Out in Palm Beach: Michael Feinstein Reflects on Liza Minnelli & More

Michael Feinstein and Liza Minelli at a benefit for The Great American Songbook Foundation and Treatment Action Group at the home of Kevin and Neil Goetz
Michael Feinstein and Liza Minelli at a benefit for The Great American Songbook Foundation and Treatment Action Group at the home of Kevin and Neil Goetz

Liza Minnelli and Barry Manilow sang at his wedding. Judge Judy officiated. In the early 1990s, he broke bread with Frank Sinatra at Sinatra’s house, and at the age of 20, he was introduced to the late, great lyricist Ira Gershwin of George-and-Ira-Gershwin songwriting fame. He spent the next six years apprenticing as Ira Gershwin’s assistant.

Michael Feinstein has certainly led a storied and accomplished life.

It was through the Gershwins that he met the Academy Award-winning director director Vincente Minnelli, who then introduced him to his daughter with Judy Garland, Liza. Michael and Liza hit it off and have been friends and collaborators for over 40 years.

In a full-circle moment, his new album Country Gershwin (which comes out March 11) is executive produced by Liza Minnelli. It features Gershwin classics reimagined as duets sung by Feinstein paired with some of country music’s greatest singers including Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash Brad Paisley and Vince Gil.

Oh, and as a bonus track, he and Liza sing the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You.”

Feinstein’s dazzling and dizzying career over the past three decades has covered a lot of ground — countless recordings, concerts, club performances, television specials, a syndicated radio program, writing, conducting, arranging, and running two nightclubs on two coasts — all while maintaining, organizing and preserving a vast catalogue of music, manuscripts and memorabilia for the archives.

Feinstein on stage
Feinstein on stageAllan Lazare

There’s a reason he has been dubbed the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook. His taste and passion for music from the genre of popular songs, jazz standards, and musicals published from the 1920s to the 1960s (“American Standards”) knows no bounds.

Along the way, Feinstein has picked up five Grammy award nominations and an Emmy nomination for his TV special Michael Feinstein — The Sinatra Legacy. He’s played everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the White House to Buckingham Palace.

Not bad for a kid from Ohio who at the age of 5 sat at a piano and started playing by ear.

And though he has since rubbed elbows and shared sheet music with lots of A-listers and legends, it is that shared love and appreciation of all things musical — lyric, melody, arrangement, artistry, masterful performance — that seems to drive and inspire him. His carefully curated tribute shows include homages to Peggy Lee, Irving Berlin, Judy Garland and yes, Frank Sinatra.

On March 2, Feinstein and the Kravis Pops Orchestra will present Intimately Sinatra at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in Palm Beach. (Feinstein created the Pops series at the Kravis Center in 2014.)

He’s got a lot going on, considering the performing world is still at half mast these days, rebounding cautiously (but happily) from pandemic-induced shutdowns and rescheduling.

We caught up with Michael Feinstein via telephone in between his touring schedule to talk about the upcoming Sinatra tribute at the Kravis Center, his new album, and his relationship with Liza Minnelli.

Michael Feinstein
Michael FeinsteinArt Streiber

Intimately Sinatra — what’s involved in putting that show together?

I find that when a piece of music is curated with an introduction it helps people perceive or listen to it in a different way, and so I’ve chosen a combination of songs that I can give anecdotes and stories that will hopefully reveal something about a man from whom we know a great deal. I love being supported by an 80-piece orchestra because it is transporting — simply transporting. I have a personal collection of orchestrations that number in the thousands so to be able to hear them being performed is extraordinary … especially in this time when live music itself is a rarity, and to hear an orchestra or a band is now an unusual experience for the average music listener.

What was Sinatra like?

He was very, very nice to me — very supportive — he didn’t have to be that way obviously and I think he liked the fact that I spoke his language, I knew the songs, I knew the songwriters, I understood the era. When I was at his house, the first time I was there for dinner, I asked him if it was true if Mabel Mercer had been a great influence on him and he said, “Yeah, yeah” and he went on about going to hear her in the clubs and [how she’d] sing the lyrics and she’d sit at the table across from you. He was impressed that I brought up Mabel Mercer instead of Ava Gardner [we laugh], so we had a connection in that way.

We heard your recent tribute to Judy Garland in Naples, Florida was a smash…

Thank you … I must say it’s a wonderful show–the audience reaction was spectacular, so I’m thrilled with that — I’ve had to cut down the length because it was an embarrassment of riches …Paying tribute to Judy Garland is for me much harder than paying tribute to Frank Sinatra because of the enormity of her career. And how does one conjure a sense of her without her being there? The show is multimedia with extraordinary photographs and home movies supplied by the family and a home recording I found of her singing — of a song nobody’s ever heard before — with me at the piano because she sang acapella — and there’s a few clips of her singing of course …I’d like to take it to London, actually.

You and Liza … what struck you about each other when you first met? And what keeps you connected?

When we met it was like meeting a lost cousin or sibling because I knew Vincente Minnelli so well through the Gershwins and so the moment we met Liza said, “You know, we’re joined at the hip from now on.” And I didn’t take that seriously, but she was serious and so it’s something that has only grown with time. One of the things I love about her is her extraordinary musical ability — her knowledge of music and her innate understanding of not only music and orchestration and presentation, but of course what I’ve learned from her about interpretation and stagecraft and lyric — so when I was putting together the Gershwin country album (which comes out March 11) she volunteered to help because her parents were close friends with Ira, and Vincente also worked with George and Ira on Broadway. “Embraceable You” was Vincente’s favorite song so I recorded “Embraceable You” with her as a bonus track, as a remembrance of Vincente and of course her mother sang it in Girl Crazy — so she was incredibly helpful as executive producer by coming up with ideas of casting of the singers and songs — it was just fun.

What were some highlights in recording Country Gershwin?

I love every single track on that album — and I’m a tough critic of my own work, and maybe because of the “Duets” (albums) with all these iconic voices … Certainly singing “Love Is Here to Stay” with Dolly Parton was a highlight for me. “I Got Rhythm” with Brad Paisley, “Fascinating Rhythm” with The Time Jumpers and Vince Gil. They are all extraordinary.

Could you have ever predicted this career path?

I had no career path in mind, I just started playing the piano by ear when I was 5 and by the time I got out of high school I was singing songs and playing piano bars, and it literally evolved into a career that was completely unexpected. I met Ira Gershwin and that opened new vistas for me — all a series of what one might call coincidences or divinely guided experiences — I can’t answer that — I can only say that my path has always been one of being led from one point to another, and it just evolved and became what it is.

You and Terrence Flannery have been together a long time — how is he?

He’s great. We’ve been together 25 years. We were married by Judge Judy and Gabriel Ferrer, Rosemary Clooney’s son, was the minister. I forget the year … [October 2008] We got married in our former home in Los Angeles … Yes, Liza sang and Barry Manilow sang — I guess it was a big gay wedding. [laughs].

How do you see the next generation and the survival of the music you so cherish?

I started the Great American Songbook Foundation for the purpose of passing this music on and we have an annual high school songbook academy that happens every year … in one week 40 participants from all 50 states who come and gather and learn about the songbook — it has been like planting the seeds. Now we have like thousands of young people who’ve been involved to love and propagate the American Songbook in confluence with the contemporary music that they love and listen to.

The songs survive because they are timeless … so I have no worries about the survival of the music  … I continue because it is just something that I love. And to be able to do what one loves is the greatest gift.

For more information/tickets to Michael Feinstein and the Kravis Center Pops Orchestra Intimately Sinatra concert on March 2, go to kravis.org. To learn more about Michael Feinstein, upcoming concert dates and his new album Gershwin Country, go to michaelfeinstein.com.

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