For New Show, Cabaret's Mary Catherine Ward Looks Inward (With a Little Help from Faith Prince)

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 1, 2022

 Mary Catherine Ward
Mary Catherine Ward   

"It was uncomfortable being the focus of questions," admits seasoned Boston cabaret singer Mary Catherine Ward about the creation of her new cabaret show, "because I'm usually the one asking the questions." Ward has been a professional clinical social worker in a local hospital full time, with a private practice on the side for almost 30 years, where she listens to people share stories about their lives, not speak about her own. But Ward's director knew she needed to draw Ward out of her comfort zone, into a place of greater vulnerability in order to bring that sense of thrill to her cabaret show. So, the director interviewed Ward, probing her for hours to get Ward to speak about her life, knowing that together they would find the essence that sparks magic in a cabaret show.

The director was uniquely qualified to use that investigative technique because she was none other than the Tony Award winning Broadway leading lady Faith Prince, and she knew from years of experience leading cabaret workshops and master classes that it works. Veteran of more than a dozen Broadway shows, including the 1992 Revival of "Guys and Dolls," which garnered her a Tony Award for her performance as Adelaide, Prince knew the secret to connecting with the audience was for the performer to connect with themselves. "It took me a while to settle down and feel at ease with that," confesses Ward, who had done numerous cabaret shows on her own, but none this personal. But, having worked closely with Prince, the product of Ward's deep dive into her inner soul is her upcoming show, "The Me Nobody Knows," with the Tom LaMark Quartet this Sunday, December 4, at the Club Café's Moonshine Room. Edge sat down earlier this week with Ward and discovered she has no problem at all talking about herself as we learned more about her relationship with Faith Prince, her fabulous co-writer Rod Ferguson, and her past that nobody knows.

Mary Catherine Ward
Mary Catherine Ward  (Source: Susan Wilson)

EDGE: Growing up, what were some of your influences?

Mary Catherine Ward: Hearing the Original Cast Recording of "Bells Are Ringing." I always liked musicals: "Music Man", "The Sound of Music." My parents had all the original cast recordings in their collection. I liked Judy Garland but I'm more of a Barbara Cook girl. I was more of a soprano in my early days. In school and glee club, I liked to sing the high notes. I took singing lessons, with a teacher down the street. I tried out some musicals in high school and college. I was a history major at Marymount Manhattan College, but in senior year I decided that I wanted to go after my first love, theater.  So, I auditioned for The Drama Studio in Ealing, London and spent a year studying drama there.

When I was in London, every week I went to a lot of theater and films. My influences were all these foreign films, with great scores and songs. I like American film, but it was so predictable. I loved the subtlety and richness of foreign films.

Some of my current influences include the wonderful and very sexy Brazilian singer Eliane Elias, a singer/pianist, who performs frequently at Scullers. I could never sing like that, but I love her. Catherine Russell sings old fashioned songs, with a good lyric that I love, and she brings a jazz flavor to it. I love John Pizzarelli, and Ella Fitzgerald. I try to combine my acting background with my singing. A beautiful voice is a wonderful thing, but it is more important to convey a point of view about something or put your own unique spin on a familiar song and frame it in a unique context. The Great America Songbook gives us the kind of lyrics that we can present differently each time.

EDGE: You upcoming show is autobiographical. Why do an autobiographical show now?

Mary Catherine Ward: That's not what I thought I was going to do when I first put this show together. I thought I was going to do the songs I like and develop some patter to introduce the songs. But Faith Prince said, "No, this show is about you," so she and Rod started asking me questions about why I was choosing these songs, and they seemed to find it really interesting, I then started to notice things that I usually keep at arm's length about myself, and now I'm having to trust them to get closer to those things about myself that I usually avoid. It makes me feel a little vulnerable. But also, I trust Faith and Rod that they would support me. They told me, "We won't let you look bad. We have your back." It's been a surprising unexpected and wonderful journey.

Mary Catherine Ward
Mary Catherine Ward  

EDGE: How did you come to work with Faith Prince and Rod Ferguson?

Mary Catherine Ward: I moved to Boston in 1993 to go to graduate school at Simmons for social work, I realized studying social work was a lot of trauma and I needed something to balance that. So, I went to take singing lessons from Marilyn Evans for 10 years, and she had a friend in NY who introduced me to the late [celebrated cabaret artist] Mary Cleere Haran. Mary was teaching a class, and I took the class with 5-6 people for 5 months. She made a big impact on me. I'd seen her perform at the Café Carlyle. She was a marvelous cabaret singer. That led, in 2007, to attending the Yale Cabaret Symposium led by the late Erv Raible. In 2014, I saw a notice for the St. Louis Cabaret Conference with such cabaret luminaries as Ann Hampton Callaway, Marilyn Maye, and Faith Prince as teachers, and I met Faith there. She was very balanced, kind and fun. Last year, during the pandemic, the Cabaret Project of St. Louis was holding a Zoom class and I reconnected with Faith again through that. So, I thought I would contact Faith to see if I could stretch myself, do something more than I would do myself. She told me she was working with Rod Ferguson, and he does the writing, and she told me if I hire her, she works with Rod, so it would be a package deal. So, I agreed to that.

EDGE: What did Prince and Ferguson bring to the show that you might not have done otherwise?

Mary Catherine Ward: They were curious and inviting and probing. They knew what they were looking for, but I didn't. I was uncomfortable talking about myself, but they wanted to hear it. I'm used to hearing other people's stories, but they kept saying my story was unique, unusual, different, so the show became my story.

EDGE: How did that process lead to a selection of songs?

Mary Catherine Ward: I already had some unconscious connection to certain songs that spoke to me, or reflected things I believed in. Many of the songs in the show I've already done, but now I will be doing them differently. Some songs Rod and Faith suggested, and they fit me perfectly, because the songs expand upon what I was saying in my sessions with them. It's a lot to memorize but I'm glad I'm doing this.

EDGE: Tell me a little about the song selection.

Mary Catherine Ward: Some of the songs are very personal. They remind me of a time when I was going through something very important. One song is a story song, and I cry through it in rehearsal. There's a Karen Carpenter song, a country medley, and some classic stuff we all know like Rodgers and Hart. There will also be a few surprises, including "The Whiskey Song," but in a different way than I've done it before.

Edge: What made you approach Tom LaMark about the show?

Mary Catherine Ward: Tom and I have done 4-5 shows together. I told him I'm going to do this show with Faith. We've spent more time rehearsing than usual, because there is a script, and there are specific things Faith wanted to happen musically, so she was in touch with him. I'm comfortable with the band because I've worked with them so many times. When they come by on Saturday to run through the show, I'm making a big pot of chili.

EDGE: What is it about the show that you most love?

Mary Catherine Ward: What surprises and delights me is it honors the past lives of mine in this life. Different experiences, especially that little kid in me who went through a lot, and she's happy now because she's getting her time.

Mary Catherine Ward performs "The Me Nobody Knows," with the Tom LaMark Quartet on Sunday, December 4, 3 PM, at Club Café's Moonshine Room, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. Tickets: $25. For reservations, visit: the club cafe website. 

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.