A Conversation with Susan Eichhorn Young
April 5, 2017
By Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes
Susan Eichhorn Young has performed in the theatrical works of Sondheim and Kurt Weill, as well as Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, to Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman, Leonard Bernstein, Kander & Ebb, and more! She has also sung operatic roles in concert halls and opera houses from Purcell’s Dido to Mozart’s Countess and Fiordiligi to Puccini’s Musetta and Suor Angelica to world premieres like NYC-based composer, Alan Jaffe’s Mary Shelley opera.
She is also a well-respected and much-sought-after voice teacher working in NYC.
As she prepares to return to NYC’s Laurie Beechman Theatre with her show, Why?, on April 13, we sat down with her to discuss her show, her teaching and her moving forward after a life-changing car accident.
Cabaret Scenes: You debuted Why? at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on November 12th, after not having performed a solo full-length show in six years following your car accident. How did it feel to be up on stage again? Can you tell readers a little bit about the road to recovery and the return to performance?
Susan Eichhorn Young: I felt great about being on stage again. My “road to recovery” continues. The accident marked the beginning of a “new normal,” physically. I am able to mask some of my physical changes. The others I’ve learned to incorporate and allow to be visible. Or at least I think they are visible. I am aware of all of it!
The return to performance needed to happen when I knew physically I could do it. People who don’t sing don’t realize just how athletic it is. I’ve undergone many surgeries, seemingly countless hours of physical therapy, which are ongoing. I had to know I could sustain onstage before I could make the commitment to be there for a full show.
It will never be the way it was before. It’s simply something different. But I am relieved that “those little voices” that play with you before your foot hits the boards have finally disappeared.
CS: What a story! You’re a true survivor. Did you decide to leave the details of your accident vague to place the focus on the music itself?
SEY: I really, truly believe theater, including cabaret, speaks to universal truths. Maybe especially in cabaret, given the intimacy. We can find universality and specificity in an intimate way. The accident is why I am back and, in spite of the accident, I am back. People can relate to what I’ve experienced, on all levels of consciousness—short of the large semi, I hope!
We all survive things. We make—and lose—choices and decisions. We succumb, we fight, we sit down and cry. We get numb, we get angry, we live to fight another day. We live to thrive and discover more. These experiences are larger than me. What I can do is use my experience to shape the music and allow the music to shape the experience
Why? Is about the big life questions we all face, whether or not we ask them consciously.
CS: Let’s talk a bit about the songs you perform. Having been reviewing cabaret actively for a couple of years, I really did feel like “something new” was in the air. Not just the artists, but the combination of artists in one show: Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, Annie Lennox, Sting, Melissa Manchester, Georgia Stitt, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. How did you pick these songs? Did you and your musical director collaborate on the set list, or did you pretty much know what you wanted to sing?
SEY: I started with some ideas, Trent [Trent Armand Kendall, director] suggested a few, as did Steven [Steven Ray Watkins, music director]. I developed the show through language first. What did the lyric say? What did it reveal about what I wanted to arc in the show? How could I dramatically inhabit the language first? These are some of the questions that I ask when I am building a show. There is a reason for every choice. Sometimes a song chooses you! The creative process of choosing is exhilarating!
CS: Have you known the members of the band for many years, or did you just begin working with them?
SEY: Steven and I have wanted to work together for years. Finally, this show made it happen. John Miller [bass] and Don Kelly [drums] are prominent in the theater world, and Steven created this trio and it just clicked. Steven’s brilliance is his ability to immediately codify an idea or nuance. He listens and then says, “What about this?”—and finds something that you can inhabit that is uniquely you!
Trent I have known each other for over 10 years and, in fact, figured out that, decades ago, when I still lived primarily in Canada, we met at an open call audition for Les Miz—or Miss Saigon—in New York. He has studied voice with me, and when I was thinking about who I wanted to help guide this show, I knew it had to be Trent and his sense of vision. He knew what I’d been through. He knew how to challenge me. He didn’t want me to “default” to what he calls “the legit chick.” He wanted me to push my own boundaries and re-discover repertoire and genres that I hadn’t tackled in a long while.
CS: You’ve had a diverse career in the arts. Did you grow up singing? Did you always want to perform?
SEY: I have. And I did. I have sung from the beginning. My first public performance that I remember was at my kindergarten graduation where I sang all the verses of “Raggle Taggle Gypsies” a cappella! I grew up in a performing arts home, and can’t remember not wanting to perform, one way or another.
CS: You’re clearly comfortable with many musical genres. What genres first appealed to you?
SEY: Thank you. That means a lot. I really work for authenticity of self and therefore authenticity of style and genre. I listened to lots of different kinds of music growing up—from Callas singing Norma—my first operatic recording, listening on my dad’s knee—to musical theater to pop and rock and R&B to folk and spirituals and music in the church.
I always gravitated toward the lyric or the libretto. What did it say? How did it make me feel? That was more important than the genre, and it gave me permission to listen to many different styles
I have a great deal of formal training and I continue to study. It never ends.
CS: Did you always want to teach? Does the teaching inspire you to keep performing, or do you see your career as a voice teacher as entirely distinct from your life as a performer?
SEY: I don’t think I knew I always wanted to teach, but, when I look back, I think I did always want to teach, if that makes sense. I am a classically trained pianist, although, with the damage from the accident, playing piano is not the same – I “fake” play now!. I taught piano for years. As I studied classical/operatic voice, I continued to sing other genres. I also played piano for ballet schools. It helped pay for my undergrad degree! The teaching and performing are now very interconnected for me. One infuses the other and teaches me about both, not just the actual mechanics of the disciplines, but their psychology, which is crucial.
CS: What is your voice pedagogy? Do you work with beginners as well as seasoned singers?
SEY: My study of pedagogy is ongoing. I believe one needs a firm grasp of the science of physiology and acoustics. I continue to study psychology and behavioral science, which I believe allows me to teach with greater clarity.
In teaching voice, I teach to the individual. Book knowledge matters, but if we don’t challenge ourselves to personalize that understanding, what’s the point? There is “no one size fits all.”
I believe in the philosophy of “authentic voice”: discovering and claiming a voice that is truly, uniquely and vehemently yours. This is what I challenge myself with, and every singer that walks into the studio.
When you find that physical behavior of your voice, it gives you versatility. Technique is like your voice in its underwear. If that’s not right, nothing is going to fit! Once you understand that voice, without value judgement, and allow her to be who she is, you then can explore the outfits and accessories of genre and style! Some will fit. Some won’t. Some appeal more authentically. Some won’t. You don’t have to do everything. You learn how to do you, and to do you with a fierceness and a commitment.
I work with primarily emerging and developing and seasoned professionals, though I have worked with beginners and find it rewarding. It’s all about the amount of time I have. I am exploring an online course for beginners, to introduce people who are exploring voice for the first time to an opportunity to delve in without reserve! We’ll see how that develops!
CS: You’re originally from Canada. When did you move to the United States? Do you visit Canada often?
SEY: I’ve been going back and forth since 1990 on a regular basis, but my visits to NYC started in 1982. I finally moved here permanently in 2004. I don’t get back [to Canada] as often as I would like. Before the accident I still taught regularly in Toronto. Perhaps in time, I can resume that, as I miss it terribly. Much of my family is still in Canada and I never see them enough either.
CS: I see you live in Pennsylvania, but work and teach in the city. Do you find the time out of New York helps to recharge your batteries? What’s the split between New York and Pennsylvania?
SEY: It most definitely does recharge the batteries! The split depends on the week—as well as on my teaching schedule, current projects, and physical energy, and, frankly, my emotional state. Sometimes, just getting in a car to drive for a couple hours one way is too much. PTSD is a bitch. The accident changed me in every way. I can’t just power through 15-hour days the way I could when I was younger and even during a busy period before the accident. I have learned to give myself permission to say, “No, today I can’t.” It’s always hard, but it’s healthier.
CS: You’re politically outspoken, particularly on Facebook. Has this always been true or, like so many of us, did you become more political as a result of November 8th?
SEY: You noticed, huh? Yes, I’m outspoken on Facebook. Probably too much so! And yes, I’ve been more outspoken since the election, but I’ve always been believed in speaking up about injustice. I have always believed in the human spirit and tried to listen to those whose voices have been marginalized. That’s not new. I’ve done that since I was a kid. And I won’t apologize for this, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. Now, more than ever, we need to shine a light on the darkest corners of our national psyche and, frankly, our global psyche!
CS: After the audience booed Vice President Pence at Hamilton, and Brandon Victor Dixon delivered the powerful, yet respectful speech drafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda—with input from others in the company—it renewed interest in the age-old question about art’s relation to politics. In his “Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley famously wrote that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of world.” Horace, of course, thought the role of the poet was both “to delight and instruct.” Do you agree? What do you see as the role of the artist, particularly in the terrifying wake of the last election?
SEY: The role of the artist is to reveal. We are there to put society in higher relief, for the rest of the world to see, if they are interested in seeing it! To entertain, sure, but more importantly to reveal and challenge: socially, politically, personally. Artists shape society.
We often don’t remember who the businessmen of an era were, but we know who created art. We know who designed, who composed, who wrote. The artists define the character of a generation. Being an artist is how we live our lives and reveal the humanity—or lack thereof—in our era.
And if we present the behavior of the characters we play, we must be willing to stand for what that behavior reveals, or what it evokes or provokes. We are the troubadours of the human spirit—its triumphs as well as its failures. If we do not teach, if we do not reveal truth, if we do not demand that authenticity, then who will?
Susan Eichhorn Young
April 13 at 7:00 pm
Laurie Beechman Theatre
You can follow Susan’s online blog about theater and singing at