Michael Feinstein is a force of nature in the music world. In entertainment terms, he is a performer and recording artist with platinum-selling CDs and five Grammy nominations, and performs more than 150 shows a year. In business terms, he owns his own record label and his own New York City nightclub, Feinstein’s, where some of Broadway’s biggest names, such as Patti Lupone, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster, Barbara Cook, Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Alan Cumming, Adam Pascal and even Glee’s Lea Michele have performed cabaret acts.
In music history, one of his first jobs was as Ira Gershwin’s assistant for six years with access to numerous unpublished Gershwin tunes. Feinstein is dedicated to preserving America’s musical treasures and serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board. His preservation work led to a PBS three-part series, Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, and has earned him the designation “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.”
This year, Feinstein took over as director of the Jazz and Popular Song Series at New York’s Lincoln Center, and next year, he starts yet another new job as artistic director of the new Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind. At age 54, he was written stage musicals and scores for movies and television. He’s performed at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the White House and Buckingham Palace. And oh yeah, in his spare time, he’s designing a new piano for Steinway called “The First Ladies,” which was inspired by the White House piano.
For a couple of hours on Nov. 17, the multi-talented whirlwind that is Michael Feinstein will touch down on the stage of Dallas’ Winspear Opera House to share his love of music. TheaterJones pinned him down long enough for a phone interview before he blows into town.
TJ: What can we look forward to at your Dallas show?
MF: I’ll be performing with a 17-piece band, which is a rarity these days, and that makes me very happy. The show is mainly centered around my Sinatra recording [last year’s Ol’ Blue Eyes] plus selections from The American Songbook.
Your PBS series, Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, was shown on PBS last month and now is available on DVD. How long did it take to complete that project?
The production company, Hudson West, spent two years filming me, then they had to edit all of the footage together. I told Amber Edwards [the producer and director] I wanted nothing to do with the creative or editorial content. I wanted her to have complete control of that part. It would have been too emotional for me.
What are the challenges of preserving music?
There are many, unfortunately. We live in a disposable society, and people don’t understand that musical treasures are in danger of disappearing. Just because something is on an LP or CD doesn’t mean a master recording of the original exists. Things get thrown away, and people don’t have an awareness of that happening.
You are known as the “Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.” Did you ever foresee that title being bestowed upon you? What does that responsibility mean to you?
Lord, no! It’s just evolved … it’s just wonderful that I get to do what I most love to do. It’s not really a responsibility, it’s being true to myself. It’s not a responsibility, but a joy. And people love to share in the joy of music. It’s an amazing thing. The responses I get prove that there is a large and dedicated audience for the music I share. The responsibility I have as an entertainer is to entertain. I have such fun sharing music, but as an entertainer. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that my performance is anything clinical—it’s fun.
You perform 150 times a year, you have a record label, your nightclub in New York City, your preservation work, your series at the Lincoln Center and a new job starting in January as artistic director of the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind. How do you juggle everything?
I just take one step at a time and focus on what’s at hand. It’s about focusing on what needs to be done next, and a really organized schedule.
With the new job in Carmel and moving your foundation there, does that mean you will be relocating to Indiana?
I have bought a home there to spend some time there, yes, but I’m not relocating there.
What are your goals as artistic director of Carmel’s new performing arts center?
The new center is an extraordinary place. It’s a $180 million complex. My goal is to bring entertainment and culture to the community that they desire, but also introducing people to things they might not be aware of. My other goal is to be successful at a time when the arts are in danger.
What is the arts funding situation in Carmel?
The community has supported and funded the center. The citizens of Carmel have created it and desired it. They will have to have a desire for it to also succeed, and I think it will. There is nothing else like it in the area. People will come from all around—there really isn’t anything like it in the Midwest.
Whose music is your favorite to interpret?
Gershwin was my first, and is my greatest, influence.
What was it like working as Gershwin’s assistant?
Well, it was quite a heady experience for a 20-year-old. What I loved the most was his interpretation of songs. It’s where I learned that lyric and music have to have equal importance. You can’t have strong lyrics with weak music. One depends completely on the other for them to work.
What is your favorite memory of your time with Gershwin?
My favorite memory is the joy of playing his songs for him. He would be so happy hearing me play songs for him that he had written 40 or 50 years before. He got such joy from hearing them again and making contact with them again.
Last year, you did a CD of Sinatra songs. Who is the next artist to whom you would like to pay tribute?
My next recording to come out is a live recording that I did with Barbara Cook that was recorded at my nightclub, Feinstein’s. And I have a recording coming out with the Carmel Symphony. Next fall, I will have another PBS special that will be centered either around Sinatra or Sinatra and his cronies, like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., those who were known as the Rat Pack. I haven’t decided yet.
How in the world did you and Dame Edna ever team up?
I’ve known Dame Edna since we met on The Tonight Show many years ago. We met there, and Barry Humphries and his wife came to be great friends [of min]. We always talked about working together, so that’s how that happened. I love what Dame Edna does.
Do you foresee a time when you will focus on just one aspect of your career, like preservation work or just performing?
Anything’s possible. I just take it as it comes. I say “yes” to opportunities that feel exciting to me. I feel a sense of urgency, and that the world is changing. Every day is a gift.