By Ron Fassler
Marilyn Maye, the nonagenarian cabaret superstar, is back in New York City for the weekend, in the heart of the theatre district, with a Valentine’s Day show. It’s a marvel that such a small club as The Iridium can hold so large a talent, yet it proves the perfect setting for another of Maye’s salutes to the Great American Songbook. Utilizing her silky-smooth voice in jazzy and wholly original arrangements, she is the embodiment of a skilled practitioner. After all, she has been at it for nearly seventy-five years, performing professionally since she was a Midwestern teenager from Kansas. Her ease in front of an audience is the result of decade after decade getting up in front of people and using her talents as a story teller through song. To quote a lyric by Carol Bayer Sager (from something I’d love to hear her sing), “Nobody Does It Better.”
Marilyn Maye’s journey to her current status as an icon hardly came overnight. She has persevered over obstacles that might have discouraged even the most thick-skinned of performers. Sure she came close to having a number one hit single on the charts a few times, as well as triumphed as Dolly and Mame in regional productions, but she never hit the show biz jackpot with that one “big thing” that people could identify her with for years to come, either through song, or an acting role. To this day, she’s never played Broadway, which in hindsight has been a whopping oversight, considering how many shows she would have been so right for that wound up being played by lesser TV stars, often cast for name value over talent. In spite of all this, through massive ups and downs, Maye just kept on singing. Why? Because it’s what she does.
To watch Maye’s control over an audience, as I was able to do from a seat very close to the stage, is to take part in a master class. In the world of Marilyn Maye, the song is never about her. She is always in service to the song, finding a way with a lyric that no one else has thought of, even in a standard like “My Funny Valentine.” She has wit and style to spare, and personifies that old line about “having forgotten more than most people will ever know.” In the hour and fifteen minutes she lit up the stage, medleys on themes as simple as “love” or “happiness” still managed to leave room for her to consistently surprise.
Beginning the evening with “What the World Needs Now” (is love, sweet love), the feeling she was able to convey from its very first line was palpable. That’s how she does it—even if how she does it is a mystery. The genuine feeling she invests in a song is what makes you sit up and take notice. How else can you explain sitting on the edge of your seat listening to something recorded by dozens of artists over the years, as if you are hearing it for the first time? To say it’s all somewhat magical is no exaggeration. This is not hyperbole. These are facts, folks. When you are in the presence of Marilyn Maye, you are experiencing a true artist.
Backed by a marvelous quartet of Jeff Harris on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, Daniel Glass drums and Jack Cavari on acoustic guitar, and with songs like “Let There Be Love,” “Get Happy,” “My Romance,” “That’s All,” “The Glory of Love,” or a My Fair Lady medley that is pure joy from start to finish, make for a deliriously comfy night with Marilyn Maye. Simplicity is all, never more evident than when rather matter-of-factly, late in the evening, in a quiet moment between sets, she murmured into the microphone: “I love to sing. This is what I do.”
Does she ever.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Marilyn Maye is at The Iridium, 1650 Broadway (at 50th Street), now through Sunday, February 17th. For details, go to: https://www.theiridium.com/Events/Marilyn-Maye/Feb-14th thru 17th 2019