Michael Feinstein started playing the piano by ear when he was 5 years old. After graduating from high school, he moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Los Angeles. When he was 20 years old, the widow of concert pianist and actor Oscar Levant introduced him to Ira Gershwin in July 1977. That began Feinstein’s musical career including 35 albums, five Grammy Awards nominations, concerts spanning the globe and appearances at venues including The White House, Buckingham Palace, Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House.
In 2007, he founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, dedicated to preserving artifacts he collected throughout his career relating to American popular music. These artifacts contain sheet music and orchestrations donated to him from the families of songwriters including Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Henri Mancini and more.
Every year, the foundation holds the High School Songbook Academy, where 40 young people from all 50 states come for a week-long intensive to learn about interpreting music from the late 19th and early 20th century to preserve American musical heritage.
On March 20, Feinstein will be in Scottsdale performing “Get Happy! Michael Feinstein celebrates the Judy Garland Centennial” at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts for two concerts at 3 and 7 p.m.
Feinstein talked to Jewish News about what it means to pay tribute to Judy Garland, what it was like working with her daughter Liza Minnelli and who had the greatest impact on his musical journey.
What does it mean for you to celebrate what would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday with this performance?
It’s amazing to me to think that Judy Garland might have lived into the next century but sadly died at the age of 47. The experience of celebrating her, in the year of her 100th birthday, has given me the opportunity to do a deep dive into her catalog and music and it feels very personal to be able to celebrate her in song. Her legacy is so multi-layered and for me the focus on her art is what is important. Much attention that has been paid to the tabloid aspects of her life and that is not the way she would want to be remembered. She set such a high bar for what she did, not only by her professionalism and talent; but also by her innate ability to galvanize an audience and create a deep connection to the heart. I hope to evoke a sense of her with this program. The show itself is very unusual in that we incorporate home movies by Judy’s family and a lot of photographs – many of which have never been seen before – to illustrate the story in multimedia. I don't attempt to copy her in any way, because that would be absurd and futile, but I do hope to evoke a sense of what made her great that will equally please those who know her work well and those who don’t know anything about her.
Do you remember the first time you heard Judy Garland sing?
Like many people of my generation I first heard her sing in the “Wizard of Oz.” I was captivated by the energy and talent of this young girl who was close to my age. Her singing thrills me in every aspect of her life. I love the young Judy Garland vocally and I equally love the mature Judy Garland.
What did it mean to you to work with her daughter, Liza Minnelli, who was the executive producer?
Working with Liza Minnelli as executive producer of the show has been wonderful. She has helped me stay on course with what I want to accomplish and encouraged me to do this concert in celebration of her mother. So to have her daughter help me to get it right, not only kept me on course but gave me tremendous joy in being able to explore the world of her mother through her daughter’s eyes.
What is your favorite part of this show?
That’s easy to answer because I found a private home recording of Judy Garland singing a song that she never commercially sang or recorded. It’s a wartime song called “I’ll Be Seeing You” and because she recorded it a cappella without accompaniment, I am able to accompany her on the piano. So I get to collaborate with Judy Garland – singing a song that nobody has ever heard her sing.
You do so much, but is there a particular aspect of your work that you feel connects more to your Judaism?
The songs that I sing are, more often than not, ones that were written by Jewish songwriters and I talk about the songs before I sing them. I feel very connected to Judaism through the music that I perform. I find that there is a through line from historical to contemporary Jewish music. There are many examples of Jewish songwriters whose fathers were cantors or rabbis, many of the people who entered the music business in the late 19th and early 20th century were connected to the synagogue as well. Jewish music publishers would go to the synagogues and find boys who sang in the synagogue choir to be song “pluggers” – to promote their songs. As these young boys grew up they would enter the music business and become songwriters and such.
What are some of your favorite Jewish traditions?
It links to performing. When I perform on a Friday night, I am deeply aware that it is the Sabbath. When I perform on a Friday, I think in terms of the Jewish tradition of people not working and relaxing and being able to commune with spirit through music. Whenever I am performing on a weekend, which is often, that is my way of honoring and observing the Sabbath. Even though I am not being still, hopefully, I’m helping other people to connect deeper to their Judaism through my performance.
Who is the one person who has impacted you the most in your musical journey?
Ira Gershwin. It was Ira Gershwin whom I met when I was 20 years old in 1977, who made it possible for me to have my career. I was helped along the way by others including Liza Minnelli and Rosemary Clooney, but Ira was the first person who really took me under his wing. He taught me most of what I know about interpreting American popular song and was a very gentle and kind soul who taught me many life lessons. I imagine for anyone the ages of 20-26, which was the age I was when I worked for Ira, are formative years and I was lucky that my formative years were with a man who cared about me and enriched my life in ways for which I can never properly repay him. I’m extraordinarily lucky to make music for my livelihood and I hope to keep doing it as long as God gives me the gift of life on this planet.
For more information on the show or to purchase tickets, visit scottsdaleperformingarts.org.