Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Marilyn Maye 96th birthday concert

Live stream from New York’s cabaret nightclub 54Below

Sunday May 5, 2024

Reviewed by Tony Magee

May 7 2024, updated May 8 2024

Each year, the enduring Marilyn Maye - New York’s grand dame of cabaret - marks her birthday with a month long season at 54Below - New York’s cabaret mecca.

And no, my review title is not a typo. This woman is celebrating her 96th birthday and the birthday show tradition has been going on for many years now. She fills the room every night. Now, the great lady takes to the stage again.

Opening with a sparkling rendition of Golden Rainbow from the musical of the same namethe singer showcased eight decades of experience and stagecraft in a show that swept her audience through The Broadway Songbook.

Now, this is a little bit different to what we know as “The Great American Songbook”, which has been her penchant in previous shows. Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and many more.

For this show however, Maye chose material from shows in which she has sometimes starred, sharing repertoire that is still American, but much more aligned with the shows the songs come from.

Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends followed, beginning with a colla voce introduction. A beautiful contrast to what preceded, Maye continued the piece with natural style and elegance.

Hello Dolly brought forth We’ve Got Elegance, Hello Dolly and Before the Parade Passes By. Opening with a gentle colla voce delivery, just voice and piano, she had the audience in the proverbial “palm of her hand” before a swinging delivery of the title song, continuing with Parade. In this, the singer started to hit her straps, the voice was warming up and she appeared comfortable and relaxed on stage.

She told us how she played Dolly in Kansas City many years ago. In fact, as each bracket unfolded, you got a sense that she was transporting back to her stages of yesteryear, bringing to life one more time a historical glimpse of a long and distinguished career in music theatre.

A Mame bracket followed, with of course Mame, and then one of the high points of the show, a heartfelt and deeply moving rendition of If He Walked Into My Life. Lights dimmed, the audience breathless and then a thundering standing ovation.

The voice has aged somewhat, as one would expect, but Maye still has an impressive vocal range, from low tones of depth and colour to high notes with long sustains, aided by her excellent breath control.

On A Clear Day (not a live show, but a movie starring Barbra Streisand) began, unusually, with the bridge in colla voce, a lovely touch in terms of a different approach to arranging, moving into an easy swing feel. Nicely done.

Then, a musical triptych from My Fair Lady. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” she sang mournfully, reflectively, with gentle hand gestures honed from decades of stagecraft. On the Street Where You Live followed in an up-beat swing style, finishing with a sustained high soprano note which took everyone by surprise. 

Get Me to the Church on Time was an even faster swing arrangement in which Maye traded improvised phrases with her pianist. A nice deviation from conventional cabaret and an opportunity to showcase the considerable jazz stylings and dazzling technique of Theodore Firth.

Firth was ably joined by Jeff Carney on double bass and Mark McClean on drums. A superb band and one which felt and followed every nuance and phrase of the remarkable Maye.

For my taste, Firth on piano way overplays. His is a cavalcade of pianistic expression and style, very florid, lots of glissando, many fast passages and runs, heavy thick chords and very “in your face” playing. Almost more a solo performance than an accompaniment. Gery Scott would have hated it.

However, playing for Marilyn Maye in the autumn years of her career, it was appropriate. Her powers are just starting to fade slightly and she craved the extra support he was providing. She really leans on him.

“What am I doing next?”, she asked occasionally, her pianist gently bailing her out with some gentle musical hints. He loved doing that, with a big grin on his face and she loved him for it, in what could be her Swan song.

The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson ran from 1962 to 1992. Broadcast from the RCA Building in New York, later shifting to NBC Burbank in Los Angeles, Maye mentioned that she appeared in 76 episodes during its 30 year run.


“Are there any singers here tonight?”, she asked. “Oh sweetheart, thank you for coming. And another one over here. Thanks for coming honey. A note for all you singers - NEVER, ever read your lyrics when performing - no, no - you must learn your lyrics thoroughly, own them, and sell the song, so never read your lyrics from bits of paper on stage - unless you’re 96!”

And sure enough, there was indeed a music stand on stage, just to her right, with discretely placed sheets of paper with lyrics. A little prop, which she turned to occasionally to confirm what she already knew anyway, but it was a handy safety net.

Maye reminisced about performing in Carnegie Hall some years ago, “The big room of course. 2,800 seats and an 80 piece orchestra. I filled it,” she quipped. “The Mayor of New York joined me on stage at the end and proclaimed, “From now on, March 23 is Marilyn Maye Day!”

A single piece from The Most Happy Fella followed - Joey - beautifully arranged as a beguine. Drummer Mark McClean’s gentle and romantic latin feel was superb. Throughout the show, his was a polished and refined performance, discrete and stylish. Gery Scott would have loved him.

The piece closed with an ingenious tiny little nod from the piano to Sondheim’s Being Alive. And that was a hint of something to come, although we didn’t know it at the time.

“Guys and Dolls is my most favourite show of all ladies and gentlemen,” she said.

Luck Be a Lady began wistfully and thoughtfully in free time, and then kerpow! - a swinging upbeat arrangement in, unusually, triple time. I’ve never heard it done like that before, and this is another of Maye’s many unique hallmarks. Unusual arrangements.

Then came what for me and I think many in the audience, was the high point of the show. Fifty Percent from the show Ballroom was performed colla voce throughout, just gentle piano at first with the lyric sung very thoughtfully and with some despair. Then the bass oozed in gently, bowed this time, and for the finale, dramatic cymbal rolls from McClean on drums - all three musicians creating a massive sound wash underneath Maye as she poured out her heart: “I’d rather have 50 percent of him, or any percent of him, than all of anybody else,” she sang, so powerfully, so definitely, almost in tears.

It was electric. The room stood still and then erupted into deafening applause, with a full standing ovation.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

“I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, come rain or come shine” she crooned, showcasing a great song from the show St. Louis Woman, the performance again featuring an extended jazz improvisation from Firth on piano. He really is a masterful jazz pianist. In fact, I’d love to hear him and the band in a dedicated jazz nightclub. I imagine they must get plenty of work in that arena.

Now, remember that little Sondheim hint I mentioned previously? This was the result:

“Somebody hold me too close,” she sang, “Somebody tell me the truth….Oh no, I just messed up the lyric! Ahh - after all these years. What is it honey? (her pianist set her straight). Oh yeah, I have it now.”

And so she started Being Alive again and we all loved it, the arrangement done in a latin feel. An unusual treatment of a Sondheim classic and brilliantly done it was too, featuring a key change for the finale - another first.

Maye told a lovely story of how she once phoned Jerry Herman, asking him if it was okay if she recorded an album of songs Dolly doesn’t sing. He loved the idea, and so it was born.

I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles was the penultimate number, this time using her own specially created and amusing lyrics.

Then, finally, a song she has closed with before, It’s Today, also from Mame. In a belting fast tempo rendition, with a few Rockettes style kicks in the air - yes, she can still do that - Marilyn Maye brought the house down again, the applause deafening, sustained, genuinely heartfelt and with another full standing ovation. The New York cabaret audiences absolutely adore this woman. Gliding across the front of the stage, the band playing her off, she shakes hands with many supporters, before gently making her way to the side, some last waves goodbye, the audience still on their feet, then disappearing off into the distant gloom.

She has to do it all again tomorrow tonight, and for some nights to come. And next year? Marilyn Maye at 97? We certainly hope so!

Photos by Kevin Alvey