DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Andrea Marcovicci Plus A Chat with Olivia Newton-John

By Andrew Gans
November 18, 2011

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



ANDREA MARCOVICCI
I was a sophomore in college when the buzz about a new cabaret singer, actress Andrea Marcovicci, made its way from New York to Massachusetts, and one crisp winter day I headed to Boston from the Brandeis University campus to purchase her first (and still my favorite Marcovicci) recording, "Marcovicci Sings Movies." I rushed back to our radio station, where I had a weekly show about the music of Broadway and cabaret, to listen to the LP in one of the private listening booths. I have a very vivid memory of listening to her rendition of "As Time Goes By," which was followed by the "Tootsie" anthem "It Might Be You," smiling broadly and thinking, "Okay, now I get all the fuss!" And, as unbelievable as it may seem, Marcovicci has been spellbinding audiences for more than two decades at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, where she is currently celebrating her 25th season at the famed venue with a brand-new show entitled No Strings. Her latest act, which plays through Dec. 30, features music director Shelly Markham on piano and Jered Egan on bass and is described as a "journey about life on the road: a warm, funny, heartfelt, and candid tale of Andrea's time spent traveling from city to city and what that bittersweet time has meant to her as a singer, an actress, a wife and mother." I recently had the chance to chat with the gifted artist, who spoke about her new show, her thoughts on TV singing competitions and the idea of returning to Broadway.

Question: How did the idea for the No Strings show come about?
Andrea Marcovicci: When I knew I was going to celebrate my 25th anniversary [at the Algonquin] and I was thinking about doing a show about traveling for quite a while anyway, it really did seem to be appropriate to do a show about traveling when you think that I spent the last 25 years as a, what I call, road warrior. [Laughs.] And, due to the extremely lucky gift of being invited back every year for 25 years, my number one destination is New York, is the Algonquin. It's an average of seven weeks, but it's been as long as nine, ten weeks. It was once 16 weeks, and I became very adept at packing and leaving home, and after I first sang at the Algonquin, my name was established, and I was invited to travel and travel and travel and travel—not only around our country, but to London, Australia, Barcelona and, hopefully, even other places someday soon as well. But it became part of my life to be constantly traveling—constantly on the road going from place to place. And, it's a mixed blessing, and that's really what the show is about, this lucky mixed blessing, and I am homesick for my daughter and my life at home when I'm on the road, and I have a sense of restlessness when I'm at home, which is what happens when you are a road warrior. [Laughs.] I related a great deal to the George Clooney movie as you can imagine, especially when he was walking through the airport with that almost dance-like finesse as he went through the security gates. He had a kind of dance-like finesse to it and I related to it so much, but the whole movie I related to it as well—"Up in the Air"—because I have managed to stay on the road a great deal of the time for 25 years and still be able to create 25 new shows, fall in love, get married, have a child… [Laughs.] Live a life! So, the show is about the songs that I've collected along the way and the many goodbyes I've had to say, and the many hellos as well.

Andrea Marcovicci
photo by Daniel Reichert

Question: Since it's a show about your life and, I would imagine, your most personal show, how did you go about deciding what aspects of your life you wanted to talk about and what you didn't want to share?
Marcovicci: Well, a lot of it is based on the songs. "Two for the Road" is one of my favorite songs of all time. I share that with not only a lot of other performers, but with the audience members who love it. I've put a little story into the center of it about [my daughter] Alice and my husband, who I've separated from quite a while ago now. The opening song is "Sail Away" and "Let's Get Away From it All." I have a song—two songs—about Paris. I have two songs about London. I have put in a very interesting section, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" that goes into "It's Natural With You" and ends with "My Love is a Wanderer," which is basically dedicated to all wanderers. And, I have quotes throughout the show about travel from Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli. [Laughs.] And, I have that lovely song "You Belong to Me," which doesn't sound like a song we all know until I say, "See the pyramids along the Nile"… And, "Here's to Us" is the encore because it's about the influence that Mabel's had on my life—Mabel Mercer. I have a brand-new song about the Algonquin itself. It was actually written quite a few years ago, but I have sung it very, very rarely. It's called "Back at the Algonquin."

Question: I know that originally the title of the show was going to be Travels of the Heart, but now it's No Strings. What did that difference mean to you?
Marcovicci: Two for the Road: Travels of the Heart began to sound a little sadder than the show really is, and No Strings is in reference to the Fred Astaire section, which has to do with the spring in your step when you hit an airport, and very most, especially, this frisson of excitement that I feel, still, to this day when I travel. No Strings really represents that feeling and the lightness of foot that I feel, and I felt that better reflected the overall geniality of the show. There's a lot of fun in it and some wacky fun, too. I'm finally singing "When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba." I've been talking about it for 25 years, and I've never sung it. [Laughs.] I'm finally singing it.

Question: Is that by the guy who wrote "As Time Goes By"?
Marcovicci: Herman Hupfeld, yes. And, there's such charming songs in the show, and I definitely didn't want to lead the audience to thinking that there was a heavy heart in this show because there isn't. It's very light-hearted, and it may be more personal than my latest shows, which have been biographies of other people. I didn't want them to think that this was anything other than, although personal, it's definitely light-hearted and wise. Wise but light-hearted.

Donald Smith
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: You mentioned before that it's your 25th year at the Algonquin.
Marcovicci: Yes, it's my 25th year. This is the time to come and celebrate. I'm amazed and honored and grateful to everyone that's brought me here, of course, most especially Donald Smith, who discovered me and brought me there 25 years ago after he had discovered and opened the room for Steve Ross and then Michael Feinstein.

Question: Does the room or the hotel feel like a second home to you, having been there so long?
Marcovicci: It is home. It's home for my craft. It's where I've created a particular style of cabaret, which I take for granted, but when you look at 25 years of it, it's a real style that is what some people call the Andrea Marcovicci-style. [Laughs.] I mean, it's me, so I don't look at it from the outside very often, but other people do. It's what I call historical cabaret, really, because I so often take a person and create a show like the Fred Astaire show, the Gertrude Lawrence show, the Mabel Mercer show, the Ruth Etting show, the Hildegarde show… The list is so long now. The Johnny Mercer show. There's so many shows that I've created, and that particular style of historical cabaret, where I create almost a play, just became second nature to me over the last 25 years to write a piece that took two workshops, sometimes three workshops, and an entire year before arriving at the Algonquin. The effort and the research and the creative team behind it—with Shelly working so hard and my taking the workshop time to do it. It always takes a year before I bring it into the Algonquin, and that style has become something now that is really a style. When I'm gone [laughs], I think it will be remembered. I hope it will be remembered as a particular style of cabaret.

Question: I think you brought something different than just someone standing and doing 20 songs in a row… You learn about what's being sung as well as you get to enjoy what's being sung. I remember the show about the sailor who leaves or the World War II show as well. I think the songs are more moving because they are woven into a story.
Marcovicci: It all started because I came from the actress' perspective, and I needed a play. As an actress who sings, I really felt that I wanted structure. I wanted a beginning, a middle and an end. Throughout the years, I wanted to write myself these little stories that made me feel more comfortable on the stage. I never dreamed that 25 years ago I would have created so many of them. It's really something, and many of them have endured to the extent that I tour with maybe as many as five at a time in a given year. I don't have access immediately to the ones from 15 years ago, but I do have at least five of them on the front burner at any given time. And, it is all due to the fact that I have a home at the Algonquin to return to and that being invited back every year, it demands this fresh creativity, and what a thrill. I'm very, very grateful for that. And, grateful for these faces—these wonderful audiences who return to me every year with, not only, "What are you doing this year?" but "What's up for next year?" [Laughs.] After seeing the show, they're like, "Okay, what's on for next year" and I usually know. That's the other thing. I know! I have it already in my mind.

Andrea Marcovicci
photo by Daniel Reichert

Question: How do you think your approach to putting a show together over the past 25 years has changed?
Marcovicci: I might be able to do it a little quicker. It used to take two years to do it, now I can do it within six months. But the approach is the same. I usually start, if it's a biography show, with the textbooks. I start with reading all the books about these people, then I go off to see the movies that have anything to do with them, pulling the sheet music, and then gradually weeding down that sheet music. When I start doing the stories I put the sheet music into the stories, and then I cross-reference that because what ends up happening is that if I'm singing songs that are better for my voice and are really clicking with me, sometimes some stories will disappear. Sometimes, if stories are better than the songs, the songs will disappear, and that juggling act goes on until the set exists. Sometimes if a story is so fantastic that the song has to exist, the story will out. It's a real balancing act. It's really like writing a play every time I do it.

Question: I know you haven't been able to record every show you do, but…
Marcovicci: No, unfortunately I can't, and very rarely do I have an album before I bring the show in. A lot of people work that way, and I've almost never been able to work that way. I think once I did with the Rodgers and Hart album. I think I had that at the same time the show was available, but almost never.

Question: When you do TV and film, there's obviously the document that exists, but what are your thoughts about working in the ephemeral nature of cabaret and theatre—that it exists in the minds of the people who went and saw it?
Marcovicci: I guess because I've done a fair share of theatre and been satisfied with that belief that it lives in the hearts of the people who saw you, and when I began in cabaret, I even resisted making records because I felt that what I did was a live medium, and I was perfectly happy without making records until somebody came up to me and said, "Don't be ridiculous, you've got to make records!" [Laughs.] And, I said, "No, I'm happy live!" [Laughs.] And then, gradually, I made not one or two records, I think dozens at this point. I've only lately been pushed kicking and screaming into the YouTube generation, and I'm beginning to do more of it, and naturally now, I wish I'd filmed myself when I was younger, but I feel that the spontaneous combustion of live cabaret is so splendid that the fact that they go home with their memories makes me very, very happy. I feel more and more people are filming themselves every single time they get up to do their nightclub act, and I'm just not one of those people. I'm not. A little bit more and more, though, I'm submitting to being filmed just so that there will be something left behind and also because I'm teaching more and more, and I hope there will be a record of that. I do believe that the style of cabaret that I am part of, I have inherited from Mabel Mercer and I would like it to continue.

Andrea Marcovicci
photo by Daniel Reichert

Question: I wonder what do you think of all of the reality singing competitions.
Marcovicci: Well, since a lot of it now is based on screaming, I'm not so crazy about it, but that's only because I feel a great deal of contemporary singing is practically dangerous for the voice… I watch "American Idol," and once in a while you'll see a voice that isn't asked to scream or isn't asked to produce such melisma that it's unlistenable. Once every now and then you get a true voice that's really being allowed to sing, but when the voice is being pushed to such limits, it's truly dangerous for the voice. And, of course, I'm so furious with Simon Cowell when he uses cabaret as a derogative term. I wish I could get my hands on that boy [laughs]… and really get through to him somehow. I am not crazy about those competitions for that reason and that reason alone, overuse of melisma and over-belting because the voices won't last.

Question: Just one more question and I'll let you go: What could get you to come back to Broadway?
Marcovicci: Just simply asking me. It would be as simple as that. I would be delighted in any way to be doing a Broadway show. Delighted. I had the best time of my life doing Coco. That was last season at the York. It was just so much fun, so I would be more than enthusiastic. I was happy as I could possibly be in any given day. I would enjoy a straight play… Wouldn't it be wonderful to revive Applause? I would love to do that. I think that would suit me… I understand the problems with Coco, although I would really love to do an Encores! version of Coco. A slightly bigger version. We did it great at the York. We could do it a little bit bigger, but I think Applause would be super for me. I would love to go to Broadway in just about anything!

Question: We'll have to get the word out there!
Marcovicci: Yes, absolutely. I would adore it… It's a beautiful thing that I'm lucky enough to do, and I'm grateful to everyone who helps me do it at all times. We really appreciate the attention paid to cabaret. It's an art form in and of itself. It's alive and well and breathing.

[The Oak Room is located within the Algonquin Hotel at 59 W. 44th Street. For more information and reservations call (212) 419-9331 or (212) 840-6800 and ask for Oak Room Reservations.]

Olivia Newton-John
photo by Michelle Day

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN
It's an especially busy time for Olivia Newton-John, who famously played Sandy opposite John Travolta's Danny in the blockbuster film of the Broadway musical Grease. In fact, 2011-12 marks the singing actress' 40th year in the music business, having sold over a staggering 100 million albums with four Grammy Awards to her credit. "Portraits: A Tribute to the Great Women of Song," a re-release of an earlier recording titled "Indigo," recently hit stores and features songs/artists that inspired Newton-John, from Doris Day to Karen Carpenter to Julie London and Dionne Warwick. She will also offer a brief concert tour in the New Jersey-New York area next month: Tour dates include Dec. 2 in Verona, NY, at Turning Stone Resort & Casino Showroom; Dec. 4 in Tarrytown, NY, at Tarrytown Music Hall; Dec. 7 in Englewood, NJ, at Bergen Performing Arts Center; Dec. 8 in Westbury, NY, at NYCB Theatre at Westbury; Dec. 9 in Atlantic City, NJ, at Caesars Atlantic City; and Dec. 10 in Albany, NY, at Palace Theatre. Beginning Jan. 26, 2012, Newton-John will be seen in the motion picture "A Few Best Men" from the director of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and the writer and producers of "Death at a Funeral." And, on a more personal note, Newton-John, a breast cancer "thriver" (diagnosed in 1992 and cancer-free for almost 20 years), will see the opening of The Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012. Last week, I had the chance to have a very brief chat with the internationally-known singer; that conversation follows.

Question: Since you had such a big success with "Grease," I was wondering if you were ever asked to be part of a Broadway musical.
Olivia Newton-John: I have been asked to be a part of a few Broadway musicals, but it's such an intense job that I have never taken it on. [Laughs.]… It's really hard work, and I think I'm—I don't like to say lazy because I'm not a lazy person—but it just sounds very, very difficult to do that. But if something came up that was really phenomenal and I had to do it, of course I would.

Question: Was musical theatre something you were involved in when you were growing up or were you more pop-oriented in terms of what you listened to?
Newton-John: I think I was more pop-oriented. I did things at school, but never seriously did a musical.

Question: I was wondering whether you got to see Xanadu when it was on Broadway?
Newton-John: Yes, I did. I went to the opening night, actually, and also the opening in Australia. It was on in Australia for a while, too.

Question: What was that like for you?
Newton-John: Hysterical. Loved it. I probably laughed more than anyone.

Question: Tell me about your experience filming "Glee."
Newton-John: Well, it was just a hoot, really. You've got Jane Lynch and they've redesigned the set of "Physical" exactly like it was 25 or more years ago, and it was very fun. She's lovely and everyone was. I had a blast.

Question: Any chance you might get to return to the show?
Newton-John: I don't know, you'd have to talk to Ryan [Murphy]. [Laughs.] I think with so many people wanting to be on, I had my moment and that was fun.

Cover art for "Portraits: A Tribute to the Great Women of Song"

Question: Tell me a little bit about the movie that's coming out—"A Few Best Men."
Newton-John: I play mother of the bride—a crazy mother of the bride—who loses it at the wedding because everything goes wrong, and she's had it with her controlling husband, so it's a very different kind of role [for me]… I get to really go from being a very controlled person to someone who loses control. [Laughs.] I had good fun.

Question: How does acting in a movie or TV compare for you with singing in concert? Do you have a preference?
Newton-John: I was talking to someone about this earlier. In a movie you have other people. You have a director, you have co-actors, you have lighting, you have set, you have a lot of other things going on. It's not just your thing. But when you're doing a show, it's your music and your band, and a very, very different atmosphere. I love both of them, but they're totally different. It's like comparing apples and oranges, you know, but I enjoy both of them for different reasons.

Question: Since you got your start in a singing competition, I wonder what your take is on today's competitions like "American Idol," "The Voice," "X Factor."
Newton-John: I think it's an amazing opportunity for these kids. The only thing that I object to is that they start out often being individuals, and then they try to homogenize them, and the whole point is to keep your individuality... They become very slick by the end of it, but I think it's a wonderful opportunity for these kids—a great learning curve—but it's an awful lot to ask of someone to become a professional in like three months. It takes years of practice and learning, and they're getting a crash course.

Question: You're also working on a pop CD of dance remixes. What's going to be on that recording?
Newton-John: Well, it kind of started out because we did a remix of "Magic" and we used it as a fundraiser in Australia for my hospital, The Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center, and over the years, quite a few remixes have been done of "Xanadu" and "Magic" and a few of my other songs, so we thought we'd put them on a CD. Also, I worked on some songs with my nephew, Brett Goldsmith, in Australia over the years. I would just go to his house for fun and we'd make music, and I did demos for him, and I think we are going to mix that up and put those tracks out.

Question: I know the Wellness Center is going to open in Melbourne. What does that mean to you to have that finally come to fruition?
Newton-John: It's really exciting. It's been eight years of raising money for this Cancer and Wellness Center in Melbourne. It's been an incredible experience, and it's hard to imagine that we are actually going to open the doors in June, but we are. And, I feel extremely proud of it and that it's going to help so many people, which is the reason I got involved. We have this amazing state-of-the-art cancer center and two floors of research with the Ludwig Institute, which is an internationally renowned cancer research center, but the Wellness Center on top of that, which will support the whole person is what I'm really excited about.

Question: I wonder how being a breast cancer survivor has changed how you approach your work.
Newton-John: I think it just affects the way you approach life. I'm so lucky to be here. It's such a gift—enjoy it, just go for it, have fun, do what you want to do, don't be afraid of change, step out of your box, do something different. So, I think it takes away the fear of that stuff of always remaining in the same place. It kind of opened up the possibilities because you let go of a lot of fear if you get through that experience, which I'm very lucky. I call it my curious gift because without that, I wouldn't have done so many things or had the opportunity to be exposed to so many things without it.

Question: Since this year is your 40th year in the business, when you look back on your career, what are you proudest of?
Newton-John: Yeah! Wow! Oh, gosh—a lot of moments, you know… Of course, singing at the Olympics for my country in Sydney with John Farnham. Of course, "Grease" and "Xanadu." Those movies have made so many people happy since… There's always new ones. I keep having new moments that are amazing. In my private life, it would be my daughter and her birth and watching her grow up, and she's my greatest achievement. All the other stuff pales [in comparison]. And, now, I'm in my happiest place. I have a wonderful husband and a great life, and all the stuff I'm doing now is like icing on the cake. I've had an incredible career and life, and I'm just really lucky.

For more information visit http://OliviaNewton-John.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.