August 29, 2021
At 93, the Unstoppable Marilyn Maye Heads to Cape Cod
John Amodeo READ TIME: 9 MIN.
"I had done maybe 55 minutes of the act and the power went out," exclaims legendary singer Marilyn Maye, of her July 1st performance at the Hudson Hall Opera House, in Hudson, NY, two hours north of Manhattan, performing with one of her long-time accompanists Tedd Firth, and bassist Mark McLean.
The magic of live theater, something the pandemic stole from us for well over a year, is that things can happen that make each night and each performance unique, even for the same show. Having the lights go out in the middle of your show is one of those things. Maye, being the pro that she is, improvised. "The stage was quite high and there was a stair off the stage that led to the main floor, and I decide, as I'm still singing, 'I'm going to go down into the audience.' As I'm running down the stairs, I'm yelling, 'Don't anyone leave!'" recalls Maye. "Because of the pandemic, we had many friends there who had come up from NY, in addition to the people from Hudson, so I thought in my mind, 'I'll just walk around and interview the audience members.' When I got down there, and I was still singing, I realized the acoustics were just fabulous down on the floor where the tables are. So, I thought I could just continue to sing."
This choice wasn't without its challenges. Pianist Tedd Firth couldn't hear her singing without the mic. "But I kept singing. I stroked the bald heads as I sang 'The Secret of Life/Here's to Life.' People were holding up their phones with flashlights, and a photographer used his light to light the room," recounts Maye. "I don't think I've ever sung unplugged before. I was a roving minstrel roaming around the tables. People told me later, 'I'm so glad I was here!'"
Watch Marilyn Maye on "CBS Sunday Morning" on July 18, 2021.
A champion of the Great American Songbook and any song with a good lyric and a story to tell, Maye is still performing at 93 and not likely to stop anytime soon. Stephen Holden said in the New York Times, "...she has the inexhaustible stamina and vocal heft of a woman half her age, and her spirited optimism is irresistibly contagious. By the end of the evening, as is usually the case with her shows, I was walking on air, infused with a giddy certainty that life really is a cabaret." And Rex Reed proclaimed in the New York Observer, "this lady takes over the swanky basement under the old Studio 54 the way Grant took Richmond, bringing back some of the old razzle-dazzle that used to keep hip New Yorkers up all night. I call her just plain miraculous. When she belts out 'Look at the old girl now, fellas" on Jerry Herman's title tune from 'Hello, Dolly,' the audience goes seismic."
Anyone within traveling distance of Cape Cod will have an opportunity to take in Maye's magic when she performs from August 31-September 11 at the Art House in Provincetown, and on Labor Day, September 6 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts in Cotuit.
Maye has been performing at the Art House annually for the past 10 years, but she was a longtime vacationer in Provincetown before that. "My lawyer loves P'town and rents a house there every year, and invites friends, including me, and I loved it," recounts Maye. "When people would see me walking along Commercial Street, they would ask me, 'Are you singing here?' and I would say, 'No, I'm just shopping.'" After several years of that, Maye turned to her lawyer and said she would love to work in P'town. "He turned to me and said, 'Marilyn, they just want drag queens,'" relays Maye, "So I jokingly told him, 'Just tell them I'm a drag queen!'" Her lawyer mentioned her to Mark Cortale, the producer of the Art House series, which featured predominantly Broadway performers, and yes, drag queens. But Cortale took a chance on Maye, who turned out to be an enormous success, and has been booked every year since.
Maye's professional singing career spans eight decades, having been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1966 and singing professionally since the age of 14. Born in Kansas, she began singing for audiences at the age of three. After high school, she appeared on The Steve Allen Show, garnering national attention. Throughout her early career, television talk and variety shows would be one of her best venues, appearing regularly on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett and even Ed Sullivan. But it would be as Johnny Carson's guest on The Tonight Show that her career really soared. She would go on to appear on The Tonight Show 76 times, a record still unchallenged by any other singer. As she would leave the stage, Carson would turn to the studio audience and the camera and say, "To all you young singers, now that's the way to sing a song."
These appearances bolstered her already popular recording career, and between 1965 and 1970, she recorded seven albums. Broadway composers John Kander and Fred Ebb approached her in 1966 to record the song "Cabaret" in advance of the show's opening. Her recording of "Step to the Rear" was such a hit that Lincoln/Mercury hired her to re-record the song, slightly reworded, as a commercial for their new line of Lincolns.
She has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Chicago Cabaret Professionals, CabaretFest Provincetown, and the American Jazz Museum. When the American Songbook Association gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award, fashion designer Bob Mackie presented it. He has been dressing Maye since the 1960's. In fact, she will be donning a new piece by Mackie in Provincetown and Cotuit. "Bob designs the pieces, and his director of design for the past 20 years Joe McFate builds them. "Both Bob and Joe, they're business partners, not romance partners, will come to P'town to see us," announces Maye.
If you haven't already gathered, Maye is a storyteller, whether she is singing or speaking, and it is a gift. For this interview, she was speaking to Edge during the day of her run at the Lauridsen Theatre/Pearson Arts Center at Lake Okojobi, a tony resort area in the lake district of northern Iowa, where she has performed since 1956. During our interview, she was warm and genuine, conversing with the ease one has between old friends, casting her spell even over the phone, making a connection with each story. That is the key to her success as a performer. She makes a connection.
She chooses her material for that very reason, and the lyrics of any song are critical to her selection. "It's about the lyric, or we wouldn't be able to deliver a song," Maye muses. "We singers can't use the song unless we deliver the lyric. The audience lives through those lyrics. It's so wonderful to see an audience identify with the lyric with their own story, applying it to their lives. Someone comes up to me to say, 'I've had such a stressful week, I almost didn't come,' but they then say, 'but I'm so glad I came.' Most of my story songs are positive thinking and I wouldn't sing so many songs if they weren't happy. I've had down sides, including three husbands that were alcoholics. The positivity of the songs is therapy for the audience. And they tell me that all the time. I sing to the audience, not for them. There is no fourth wall for me."
And whose lyrics speak to her most? As a champion of the Great American Songbook, it is unsurprising to learn that without hesitation, she says, "Johnny Mercer. My very favorite. Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter. They really told the story," asserts Maye. "I've been known to change a lyric here and there to make it work. It goes two ways. We're lucky to have the songs, and they're lucky we're singing them!"
But she also celebrates the work of more contemporary songwriters, such as Melissa Manchester, including her song "Come in from the Rain" which Maye recorded on her Johnny Carson tribute album, having sung that song on The Tonight Show. "She's now a part of the Great American Songbook," Maye proclaims. Amanda McBroom is another. And then there is the staple pairing with which she finishes her shows, "The Secret of Life/Here's to Life," the former by James Taylor and the latter by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary. "'Here's to Life' is pretty good, ain't it?" quips Maye.
In Provincetown, Maye will be working with another of her longtime musical directors, Billy Stritch, a cabaret performer in his own right, who has also been Liza Minnelli's longtime accompanist. "Billy always comes to Provincetown with me," notes Maye. "We've been working together since he was 17." They started working together when her regular pianist couldn't make a gig, and someone recommended him. They did a two-week cruise together and the relationship has been going strong since then. Before working with Tedd Firth and Billy Stritch, Maye worked for 20 years in the '60s-'80s with Mark Franklin. "Mark was a lovely young man. He was 19 when we started working together, and he was like a son to me. He sadly died of AIDS very early on in that pandemic."
Working through this pandemic has also been devastating for Maye. "I lost a valuable year," she told CBS Sunday Morning on July 18. "It's what I do." The Covid-19 pandemic wiped out nearly all her 2020 and early 2021 engagements. So, she performed in driveways in her current home town of Kansas City. On her 93rd birthday this past April, in Manhattan's 54 Below, she performed to a near empty room with cameras all around so it could be live streamed. Speaking to CBS Sunday Morning last month of her 2020 Provincetown appearance which was held outdoors because of the pandemic, she nostalgically noted, "They always smile, and applaud a lot, and stand up and cheer, and laugh a lot, but this year, they cried."
Contemplating her future, Maye starkly states, "I don't know how long I'm going to be singing. I'm very fortunate to be doing it now. I don't like playing the age card, but this time it's OK."
Maye is often referred to as a living legend, a title she has clearly earned as evidenced by her spontaneous salvaging of her Hudson Hall Opera House performance last month when she soldiered on after the power went out. Sanguinely, Maye declares, "We make the best of it. The show doesn't end until it ends."
Marilyn Maye performs on Tuesday, August 31-Saturday, September 11, 6 PM at the Art House, 214 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657. Cover: $50-75. For Tickets, visit: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4546907, and on Monday, September 6, 6 PM at Cotuit Center for the Arts, 4404 Falmouth Road, Cotuit, MA. Tickets: $55-$60. For Tickets, visit: https://artsonthecape.org/explore/marilyn-maye-with-billy-stritch-at-the-piano-2021 .
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.