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Interveiw: Michael Feinstein on The Great American Songbook

The Great American Songbook is an exhaustive, often evolving canon of standards that includes work by the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Richard Rogers. Tony Bennett called the work "the best popular music ever composed." Music held in such high regard could have no finer ambassador than multi-platinum-selling, award-winning performer Michael Feinstein, who is touring the UK in October.

Whilst Feinstein has recorded numerous albums over a career spanning three decades, he is and always will be a performer who craves a live audience. "Connecting with an audience is important because whether they realise it or not the audience deeply affects the way we, as performers, present our work," he explains. "There is something magical about the energy that is exchanged with a listener that affects the interpretation in the moment and that experience is one that I have missed."

The adjustments a live creative has had to make over the past 18 months have proven problematic to say the least. Feinstein continues: "The process of performing via Zoom or other means online has in many ways been bloodless. That's something I have not enjoyed very much even though I am very grateful for the way it helped me stay connected to audiences."

With global restrictions easing, Feinstein is returning to the UK for a six-night engagement that takes in Gateshead, Manchester, Bristol, London and Radlett. With the focus of his work being The Great American Songbook, Feinstein is in no doubt as to why it is such an important collection of work.

"It's timeless. The Great American Songbook offerings are no less important to me than Shakespeare or Michelangelo in that it is great art that has transcended the time in which it was created. The eloquent expressions of love in these songs, and the incredible musical construction harmonically and melodically make these songs unique."

He is equally respectful of the individuals behind the music. "It's as if there was something in the water in the mid 20th century that made it possible for so many geniuses to create at the same time. Cole Porter was equal in talent to George Gershwin who was equal in talent to Irving Berlin who was equal to Jerome Kern, to Duke Ellington and on and on. It's staggering."

Michael Feinstein understands music on an instinctive, cellular level. From learning to play the piano by ear as a five-year-old to becoming personal assistant to Ira Gershwin at 20, he has absorbed his craft from some of the greats. "From Ira I learned about interpreting lyrics on a much deeper level because he made me aware of the importance of the perfect combination of music and lyric to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."

Feinstein continues: "Certainly, when I would perform for Ira, the coaching that he gave me spontaneously is something that I still think about very often, and I learned fundamentally that even though the music is the first thing that attracts me to a song, it is the lyric that is the driving force behind the interpretation of any piece of music."

It was developing at a time when there was an explosion of diverse musical influences that set Feinstein on his path. "I grew up in a period when musical variety shows were quite popular, and one of the things that I loved about those shows is that they featured all kinds of music - from contemporary pop music in the 60s and 70s to classic songs, operatic offerings, classical music. We had young people's concerts with Leonard Bernstein. All kinds of cultural exposure that is sorely lacking today. And it was the conflagration of all those musical styles that helped me to find my way in the music world."

In 2007, Feinstein founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programmes, master classes, and the annual High School Songbook Academy. As someone who benefitted from the teaching of Ira Gershwin, what does he see as the major challenges young people face today in wanting to enter the industry?

"The world is so different now and there are advantages and disadvantages with the way things are. Certainly, one of the great advantages is the internet and the ability to connect with people on so many different levels in so many different ways. It is possible for someone to express their art virtually and reach millions of people which was impossible when I was growing up. However, the fragmentation of the musical industry has made it much more difficult in some ways to find mainstream success - and one would think it easier to find an audience in this age, but it also can work against you."

The tour is a celebration of the work Feinstein refers to as being timeless. Whilst the collection contains songs too numerous to namecheck, he does acknowledge the ones that often rise to the top. "Probably the most famous is 'Over the Rainbow' because it is an ageless, timeless song. There are other generational songs that are known to many such as 'Singin' in the Rain' or 'As Time Goes By' for people who grew up watching the great classic films and musical films. 'Love Is Here To Stay' is probably my most requested Gershwin song and I love doing it. Or 'I Won't Send Roses' with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman."

As a true showman, Feinstein always feeds off of his audience. "I always take requests in my programmes and people shout out what they want to hear. 'Where Do You Start', written by Johnny Mandel and Marilyn and Alan Bergman. That's almost always requested. 'My Favourite Year' is another one that people constantly request. That's the fun part of doing what I do. To be able to share the glory of this music and to remain spontaneous in every show. For that I'll always be grateful."

Michael Feinstein tours the UK from 22-28 October. Full details at

Originally published on Broadway World.

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