February 16, 2016
What keeps a veteran performer viable and popular in later years? Recently, I’ve seen shows by Marilyn Maye, Tommy Tune, Ben Vereen, Maurice Hines and Liliane Montevecchi. These artists range from their late sixties to mid-eighties. In many ways, they not only abide, but outshine much younger performers.
Some are simply phenomena, which is to say vocals seem all but undiminished (proper care and a gift from above?), standards remain high, communication is paramount.
Marilyn Maye leads this pack. Arrangements adapt, making any vocal change all but indiscernible. Energy level is dynamic. Time has only added to richness of interpretation. Maye never fails to connect. Her warmth is palpable.
Though thespians Tommy Tune and Maurice Hines dance less, choreography continues to be original, precise, graceful, and elegant in a way achieved by few newcomers. Not only are they captivating hoofers, but both these artists imbue songs with ease, style and honesty I can only compare to Fred Astaire. Both appear accessible, taking infectious pleasure in sharing.
Liliane Montevecchi made the change from dancer to actress/vocalist/variety host years ago. Echoes of her former career are distinctive in poise and balletic expression. Vocals in French and English are robust, always suited to her range. A unique personality, the lady still bubbles like flirty champagne exuding unparalleled joie de vivre. My only caveat is the repetition of a 25-year-old show.
Ben Vereen, the youngest of this shortlist, has adjusted movement and vocals creating an entirely new platform for himself. Gestures are (Bob) Fosse-like: upper body shifts, feet barely move. The performer has substituted animation for dancing. Were it not for intermittent mugging, this would serve him well. Most numbers arrive thoughtfully, infused with experience. Vereen is using his voice in a less flashy manner, with control and feeling.
Others resist recalibration. Long an appreciator of the eminent Barbara Cook, I attended a much anticipated solo evening at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook. Unfortunately, Ms. Cook exemplified those who refuse to accept life differences and adjust. She kept pushing vocals to places they wouldn’t go. This is a woman who knows how to express authentic lyric meaning. Observing the artist in her chair, I thought of the sublime Mabel Mercer who continued to sing with increased recitative, never dropping a stitch; nuance, significance.
Range and lung power diminish, but entertainers can feasibly continue on. Tony Bennett no longer delivers the soaring long notes of his youth, yet expression remains pristine, phrasing authentic. These days, cabaret stages present more musical theater actors than ever before. We’ve also had an influx of singers returning after years of pursuing other lifestyles. Reputation and good storytelling will initially draw established fans, but if you’re going to sing…