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Archive for the category “My cabaret journey begins”

Mentors and Training

When I was writing a bio recently for a program it was suggested we give a rundown of our musical training and background. My goodness, I thought, this is what trained musicians do and if I’m going to be a singer now I should give this some thought and attention.

From the high school choir and band follies to my vocal studies as an under-grad my singing abilities were never anything more than adequate. I knew I was a tenor and could sing very loudly if I didn’t watch it! I learned to blend into ensembles in church and school.

I worked at improving my vocal technique off and on through the years with several very good teachers. At Western Michigan University I worked with Dr. Elwin Carter who was the vocal director for University Singers, a stylish singing ensemble for which I had nothing but admiration. My lessons with Doc Carter never won me even an audition for the elite ensemble, but he set me on a path of serious voice work when I studied regularly with him one on one over the summer of 1966.

I didn’t have an opportunity to study singing again until I found myself employed at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in 1973. While in Ashland, I answered an advertisement for voice lesson by one Cornelia Clemens (the widow of Hans Clemens, a well-known German tenor). She introduced me to several of the basic concepts of Italian bel canto singing. I proceeded to working on art songs with Cornelia before my departure from Ashland.

Training at ACT in San Francisco, we had group lessons with the remarkable Stewart Brady. Stewart had been a child prodigy as a singer and began teaching when he matured and settled in San Francisco. He mastered a very free and open interpretation of vocal production which seemed to me to be compatible with what I understood of bel canto. I followed up our group sessions with a series of private lessons with Stewart when I could afford them. After that I worked with one of Stewart’s protégés, Derek Winterbottom.

Though the years I made progress in singing working with the various Music Directors in shows in which I was cast, especially in song interpretation and in expanding my range when I was cast in baritone roles. There is nothing quite like the school of hard knocks to teach you the ropes. I learned to sing on “mic” primarily in performance and was at the mercy of the sound techs for making me sound decent whilst over-singing.

My current voice teacher, Mr. Matthew Ellenwood, has a very organic (and scientific) understanding of vocal technique which is founded on the principle that there is one voice for singing as well as speaking. He not only knows what’s happening in an optimized technique for various styles of singing but can communicate his knowledge in practice. My most valuable lessons from Matthew so far are getting a better grasp of the “light” voice used on microphone for pop and cabaret, not to mention amplified theatre singing.

When I’m done warming up every day, I perform one of my “challenge” pieces where I stretch with an art song or something musically demanding and then I proceed to practice whatever I’m currently preparing for my repertoire.

And so there’s a little information on my musical training and practice.

No tootsie wootsie for me!

So, I’ve decided that the lyric “tootsie-wootsie” gives me the heebie-jeebies.  The working title for my summer show will need to be changed.  The “Good Old Summertime” may be an instrumental (perhaps an overture because it sets the right tone).  But those lyrics will not be uttered by me!  There’s nothing wrong with Judy Garland’s movie, but can’t sing those words.

I’ve been away for much of the month of March and April spending time in Florida (fabulous Disney World) and Chicago.  But I’m back to the creative tasks at hand.  My working title is now “In the Season of Plenty” but that doesn’t sound like much fun, so I’m also tinkering with “Summer Smiles”.  How about Plenty of Summer Smiles?  Oh, well, I’ll get there.

This post will be the final entry concerning the ground work for my enterprise so I’d like to note at this point some of the resources that have been guiding me.  I have joined the Chicago Cabaret Professionals as an associate member.  I’ve been attending open mike nights and cabaret performances again.  I used to go a lot when I lived in NYC and San Francisco.  But I’m just catching up with the scene here (and in Florida).

I found my copy of “The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook” which is a collection of essays by Bob Harrington edited by Sherry Eaker.  The late Mr. Harrington covered the cabaret scene for the press while I was in NYC so I often read his columns when they first came out.  This collection is invaluable general information.

I’m busy rehearsing my material which is about 95% chosen, there may be last minute tweaks to the program, but I’ll go into that more in my subsequent posts.  And then I’m beginning to concentrate on the producing side of the project, shooting for a summer-solstice debut.

I had wonderful re-enforcement while I was visiting the Magic Kingdom.  One cast member who was jollying me up said I looked just like Burl Ives.  That made my day.  I hope it makes my career.  The kind a material that Burl Ives liked, starting with folk music and Americana with a heavy lean towards sentiment and novelty is exactly my cup of tea.  And I couldn’t find a better image than the funny uncle with which Ives presented.  Got it, now to get it!

Cole Porter and Me

No doubt leading ladies and leading men rule as the queens and kings of cabaret.  But there is also room for the jester.  Comedy acts have always been the other attraction in clubs and cabaret, a comfortable contrast to the purveyors of romance.

As a character actor in the musical theatre I often played the clown that put the comedy in musical comedy.  So I envision my choice of material for my own act to be largely centered round novelty material.

Let me explain a bit.  In as much as you can generalize, Tin Pan Alley had three genera of songs, Ballads, Up-tunes (dance tunes), and Novelty numbers.  Novelty numbers could, and often did, include funny songs, but also charming or off-beat conceptions that extended the other genera into places that were not typical, hence: the name “novelty.”  So a novelty song could be a ballad or up-tune that had comedic intent.  In musical comedy this often involved special material written for a certain known comedian’s persona.

In comedy, I think it is vital for the performer to know his place in the universe.  You must understand and have command of your image: how you appear to the audience, how the public perceives your personal character. This is a vital element on which your ability to amuse depends.  In my case, I have two classic characters in which I find fertile comic ground.   These two comic “types” are both ones with which I can identify and which an audience readily identifies in me, the performer.

The “buffoon” is the first classic type I’m talking about.  Both inept villains and pompous know-it-alls (and absent minded professors) fall into the buffoon type and I’ve played many.  The fun comes from an audience’s perception of the distance between what the character thinks of himself and the obvious truth.  Roles of this type for me include Clarence Cutler in “Boy Meets Boy” and an assortment of other bumbling ‘sneeds’ and ‘snidelys’ that I’ve played.

The “pathetic clown” is the other classic gold I’ve prospected over the years.  One of my friends in graduate school, Carolyn Martino, who, incidentally, has become a solo performer herself, having observed my work for some time told me she thought I was a “Victor Moore” type.  It was years before I realized fully what she meant.  But when I finally got it, it was very helpful.  I was eventually cast in a summer-stock production of Anything Goes playing the role that Cole Porter and company created for Victor Moore.  And the part fit like a glove.

Victor Moore is one of “The Great Clowns of Broadway” profiled by Stanley Green in book by that title.  To summarize, Moore had a lengthy career from the turn of the 20th Century to the 1960’s and was featured in stage and screen works by George M. Cohen, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and, most notably, by Cole Porter.  He is known more today for his screen work, particularly as the side-kick to Fred Astaire in the movie “Swing Time.”  His parts written for stage are notoriously hard to cast these days (Joel Grey is playing his role as an old vaudevillian in the current revival of Anything Goes) because Victor Moore was so distinctly inimitable, one of a kind.  But I nailed him.  Of course, I came by it naturally, as my friend Carolyn (bless her heart) pointed out.

According to Green, Moore’s professional persona was evident early on.  As a juvenile he co-starred in Cohen’s “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway” with Fay Templeton.  He played a “reformed” boxer with a gentle, sentimental side.  He went on to specialize in scrappy, street smart characters with a sentimental heart of gold.  In more mature roles he was often cast as a lovable if nefarious con-man or politician.  His gentle, unassuming personality sent up the incongruous professions of his characters, none more than when he played Vice-president Throttlebottom in Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” His portrayal is said to have crystalized the public’s estimation of that second-banana in the government (the Vice-President) as being a non-entity.

To me, Moore epitomized the classic sad clown who is always out of his depth, but manages to triumph in an orgy of passive aggression, exaggeratedly self-effacing, but completely adorable.

Victor Moore was eulogized (by playwrights Lindsay and Crouse) as “someone all the members of the audience wanted to take home with them.”

I researched  Moore’s career thoroughly, and tried to track down every piece of music written for him.  My interest paid off, when in 1988 I won the Victor Moore role in a revival of Cole Porter’s “Leave It to Me” at the Equity Library Theatre.  Moore’s main song in this show was a big hit for me and resulted in some great notices and led on to other opportunities.

It also led me to continue my association with Cole Porter.  For some years I tried to put together an act for cabaret featuring Porter’s more sophisticated novelty material working with performance coach James Followell.  I tried to associate the material with the persona of Porter’s friend and mentor Monty Woolley.  That act never came off, but it kept me engaged with Porter tunes for a very long time.

In reflecting on that failure, I realized how much I liked the thread in Porter’s work that I call “Americana.”  Every so often, Porter just let his Hoosier roots rip and the results were some very charming inventions.  Some of them, including one introduced by Victor Moore, will be included “In the Good Old Summertime.”

So in devising the program at hand, I’m finding material that relates to fun in the summer.  I’m looking for nostalgic charm, and sentiment, the sort of entertainment that would have worked in the family parlor or with a small band at a seaside resort.  And yes, some of it will be funny!

I’ll also be taking a closer look at the Judy Garland film “In the Good Old Summertime.” Although it wasn’t my first frame of reference for my act, I don’t want to disappoint audience expectations since I’ve lately discovered it’s known and loved by many.

I’ll have more to share about how this project is developing, coming soon.

Original Material

In 1988 Paul L. Johnson* and I worked on a revival of Cole Porter’s “Leave It to Me” at Equity Library Theater.  He played piano in the orchestra.  I played the comic lead, Alonso Goodhue, a part created by comedy star Victor Moore.  Paul and I became friends and happily he has gone on to many successes as a music director and especially as a composer.  So when I approached him with my need for two original songs for my act, he agreed to have a go at collaborating.  The results were excellent and one of the two songs “Night before Christmas Jig” is my favorite song in the show.  It is a delight to perform and warmly received.

Paul has extensive experience in the cabaret scene in and around New York.  In addition to composing full scores for several musicals, he had a noteworthy collaboration creating songs with Hector Coris one of the founders of Opening Doors Theatre who won a MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs) Award for Male Vocalist of the Year in 2010.  They clearly had a wicked sense of humor when they wrote the award-winning 2006 musical comedy revue “What’s Your Problem?!”  Check it out on Youtube.

From the first time I was privileged to introduce an original song in performance, this has been one of my singular joys.  I was working with Edith O’Hara at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood where we had closed her wonderful production of “Boy Meets Boy.”  Among the shows she subsequently produced at this theater which was then called the Lyric Repertory Company was a revival of a children’s show she had done before, but which needed a new score.  This effort became “Gingerbread” the Hansel and Gretel story with music by Ron Browning and Ron Creager, the music directing partners we had worked with on “Boy.”   Ron wrote a beautiful duet for Papa (me) and Mama, and singing that lovely duet was one of the highlights of my time in Los Angeles.

Ron has gone on to a noteworthy career as a Voice and Performance coach in Nashville, TN with a distinguished clientele.  You can learn more about Ron Browning here.

Boy Meets Boy” was a long running off-Broadway hit in NYC and the original production was spun off into several west coast companies.  I was in the second S.F. company playing Clarence Cutler.  This brilliant show had a juicy 1930’s style pastiche score by Bill Solly.  Although I didn’t create the role of Clarence, I was about the third person to ever play the part.

After a long stint in classical theatre (my other love being performing in Shakespeare), I made my return to musical theatre when in 1982 my friend Mike Snider cast me in his Cinnamon Bear Show: “Who Needs Sneeds.”  This was a children’s musical sponsored by IBM and it had an original score by Dana Libonati and Mike Snider.  The score and the show were full of pizzazz and I was about the second actor to touch that material, the show having been developed in Portland, OR.

Also in New York about 1989 I was cast to play original roles in “Troubadour” by Bert Draesel  and John Martin, a musical about St. Francis of Assisi, I played Francesco’s dad and the Pope!  The score existed before I was cast, but I was among the first actors to fully perform it (as far as I know, although there may have been a concert version before our staging).   This had a nice little run off-off Broadway at Riverwest Theatre and was a pleasure to perform.  The piece has been rewritten since and was revived in 2009.

So, I hope original music will always have a place in my repertoire.  I’m also very fond of parody and will continue to write take-offs on popular tunes (like my partner David Stephens and I did in “Dear Ole Santy Claus”) when inspiration strikes.  I’m currently working on the program for “In the Good Old Summertime” which has me knee deep in Cole Porter, a place I dearly love to be!  More on that next.

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*Paul L. Johnson “is a musical director, arranger and award-winning composer. He composed the scores to several popular musicals at Wings Theatre (Cowboys!, Tango Masculino, The Three Musketeers and Nile Blue). He has composed a over twenty shows, numerous songs for cabaret and has several more musical projects in the making. Most recently, Mr. Johnson scored and co-wrote a musical adaptation of As You Like It for Vital Children’s Theater. In the last 22 years, Mr. Johnson has musical directed more than 120 shows Off-Broadway, off-Off-Broadway and regionally; his credits include She Loves Me, Gigi, and Side By Side By Sondheim. He received OOBR Awards for Tango Masculino and Cowboys!. His and Hector Coris’popular debut show Not Me garnered a 2004 MAC Award nomination for Outstanding Special Material.” (Source: http://www.the-chimes.com/authors.html, accessed 2/12/2014)

More on Santa Songs Debut

Having spent a lot of time at Christmas time ho, ho, ho-ing through the years and having a strong desire to do more singing, it occurred to me to put together a song cycle about the place that Santa holds in our holiday traditions.

My friends at Premier Arts in Elkhart, Indiana were enthusiastic and supportive and I was able to use their facilities as a base.  They are a community performing arts organization with a strong educational component and I was able to collaborate with Vocal Director Liesl Bell in preparing the material and Liesl also accompanied me in performing what we had created together.

When the holidays approached I contacted a local venue very near my home.  Paul Guzman and Bonnie Barrett of Stone Soup Emporium and Bonnie and Clyde’s Soda Shop in Bristol, Indiana agreed to host my show.  They have been having music on the weekends and are beginning to draw crowds. I have been seeing friends from the Elkhart Civic Theater perform there and knew what a cozy and appropriately festive venue it could be.

I performed a dress rehearsal for an invited audience on Dec. 15, 2011 and had my friend Mel Moore (an accomplished musician) photograph the event.  Mel is very experienced at candid photography for performing arts and did a great job for me.  Please check out his work by clicking my Flickr Feed on this page.  The show debuted Dec.16 for two nights.

For those who weren’t able to attend but are interested, the musical program was:

  • Mummer’s Bells (lyric traditional, original music by Paul Johnson, 2011)
  • Ballad of St. Nicholas (lyric Mike Sherer, music traditional)
  • Night before Christmas Jig (Clement Moore, music Paul Johnson, 2011)
  • Toyland (Herbert and MacDonough, 1903)
  • Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (Jessel and McDonald, 1922)
  • Pine Cones and Holly Berries/It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Medley – Meredith Willson, 1963)
  • That’s What I’d Like for Christmas (Bricusse and Ornadel, 1963)
  • Dear Ol’ Santy Claus (lyrics – Dan Johnson and David Stephens, music trad.)
  • Silver and Gold (Johnny Marks, 1992)
  • Oh, Christmas Tree! (Traditional)
  • Expect Things to Happen (Meredith Willson, 1963)
  • Up on the Rooftop (Traditional)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Gillespie and Coots, 1932)
  • A Christmas Parade (Traditional, Lyrics by Dan Johnson)
  • Yes, Virginia (Whatley and Schermerhorn, 2010)
  • Here Comes Santa Claus (Autry and Haldeman, 1947)

I’m told by people that did attend that they had a very nice time.

More on the Debut Performance program:

Acknowledgements: thanks to all those who made the performance possible, especially Miriam Houck and John Shoup and the Elkhart Civic Theatre, our friends at Premier Arts in Elkhart, Chad Hoefle, graphics design, and Mel Moore photography and our hosts Bonnie Barrett and Paul Guzman.

Liesl Bell is Vocal Director for Premier Art’s productions and is a professional voice teacher with the Premier Arts Academy.

Daniel Johnson, a veteran of local theatre, has also appeared regionally in such roles as Ben Franklin in “1776”, Mooney in “Anything Goes” and Marcellus in “The Music Man”.  He has particularly enjoyed creating original roles in “Troubadour” Bert Draesel and John Martin’s musical about St. Francis, Papa in the children’s musical “Gingerbread” and a singing villain in Mike Snider’s Cinnamon Bear Show:  “Peppermint Bear and the Elves that Forgot Christmas.”  He has played featured musical roles in revivals of works from Gilbert and Sullivan to Cole Porter.

I’ll be telling you more about friend and composer Paul Johnson’s wonderful work in future posts.

Season’s Greetings!

During the 2011 Holiday season, Dan entertained the local crowd at Bristol, Indiana’s Stone Soup Emporium with a full evening of “Santa Songs: A Christmas Cabaret.”  Now he will give you:

“In the Good Old Summertime”, a program of fun songs for fun times by Cole Porter and others.   Coming in June, 2012

At Christmas time there will be a revival of Santa Songs in a more compact edition called “Carols and Kris Kringle”

Upcoming seasons will see a revival of “When you Were Queen of the May” A romantic remembrance of local history with old-time tunes and stories told down by the old St. Joe.  And also, “Another Autumn” from John Barleycorn to The Frost is on the Punkin’, this show will have everyone in the mood for apple picking and hay rides.

Also, in development “Lyrics by Shakespeare”, which is a winter-time program of Shakespeare’s Songs and Sonnets on the perplexity of love to warm your heart and tickle your funny-bone, perfect for Valentine’s seeking something different or for lovers of the Bard, featuring modern renditions of songs of the Renaissance by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Each program will be under an hour and portable for local and regional events.

Whether your group, club or venue wants to celebrate Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day or the old fashioned joys of Spring, Summertime or Harvest Home, Actor/Singer Daniel T. Johnson will have a program for you.

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