Great American Songbook’s Michael Feinstein Comes to Philly

Michael Feinstein
Michael Feinstein (Photo courtesy Guttman PR)

Michael Feinstein, the multiplatinum crooner and pianist, and arguably the foremost living interpreter and ambassador of the Great American Songbook, will perform at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Feb. 7.

Featuring “American Idol” alumnus Haley Reinhart, the show is titled “You’ve Got a Friend: From Gershwin to Carole King and Beyond.” As with any Feinstein show, expect heavy doses of reimagined tunes from the pens of your favorite Tin Pan Alley composers like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and on and on. You know the names — Feinstein’s counting on that.

But he’s doing things a little different this time, paying homage to the now-historic canon of American music that picks up where the Great American Songbook leaves off. So expect to hear tunes from folks like James Taylor, Burt Bacharach, Billy Joel, Chicago, Stevie Wonder and Carole King.

“The show will be a loving expansion of the Great American Songbook,” Feinstein said. “The classic material I’ve always done is still the bedrock of my shows and always will be. However, as time and our lives evolve, many people have similar love for what might be called the second wave of great songwriting that happened in our country. Looking back at these songs, they’re equally timeless.”

Feinstein knows his demographic as well as any touring musician and, as any Jewish mother who’s seen him live knows, he aims to please.

“I always take requests from the audience,” Feinstein added. “My shows are very interactive, with a lot of anecdotes and humor. There’s always a lot of spontaneity to it, and that’s one of the most important parts of performing for me. I love the interaction.”

One prolonged interaction that was particularly indispensable to Feinstein’s career was with Ira Gershwin, when Feinstein was a singer-piano player in his 20s, just starting out and looking for direction.

Feinstein had moved to Los Angeles, hoping to make it, when he was introduced, through a mutual friend, to Ira Gershwin. Gershwin hired the young Feinstein to catalogue and archive his extensive phonograph record collection and do the same for all of his unpublished sheet music and rare recordings. Part librarian, part artistic assistant, Feinstein stayed on with Gershwin for six years and the two became very close.

For Feinstein, who didn’t go to college, that apprenticeship probably would’ve amounted to both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in musical anthropology. The wayward young musician emerged from the experience certain of the repertoire he would perform and preserve.

“Meeting Ira was life-changing because I didn’t know exactly where I was headed — both in my life and my career,” Feinstein said. “When I met Ira, he gave me a sense of purpose and an understanding of songbook on a level that would not have been possible in any other way and, thus, that became my college education.

“He introduced me to his peers and contemporaries and thus opened a world for me that was the most magical experience that stays with me to this day. He was a very kind, gentle man who never had children, and I became the grandson he never had. And even though there was a 60-year age difference between us, we spoke the same language, which he, at times, found confounding — that I could relate to him so deeply even though we were so far apart in age.

“I spent six years with him, and those years, ages 20 to 26, are important years in anyone’s life, and so that time was golden and something that I treasure. I try to cling to the memories and experiences because I don’t ever want to lose them.”

Ira Gershwin and his brother George were just two of the Jewish songwriters and lyricists who comprised an extraordinary proportion of the popular music composers in the early 20th century. Like the painters of 15th-century Florence or the Philadelphia-based jazz musicians of the 1950s and early ’60s, how did it come to be that there was such a dense concentration of relatively homogeneous talent living and working in and around New York’s Tin Pan Alley?

“One of the major factors was that all these songwriters were, for the most part, first-generation Americans whose parents wanted very deeply for them to be American, to soak up American culture and assimilate,” said Feinstein, who, in addition to arranging, conducting and performing, serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board. “They had experiences that were so rooted in the joy and excitement of creating a new life and a new way, and they were imbued with an optimism and a hope that anything was possible. The American dream was a reality on a level that’s hard to understand today.”

In 2007, Feinstein founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving this music, which is so undeniably American … and Jewish, even when, ostensibly, it isn’t.

“If I do a holiday show, I’ll introduce a song saying, ‘This is an unusual song in the American Songbook repertoire — it’s a Christmas song written by a gentile.’”

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