Michael Feinstein Bringing the Great American Songbook to the Next Generation

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  • Noah Golden

Michael Feinstein is many things: a performer, pianist, composer, memoirist, teacher, conductor and musical historian. His life’s work has been cataloging and promoting The Great American Songbook, “the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs, jazz standards and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.” What started as a short job for a then-21-year-old Feinstein, to label and log decades of sheet music and records for Ira Gershwin, turned into a life’s work he still continues today through The Great American Songbook Foundation, a group he founded in 2007. Housed in Indiana, the Foundation includes an in-house library of artifacts, sheet music and recordings, as well as running multiple educational programs and concerts.

One of Feinstein’s favorite parts of the Foundation is the Songbook Academy, a weeklong intensive training camp they offer each summer to high school students. Applicants from all around the country apply via an audition video and 40 are ultimately chosen to travel to the Foundation’s headquarters in Indiana. There, there will spend a week in July in intensive training sessions, workshops and masterclasses in all aspects of performance from song selection to vocal technique to lyric interpretation. Each year, Feinstein himself mentors the students along with an impressive roster of other professionals. This year, he is joined by Tony-nominee Laura Osnes (“Cinderella,” “Grease”), Tony-nominee Michael McElroy (“Big River,” “Rent” and founder of Broadway Inspirational Voices), Grammy-winning vocalist Sylvia McNair, Grammy-winning vocalist and actress Melissa Manchester and composer/performer Nat Zegree. The week-long training session culminates in a concert, open to the public, where the students compete for titles. Previous winners, including “Hairspray Live’s” Maddie Baillio, have joined Feinstein at Lincoln Center and other prestigious venues.

To celebrate the Academy’s upcoming tenth cycle, I spoke to Mr. Feinstein on the telephone to learn more about why it’s so important to pass the torch that is The Great American Songbook to a new generation and how students across the country can learn more about these great artists. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: Why did you want to start the Academy summer program?

MF: When we created the Foundation, we were primarily focused on preserving this material and creating a museum, which is still an important goal. But we realized very quickly that perhaps something of more immediate importance is sharing the songs and the heritage and history with younger generations who might not be acquainted with it. So, we started the Songbook Academy and it's been one of the most gratifying parts of what we do. We introduce so much music to high school kids who either don't know the work or have a fleeting familiarity with it and they have these epiphanies with the songs. Or they connect with it so deeply because it expresses a certain part of who they are emotionally that isn't satisfied by other music. The Songbook Academy is a game changer for so many young people who participate, whether they pursue music professionally or not. It really fundamentally changes who they are.

NG: With this program, you are really focusing your efforts on educating teens on The Great American Songbook? What do you hope they will get out of learning this music?

MF: It's like Beethoven or Michelangelo. Shakespeare is not considered old fashioned in spite of everything that has come after him, because what he created was a unique expression of the time and still has deep relevance. It's the same thing with American popular song. This body of work is unique and it offers a different way to express the human condition. When I hear a young person sing “If I Only Had A Brain,” that incredible lyric is really is about the struggle to find oneself, to become whole in a time where one is not accepted for who they are. So, it's finding deeper meaning in these songs which are absolutely contemporary in what they convey. For me, this music is essential. If there were other expressions that that said it quite the same way, I would not care so much about it. But I've never found anybody to state some of the things stated in these songs in quite the same way. That's the beauty of it.

NG: What advice do you have for young people who aren’t very familiar with this music but want to learn?

MF: Well, I would start by watching certain musical films. Doris Day in “Love Me or Leave Me” or “Top Hat” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Judy Garland in practically anything she did. I would listen to the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks of Gershwin or Irving Berlin. Listen to Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Ethel Waters, Frank Sinatra, Fats Waller or Vic Damone. Just start to explore the songs and the songwriters. Every great artist I've ever known has been affected by everything that came before. It's a continuum. So, knowing history is always a valuable thing. A lot of these songs were written for Broadway shows in the ‘20s and ‘30s. In many cases, the shows have not lasted but the songs have. In those days, the show's plots were not particularly important, as crazy as that sounds, so the songs themselves had to be strong enough to express more than what was given in the context of the show. That's another reason they're so resonant. They are mini plays. If you look at “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” [from “Pal Joey”], it’s about a woman who is longing for the love and affection of a man who is not particularly good to her.

These songs can go very, very deep and are very contemporary in the experiences that they present. You can also see how different artists have individualized these songs and made them their own. That's the other thing that has made the work timeless. They’re malleable and can be reinterpreted in so many ways. “Summertime” was written for “Porgy and Bess” and yet a certain generation knows it from Janis Joplin, another generation may know it from Audra McDonald. The songs change with the times. 

NG: Are there performance tips you often find yourself giving?

MF: It all starts with words with the lyric. There are people who have great talent, who make beautiful sounds, but it means nothing if they aren't deeply invested in what the words are saying. Whether it's through a character or their own personality, it is all about the lyric. Any listener or person that watches someone onstage knows if they are is connected to what they're singing, whether it's conscious or unconscious. They feel it. I’m always challenging everybody to go deep with the lyric. The other [tip] is, if somebody is singing a song out of the context of a show, it's about connecting with the audience and looking at people.

For performers who have been trained in musical theater, one of the hardest things to do is actually look in the eyes and faces of people who are looking at you. I've known great Broadway stars who have refused my invitation to perform at a nightclub because they're so scared of not having the mantle of a character to protect them. It is life changing to be able to look into the eyes of somebody and sing a love song. To not be afraid to express that part of yourself and to be that vulnerable. It’s all about connecting to self-expression that is honest and that releases something that can’t be expressed in another way.

To learn more about The Great American Songbook Foundation, visit www.thesongbook.org.