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She has a PhD in cabaret

When it comes to songs, the fundamental things still apply to Andrea Marcovicci.

March 05, 2008|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Put down that martini and whip out your notebook: Cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci has just taken the stage and there might be a pop quiz on the Great American Songbook.

"How many of you here know where the song 'As Time Goes By' originally comes from?" she'll ask an unwary audience, as hands shoot up. "Wrong! It's not from 'Casablanca.' It's from 'Everybody's Welcome,' a 1931 Broadway show you've never heard of!"

And how about the plot thread linking virtually every movie that Fred Astaire made? "He falls in love at first sight in all of them," the singer tells another audience, brandishing film posters, yellowed newspaper clippings and other memorabilia to prove her point.

Get ready for more of the same this week when Marcovicci, one of America's top cabaret performers, brings her songs and traveling classroom to the Gardenia in West Hollywood for a two-weekend gig. "Marcovicci and Movies II," revisiting a theme she first explored 22 years ago, will examine the history and romance of popular songs in films, from "The Gay Divorcee" to "Toy Story 2."

These days it's not enough just to sing standards for increasingly sophisticated audiences. You've got to tell the cultural back story of a song, and the formula has become a staple for cabaret artists including Michael Feinstein, Mary Cleere Haran, Maude Maggart and Jessica Molaskey. Savvy historical patter can spice up a nightclub act -- and preserve an important musical legacy.

"I've been performing cabaret for 22 years, and I gradually began to enjoy the research aspect of my work as much as the actual performance," said Marcovicci, 59, during a recent visit to New York. "I have a library at home which is filled with books and recordings, and it's getting larger. It finally took over my garage, and a big part of this is me wanting to have more authority and knowledge -- to inform people at the same time I entertain them."

The work goes beyond her annual gigs at the Gardenia, the Oak Room at New York's Algonquin Hotel, San Francisco's Plush Room and other high-profile nightclubs. Marcovicci, a longtime Studio City resident, has mentored several young singers who have adopted her "history and singing" approach. She's also taught master classes in cabaret in several U.S. cities and has made 17 recordings.

She casts an intense dramatic spell in live sets, drawing on her background as a stage, television and movie actress (Marcovicci starred opposite Woody Allen in "The Front," a 1976 film about blacklisting). But her painstaking research into the history of pop songs can also lead to moments of wicked onstage humor.

During a recent show devoted to the works of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Marcovicci hit all the high points, discussing the historical roots of "My Funny Valentine," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "Blue Moon." She also regaled the audience with the back story of the duo's 1928 show, "Chee Chee," a huge flop.

"It was an extravaganza about the son of the Grand Eunuch running away from his duties to inherit the throne as the next Grand Eunuch, and, yes, it begs the question: How did a eunuch have a son in the first place?" the singer said. "The critics were outraged and, as Richard Rodgers said many years later: 'You can't just talk about castration all evening. It's not only embarrassing, it's dull!' "

Marcovicci is coy about the contents of her new Hollywood show but promises to carry on in the same irreverent spirit. And this time, in addition to a history lesson, she'll be venturing into psychology: Why, she wonders, do songs from the movies affect us so deeply?

"They connect us to our romantic souls," she suggested, racing through the years and singing snatches of "Moon River," "Young at Heart," "It Might Be You," "The Way We Were," "Charade" and "Thanks for the Memory." These hugely popular Hollywood songs "remind us that romance exists and that taking time to express romantic thoughts and deeds is an absolute necessity in life. They're more than a soundtrack -- they're a part of cultural history."

Sometimes that history is intensely personal.

When "Toy Story 2" came out, Marcovicci and her husband took their young daughter to see it. The singer wept during Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me," a heartbreakingly beautiful lament by a doll who's no longer needed by the girl who once played with her.

Years later, the singer and her husband reluctantly split up, "a loving separation," she said. As he packed his suitcase and got ready to leave, Marcovicci sadly put her head on his shoulder and began singing "When She Loved Me."

"This will be the first time that I'll try to sing the song in public," she said of her new cabaret show. "I'm not sure I'll get through it."

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josh.getlin@latimes.com

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Andrea Marcovicci

Where: Gardenia, 7066 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and March 13-15

Contact: (323) 467-7444

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