Getting serious for a moment, this is the fact around which we will orbit: What really constitutes American culture? Literature and architecture and painting -- yes, certainly. But what particularly animates our hearts is song -- and, in particular, the living energy of the American musical theater. In that buoyant realm, there’s no greater literate master than lyricist and writer Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986). The open-and-shut-case evidence for this assertion is his CV: On A Clear Day, Brigadoon, Gigi, Paint Your Wagon, An American In Paris (story and screen play), Camelot, and -- most famously, My Fair Lady.
Watching our black and white TV, as a child I noticed my parents (and the studio audience) were delighted by a singer I’d never heard of. I could not understand the big to-do about him. Yes, he was pleasant-enough looking, but no Robert Goulet (a handsome icon of the day).Nor did he have that take-charge “Broadway voice," so often found on our household’s collection of cast recordings of musicals -- like the ones my sister and I listened-to ad nauseam and memorized. My mother answered: “Doesn’t his singing make you want to get up and dance!” Setting aside my small boy’s considerations, I found I did want to get up and dance. This was my first realization that there was another kind of singer, one who worked a quieter kind of magic then unknown to me.
That long-forgotten memory -- of an un-bombastic (but still moving) performance -- was resurrected when Steve Ross strode toward the stage at Birdland, singing, unaccompanied, the opening verse to Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s “You’re All the World to Me” (from the movie Royal Wedding). By the time he reached the piano and continued the body of the song, I was hooked, even mesmerized for the next hour and twenty minutes (and I did want to get up and dance when Mr. Ross transitioned from that lilting love ballad to the rousing “I’m on My Way” from Lerner and Lowe’s Paint Your Wagon)!
There could be no more ideal person than Steve Ross to offer a show celebrating Alan Jay Lerner. He is a magnetic blending of vocal and instrumental talent, charm, showmanship, and musical intelligence -- and he emanated an infectious joy in sharing gems from the Lerner songbook.
That evening, Mr. Ross (hereafter referred to as Steve), presented twenty-nine songs written by Lerner, some played with deceptive simplicity (the lovely “I Never Met a Rose” from The Little Prince) -- and others with his original unique arrangements, as with his rendition of “On a Clear Day” (which he opened with an unusual and compelling minor chord setting). Enhancing the course of the evening, Steve shared insightful back-stories of the songs, showing how Lerner honed his craft over many years, creating some of the most literate lyrics ever written for the stage. Included was the story of the stress in mounting Camelot during the final months of rehearsals, which had both Lerner (with bleeding ulcers) and the show’s director, Moss Hart (with a heart attack), passing each other in-and-out of the hospital. But “the show must go on” -- and did it ever, flourishing across 873 performances.
As far as I am concerned, every single song Steve performed that night was a “highlight," therefore I will only mention several highlights of highlights. I particularly enjoyed Lerner songs from shows of which I was unfamiliar: “My Last Love,” a sweet love ballad from the first Lerner-Lowe musical, What’s Up (1943); “Try Love,” and the darkly hilarious “I’ve Been Married,” from the un-produced My Man Godfrey (with music by Gerard Kenny); and “One More Walk Around The Garden,” from Carmelina. At one point, Steve stepped away from the piano to sing a cappella, doing both parts of “I Remember It Well” from Gigi -- the evening’s comedic-dramatic high point, eliciting thunderous applause.
Steve’s special guest, the radiant and comely soprano, Shana Farr, joined him for “Here I’ll Stay” from Lerner’s Love Life (with music by Kurt Weill), and “From this Day On” from Brigadoon. Ms. Farr also soloed with resolute renditions of “Show Me” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. This singer has focus -- and power! -- and Steve chose superbly, bringing her into this joyful production.
Many cabaret luminaries were in attendance: K.T. Sullivan, Karen Akers, and others (and I am sure it was not only friendship which brought them there). Mr. Ross is a consummate performer, and there’s much to learn from how he approaches music, presents himself, and what he selects to sing. The intimacy of cabaret requires the performer to be present, as if they were singing personally to every audience member: not singing to all of us, but to each of us. Any hint of pretense or distance will cause an audience to drop from adulation to (at most) polite applause. Not many can perform with such authenticity, and even fewer with consistency -- but Steve is a master at it.
Further, he is adept at what could be called “the art of popular singing” -- which has as many distinctions (and challenges) as grand opera. Like one of his favorite singers, Fred Astaire, Steve knows how to approach singing in such a way that, even if you have heard a song over-and-over, it is as if you are hearing it rejuvenated. His intonation, his subtle variations in rhythm, and his perfect-yet-unstilted enunciation can make a worn, warhorse song into something fresh again.
In Japan, they designate "National Living Treasures": individuals whose consummate skills, craftsmanship, achievement, or artistry are a central part of the nation’s cultural riches. It’s about time that we institute such a practice! -- and when we do, Mr. Steve Ross will be the first to be designated such a treasure.