Liza Minnelli and Barry Manilow performed at her wedding. Judge Judy officiated. In the early 1990s he broke bread with Frank Sinatra at Sinatra, and at the age of 20 he was introduced to the late and great lyricist Ira Gershwin of songwriting fame from George-and -Ira-Gershwin. He spent the next six years apprenticed as an assistant to Ira Gershwin.
Michael Feinstein certainly led a rich and accomplished life.
It was through the Gershwins that he met Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli, who later introduced him to his daughter with Judy Garland, Liza. Michael and Liza got along well and have been friends and collaborators for over 40 years.
In a moment of loop, his new album Country Gershwin (out March 11) is produced by Liza Minnelli. It features Gershwin classics reimagined as duets sung by Feinstein paired with some of country music’s greatest singers, including Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash Brad Paisley and Vince Gil.
Oh, and as a bonus, he and Liza sing Gershwin’s classic “Embraceable You.”
Feinstein’s dazzling and dizzying career over the past three decades has covered a lot of ground – countless recordings, concerts, club performances, television specials, a syndicated radio show, writing, directing, organizing and managing two clubs of night on two coasts – while maintaining, organizing and preserving an extensive catalog of music, manuscripts and memorabilia for the archives.
There’s a reason he’s been dubbed the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook. His taste and passion for music in the genre of popular songs, jazz standards and musicals published from the 1920s to the 1960s (“American Standards”) knows no bounds.
Along the way, Feinstein earned five Grammy nominations and one Emmy nomination for his television special. Michael Feinstein – The Sinatra Legacy. He has performed everywhere, from Carnegie Hall to the White House to Buckingham Palace.
Not bad for a kid from Ohio who, at age 5, sat down at a piano and started playing by ear.
And although he has since rubbed shoulders with and shared scores with many stars and legends, it is this shared love and appreciation for all things musical – lyrics, melody, arrangement, artistry, masterful interpretation – that seems the lead and inspire it. . His carefully curated tribute shows include tributes to Peggy Lee, Irving Berlin, Judy Garland and yes, Frank Sinatra.
On March 2, Feinstein and the Kravis Pops Orchestra will present Intimately Sinatra at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Palm Beach. (Feinstein created the Pops series at the Kravis Center in 2014.)
There’s a lot going on, given that the show business is still at half mast these days, cautiously (but thankfully) bouncing back from pandemic-induced shutdowns and reschedulings.
We caught up with Michael Feinstein by phone between his tour schedule to talk about Sinatra’s upcoming Kravis Center tribute, his new album and his relationship with Liza Minnelli.
Intimately Sinatra – what is involved in putting together this show?
I find that when a piece of music is organized with an intro, it helps people perceive it or listen to it in a different way, and so I chose a combination of songs that I can give anecdotes and stories that I hope will reveal something about a man we know so much about. I love being backed by an 80-piece orchestra because it’s transporting – simply transporting. I have a personal collection of orchestrations that number in the thousands, so to be able to hear them play is extraordinary… especially in this age when live music itself is a rarity, and hearing an orchestra or a band is now an unusual experience for the average music listener.
How was Sinatra?
He was very, very nice to me – very supportive – he didn’t have to be like that obviously and I think he liked the fact that I spoke his language, I know the songs, I know the songwriters, I understood the times. When I was at his house, the first time I was there for dinner, I asked him if it was true if Mabel Mercer had been a big influence on him and he said “Yeah, yeah” and he said kept hearing her in the clubs and [how she’d] sing the lyrics and she would sit at the table across from you. He was impressed that I brought up Mabel Mercer instead of Ava Gardner [we laugh]so we had a connection that way.
We heard your recent tribute to Judy Garland in Naples, Florida was a hit…
Thank you…I have to say it’s a wonderful show – the audience reaction was spectacular so I’m delighted with that – I had to cut the length because it was an embarrassment of riches… Return tribute to Judy Garland is for me much more difficult than paying tribute to Frank Sinatra because of the enormity of his career. And how to ward it off without it being there? The show is multimedia with extraordinary photographs and home movies provided by the family and a personal recording I found of her singing – of a song no one has ever heard before – with me on the piano because she sang acapella – and there are some excerpts of his singing of course… I’d like to take him to London, actually.
You and Liza… what stood out to you when you first met? And what keeps you connected?
When we met it was like meeting a lost cousin or brother because I knew Vincent Minnelli so well through the Gershwins and so the moment we met Liza said, “You know, we are now united in hip.” And I didn’t take it seriously, but she was serious and so it’s something that just grew over time. One of the things I love about her is her extraordinary musical ability – her knowledge of music and her innate understanding of not only music, orchestration and presentation, but of course what I have learned from her about acting, directing and lyrics – so when I was prepping Gershwin’s country album (out March 11) she volunteered to help because her parents were friends relatives of Ira, and Vincent also worked with George and Ira on Broadway. “Embraceable You” was Vincent’s favorite song, so I recorded “Embraceable You” with it as a bonus, in memory of Vincent and of course his mother sang it in Crazy girl — so she was incredibly helpful as an executive producer in coming up with casting ideas for singers and songs — it was just fun.
What were the highlights of the recording Country Gershwin?
I love every track on this album – and I’m a harsh critic of my own work, and maybe because of the “Duets” (albums) with all those iconic vocals… Definitely singing “Love Is Here to Stay “with Dolly Parton was a highlight for me. “I Got Rhythm” with Brad Paisley, “Fascinating Rhythm” with The Time Jumpers and Vince Gil. They are all extraordinary.
Could you have predicted this career path?
I had no career path in mind, I started playing the piano by ear when I was 5 and by the time I got out of high school I was singing songs and playing piano bars, and it literally evolved into a completely unexpected career. . I met Ira Gershwin and it opened up new vistas for me – all a series of what one might call coincidences or divinely guided experiences – I can’t answer that – I can only say my path has always been one of being guided from one point to another, and it just evolved and became what it is.
You and Terrence Flannery have been together for a long time – how is he?
He is great. We have been together for 25 years. We were married by Judge Judy and Gabriel Ferrer, Rosemary Clooney’s son, was the pastor. I forget the year… [October 2008] We got married at our old house in Los Angeles… Yeah, Liza sang and Barry Manilow sang – I guess it was a big gay wedding. [laughs].
How do you see the next generation and the survival of the music you cherish so much?
I started the Great American Songbook Foundation with the goal of passing on this music and we have an annual high school songbook academy that happens every year…in one week 40 attendees from all 50 states who come together and learn more about the songbook – it’s been like planting the seeds. Now we have like thousands of young people who have been involved in loving and spreading the American Songbook in confluence with the contemporary music they love and listen to.
Songs survive because they’re timeless… so I have no worries about the music surviving… I keep going because it’s just something I love. And being able to do what you love is the greatest gift.
For more info/tickets for Michael Feinstein and Kravis Center Pops Orchestra’s Intimately Sinatra concert on March 2, go to kravis.org. Find out more about Michael Feinstein, upcoming concert dates and his new album Gershwin Countrygo to michaelfeinstein.com.