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Songs Of Musical Theater Giants : Cabaret Singer Hits The Right Notes

November 12, 1986|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — Michael Feinstein is a man on a musical mission "to preserve and present the music of the great American composers to the people.

"This music lives forever," the singer-pianist said recently. He was referring to the work of American musical theater giants from George and Ira Gershwin to Jerome Kern to Stephen Sondheim. "There is room for their music as well as for rock 'n' roll, and I intend to prove it."

Feinstein's three-week run at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill (through Nov. 29) marks the singer's return to Los Angeles, where his cabaret career was launched two years ago. Since then, Feinstein has appeared to critical and audience acclaim in San Francisco, London, Washington D.C., and here, at the legendary Algonquin Hotel. He also has released two albums, "Pure Gershwin" and "Michael Feinstein at the Algonquin."

At 29, Feinstein seems to have brought vitality to the frail world of cabaret as well as broadened exposure to what he lovingly calls "show tunes."

"He is superior at what he does," observed Burton Lane, Broadway composer of such shows as "Finian's Rainbow" and one of the few remaining songwriters from the generation most beloved by Feinstein. To prove it, the young musician recently recorded a demonstration tape of Lane's first two new songs since "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." "He not only recognizes the quality of the music and lyrics of these songs, he personally loves them and loves to perform them," Lane said.

"What has happened in the last two years is incredible," Feinstein said. Soft-spoken and far less animated in person than he appears during his anecdotal-filled performances, Feinstein reflected with amazement on the meteoric rise in his career, considering that he came to Los Angeles from his native Columbus, Ohio, only nine years ago "to try to manifest this music in my life."

Feinstein recalled the quick progress he made, from selling pianos in the Valley to working as an archivist for the late Ira Gershwin, "a childhood idol." During a six-year association with Gershwin that lasted until the composer's death in 1983, Feinstein became a protege and "the son he never had" and eventually found a place for himself as a performer.

"I would sit at Ira's feet and listen to stories about how he and his brother George created their songs," said Feinstein. "From him, I learned interpretation, lyric writing, the relationship of words to music, and I also started to develop my own playing. I would play some variations, and Ira would say, 'Now let me hear you play 'I Got Rhythm'."

Soon after Gershwin's death, Feinstein--"still in mourning"--started performing publicly for the first time, at 385 North. People's reactions to his performance and their enthusiasm for hearing Gershwin songs propelled him to go on with his career as a performer and removed his own doubts about the commerciality of the music he loved.

"In my gut, I felt a drive to come to Los Angeles, and in retrospect, I can see why," he said.

"I had never thought that I could make a living performing, and people said I'd never earn a living," Feinstein said of his move to Los Angeles. "But living in Columbus, Ohio, there aren't many people with whom you can discuss the Gershwins or even show tunes."

Feinstein recounted his early exposure to the classic American music. His parents were amateur musicians--a singer and a tap dancer. The eldest of three children, Feinstein described himself as a "shy, quiet, different" sort of child who first came to love George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at age 10.

"It's very hard to explain, but this kind of music touched my heart and made me feel something inside. It gave me a glimmer that there was something in this for me that would open up words of emotion I had not yet experienced," he said, adding, "really, the music chose me.

"This is why I would like to break through the mass market with this kind of music. . . It has value and importance for everybody, not just a few, and I think its values--the romance, the emotions--are the kind people need today."

Beyond cabaret performances, Feinstein will be seen in a coming NBC-TV movie, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," in which he said he performs a Burton Lane/Ralph Freed song, "How About You." He said he also soon will tape an appearance on a special to be seen next spring on the Public Broadcasting Service. He sees no bounds singing the American popular song.

"There are many vehicles for this music, from talk shows and TV specials to music videos to musical films--why not," he said. "I can take it as far as I want it to go."

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