“Memories light the corners of my mind.”
“What are you doing the rest of your life? North and south and east and west of your life?”
“Time…I’ve been passing time watching trains go by…all of my life.”
You no doubt recognize these classic lyrics to love songs written for the big screen. The songs are shmaltzy, cheesy, nostalgic, sappy, touching – but whatever your bias, you have to give props to the Oscar- and Emmy-winning lyricists, husband-and-wife team, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. And I proudly chose to spend my birthday last night hearing the Bergman songbook performed by the charming Michael Feinstein at his intimate supper club at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue.
Yes, I was by far the youngest septuagenarian in the house, but I’ve long wanted to check out this throwback to the swanky cabaret clubs of the 50s. The only things missing were ashtrays and wafts of Lucky Strike smoke. The show was simply lovely – like being wrapped in a warm cozy blanket, dipped in chocolate (and a thin layer of Velveeta for mild cheesiness!) and sent floating on an ethereal pink cloud. The songs brought comfort, hearkening me back to countless hours at the precious baby grand since the age of six. Though I loved my classical training, my favorite repertoire regularly consisted of soundtrack tunes, TV themes and standards, making me familiar with the vast catalog of music with words crafted by the Bergmans in collaboration with such legendary composers as Michel Legrand, Johnny Mandel, Dave Grusin, Henry Mancini and Marvin Hamlisch.
Feinstein and his fabulous five-piece combo (his pianist played for Rosemary Clooney for 20 years) did magnificent justice to the tenderness of the music and lyrics, explaining with each piece how the couple, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, conceived many of the memorable phrases with such expression and economy. One of their most recognizable songs was written way back, when poor and in love, Alan couldn’t afford a ring to propose to Marilyn and instead used his songwriting talent to tell her how he felt. The result? “That face…that face…that wonderful face.” To borrow shamelessly from Rodgers and Hart, isn’t it romantic?
And then Feinstein brought out the man himself, Mr. Alan Bergman, now in his early 80s, to perform a few numbers. It was enchanting to hear the adorable lyricist croon his own words and tell the stories of how they came to be. I had no idea he and the Mrs. (who was in the audience) had written things like “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and “Windmills of Your Mind.” Growing up at the piano, I had always concentrated on the notes and the music, but it’s fascinating now as a wordsmith to give attention to the brilliantly pithy and evocative word choice. What an art. I found myself fantasizing about what the creative process must be like for the Bergmans, and also dreamily imagining Feinstein’s life, playing a beautiful Steinway and giving life to the great American standards. Oh, alright, I’ll just go ahead and admit it – I’m a shower and car chanteuse!
Special guest was Tony-winner Melissa Errico, who, pregnant with twins and glowing, performed a gorgeous arrangement with lyrics by the Bergmans from her just-released sweet lullaby album. Feinstein then gave shout-outs to such random “luminaries” in the house as composer Charles Fox (who wrote the theme song to “Happy Days” as well as hits like “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and Barry Manilow’s “Ready to Take a Chance Again”), ER actress Gloria Reuben and fellow cabaret/jazz musician Steve Tyrell.
Feinstein ended the show with one of my all-time favorites since teenagerhood, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” which I have always played but never been able to sing without tearing up, and of course saved, “The Way We Were” for the encore. God bless this talented musician for appreciating the splendor of 20th-century songwriting and making sure that legacy lives on. The icing on my birthday cake? Feinstein and Bergman had to shimmy right past me every time they came and went from the performing platform. So at the end of the show, they both stopped to greet me and shake my hand. What an elegant, sophisticated and glamorous way to ring in a new year.