East Enders who are fans of the Great American Songbook are in for a treat on Saturday, August 9, when iconic performer Michael Feinstein appears at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Feinstein, known for preserving and showcasing the classic works of composers like George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and more, chatted with Dan’s Papers about his career, what audiences can expect from his show, other projects and more.
Feinstein’s love of music started very early, in part thanks to his parents, who were both involved in the performing arts. His mother was an amateur tap dancer and his father an amateur singer. “It was an experience that was visceral,” Feinstein says. “I started playing piano at the age of 5, by ear. I started playing with two hands. My parents had just bought a piano that they could barely afford, and I played ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music. My mom thought I had learned it [somewhere], and I got punished because she thought I was lying,” Feinstein laughs.
Feinstein pursued music aggressively, eventually becoming an apprentice for lyricist Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin’s younger brother. “He taught me most of what I know,” Feinstein says of Gershwin, whom he worked under for six years prior to the songwriter’s death. Cataloguing Gershwin’s extensive collection introduced Feinstein to a vast array of songs by composers and songwriters, and led to him becoming a lifelong advocate of the Great American Songbook. “There’s always been something about harmonic melodies and lyrics…it’s classic and nothing today can replace that. It’s like Shakespeare. Nothing today can replace Shakespeare. We have a lot of different kinds of theater, but Shakespeare will always live on through his plays, and that’s how I feel about these songs.” Feinstein has released many albums featuring interpretations of these songs, with many topping the Billboard charts.
In addition to performing, Feinstein has worked to spread the knowledge and history of the Great American Songbook through educational and outreach programs. In 2007, he founded the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, a program that has an archive and reference library, and well as introduces the genre to high school students. One of the Initiative’s biggest events, the Great American Songbook Vocal Academy and Competition, offers scholarships to talented teenagers.
Feinstein is constantly busy doing other projects, as well. “I’ve been conducting the Pasadena Orchestra,” he says. “This is my second year. I replaced Marvin Hamlisch, and it’s been fantastic to bring archival orchestrations [to the program]. I’ve also been hosting an NPR series called Song Travels, and I’m getting ready to do another CD for Sony.” His new album will be a swing album with more contemporary songs by modern composers. “[I want to take] musicians like Billy Joel and Carol King and turn the songs into big band pieces.”
Fans of Lifetime’s Devious Maids may have recently caught Feinstein appearing as himself at the wedding of two of the show’s characters. “Marc Cherry, who wrote and created Devious Maids and Desperate Housewives, is a good friend, and he wrote me into the show. It was that simple. I was thrilled to do it—it was all because of Marc deciding that I would be a good wedding singer,” he laughs.
For his show at WHBPAC, Feinstein will be bringing a trio to back him up and hopes to be able to pick songs to perform based on the response of the audience. “It will be a lot of fun. It gives me the opportunity to be extemporaneous.” Feinstein is looking forward to performing some songs with acoustic arrangements. “Acoustic music is a special little thing,” he says. “It’s very different.” Feinstein’s continued efforts to perform classic American songs and keep them historically relevant, as well as his unique musical stylings, are sure to be a hit with East End audiences.
Michael Feinstein performs at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Saturday, August 9, at 8 p.m. For more information and tickets ($95–$150), go to whbpac.org.