-on Thespian in a drama, and who has garnered fans and supporters with each passing year in the business, Sally is a good-ol’ Texas gal whose twang still shows up, even after more than a *ahem* couple of years in New York and its neighboring states.  She has captured hearts with her smile, her talent, her belly laugh, her naughty humor, and her voice, her voice, her voice.  She is a particular favorite of this Texan and cabaret aficionado, and when she makes an appearance, this Southern boy is in the room.  

So I will definitely be at The Green Room 42 on December 2nd when Sally Mayes kicks off her new series of shows, each one different, with NOW AND THEN.  The show is planned as equal parts retrospective and testing ground for new material and it promises to be one of the season’s most exciting outings.


Just days before Thanksgiving, Sally got on the phone with me for a little chat about life, Southern livin’, and her much-anticipated return to the nightclub stage (thank goodness).

This interview has been edited for space and content.
 

Miss Sally! How are you today?

I'm wonderful. How are you? You must be so excited!

For what?

You're going back to college.

No, I'm terrified.

You listen… I talk about this all the time because I feel like I wasted my college time. I didn't take it seriously except for the drama classes. And there are so many things that I wish I knew about now.

It was the same story for me. I was young and beautiful and I was planning on being an actor and didn't think I needed to go to my Common Core Courses. So I've got nothing but theater and fencing.

Yep. Me too. I mean, I have some other classes. I got through them, I passed them, but I didn't excel and I'm not smart, so I had to work at that.

Well, I'll tell you, I think that it's going to be different for me this time because I'm paying for it and I'm older and I appreciate not being able to have conversations with people about historical events because I didn't pay attention. So I am excited, but I'm also terrified and that's okay. 'cause that's what life is about.

Well, if your pants aren't scared off every now and again, then what are you doing?

Well, on the subject of pants being scared off, how do you feel about going back on stage after, how many years is it since you've done a cabaret show?

I've never stopped doing cabaret shows. I just haven't done any in New York since my show with Jeff Harnar six years ago.

That's true. Because we don't think about all the stuff that you are doing outside of the city. Tell me about the last four years, 'cause the last time I saw you on stage in your own show was your 60th birthday at Birdland. What have you been doing? 

Well, with the Pandemic, I kind of shut it all down for a while. And I had my craft store, my Etsy store, I had so much fun doing that. It's something else I do creatively that I can do when I'm not working, you know? And I have been doing shows and plays and when we started to come back, I started to book concerts, which is how the whole nucleus of this idea came about, because I would go to Florida and I would do jazz because I figured they're older, that's what they're going to want to hear. And I would go to colleges to theater departments, and I would think it's gotta be Broadway. And I would go to a festival and I'd think, okay, my story songs and my originals. And as I was doing that, you know how you do an album or you do a show and you have all your charts - I put them in a file cabinet and, you know, you pull the ones that are the comedy numbers or the big ballads or something that you're really crazy about, and you put those in an evening, which is what this first one is going to be, like a hodgepodge of a bunch of different kinds of stuff. And you don't look at the rest of it for a while. I started looking at it because I was doing these theme shows, and I was like “I've got Mike Lindsay arrangements and Billy Stritch arrangements, and Patrick Brady arrangements. And it's great stuff that I never sing, and I can still sing it, I'm still in pretty good voice.” And I really want to sing all this stuff again before I stop. I am really excited about doing that. But I'm also really excited about the writing because I moved to New York to be Carole King. I didn't move to New York to do Broadway, I just ended up there. I was trained to do it, but I would have gone in a different direction, down in Texas. So I went back to this and when a window opens, you go through it. So I've written a play and I'm doing plays, which were always what I wanted to do when I was studying theater - you know, when they found out I could sing, they would put me in musicals, but I always wanted to just do plays. So now I'm doing them. I'll take a play if somebody offers it to me: that's the only thing that they have to do is offer it.

This is an interesting topic because you work in an industry where people do want to define you. 

Yes. 

People do want to pigeonhole you and put you in a box, but you are a woman of many facets. During all the years that you were singing for your supper, did you yearn for Lanford Wilson? Did you yearn to sit at your typewriter and do that kind of work? Or did you just have to throw yourself into the work that they were offering you?

I think that doing musicals is actually harder than doing plays. Once I started doing them, I fell in love with them, too. And I have had the most incredible luck and the most incredible jobs, and I am nothing but grateful for that career. And I never really stopped writing, I just kind of kept it on the back burner. And so I've got this huge file full of ideas and images and partial lyrics. And, about 12 years ago, I kept on about how not very many people write Southern roles in a way that I like. I feel like they're often cliché, often they don't Interview: Sally Mayes of NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER at The Green Room 42 December 2nd understand Southern people, and it's hard to write about them honestly when you don't understand them. I was talking about it with my husband so much that he finally said, “Well, just write one then.”  That was the beginning of CONTRADICTION OF THE SOUTHERN SOUL which is my play with music that I'm doing. It's a play, but it has music because I like both, and doing the gigs always seemed an end to promote something, or if I had something I wanted to say. You know, cabaret is not really a living, cabaret is something you do on the side.  It's very, very hard to make it a living, especially if you have a family, and especially if you don't spend 24/7 doing it, which I wasn't interested in. My problem has always been that I like to do a lot of different things and I can, and I think it's probably gotten in my way. I think it's probably kept me from being more successful because I will go, “I'm doing that now.” So I do. And I don't regret it - it was just a different muscle, you know? And a challenging one. 

You are extremely proud of your Southern background.

Honestly, I am. You are from it too, darling, so you understand that there's something so wonderful and wacky and crazy and gothic and bizarre about our people. I'm proud of my family. It's been really hard, the last eight years because of all the differences in the way we see things but I will tell you that if I sit down and have a conversation with somebody in my family, who thinks differently than I do… and the 24-hour news cycle keeps people from communicating, that's where we get into trouble. And that's where I think a lot of this hatred and a lot of this anger is coming from with people, you know? I think if you could just sit down and talk to each other - because I could talk a bird out of a tree if I'm given enough time. I'm very proud of my roots. Aren’t you?

There's an energy that comes from standing on Texas ground barefoot. And there's a certain smell to the air there that is different than anything that I know anywhere else.

I'm an artist in residence at my former Alma Mater, the University of Houston - I go down for a month each semester and teach kids to do what I do, and when I'm there, weekends I see my family up in Livingston, which is where I grew up, And it's so odd to go back there because I remember how violently I wanted to leave and how much I was… I told everyone I was leaving and never coming back, and I really kind of did that except for visits.  But it's so interesting - every time I'm there, I go to the graveyard and I sit with my mom and dad and talk to them a little bit, and my grandparents. And I spend time with my brother and with my sister, and it's a slower, easier way of life. They are very happy and fulfilled in their lives. It's a different pace and there's a different feeling and I know exactly what you mean about having your bare feet in the soil. 

Each time that I go home to visit my parents, there's this one thing that happens on my first day when I go to the grocery store to buy the food that I will eat while I'm there because I'm a vegan -  walking from my car to the grocery store, the number of people that say good morning to you, it takes getting used to

And the yes ma'am thing. 

Uh-huh. 

The yes, sir thing. My son doesn't say yes, ma'am and yes, sir. I tried to teach him, but he just doesn't. My nephew, who is in his forties now, says yes ma'am, Aunt Sally. Yes, ma'am. Because that's the way that they were taught. My sister is an attorney in town, and I call her the mayor - she's not, but I call her the mayor because she knows everybody in town and she takes me up and down the street to meet every single person. We have one of their cupcakes, or we have a cup of their tea, or we look at their pretty dresses or whatever and it's so interesting to watch. I could never live that life again but it's very sweet to go back and visit. Now it's bittersweet.

And of course, it informs your storytelling because the play that you've written is set in the South, isn't it?

Well, it's about my mother and about my family, although I've changed the names to protect the guilty. It's about a woman who goes home to close down the family house after her mother has died of Alzheimer's. So there are a lot of strands running through it that are my family's stories and there are things that I made up and nobody knows which is which except me - it's a really emotional and funny and heartbreaking tale.  I'm very excited about it.

I think that as storytellers it is the obligation of the storyteller to take what is inspired from real life and build upon it to create a fictional accounting of something real. It keeps it interesting, but it keeps it grounded.

I don't think that you want to share every little bit of your life with people. I think you want to give them enough that they feel like they know you… 'cause you want them to know you, some. But I think that there are some things that need to stay private.  Like, I remember when I did The Story Hour, years ago, everybody was really surprised - when I would talk to my students and they wanted to know about Aunt Bubble, and I would say “I made that up.”  (Laughing)  They would say, “WHAT?!  YOU DID?!”  (Laughing)   “Yes!  I needed a setup for the song!”   When you tell stories, you have to embellish. That's what storytelling is, you know?  I take pride in it. I love telling stories. I had so much fun watching Amanda McBroom at that show that we were both at because she's always been, but she's become more of a great storyteller, and I just love to watch her. She's all heart and all emotion, and it's a beautiful thing to watch. I, on the other hand, get up and just talk. I don't even really think about setups anymore. I'll write something if I need to. And usually what I do is I write it all out and then I throw it away because something will occur to me and I'll just talk. The general rule in cabaret is that you don't go over five sentences in between songs. But if it's a really good story, I will.  I'm so excited because I have shows that have what I call hard landings and shows that have soft landings.  A soft landing is something like what I'm opening with here that sets up the whole series, which is going to be so great. I hope people will come to all of them because I'm really excited about them. I did a poll on Facebook and asked people, “If Miss. Byrd was a given, then what would you like to hear?” And  I wrote them down and I kept them in my phone, and when I started putting this show together, the ones that got the most votes are the ones I'm doing. It's called Now And Then because I don't want to do all retrospectives, I want to do some new stuff too. 

Interview: Sally Mayes of NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER at The Green Room 42 December 2nd

The December show is a little bit of the past and a little bit of the present. What are the shows that are to follow?

There's going to be (and I'm not sure what order I'm going to do them in) this one first, and then the next one would be Broadway and the next one would be Jazz Standards and the last one would be stories and originals.

Are you going to debut any of your original material?

I'm doing a song that I wrote a long time ago, but I never performed live. I wrote it with my friend Ron Abel, and he is playing for me for this gig. And so we're doing it. There's only one of my originals in this show, but for the Stories and Originals show, there are going to be a lot. 

I've had a chance during my four years at Broadway World to see you appear in several group shows and tributes. Do you find that doing those group shows helps you to stay in touch with your friends in the community?

When I came to Amanda's show, I had all these people coming up going, “God, we miss seeing you. Where are you? Why haven't you done anything in town?” And I just look at them and I go, “I haven't stopped working.” I've been working nonstop, pretty much - it's just different places. After mom died, I kind of…  I'd done two shows back to back, and I was depressed with how they turned out in New York, and two theater shows, and I just decided to stop. I said, “Okay, I'll quit. I quit. I'm going to sit here on this couch and take care of my son, and I'm going to see what the universe is saying to me.” And after about three or four months, the universe said get off your butt and get back to work.  So I thought I'd put my toe in the water, and I did Gypsy, and then I did Gypsy again, and I don't ever need to do it again. But I never stopped working, it's just if you don't work in New York, people don't know about it.  I've been working with my friend Scott Evan Davis for about five or six years now on a show he's creating called Indigo. He's written a part for me that's so glorious and so beautiful, and I do every iteration of it.  I can't wait for it to come in, it's not quite ready yet, but when it's ready, they're going to bring it in and I'm going to have another Broadway show.  When I stopped and said I'm going to sit on the couch, I told my husband, after I got back to work: “This is my new thing.  I do things I want to do with people I want to do them with in places that I want to see and the material's gotta be great. Those are the only things - I said I'm not going to make as much money and I'm not going to be in New York as much, but I think I'm going to be happier.” And it worked out because what happened was it led me right back around to the door again and so I'm thrilled.  (Laughing)

Life is too short to do it any other way than the way you just described.

I think that there are enough things that happen to us along the way. Everybody has their own story and everybody has their own hardships and troubles. One of the things I used to say to my son when he was a little boy was, “Tell me your troubles, baby.” Because he would sit and pour 'em all out to me, and then we would make them better. You know?  So we were happy because you're not going to be happy a lot of the time or some of the time, or maybe every now and then, but if you don't shoot for happy, what are we doing? So I'm trying really hard to find that place.  I love things that I read about that my friends do to make themselves happy. Because honestly, this is not a career where I have, you know, I have not made myself wealthy doing this and I have not made myself into a household name, but I am somebody who has worked a lot, and I think I'm respected, maybe, I don't know. I think people like my work, the ones that know about it.   I'm very proud of my life and my body of work. 

 Well, it's no secret, and it's never been a secret that you're one of my favorites since, when was Closer Than Ever, when we met down in Dallas. 

When God was a boy! (Laughing heartily)

I've been waving the Sally Mayes flag for all these years and when I found out that you were doing your own writing, writing your own play, that was a gift. Knowing that you're out there creating something that comes solely from you just makes me really happy.

But back to the group shows - I do the group shows because somebody I love asks me to do it. You know, Phil Geoffrey Bond is a very dear friend of mine, and when he asks me to do Sondheim Unplugged, I do. And now I'm a Grammy nominee (for the Sondheim Unplugged Vol. 3 CD).

I love that.

I said, “I'm just Grammy adjacent,”  and he was like,” No, I looked it up and everybody that's on the album is considered a Grammy nominee.” And I went, “Okay, I'll take it.”

It goes on the resume right now.

I enjoy doing stuff like that but I call myself the laziest gal in town because I really do what I want to do now. And this teaching job has kind of made that possible because it's kind of my anchor now. So if I don't want to do something for the money, or if I don't want to go out of town, I don't have to and so it's nice - you know, Bob and I are getting up there, so we're kind of looking at how this is going to look in the next 10 years or so. I don't think I'm going to be like Marilyn Maye or Julie Wilson. I don't think I'm going to be in my nineties, singing. I don't think I want to.  I'll always have music and I will always sing. I just don't know that I want to do that because it's very grueling. I'm not lazy and I work very hard, but it's exhausting… so what does it look like when I write… I can sit at my dining room table and look out the window at my lake and see the swans swimming by and have the sunshine and the beautiful blue sky. And I can sit and write on a song I can send it to somebody.  God bless Tex Arnold, I miss him every day because he lived in Riverdale and I would call him and go, “I got a lyric,” and he'd say, “Come over,” and I'd get in the car and I'd drive to Riverdale, which is only about 30 minutes from here and we would work all afternoon.  Alex Ryeck and I write together, and Ron Abel and I write together 'cause I don't really play anything, so I have to have a partner. But I usually come up with the lyric and the melody, and then I say, “Hey, what about this?” and I really love doing that, I really love that creativity. I really like working.  I think the better way to say that is I really like creating.

I think that you eat life, whether you're creating or making a family or hanging with friends, it's all about the life experience for you.

Well, I don't believe in reincarnation and I don't know what's there after you die.  I'd like to think that there's a heaven and a hell and that I'm going to get to go to heaven, but I don't know. And so I feel like this is it. This is my shot. I feel like I have to jump in and eat my life.

Sally, thanks for chatting with me today. I really appreciate it.

Thank you. And you're the best.

See the return of Sally Mayes in NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER on December 2nd at 9:30 pm at The Green Room 42.  Reservations can be made HERE.  NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER will be available for live stream audiences.

NOW AND THEN: THE TEASER will be the first in a series of shows, check the GR42 website for updates or follow Sally Mayes on Facebook HERE.


 



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