Charles Busch’s “Lady at the Mic” Playlist
February 19th, 2016
The Tony nominee shares his favorite recordings by five remarkable women—Elaine Stritch, Mary Cleere Haran, Julie Wilson, Polly Bergen, and Joan Rivers—before he pays tribute to them at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook.
The great Elaine Stritch didn’t record very often. One of her first successes in the theater was in the Noël Coward musical Sail Away. In her brilliant 2002 one-woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty, she recreated one of her big numbers from Sail Away, “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” Thankfully, the show was faithfully recorded. Stritch’s tough American gravel and Coward’s elegant comic rhymes are a marriage that works beautifully.
Also, on YouTube there is a 2013 audio clip of Stritch in her final cabaret show at the Café Carlyle doing a heartbreakingly simple medley of two Stephen Sondheim songs, “The Road You Didn’t Take” and “A Parade in Town.” Every actor should listen to this as a supreme lesson of being “in the moment.”
Mary Cleere Haran
Mary Cleere Haran was one of the glittering lights in a particularly golden period of New York cabaret in the 1990s. Slim and elegant with a tough intelligence, she evoked a very brainy, witty, cool contemporary version of Doris Day. She recorded several albums, and all are treasures. I’m particularly fond of her interpretation of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” from her 1994 album This Heart of Mine. She makes the song sexy, and it’s full of wonderful surprises.
I also love her recording of the great torch song “The Man I Love” from her 1999 album Gershwin on Broadway. Her voice is so silky smooth, and her very restrained emotion is somehow very moving.
Julie Wilson had a fascinating career. She spent years as a glamorous, sexy nightclub chanteuse, singing naughty songs for tired businessman. She disappeared from the scene for nearly eight years to return to her hometown of Omaha to take care of her mother and raise her two sons. She then returned to New York in the 1980s, reinvented as a profoundly moving interpreter of the American songbook. I particularly love her blistering interpretation of “Surabaya Johnny” from her 1988 album Julie Wilson Sings the Kurt Weill Songbook. She sings with a compelling mixture of speech and melody and is pure theater.
I’m also crazy about her medley of two Sondheim songs—“With So Little To Be Sure Of” and “Too Many Mornings”—from her 1987 album The Sondheim Songbook. (In fact, I’m singing that arrangement in my American Songbook concert.) It’s so wonderful how she and her great arranger, William Roy, make a cohesive one-act play out of these two gorgeous songs.
Polly Bergen possessed one of the most beautiful, lush contralto voices in popular music. You can drown in the sheer beauty of it, and yet she was also an intense actress in every song. A good example is the title track of her 1957 album The Party’s Over. Many people have sung it beautifully, but Bergen’s version is so indelible that it became something of a theme song for her.
One of her first big successes was playing the role of Helen Morgan in a television adaptation of The Helen Morgan Story. She won an Emmy for her performance and in 1957 recorded a beautiful album, Polly Bergen Sings Helen Morgan. One of my favorite cuts from that album is her version of “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” Listening to Polly Bergen sing is like devouring a fabulous piece of chocolate cake.
In my show, I’m also paying tribute to a good friend of mine whom I miss terribly: Joan Rivers. She definitely was not a singer, but she certainly was a lady at the mic. She spent her life performing solo in clubs and theaters. She recorded a number of hysterically funny live comedy albums, but I think my favorite is her last, Don’t Start With Me, from 2012. Her comic timing and take on life grew richer as she got older. Perhaps I also love it because this older Joan was the lady I had the great opportunity to know and to love.