The single most daunting challenge in profiling cabaret singer and actress Andrea Marcovicciis to avoid duplicating some of the effusive encomiums already bestowed upon her by other writers. Preparing to chat with the celebrated chanteuse at the Algonquin Hotel, where she has appeared annually for 23 years, you’re not only given a press release for Skylark: Marcovicci Sings Mercer, her tribute to the great lyricist on the occasion of his centenary, but a stack of prior articles an inch thick.
Wading through the stack, there’s Stephen Holden, for example, writing in 2006 in the New York Times: “weave a spell,” “a rarefied kind of glamour” and “fascinating,” among other quotable phrases, in praise of her fine salute to the incomparable (and late) Hildegarde. And there’s Clive Davis (no, not that one), writing in 2007 in the Times Online: “captivating, often defiantly eccentric” and “stunningly charismatic” and “immaculate one-liners” for her tribute to Frank Loesser, in London. Here, a Playbill article, a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer and a squib from Esquire; there, a New Yorker profile (from 1992, by Whitney Balliett) and a review in the Chicago Tribune (“one of the most widely admired of cabaret divas”). A clip from the Los Angeles Times and then one from Variety and then one from the New York Observer (nice photo!). Another byline from the prolific and aforementioned Holden, who might as well be on Marcovicci’s payroll or least her Facebook page (two fan pages, actually, no Holden listed). It’s altogether exhausting before one even turns, excitedly, to Marcovicci’s CDs — 14 of them, to be exact, or enough music to fill the hours of a wet Saturday afternoon and night with the standards, exquisitely and often unexpectedly rendered, of the American century.
Marcovicci’s Mercer show is, in this sense, a continuation of an extraordinary chain. But it’s also different, having been commissioned by the Savannah Music Festival, located in Mercer’s beloved hometown. Known for the meticulousness withwhich she researches, Marcovicci’s challenge was to wade through Mercer’s lyrics, music and maddening, often mercurial biography as well as the music of, among others, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini, Jimmy Van Heusen and Harry Warren. Then, somehow, she has to telescope the enormity of Mercer’s ouevreinto a performable cycle of songs that give breadth, depth and innovation to some of the greatest songs ever written. So a tuneful triptych kicks off the set: “Skylark” (music by Carmichael), “Something’s Gotta Give” (Mercer) and “Spring, Spring, Spring” (Gene dePaul). The set wends its way through Mercer’s work more or less chronologically: “You Must HaveBeen a Beautiful Baby” (Warren), later on “Old Black Magic” (Arlen) and “Accentuate the Positive” (Arlen), and later still, “Moon River” (Mancini), and even later still, “One For My Baby” (Arlen) and “Goody, Goody” (Matt Melneck) and “Dream” (Mercer) and “My Shining Hour” (Arlen). And, of course, anecdotes and a glimmering sense of what made Mercer Mercer.
But the question is what makes Marcovicci Marcovicci? Is it the fact that, unlike so many cabaret singers, Marcovicci also has a flourishing acting career going back to the 1960s on stage and film? (She appears in the new Henry Jaglom film Irene in Time, for example.) Is it her legendary beauty? Is it the insight she brings to song interpretation? Is it just her indefinable, ineffable joie de vivre?
Skylark: Marcovicci Sings Mercer runs through Dec. 26 at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel (59 W. 44th St.). Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:30pm with late shows at 11pm on Friday and Saturday. Call 212-419-9331.
Walk me through the genesis of the Mercer show.
I’ve had this show in the hopper since last January — this was a commission from the Savannah Music Festival. And I started the research a year and a half ago. Had it not been a commission, I wouldn’t necessarily have decided to do a Mercer show — I tend not to do the “centenary shows,” you know? I did my [Frank] Loesser show many years ago — and next year is Loesser’s centenary, for example, and I won’t be reprising it. I tend not to jump on board because when these centenaries happen, there tend to be so many shows at the same time. And I tend to stay away from what everyone else is doing. But in this case, it was, as I say, a commission, and so I interviewed people, pulled music and then we had the first trial run at the Gardenia in Los Angeles in March before I left for Savannah, then did more and more and more research. Then we worked on it again this past September and put it up on its feet. Then we trimmed and cut, so it may seem as if I’m almost the last person to do a Mercer show when, in fact, I was actually first.
Who did you interview?
I interviewed Gene Lees, who wrote Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. I interviewed Ginny Mancini, the widow of Henry Mancini, and Nancy Gerard, Mercer’s niece, in Savannah. I spent time with Mercer’s grand nephew, Pearce W. Hammond. Also, I saw Mercer’s childhood home and I saw his summer home. It was an extraordinary visit.
Did you feel something, visiting the places where Mercer lived or grew up?
It was uncanny. I started to feel like he was singing through me. I loved Johnny Mercer as a singer almost ore than anything else. But I also felt that extraordinary feeling of Savannah itself, which is a moody town. It is visually one of the most beautiful towns you’ll ever see, and there is something about these trees! Spanish moss looks alternatively like lace or gowns or fine women or just plain creepy. I imagine if you had a drink or two — well, anyway, it’s a real drinking town, Savannah, too. Spanish moss has a faint aroma, so I’m even wearing a special perfume combination I got in New Orleans. One is tea olive which I wear on the outside of my dress, one I wear on my pulse point, Mantrap.
I know! These combination of smells are very evocative of the South. Spanish moss has a fragrance — everything about Savannah is steamy, sensual and it is a little moody — I really felt the upbringing of Johnny Mercer while I was there. And he was called to return to Savannah many times in his life. He really missed it. I know for a fact he loved it dearly, but his wife, Ginger, was never as happy there as he was, so he came as often as he could. There was a yearning he felt to return, and I learned a lot by having been there. He loved the water in Savannah, for example, and Savannah is practically surrounded by it — rivers, rivulets. It’s practically an island. Go on the right road, there’s Tybee Island, where he had his summer home looking out on the marshes. By the water there were little villages where the African-American communities were, where Mercer learned this language called gulla, practically a foreign language, like a patois. He learned the rhythms and language of the gulla culture.
So how do you infuse all that knowledge into song interpretation?
For one thing, the research is so much a part of everything I do. My dress — a white dress with black leaves on it. A coat that I’m wearing — a see-through black coat with leaves in the pattern; it’s a subtle thing that evokes overhanging Spanish moss. When I switch and put on a jacket by the third song, I have a black, lace, Carmen Marc Valvo jacket with dripping sleeves. When I switch that, I have a paietted, grey jacket which has literally shell-like, moon-reflective grey moons. So I really know what I’m doing. You don’t need to know it, but I do. For example, for my Noel Coward show I wore Grey Flannel on my left wrist and Arpegeon my right so that Coward’s male and female sides were in opposition to one another. And I wore a tuxedo underneath and a satin bed-jacket, so I was man and woman at the same time. I’m very much an actress-singer.
How did you go about your song list?
I arranged them the way that, as an actress, I feel comfortable in telling his story. The songs are basically in a chronological order, so I’m telling somewhat of his story. I also feel I’m educating the public about him — where he came from. So I’m bringing him from Savannah to New York, then out to California, and then eventually I tell the tale of him not having the success on Broadway that he wished he could have had, and yet I sing a Broadway song which I thought was fabulous from Saratoga, one of his biggest flops and yet it’s a fantastic song. I then keep my torch songs until the last, last, last.
Did you listen to previous recordings of Mercer material as part of your prep?
Well, I listened to Johnny a lot. I’m not much for listening to other people. You don’t want to get unduly influenced.
Who do you hear in your head when you sing?
Let me amend what I said a moment ago — I tend not to listen to too many women. But I will listen to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett — and I’ll listen to Judy Garland because I know I can’t possibly sing like her.
In terms of research, is the process the same for you for each show, or do it differ?
I start with the biographies. Also, I have a friend who’ll go digging and send me articles, sometimes in hard copy or sometimes still in links if they’ve run online. Usually after reading and underlining passages in every biography that’s ever been out there — and I read them on hard copy because I like to hold it in my hand — I get the movies. That’s the painstaking thing, getting the movies through eBay or Amazon, and then I start watching them to see how the songs were positioned or to see if I’m missing any extra lyrics, especially if I’m going to use the song in the show. Ordinarily, I’d have a Robert Kimball book, but in this case The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer came out this October, which was too late. I go to Bob Grimes in San Francisco to get sheet music I don’t have or for suggestions, and he sends me, and I mean this seriously, literally pounds of music and I literally send him hundreds of dollars.
What is your time frame, then, for all of this?
Weeks. Absolutely weeks.
In terms of someone’s biography, what happens if you come across elements of a person’s personality that you find distasteful?
You know, that’s the perfect question about the perfect person. When I did my Rodgers and Hart show, I wanted to do Hart — he was my number one focus. And I fell in love with Larry Hart because he broke my heart, because he touched me so deeply. His foibles were tender and sad and because he moved me deeply, and maybe because whenever bios are written, they tend toward forgiving him his alcoholism, his foibles, I fell in love with him. Most people called him a lovable clown, a pagliacci — as frustrating as he might have been, no one went on record to say, “He wrecked my life.”
People protected Hart, though.
But there was no record of him being cruel in his drunkenness or nasty; he would disappoint and destroy himself, not someone else. Yes, it was frustrating to work with him and eventually Richard Rodgers had to move on — Rodgers did suffer great guilt over that. But Larry Hart didn’t live long enough to burn all of his bridges. He died young, and then everybody could mourn him. Now, here you have johnny mercer. A few months into my research, I went to people I love dearly and I said, “I’m in real trouble. I’m not falling love with Johnny Mercer. I’ve fallen in love with every single one of the songwriters I’ve put together a show about, I’m not falling in love with Johnny Mercer.”
Because of the stories of his dual personality withthe drinking, that he had this very, very dark side when in his cups. And some of the stories that you read about how tortured he was when drinking, and then how he’d have to apologize and apologize and he would remember everything he did. It’s a little difficult to read this over and over in the Gene Lees book — Johnny’s terrible episodes and his inability to get them under control. I mean, let’s be honest: you want to read a story about someone who has a problem and triumphs over it. Instead, you have Johnny Mercer, who didn’t.
So what did you do?
What I did was learn — gradually — to empathize with Johnny. I figured that if I couldn’t love him as much as I loved Larry Hart, I could at least learn to have some deep empathy for him. And it came through, for example, the story of the fact that he did fall in love with Judy Garland but nevertheless did the right thing and didn’t leave Ginger — he did stay with the mother of his children. So there I could think, Well, all right, there’s something to consider noble. Also, I’ve known enough people with drinking problems in my day. Then, of course, there is the work itself, which is just so unbelievably brilliant. And as his work became more and more rich through the years, my ability to develop a little bit of empathy for Johnny carried me through. I found a way to tell his story — for example, I don’t focus on this too much, just very briefly, but he has a very dark period in his life when rock ‘n’ roll comes in and he feels utterly lost. But he triumphs over that when he meets Henry Mancini and writes more and more beautiful things for us. I guess the way I could best describe how I saw that was that I found it to be heroic. I found it to be something I could empathize with. And then there is the tragic story of the brain tumor, which I used to have in my show —
Why did you take it out?
It’s too tragic for cabaret! It would be all right if the show was happening in a concert hall. When you know, as I do, how they operated on an inoperable brain tumor and Johnny Mercer was conscious and aware for six more months in a body that couldn’t move but for his eyes, you don’t want to tell that story and say “Have another drink, everyone!” If I had not learned all that, however, I wouldn’t have grown ultimately to love and care for the man.