Monday, December 15, 2014

Interview: Lorna Luft Talks 54 Below Debut, New York at Christmas, and More

If I've learned anything, it's that New Yorkers are generous, wonderful people. At least, that's what singer and New York City enthusiast Lorna Luft says.

When I spoke to Ms. Luft a few weeks ago, the topic was her 54 Below cabaret debut on Dec. 17, but she turned a good portion of the interview into a love letter to New York at Christmas. And it was beautiful. She colorfully elaborated about her many affectionate memories of the Big Apple, adamantly emphasizing the perfection of the city during the holidays.

As she listed her favorite NYC Christmas activities, she kept saying things like, "You have to go see the Rockettes. It's just the law." She also spoke passionately about the art form of cabaret shows and how excited she is for them to be slowly making a comeback.

So, I went in expecting to have a regular conversation about a 54 Below concert, and the interview took an unexpected turn into very deeply personal reflections from the heart. Read the full interview here!

Below, check out a special, intimate conversation* with a lovely, talented woman.

Can you tell me a little bit about your show and what we can expect?

Yeah, it's got holiday music, but it's not only holiday music, it's really also a tribute to the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, who was a great part of my growing up and me learning how to really, really understand, respect, and admire lyricists. Sometimes, I feel that they get the short end of the stick. I think that composers are always toted as, you know, the great musical wonders- and they are- but let's not forget about who wrote those words. And I'm such a huge fan of lyricists! Because I just think that we all have our favorite songs, and none of them start with just "la-la-la-la-la." You know? And I wanted to put a show together that incorporates family stories about Johnny Mercer and the holidays and all that. So that's basically what the show at 54 Below is going to be.

And of course you'll be singing songs made famous by your mother, the wonderful Judy Garland. Will you be singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"?

Now, how can I go into New York in December and not sing that? Are you kidding? Things would fly off the table and hit me on the stage! Yeah, of course. You know, there are very, very few people in this industry that can say that they have a holiday classic song written for a member of their family. You know, whenever you go into stores, or whenever you go into any kind of place where they're playing Christmas music, that song always comes on, and whenever I hear it, I think, "That's part of my family."

Yeah, it must be very special, especially at Christmastime when family is extra important.

You know something? I really, really believe and I try to do this, but I think Christmas is every day. I really do. I don't think we should just wait for one day a year to do something nice for another human being or get your family together or write a check to your charity that you like, or go out and sing for a benefit. I don't think we should do that just once. I think that should be every day.

...

What I find is cabaret is an art form that is dying off, because we don't have the rooms to sustain all of the artists. And because of my age, I was able to go learn and be educated by some of the great, great cabaret artists in the world. And all of the television, movies, and all that, it started to die off, and all of those cabaret rooms around the United States closed. There was no place for us to really go and try out an act and do things and run to see people do their new act at a certain plaza, in wherever we were. It's just so interesting that now because of places like 54 Below and Birdland, and all of these wonderful cabaret places, cabarets are coming back, and not only coming back, but they're being frequented by a younger crowd. That's really cool.

It seems like all the really awesome Broadway people are having their own 54 Below shows, and some are even releasing live CDs, so that's really helping the popularity of these shows.

Right, and it is an art form. It really is, and I have seen some fantastic cabaret acts, and I have seen some cabaret acts that really and truly you want to say, "I think maybe you should rethink this." Because, you know how with Broadway theatre, we used to always have out-of-town tryouts that went to the Shubert in New Haven and this that and the other. With cabaret acts, they did the same thing. And then they'd come to New York, and they'd be perfect.

But those rooms aren't there anymore. So, it's interesting. It's not a lot of places that a lot of us can go. And I just hope that with the success of this, people want to, you know, go out, brave the weather, and see cabarets being brought back into being a great American tradition.

So, what makes a good cabaret show, in your experience?

Aha! Yes! I love when you ask me that! Ok, a good cabaret show was taught to me by great artists who used to write them and direct them and who put them together and all of that, and they always told me that they have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like a show. If you get up and you start having no thru-line and/or reason to be doing this show, except for these are a bunch of songs you like, the audience doesn't really care. They don't. But if you're bringing the audience into your journey, through whatever the material is, but something personal so they can be filled in, because you've got to remember, cabaret rooms are small.

This is like getting up in front of your friends in your living room. And there's no hiding. It's the most vulnerable position you'll be in, in a cabaret, because there's no third wall. So you're not playing a character. It's the hardest thing you're doing, and it's the hardest thing for most artists that come from the theatre or come from movies and television, is to be yourself. And I had a terribly tough time when I first started out learning how to do that, because I thought I had to be 800 different people.

Wow, that sounds very emotionally vulnerable and challenging! And you mentioned before that you were highlighting lyricists, like Johnny Mercer, but do you think there are any other big overarching themes to your show?

No, I think the holidays and being in New York City, because I have to say, you can have Christmas in any part of the world, but for me in my growing up, the only place to be at Christmas is New York City. I have spent the last six years in New York. There's an energy, there is a feeling of the holidays that you don't get any place else in the world. You really don't. Now, we'll have an argument in London about it. But I have to say, I lived in New York, and I am an absolute fan of the Broadway theatre and everything that New York stands for, and my son was born in New York, and I've just become a grandmother.

So for Christmas, to go around into the stores- yes, it is crazy, but it's that fun kind of crazy that makes you sometimes stand outside for five minutes and take a couple of deep breaths before you go into the store and brave those crowds and brave the weather! There's nothing better than walking down the streets of New York City at Christmas, because the whole city looks like a snow globe.

What are your New York Christmas traditions?

I always go to Radio City and see the Rockettes. You have to. You have to do it. It's the law, ok? You have to see that show at Christmas, it is the law. And you have to go to Rockefeller Center and see the tree. That's the law. And you have to see the feeling of being swept up in the craziness as the holidays get closer and closer and also, how giving people are. New Yorkers give like no one else. They really do. And when you get invited to events at Christmas, that are for charities and all of that, I mean, people are just so generous. They really dig deep in New York. That is one thing, every time I come to New York, I think, "I am honored to be in this city."

Did you have any notable Christmas performances with your family that stand out? I know your performance debut was on your mother's show singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

Yes, I did that, and then we played Madison Square Garden when it first opened, at the Felt Forum, it was a theatre at Madison Square Garden, and we played there for Christmas. And of course my mom played New York at Christmas a lot.

Sounds like a dream!

It is! It is! New York at Christmas is the most special place in the world. I mean, it's a fantastic city 24/7, but at Christmas, it's pretty spectacular.

Interjection: At around this point in the conversation, I told her that sounded awesome and that I had never been to New York at Christmas... She was shocked and of course fervently told me to do that as soon as possible. I said I would do my best!

Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

I'm just, I'm very, very pleased that people are going and supporting 54 Below. I'm very pleased that people are going out and celebrating the other rooms also, in New York. That people are going out and supporting artists who are doing cabaret shows because it's so important for the art of cabaret to not be forgotten about, and put into a place of, you know, years ago. And it became that way, but slowly but surely, it's making a comeback, and it's a wonderful thing to be able to do, and for a whole couple of generations to learn how this used to be with supper clubs.

Go see her special show on Wednesday and find out what a real cabaret looks like!

Sally Henry www.BroadwayWorld.com/author/Sally-Henry // Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwayginger // Facebook: www.facebook.com/singularsensationbway

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*Italicized text indicates content published on BroadwayWorld.com

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