Michael Feinstein
(© Gilles Toucas)
Michael Feinstein
(© Gilles Toucas)
Michael Feinstein has become one of the country's leading proponents of the Great American Songbook, not only through his busy concert career -- which includes upcoming gigs in Las Vegas, New York, and St. Louis -- but through his PBS series Michael Feinstein's American Songbook, the first two seasons of which are now available on DVD. TheaterMania recently spoke with Feinstein about the show and his career.

THEATERMANIA: How did American Songbook come about?
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Our producer, Amber Edwards, first conceived the idea and approached PBS about it. When she asked me, how could I not say yes? It is a great deal of work. And since it's a highbrow reality show on one level, it's a little invasive regarding my private life. That was my biggest consideration in actually agreeing to do it, and I am still not comfortable with that aspect of it. Now, I just don't think about it..

TM: You could have done just one season, but you did two, and are even planning a third -- which will include Stephen Sondheim. Why do you keep doing it?
MF: The subject is infinite, and I am grateful to Amber for finding a way to dramatize my peculiar interest and bringing attention to our musical heritage. It's really been a fantastic experience!

TM: How early in life were you exposed to this kind of music?
MF: As a kid, I listened to a lot of the music my parents listened to, and we watched a lot of variety TV shows like The Laurence Welk Show and Sing Along With Mitch. And I grew up in that transitional time when you heard pop music on the radio, but there were stations that still played standards, so you could hear Frank Sinatra, Jack Jones, or Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. And the soundtracks of movies were still popular. Louis Armstrong's rendition of Hello, Dolly was a huge hit.

TM: Why should someone who has seen the series buy the DVD, other than for the joy of watching it all over again?
MF: The DVDs contain a lot of extraordinary archival footage we couldn't get into the show -- like performances of Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and Bobby Short. And to have access to that, especially in HD, is worth it for that reason alone. It's a little treasure trove. You know, Hugh Hefner personally supplied footage from his television shows because he wanted to see it preserved, and now these DVDs are the only place to see those performances.

TM: I loved the last segment of season 2, which focused on Las Vegas. What was your first experience there?
MF: I didn't go to Vegas until 1981, when I was asked to accompany Rose Marie. We had became friends through Rosemary Clooney, and she had asked me to be her conductor on this show at the Sands, in which she and Jonathan Winters, Carl Ballantine, Scatman Crothers all did improv sketches. The show always went into overtime, because Jonathan did all these sketches that went on and on, and they had to pay the band extra. It was a disaster and our producer went bankrupt very quickly. In fact, Rose Marie personally paid for my flight back to Los Angeles.

TM: That segment also included a section on Liberace. What did you think of him?
MF: I got to see Liberace live quite a bit -- I even saw his very last show at Radio City -- and it was always kind of strange and exciting to watch him bring all these ladies to a fever pitch. I also got to know him well over the years -- we had the same agent -- and he was a very kind man. I never heard one unkind thing about him.

TM: You're going to play Las Vegas yourself this month at the brand new Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Are you excited about that?
MF: Yes. I have done Las Vegas before, sometime at the casinos, but there is definitely a cultural life outside the Strip. They're really building a beautiful center and I am really looking forward to being one of their opening acts. I am going to do one of my Sinatra tributes, and I promise that it will be a very different look at the man than all those "legends in concert" type of shows.

To order the American Songbook DVD, visit www.shoppbs.org.