Eric Comstock and The Mighty Oak Room
A scintillating singer/pianist makes his solo debut at one of NYC's legendary nightspots.
Backed only by the superb bassist Dean Johnson, Comstock totally charmed the audience at his opening night performance on January 10, deftly singing and playing his way through a program of great songs by Rogers & Hart, Schwartz & Dietz, Kern & Fields, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, John Wallowitch, and so on. The following day, he was affable as always as he spoke with me over the phone for our TheaterMania interview
TM: That was a great show last night.
ERIC: Thank you. I'm fairly new to high-pressure openings; I haven't been seen by that many major critics until recently. But I felt more satisfied than I usually do.
TM: There's no particular theme to the show, is there?
ERIC: No. I think too many acts are overly indebted to themes, but I suppose you have to do that sometimes to signal people that it's not the same material they've heard before. I'm sure the next show I do will have to be about 80 percent new--and maybe we'll have a theme! The only theme for the current show is "songs I love," though I suppose there's an emphasis on rhythm and comedy. I love doing ballads but, over the course of an hour, they begin to lose impact. I hope I've structured the show so that there are lots of laughs and then the serious moments really hit. Still, I must say, I'd rather sing ballads. I find it taxing to sing the point numbers. All of those names in "Home Sweet Heaven" [from High Spirits] are hard to remember!
TM: It's funny you mention that, because I was thinking that you must have a photographic memory. When you performed in the Blue Room at the Supper Club, you did four completely different shows over four weekends.
ERIC: I'm very facile, I guess. Sometimes, I'll have a little cheat sheet. Piano players can get away with that. But I've been listening to records for a long time, and I love songs so much. I guess I must have a photographic memory, and a very good ear for harmony. I actually began to get rusty when I was doing Our Sinatra, because we did the same material eight times a week and I would rarely have the urge to sit at the piano on my time off and play for fun. It was wonderful to go back to doing a potpourri show, re-learn songs, and get my ear back. In a way, I really miss my piano bar days at places like Danny's, where I could play whatever I wanted and challenge myself.
TM: Speaking of Our Sinatra: That show certainly had legs, didn't it?
ERIC: It's still going! Ronny Whyte took over for me, but Hilary Kole and Christopher Gines are both still in it. The show was a great privilege and a joy to do.
TM: Didn't it premiere at the Algonquin?
ERIC: No, actually, it was done at the Triad for one night and it went very, very well. We thought we ought to try it somewhere else. Then Buddy Greco, God bless him, canceled at the Oak Room. Arthur Pomposello [manager of the Oak Room] had a hunch that this show he had heard about would work there, and it certainly did.
TM: After the Algonquin, Our Sinatra moved to the Blue Angel. Where is it playing now?
ERIC: The Reprise Room on 54th Street, 10 blocks up. It's the back room of a restaurant called Dylan's. The show actually works better there, in terms of the space. It's not as glamorous as the Blue Angel, but the service is better!
TM: Talk to me about your new album, All Hart.
ERIC: I'm proud of it. I've loved Rodgers & Hart since I first heard their songs. Larry Hart was a Punchinello type of guy; he wrote in a way that makes you laugh with a tear in your eye or cry with sort of a rueful smile. I'm so glad that I was able to do an album that has some of the Rodgers & Hart rarities I'm drawn to, including two world premiere recordings.
TM: Hart's lyrics are amazing. The references may be dated here and there, yet the songs seem so modern in terms of the emotions and Hart's worldview.
ERIC: I've read in Benny Green's book, Let's Face the Music, that Rodgers always thought his work with Hart wasn't his greatest work. But every time he thought those songs were going to disappear, something would happen: the movie of Pal Joey, or Ella Fitzgerald's Rodgers & Hart Songbook, or that Rodgers & Hart revue. Rodgers professed bewilderment that people were still interested in the songs. The shows weren't as good as the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows--there's no question about that--but the songs are great. Gary Stevens, who was at my show last night, says that Larry Hart only cared about the opinions of two guys at Lindy's, whereas Oscar Hammerstein wanted folks who really were as corny as Kansas in August to love his work.
TM: I'd like to wrap up with a question that I ask everyone who does what you do. Many people are very concerned about the current state of pop music. My personal opinion is that, because of a general dumbing down of the general population in this country--and, perhaps, the world--younger people can't accept anything more complex than, say, a punk song or a rap song. They just can't seem to deal with sophisticated, intelligent lyrics and melodies. What are your thoughts?
ERIC: A lot of it has to do with the way it's presented. One key, I think--and this is just occurring to me as you're asking the question--is rhythm. If an old song is presented with a rhythmic underpinning or a jazz feel, but not too loungey, that can help a lot in making it accessible. I'm out of the loop on a lot of popular culture, and I probably am not as aware as I might be of the dumbing down that you speak of. I guess I'm afraid that I would become really despairing if I knew more about it, and I can't do that, because I have to find the love! To know the classic songs is to love them. If I got too cynical about the state of things, it might hurt what I do. I'm aware that a lot of the music people listen to is dreck; I allude to that in some of the lyrics I sing about Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kenny G. I just have to do what I do and sing the songs I love, though I wouldn't do the program I'm doing at the Oak Room for a more general audience. I played The Manor in West Orange, New Jersey, in May, and I changed the show as I want along because my usual material wasn't getting the kind of laughs and reactions I was expecting. And that's just across the river.
TM: You have a funny little dig about the Garden State in your show at the Oak Room.
ERIC: Well, you gotta be humble! I was born in New York, but I was raised in Wayne and Ridgewood, New Jersey. My dad worked for a zillion years for The Bergen Record, so he made his living in the much-maligned Hackensack. You know, Ben Franklin called New Jersey "the valley of humility between two mountains of conceit"--New York and Philadelphia.
TM: It's great that you're making it in the big city.
ERIC: Thanks. We have lots of reservations for the first week of the show, and everybody said wonderful things about it last night. I felt like there was a very loving crowd rooting me on. It's a dream come true.