Michael Feinstein: Celebrating Standards

Michael Feinstein explores the Great American Songbook on PBS

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Michael Feinstein taping show for PBS

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How much does Michael Feinstein love the Great American Songbook? The impeccably polished singer-pianist’s adoration for classic Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley tunes is as deep as the ocean and as high as the sky. Yet even ardent Feinstein fans are likely unaware of the breadth of his passion or the painstaking lengths he’ll go to preserve and protect the music. Which is why award-winning filmmaker Amber Edwards has crafted Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook, a three-part series scheduled to air Oct. 6, 13 and 20 on PBS.

Edwards and her crew spent months crisscrossing the country with Feinstein, chronicling his performances of the work of the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers, Hart and others of the songwriting pantheon in venues large and small, and in settings that ranged from solo to full symphony orchestras. Offstage, they drew upon Feinstein the sparkling raconteur, tapping into his encyclopedic knowledge of not only the tunesmiths but also the artists—Sinatra, Clooney, Crosby, Cole and more—who helped make the songs indelible.

But Edwards digs deeper—or, more precisely, keeps the cameras rolling as Feinstein digs, capturing his willingness to search out any back alley, attic, basement or storage bin to find rare recordings and other lost, forgotten or overlooked treasures to literally piece together the music’s history. “I had met Michael when I did a documentary about Jerry Herman,” says Edwards. “When I began looking for my next project, I initially thought of creating some sort of late-night cabaret series with Michael. Then I spent some time with him and realized he is a documentarian’s dream, because he is always doing something. If you follow his life, you have the most fantastic adventure. I had just seen An Inconvenient Truth, and thought, OK, they went on the road with Al Gore’s show, and in the course of that you learned about the man. I thought, what a great template to use for somebody like Michael, where you have the opportunity [to observe] all these great performances in so many different locations and all these crazy excavations he does.”

In the backstage film classic All About Eve, critic and columnist Addison DeWitt says he has “lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world, no other life, and once in a great while I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray.” Substitute the word “music” for “theater” and you have an apt description of Feinstein the historian and archivist. Indeed, he is, says Edwards, “slightly mystical” on the topic of how he locates his troves: “He feels that things just find him.” Feinstein, 54, concurs, suggesting that, “because of my focus and passion for this music, it seems the universe sends things my way. I suppose it has to do with putting out an intention. The way so many things have come into my life is far past chance.”

One wonderful case in point, revealed in the series’ third segment, was his discovery of unknown extra choruses for an Irving Berlin gem. As Feinstein explains, “I bought a bunch of ephemera from the estate of a songwriter named Sammy Lerner, [who] had two diverse hit songs: ‘Popeye, the Sailor Man’ and the English lyric for ‘Falling in Love Again.’ He died many years ago and his stuff was strewn about. What was left was the detritus of his estate, and somebody sold me a bunch of his papers. Among them was a lyric sheet for ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ that I assumed was a parody Lerner had written. Then my friend [musical theater authority] Ken Bloom was visiting and he said, ‘I think this is by Berlin, because it lists the character names from the show.’ I checked it out and it was two choruses written by Berlin. After I contacted the Berlin office, they looked and did find a copy of it, but it was never included in The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin; and they’re delightful, as good as anything he wrote.”

At the heart of the series is not just Feinstein’s eagerness to uncover such rarities, but also his equally fervent zeal for sharing his discoveries. “One of the wonderful things I’ve found,” he says, “is that when a sane collector discovers something, his first instinct is to protect it, and his second instinct is to share it. … My partner, Terrence, says to me, ‘Why do you spend so much time duplicating and sending people things?’ and I say, ‘Because it means so much to them.’ And I know how much it means to me when someone sends me something fantastically rare that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to hear.” Ultimately, says Feinstein, he hopes the series will provide viewers with “a greater appreciation for the artistry of this body of work. I also hope it will introduce this music to people who have never heard it before and will compel them to get deeper into it.”

“Even though I think music is cosmic and comes from another place,” he says later, “the manifestations of it here on earth are one of the true, deep joys of existence.”

Originally published in October 2010

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