By Myra Chanin
After a considerable absence, Eric Michael Gillett hopped up on the stage of the Laurie Beechman Theater and once again astounded 100+ sophisticated arts aficionados with his incomparable talent, craft and humanity. The depth and breadth of both his music and his revelations felled me with my first ever loss for words. Stop This Train, as Eric Michael Gillett entitled his 90-minute, straightforward report of an … let’s say, astrologically challenging period in his life, is a poignant, unforgettable biographical tour de force in words and music, created by a truthful and honest adult for others of that ilk to marvel at, retain and celebrate.
Stop This Train began as an experiment, to be performed once, for close friends, in a casual rehearsal space. And so it was. Happily, Kenny Bell, the booking manager of the Laurie Beechman Theater was on the scene. He convinced Eric Michael to reprise his experimental performance one more time at the Beechman. Transparent and revealing, Stop this Train was created by a man who has suffered and overcome misfortunes and understands and can explain the lessons human beings are expected to learn on their journey through life.
A six-time Mac-Award Winner, Eric Michael Gillett, never looked or sounded better. He was trim, handsome and very self-assured. His observations were smart, thoughtful, and intense. Actually, that night, the show stopped before it began because Eric Michael had brought a rice-ball on stage with him, which I presume was delicious, because he wouldn’t warble his first notes until he’d swallowed every single crumb.
Eric Michael started Stop This Train with two contemporary ballads that were poles apart in their settings and points of view. In “What the Song Should Say,” Craig Carnelia’s lists what should be included in a lyric meant to be sung in a stylish supper club for sophisticated New Yorkers – “city sounds, the possibility of rain, piano music, overheard conversations and laughter, other voices, other lives… and we should be in the song.”
“Walkaway Joe,” by Vince Melamed and Greg Barnhill, derives from a more down-to-earth rural milieu and is considered a “country” song because it contains what Willie Nelson declares are the essentials: three-chords and The Truth. The chords, C & G major and E minor, support a classic conflict between generations — a Daddy trying and failing to convince his 17-year-old Average Jane daughter that the scoundrel she’s running off with will desert her before the songs ends. So, what else is new?
When Eric Michael shares his thoughts with us, he reminds us how quickly time flies, especially when you’re not having any fun, as he wasn’t during his recent annus horriblus, but instead of simply calling time a thief, he describes time as a devious embezzler who “stays up nights juggling the books, so you never even notice what’s missing until it’s gone.” Now 68, with brand new kneecaps that make him feel like he’s 50, Eric Michael takes us back in his time and reveals that he will not be attending his upcoming 50th high school reunion, because, unlike some classmates who consider high school the climax of their lives, he believes his best is yet to come. I agree.
Eric Michael hasn’t had it easy. He is tremendously talented, intelligent and generous, but he’s been beset by physical maladies, calamitous accidents, a medically sponsored drug dependency and with granted wishes which he improperly phrased. He’s handled every obstacle – you’ll see some of them on video — with extraordinary resilience, fortitude and common sense. He describes his trials, obstacles, stumbling blocks with that’s- the-way-it-was objectivity and relates the lessons he learned without sounding maudlin or seeking pity.
In the past, Eric Michael has always showcased the greatest tunesmith and lyricists in the Great American Songbook — Larry Hart, Harold Arlen, Noel Coward — but this show features a mixed bag of younger songwriters like John Mayer, Peter Mills, Tom Kitt and Dar Williams. It also includes worthy character-revealing ballads from Broadway musicals that didn’t zoom up the pop charts. He describes every one of the 16 very diverse songs in this show a gift he received as a result of having lived in New York for 20 years, each one connected to an event that literally happened to him while he was trying to walk what was left of his wits though victories and setbacks.
I was particularly impressed with “At the Fountain,” Marvin Hamlisch’s passionate anthem to Sidney Falco’s ambition and luck from a Broadway flop ironically entitled The Sweet Smell of Success and “Waving Through a Window,” which articulates the outlier perception of the Tony-Award winning Dear Evan Hansen. Piano and guitar virtuoso Mike Pettry, also Eric Michael’s music director, has contributed two exceptional songs to Eric Michael’s repertoire. “Everything I Used to be with You,” about the mechanics of being replaced and “Without A Stitch On,” about the delights of living a naked life.
However, for me, the Mt. Everest of a show with as many peaks as the Himalayas was a fairly unknown Stephen Sondheim showstopper, added to the Lincoln Center revival of Sondheim’s earliest musical, The Frogs, in which Eric Michael was cast. It’s called “Hades,” and begins with a traditional Sondheim slightly discordant verse before moving onto a lilting waltz that’ll convince you that being damned to eternal perdition would be a blessing rather than a curse.
You get to live in Hades where it’s always two a.m.
Where it’s party till you drop and never stop
Because there’s nothing we condemn.
You just forget or better yet, forgive,
And when you’re not afraid to die,
Then you’re not afraid to live.
Stop This Train is once again pulling into the Laurie Beechman Theatre on Sunday, October 20th at 6 pm. Think dinner show because the food is tasty and well prepared. You don’t want to miss this former circus Ringmaster turned cabaret Meistersinger reflect on life and art. Eric Michael Gillett is approaching his peak and well worth coming back to see and hear again and again. I’m going to be at an out-of-town family wedding. !@#$%^&*!! Or I guarantee you’d find me there again.
Photos: Tricia Baron