The Paul Leslie Hour Episode #31 – Susan Birkenhead

Susan Birkenhead is one of the most in-demand theatre lyricists. She made her Broadway debut as a contributor to Working in 1978. Her songwriting has been featured in many productions both on and off Broadway, including Jelly’s Last Jam, Triumph of Love, High Society, Hats!, Radio Girl and most recently The Secret Life of Bees. Susan Birkenhead has written with some of the best composers including Charles Strouse, David Foster, Jule Styne and others. In fact, with Styne, Birkenhead wrote two songs recorded by Frank Sinatra.

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The Paul Leslie Hour Episode #26 – Gary Morris

Singer-songwriter, recording artist Gary Morris was born on December 7, 1948. Tomorrow is his birthday! Morris has had more than two dozen chart singles, including the 1983 Top 10 song, “Wind Beneath My Wings.”  Most of his work could be classified as country, but he’s also had a serious acting career. He played Jean Valjean in a Broadway production of Les Misérables as well as a production of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. The conversation is good and true with Gary Morris on The Paul Leslie Hour.

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Melissa Errico: Singer & Actress

Melissa Errico is an actress and singer of the Broadway stage.  She has starred in seven Broadway musicals and released 3 albums.  This in-depth interview explored the release of Melissa Errico’s album “Legrand Affair,” which is a collection of songs composed by Michel Legrand.  Produced by the late Phil Ramone and performed by Melissa Errico accompanied by a 100-piece symphony orchestra in Brussels.

“Legrand Affair” even features new material composed by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman specifically for Errico.  As Errico says in this interview, in many ways the focus was not entirely on her.  The album is almost like a duet of her and Michel Legrand.  This interview not only gives us great insight into Melissa Errico, a great singer…but, also helps us understand a little bit of the genius of this incredible writer of melody–Michel Legrand.

Martin Charnin: Lyricist, Writer & Theatre Director

Martin Charnin is an absolute giant in the world of American theatre.  The original lyricist-director of “Annie,” he has gone on to write lyrics and direct many musicals.  As an actor, he appeared in over 1,000 appearances of “West Side Story” on Broadway and on the road.  He has written, directed and produced nightclub acts for Dionne Warwick, Nancy Wilson, Marty Travers and Leslie Uggams.

Songs Martin Charnin wrote have been recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Rod McKuen and Tony Bennett.

Currently, Martin Charnin is the Artistic Director of the SHOWTUNES! Theatre Company in Seattle, Washington.  He remains as vital and active in theatre as ever.

Delve into the mind of one of theatre’s true icons.

  

Michael John LaChiusa: Musical Theatre and Opera Composer, Lyricist & Librettist

In the world of musical theatre, Michael John LaChiusa is well known for his shows including “Hello Again,” “Marie Christine,” “The Wild Party,” and “See What I Wanna See.”  He is respected as a composer, lyricist, and librettist.  In addition to Michael John LaChiusa’s work in theatre and opera, he is also a performer of his own work at concert and cabaret venues.

In this interview LaChiusa talks about his influences, history and work.

Maury Yeston: Composer, Lyricist, Educator & Musicologist

Maury Yeston allows us into his musical mind!  He is a composer, lyricist, educator and musicologist.  Perhaps best known for his music and lyrics heard on the Broadway stage, Maury Yeston wrote the lyrics and melodies for “Nine,” (based on Fellini’s film 8½ )as well as “Titanic.”  Maury Yeston is a Tony award winner.  He wrote the music and lyrics for “Phantom,” based on the 1910 novel “The Phantom of the Opera.”  Yeston also wrote a great deal of songs for the Broadway musical “Grand Hotel.”
In addition to several original Broadway cast albums of his songs, a compilation album of his songs was released in 2003, entitled “The Maury Yeston Songbook.”  Broadway actress Laura Osnes released an entire album of his songs entitled “If I Tell You (Songs of Maury Yeston).”

If you are fascinated by the art of songwriting or a lover of musical theatre, this interview will be of great interest.  He freely expresses his thoughts and recollections.  Writers and lovers of songs alike will enjoy this fascinating interview.

Lee Adams: Lyricist

Lee Adams has always been a writer, but it was the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me Kate” that greatly intrigued the young Lee and soon he was writing lyrics.  Meeting  composer Charles Strouse led him to a partnership and the two went on to write some of the most enduring songs in theatre.

Lee Adams went on to receive Tony awards for “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1961 and “Applause” in 1970.  Lee Adams has written the lyrics for the shows “All American,” “Golden Boy,” “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman,” “Bring Back Birdie” (the sequel to “Bye Bye Birdie”) and “A Broadway Musical,” all collaborations with composer Charles Strouse.  In 1989, Lee Adams was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The lyrics of Lee Adams are here to stay.

Barbara Cook: Singer

Broadway legend Barbara Cook talks about her life as a singer, actress and recording artist, including her favorite songwriters and her album “You Make Me Feel So Young.”  She is one of the rare singers to receive acclaim into her eighties.  Cook is especially known for her interpretations of the songs written by theatre legend Stephen Sondheim.

Baayork Lee: Singer, Dancer & Actress

BAAYORK LEE has lived a life in the performing arts that many could only dream of.  Born in New York City’s Chinatown, Baayork has performed as a singer, dancer and actress.  Behind the scenes she has worn the hats of choreographer and theatre director.

Baayork Lee made her debut as a dancer on Broadway at the age of five in the 1951 production of The King and I.  She met the legendary dancer Michael Bennett at the High School for Performing Arts.  Her creative relationship with Michael Bennett endured throughout his life.

In 1975, Baayork Lee was invited by Michael Bennett to participate in the workshops which resulted in the famed musical A Chorus Line, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.  The original Broadway production ran for 6,137 performances.  The role of “Connie Wong” was based on Baayork Lee.

Baayork Lee has been one of the loudest voices in the enduring legacy of Michael Bennett’s work.  With encouragement from Michael Bennett, Baayork Lee turned to choreography.  She has directed many national and international theatrical companies.  Ever active, Baayork Lee serves on the Board of Directors of the National Asian Arts Project (NAAP).  Most recently, Baayork Lee is choreographing a performance of OLIVER! at the Pershing Square Signature Center June 5-7.

In celebration of the performances, Baayork Lee had a very spirited conversation with us and we hope you can find her enthusiasm as inspiring as we do.

Tom Wopat: Singer, Actor

TOM WOPAT is known by many people as an actor, but in listening to any of his albums, you will understand why he identifies himself as a singer first and foremost.  It was STILETTO Entertainment who introduced me to Wopat’s album “Consider it Swung!”  I am very glad they did, as anyone who listens to him singing can testify.  The impressive thing about Tom Wopat is that he seems to transition so effortlessly between an American Songbook standard like “That’s Life” and a very unique take on the Bobbie Gentry classic “Ode to Billie Joe.”  The album even features “Thailand Sea,” a song written by Wopat, and it’s lyrics tell a great story.  I would invite music lovers to please give Mr. Wopat a listen.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’swith great pleasure we welcome our special guest, Mr. Tom Wopat.  Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you, man.

My first question…it’s simple but it trips a lot of people up.  Who is Tom Wopat?

God, I don’t know.  Singer…that’s probably what I’d think of myself as.  Over the years, I guess I’ve thrown some acting shots so I do that as well but, um, I’m primarily a singer. 

What was life like growing up?

It was great!  I mean, my whole family was musical…a dairy farm in Wisconsin back in the fifties and sixties so, our public education was real good.  I lived in a small town so I got to do everything in high school…I was on all the teams, in band and in chorus and did the shows…you know, the whole nine yards.

What music were you listening to?

I think probably the first huge influence would have been the Beatles in the early sixties.  It was about seventh grade, that’s when I really, really became aware of pop music.  I think that you could make a case that most of the, most of the guys up in my age group between fifty-five and sixty-five, probably if they’re in the business, the Beatles led to everything.  They just put such a shine on the whole affair.

You have very diverse musical tastes.  Could you pick a favorite genre of music?

You know, for many, the country thing was more of an aberration.  I didn’t grow up really listening to it perseit and of course, back in the day, there wasn’t some niche-oriented I mean, nearly as it is today.  You’d hear country music next to rock-n-roll and a lot of that stuff back in the old top forty days, back in the fifties and sixties.  You know, I grew up listening to pop, but singing show tunes and doing that stuff, you know, in high school and college.  I studied voice at the University of Wisconsin so I studied opera and art songs and German Lieder  Actually I would’ve been a Lieder singer, singing like Mahler and Brahms and Schubert and that kind of stuff very well…but, um, I’m a baritone and it was really right in my wheel house.  I think what happened with country is that we were doing ‘Dukes’ and the opportunity came up and in those days, I mean, country was really kind of the MOR today…that was right around in cowboy time when all that stuff became really popular and you can say that country music was really the MOR music of the time. 

I want to talk about who your favorite songwriters are. 

Wow…well that’s a pretty diverse group.  You know, when you get into the songbook side of things, you’ve got to include Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hammerstein, of course.  Rodgers & Hart…any number of them.  When you talk about pop stuff, I’m a big Joni Mitchell fan, Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriters I like a lot…I like James Taylor… always been a big fan of his, you know, the way he styles a song.  There’s a song on that record that you have that’s called ‘Thailand Sea’ which is pretty much a Joni homage, you know, pretty much a Joni Mitchell style lyric and melody. 

I wanted to ask you about that song.  Tell me about ‘Thailand Sea’ and the inspiration.

I was in Thailand doing a movie in 2006.  I did a movie over there called ‘The Hive.’  It was kind of a low-budget, British Thai film and I hadn’t written a song in probably four or five years.  The place is so beautiful.  I was staying in a hotel on the Thailand Sea, up on the twelfth floor, the mountains right outside my window…it was really something and it was something that really moved me to take out the guitar and put it together so that’s what it ended up to be.  I think it’s actually a charming…a decent little piece of poetry.  I’m happy the way it came out.  You know, it really is one of the eclectic edges of this record.  I mean, the record goes in a lot of different directions which, I mean, you’ve got ‘Beacon Blues’ on there, a Lou Rawls thing, and a lot of different things.  You’ve got full-on Gershwin on it.  You know, we were kind of happy that we could meld all those things onto one record.

How did you go about choosing these songs?

Most of the selections were mine.  Dave Finck, the producer, had quite a bit of input, like the ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ was his idea.  Again, it’s kind of another eclectic edge to the record.  It’s definitely as far country as we go, a pretty haunting tune…a pretty stand-alone rendition, I think.  You won’t hear another version like it.  That’s kind of basically what we’re doing was kind of taking the different tastes that we both have and putting them together on a record.  There’s a Frischberg on there called ‘You’d Rather Have the Blues’.  It turns into a huge swing number.  That kind of stuff was an awful lot of fun to do. 

Well on that note, could you pick a favorite track from the album?

I’d have to say the ‘But Not for Me’ just cause of the ending of it.  It swings so hard.

What vocalists have influenced you the most?

Sinatra and Ella and Louis are all up there at the top of the list as far as songbook stuff goes.  Then there’s….I like Sting, uh, I like what he does to songs and the way he’ll turn the beat around a little bit.  God, I’m a Delbert fan.  I like Delbert McClinton a lot.  As far as this particular genre of the mixture of pop and standards, I would have to say Diana Krall is right at the top of the list.

Oh yeah, she’s great. 

She is great and not only a great musician, but an intuitive vocalist I think, and her piano playing is even better than her vocals so, you know, it’s a nice package. 

Do you have a preference personally when it comes to either performing songs live or working in a studio recording an album, like this album, ‘Consider it Swung’?

The live thing is what it’s all about.  I mean, that’s what the album’s for anyway is to promote the live stuff.  Over the years, just by sheer (laughs) osmosis, I think I’ve kind of developed a certain style in the studio and absorbed a lot of technique from different people and different producers.  Russ Titelman  was a huge influence… the first jazz record I made, ‘In the Still of the Night’…amazing….really terrific producer.  Ben Sidron on the record that I did, the Arlen record, he brought a wonderful approach to things.  I think for being a non-singer, he was really conducive to getting a good vocal in the studio.  A lot of his stuff was basically pretty much live.  We don’t punch them and comp them very much.  There’s maybe three or four that had kind of been pieced together.  Like the first song, ‘That’s Life,’ that’s pretty much a live track, you know, live in the studio.  But we did very little to it. 

In your personal opinion, do you think sometimes in a recording studio when an album is being made, when a track is done over and over and some of the techniques and the technology, do you think we’re maybe losing some of the soul of music in the process?

Oh absolutely.  I think, you know, a lot depends on the artist.  A lot of today’s pop artists, it’s how they’ve been raised to use comping stuff and not worrying about a total performance from beginning to end.  For me, I was brought up, you know, in a different day.  I started singing in the fifties really.  My first recording would’ve been in the 80’s but you know, over thirty years you tend to develop a certain thing and I’ve been a live performer over the years between doing all the performance with different bands and then Broadway shows or Broadway type shows.  For me, eventually, it really informs how I record a song.  As you get to a song, just the physical aspects to a song, say ‘But Not For Me,’ where there’s a certain fatigue aspect when you get towards the end…it lends a different kind of quality to your voice and a sort of urgency to the production that I think you miss if you just totally comp something together so that it’s perfect.  And the days of doing things like Steely Dan did…the analog approach, it’s…basically, what they would do is record a song and then they would replace everything—piece by piece by piece meticulously.

Mr. Wopat, you’re a man that’s worn a lot of hats.  You’ve appeared in countless Broadway shows.  You’ve been in television.  You’ve been on film.  Are there any dreams that you have yet to see become a reality?

Directing.  I’ve done it a little bit in my past.  I directed some of the episodes of ‘Dukes’ and I directed some stage stuff a little bit at Summerstock.  A few more years and I may not care to see myself in front of a camera (Laughs) anymore.  I do like to take the hands-on approach.  I mean, with this last record, I would have to say that I was as involved with production as I’ve ever been and more so.  But I think that’s the difference, you see…I like being in control so I expect some direction to come and maybe, maybe even producing a record or two.  That would be fun too.

You already have envisioned maybe a next record?

We’re actually in the process right now.

Wow!

 We’ve not been in the studio yet but we are in final approach to it I think.  It depends on David’s schedule.

What is the best thing about being Tom Wopat?

(Laughs)  I have a high standard of performance.  (Laughs)

(Laughs)  Well, I have two final questions.  One is somewhat lighthearted and the next one is a little more serious. 

Right.

But for the lighthearted one: What is your all-time favorite meal?

Oh.  I was discussing that the other day over some lobster…probably lobster and sweet corn.

Lobster and sweet corn?

Yeah.

Together?  Is that a combination that works especially well?

No, I don’t mix them.  I have a lobster and a couple ears of sweet corn.

Alright.  For my final question: this broadcast goes out all over the world…what would you like to say to all the people who are listening in?

Enjoy the day.  Seize the day. And music is a great part of that. 

Well sir, thank you so much for this interview.  I hope to see you perform in Atlanta at some point.

That’d be great!  I expect to be down there sometime. 

Alright, well have a good one.

Thanks a lot brother.

TRANSCRIBED BY LORI DOMINGO.