Harold Sanditen: Flyin’ High

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Harold Sanditen

Flyin’ High

March 2015

By Mychelle Colleary for Cabaret Scenes

Photo: Zoë White

Cabaret artist Harold Sanditen is probably best known as the inimitable host of the popular Open Mic at London’s The Crazy Coqs. Having crafted and performed six different cabaret shows in as many years, and released two CDs, one would think he had always been an entertainer. Not so.

This former investment banker and former theater producer is about to embark on a “World Tour” of his current show Flyin’ High and I was lucky enough to catch him at London’s ZL Café between rehearsals and the Open Mic to have a chat about the tour, former careers, how he came to singing and learning his cabaret craft… and extreme remote travel, heaven and hell on earth.

Mychelle Colleary So, “World Tour”? How did that come about?
Harold Sanditen Well, I set out to book just a California tour, but then London, New York, Paris and Montenegro came in — hence the strapline: on a California tour that now includes London, New York, Paris and Montenegro.

Harold on Easter Island

MC How did you come up with the show’s concept? And why decide to take this show on tour?
HS Flyin’ High came from my love of travel, and it feels like it should travel as well, so I was very happy about [finding] those venues and, in fact, I now have my eye on Madrid and Lisbon, so stay tuned.

MC How on earth did you get from investment banking, to producing theater, to becoming a cabaret artist?
HS I was always interested … I think I always wanted to be on the stage, but I didn’t have the gumption or self-confidence to get on the stage, so I produced.

MC You have an MBA and worked in New York as an investment banker?
HS Yes, I did, I worked for a very wealthy private family and managed a billion dollars in liquid assets. We did small-scale leveraged buy-outs —bought and sold companies, some of which I was able to invest in. That helped me be who I am now, do what I do now. So it allows me to take the risks — like the tour– much like producing a play, and I did that for 20 years, except now I’m the Diva. And I’m the product and it’s much easier for me to deal with this Diva…because when this Diva throws a fit, I know when it’s coming and I usually know how to cope with it. (laughs)

MC Why did you stop being an investment banker and how did you get from New York to London? And how did producing theater come about?
HS I stopped because I didn’t really like it. I think I did an MBA because it’s what all nice Jewish boys are supposed to do—you know, a doctor, lawyer or MBA—and I didn’t want to be a doctor, and definitely didn’t want to be a lawyer.

After my MBA, I met a guy in Greece who became my partner for eight years. I followed him to London; he was the Canadian Cultural Attaché. The relationship didn’t work out, and he left, and I stayed. I met my husband and we’ve been together for 22 years now.

MC When you came to London, did you immediately decide that you were going to produce theater?
HS I actually came here with the idea that that was what I wanted to do. A friend of mine in New York had started producing and I had invested in A Shayna Maidel, which I later produced in the West End. I thought producing looked like something fun to do and used my business background—sort of got me close to the area where I wanted to be. I was always on stage when I was a kid, in high school musicals….

So I guess I always wanted to do it [sing], but didn’t even think it was a possibility, until a woman with whom I did my MBA, Simone, got in touch to let me know she was doing her first cabaret show in New York—I was over there producing—and that is what spurred me into doing all this.

I went to cabaret boot camp in Italy with Helen Baldassare, and then I went The Art of Cabaret in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Mason, Barry Kleinbort, Chris Denny, Shelly Markham—all those kind of people—and then I went to Erv Raible’s Cabaret Conference at Yale.

Harold with man's best friend (and his little dog, too!)
Harold with man’s best friend (and his little dog, Blanco, too!)

MC Aside from Italy, you were traveling from London to the U.S. to study?
HS Yes. I’ve been in London since 1987 … I’m not alternative, as you know. I like to be bawdy, but I wanted to study the slick, music-based, New York style cabaret people in the States were doing.

MC You produced theater for a long time. Were you successful in London?
HS I was very successful, and I loved my choices, because I was never blatantly commercial. At some point I counted, and it was something like over 50 different productions—sometimes it was the same play produced several times—it was a lot. I did a lot. I brought over people like David Drake in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Lypsinka, I brought over. I concentrated quite a bit on bringing North Americans over here.

When I worked for Bill Kenwright, I did things like Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour in Fallen Angels, Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange, Charles Dance, Paul Rudd, Paul Nichols, and [multi-BAFTA Award-winning] Olivia Colman played the maid. But at some point—since I don’t like delegating—I got really burnt out after 20 years, and I gave it up.

MC Did you give up producing theater before you made the switch to singing?
HS Absolutely. I gave it up without really having any idea what was next. The last show I produced—both here and in New York—was Unsuspecting Susan, which I had commissioned for Celia Imrie. But that was my swan song and, in a way, I knew it was.

When I was in New York and I saw Simone do her show, and I thought: Wow, maybe I could do that. I just fell in love with the genre.  So, after Tuscany, I went back to New York once a month to rehearse a show with Helen, and David Gaines was my musical director, and I decided I was going to do my first show in New York because if it was really, really bad, I didn’t want to be doing it in my home town! For a first attempt it was valiant.

I have learned so much since then. Doing the Open Mic has really helped me with my comfort level on stage, I was always really caught up with not wanting anything to go wrong, being a type A personality and all. And now, the more that goes wrong, the more there’s something to laugh about. The audience is on your side, as long as you don’t make them feel uncomfortable.

So, I brought that first show to London, and then moved on. I just love Flyin’ High because those stories conjure up the image of the places I’ve been. For me, it’s my most fun show.

MC What do you think your top three qualities or attributes are as a performer? And what is your top?
HS I think I’m amiable, and a nice person… I draw the audience in. At the Open Mic, I really want everyone to succeed. So, when someone gets up and is a bad singer, that really feels awful to me. I think my top quality—I make the audience feel comfortable, and everyone enjoys himself.

I’m probably not the best singer on earth, but I find songs that work for my voice and me.  I think what I find most interesting about my shows: I usually have a road map of where I want my show to go. Michael Roulston is able to take what I present to him intellectually and translate it into music and an arrangement. So, I think that’s a strong point—the way I approach going into a show.

MC It’s an academic approach to crafting a show, and you work with someone who can articulate, creatively, what it is you have in mind to convey.
HS You put that so succinctly and perfectly! So, yes, I always approach my shows intellectually… I think we’re a really good team [with Michael] on that front.

The Boys in the Band (L-R)
The Boys in the Band (L-R):
Michael Roulston, Harold, Jonty Fisher
Photo: Zoë White

MC Why are you taking your band with you all around the world, rather than finding local musicians?
HS Actually, I think the economy in terms of money would be minimal—flights vs. needing to rehearse local musicians in each town. I’d rather have my band—we never have to rehearse anything. Sound check, that’s it. AND, we get a working holiday together. We’re going to have a lot a fun driving up the [Pacific] Coast Highway.

MC So what’s next? What does the future hold performance-wise?
HS I would like to perfect my Spanish, so I got this other bee in my bonnet. My God, I can’t believe I actually have a face with all the bees I have had in my bonnet lately, but I want to do Madrid. And I speak French passably and I think I will do a show in Franglais, but I can do a show in Spanglish as well. I am not going to be fluent in either language– but I think it’s charming. I would love to be able to travel and be able to perform at the same time, that’s why I mention cruise ships.  I would love to do that– not constantly, not full time, but every so often. Oh my God, how much I would love that!

MC What is your most memorable travel experience that is NOT in the show?
HS In a good way or a bad way?

MC Either.
HS [Most memorable in a bad way] When we went to Vanuatu, in the middle of the South Pacific, and I was expecting a tropical paradise, it was hell on earth. We arrived at an airport in Malakula, which had been burned down by rival Indian factions. So, when we landed there was no airport! Air traffic control was in this corrugated lean-to. As soon as we landed and our luggage came off, they pissed off.  No transport, no phones, no mobile phones, no infrastructure, next flight out 4 days– very humid, lots of flies! We arrived with some missionaries from Quebec. Our arranged transport decided not to pick us up. We were lucky; we all got in the back of a pick-up truck… (laughs)… and off we went to drop off the missionaries first. I almost went to the mission, nice Jewish boy, thought maybe it’s time to convert!

[Most memorable in a good way] Once I told my dad that I was going to Belize and he asked to come along. I said only if you learn to scuba dive; I was really flippant.  What did he do? He enrolled in the course at the age of 65, he did all the course work, did his open water dives in a lake in Oklahoma—in the middle of winter—so he had his scuba certification and off we went.

MC That’s really sweet actually!
HS It was unbelievable, really. We had the most amazing time. He went back to Tulsa, I got on a plane, and I was in a plane crash

MC What?!
HS Yes, in Guatemala City.  Missed the runway, smashed into a tree, decompressed and the plane began to smoke, and everyone thought it was on fire. I was the second person off, and maybe two hours later I was in my hotel room, with this very surreal thing having just happened, and went on with my trip. So, that was pretty remarkable!

MC Survived a plane cash in Guatemala. Wow. That’s pretty impressive!  Surprised that didn’t make it into the show.
HS There is nothing funny to say about it either. I mean, you know, there are so many stories, but they don’t always get there because when you’re crafting a show, it’s got to have something funny, you know. I am not going to tell a serious story on stage; there is no point. I am a laugh whore.

MC Self-confessed laugh whore: that’s going to go somewhere.
HS Don’t you think people want to have a laugh when they go to a show? (laughs)

MC Of course!

Tour dates:
March 31, 1 & 2 April  1 & 2- Crazy Coqs, London
April 9 – Martini’s Above Fourth – Table & Stage, San Diego
April 12 – Arthur Newman Theater at the Joslyn Center, Palm Desert
April 14 – Rockwell:  Table + Stage, Los Angeles
April 18 – Society Cabaret, San Francisco
April 23 – Metropolitan Room, New York
May 8 – Wilton’s Music Hall (tbc – as part of London Festival of Cabaret)
June 5 & 6 – Club RaYé, Paris
July 4-15 – venue TBC – Montenegro

For complete tour information visit:  http://www.haroldsanditen.com

Mychelle Colleary

Mychelle Colleary (native Californian, honorary New Yorker and now Londoner) graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from San Jose State University. Her first professional acting role was at 18 and she worked in theater for two years before attending University. As a jazz vocalist, Mychelle has performed internationally and has shared the stage with greats such as Carl Anderson, Clare Fischer and Bobby McFerrin. She currently divides her time between project management (design & communications) and being on a stage or in an audience. From musical theater to classical to folk rock to jazz to cabaret, Mychelle brings her collective professional experience and insight to reviewing.