The Jazz Singer
Jessica Molaskey returns to Feinstein's at the Regency with hubby John Pizzarelli and family.
"We've been known to write an entire song over dinner," confides Molaskey over a hearty breakfast at the Barking Dog Luncheonette. "And I wrote the lyrics to 'The Girl With His Smile and My Eyes,' about our daughter Madeleine [now 4], on the back of a Con Edison bill while I was in a taxi to the airport." That affecting ballad is just one of the high points of Molaskey's terrific second CD, A Good Day, which was released on May 20 by PS Classics. It may also show up on the song list when she appears alongside her husband, brother-in-law Martin, and father-in-law Bucky Pizzarelli (the legendary guitarist) from May 27 through June 21 at Feinstein's at the Regency.
A Good Day is in part a tribute to another singer-guitarist pair: Peggy Lee and her husband, Dave Barbour. It features some of the hits that the couple made famous, such as "I Don't Know Enough About You" and "Everything Is Moving Too Fast." Says Molaskey, "I wanted to make something fun and breezy. I think we need that right now."
Some of the breeziest tunes on the album are the clever Pizzarelli/Molaskey collaborations, among them "How Come You Ain't Got Me" and "Adam and Eve." But, once upon a time, collaboration was not in the cards. Molaskey relates that, when she first met John during the development of the Broadway musical Dream, in which they co-starred, "I told him I'd been writing songs since I was a little girl growing up in Connecticut, and he promptly avoided the subject for two years. Then, one day -- after we were married -- I noticed that one of his lyrics had a false rhyme. I pointed it out, fixed it, and from then on, it was okay for me to write lyrics."
Although she and J.P. were instantly smitten when they met in 1995, matrimony wasn't immediately in the cards. "I spent the greater part of a year pretending I wasn't going to marry him," Molaskey recalls. "But I would get flushed every time we talked. It was so high school! In fact, we just went back to my hometown of Waterbury to do a concert with the local symphony, and I realized that John could've been the soccer player in my high school."
Molaskey hardly intended to return to her hometown as a jazz singer when she left immediately after high school to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Before school even started, she made a connection at the St. Louis MUNY through her soon-to-be-roommate and was instantly hired to do their summer season, during which she met Mary Wickes. Set to play Aunt Eller in the upcoming Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, the veteran actress recommended Molaskey personally to director William Hammerstein, who promptly put her in the show's ensemble.
That 1979 production had an added bonus: It led to lifelong friendships with many of Molaskey's co-stars, including Christine Ebersole and dancer-turned-fashion executive Kevin Ryan, both of whom she talks to almost every day. (In fact, she fixed Ryan up with his partner, Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford.) Molaskey also recalls the day that Oklahoma! co-star Martin Vidnovic's daughter was born; that baby, of course, grew up to be musical theater sensation Laura Benanti. "In many ways, theater has taken care of me for more than 20 years," says Molaskey. "It's definitely allowed me to make my own family." No doubt about it, she also loves being part of the so-called "First Family of Cool," a.k.a. The Pizzarellis. "We were doing this other concert recently and I was working with Bucky," she says, "and it just hit me again that this great man is my co-worker, my friend, and my father-in-law. All of John's family is so warm."
Molaskey is very much enjoying her newfound role as a jazz singer and solo recording artist; her first CD, Pentimento, a collection of songs of the 1920s and 1930s, was a huge critical success. "I feel like I'm starting over again, and that's great," she tells me. "Jazz is one of the few areas that accepts women over 40; in fact, jazz audiences appreciate that you've lived enough to maybe know something. Also, in musical theater, it's all about how high and how loud you can belt. I spent 10 years worrying about hurting my voice, so it's really great now to just try to sing something nicely and not worry about hitting that high E."
Fortunately, Molaskey hasn't totally given up on musical theater or its composers; she spent part of this month working on Ricky Ian Gordon's new oratorio, The Family Project. But one couldn't really blame her if she had just called the whole thing off. In the past 15 years, she has appeared on Broadway in Chess, Dream, and Parade (wherein she had to go on for star Carolee Carmello without any rehearsal), and Off-Broadway in Weird Romance and Songs For A New World. Whatever their merits, none of these shows were hits.
Still, "I can't go anywhere without some 20-year-old telling me how Songs For A New World changed his life," Molaskey says of the Jason Robert Brown revue that ran for just a few weeks at the WPA back in 1996. Indeed, the show might have changed Jessica Molaskey's life, since she got a rave review from The New York Times. The only problem: Her name was spelled completely wrong. "I didn't get upset," she insists. "I took it is a wink from the gods, telling me not to take anything too seriously." Although Molaskey introduced the neo-standard "Stars and the Moon" in that show, she feels no ownership of the song: "Please, I've never sung it again," she says. "I was always getting something wrong! But I have to tell you: When Audra McDonald decided to record it on her first CD, Jason called me to see if that was okay by me, which was very sweet."
Molaskey had high hopes for her most recent musical, A Man of No Importance, which had a three-month run last fall at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater but didn't transfer to Broadway. (The show received seven Drama Desk Award nominations this season, including Best Musical.) In fact, Molaskey took the very small role of Mrs. Patrick, a seemingly strict church parishioner, because she believed so much in the piece and its creators: Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens. "I think the show has been unfairly dismissed, maybe because people didn't think the score lived up to Ragtime," she says. "But I just heard the recording [on JAY Records] and I think it really holds up."