28 February 2013

Interview: Sarah Rice on Her Glamorous Nights

As Johanna, the Demon Barber’s daughter, soprano Sarah Rice starred in the first show I saw on Broadway. She managed to project sweetness and lovely charm even when Johanna started to fly off her hinges, while singing Sondheim’s stratospheric vocal lines and teaching us all the meaning of the word “reticule.” It was a performance for the ages — and now, some three decades after Sweeney Todd, Sarah Rice is singing even better.

Catching her special holiday act for All Hallow’s Eve, last autumn at the New York nightclub Birdland, I heard richness, freshness, and brilliant authority in every note she sang. To the intimacy of the cabaret setting she frequents nowadays, she brings an eclectic taste in music, a prodigious amount of research, and a winning sense of humor. With her cascade of russet curls, she looks like a Victorian Valentine’s card — as painted by Titian. And then she brings out her theremin. She is nothing if not original.

Sarah Rice is bringing a new act to 54 Below this Sunday, a one-time-only sampling of “Glamorous Nights & Careless Rapture: The Music of the Era of Downton Abbey, Gosford Park & More,” featuring songs by Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, among others. I’m looking forward to seeing the show — and to seeing you there — but particularly since music at Downton thus far has consisted primarily of a single song from Shirley MacLaine, I asked Sarah to tell us a little more about what to expect.

As Johanna in Sweeney Todd:
Clearly, the Green Finch and Linnet Bird
taught her how to sing very well indeed.

Q: What about this era in music appeals to you? What draws you to Ivor Novello?

SARAH RICE: It’s some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my life. It has a lot of Puccini, those augmented chords that are so appealing, and the Ravel kind of scales and stuff, there’s a lot of that. Novello’s style is called “Ruritanian,” and it’s like it was of another era even when it was new. It’s incredibly beautiful, incredibly romantic, lush — and I’m lovin’ it!

It was really hard to get the music, because it’s just not published any more. Thank God, Steve Ross had a friend in England who collects this stuff, Noël Coward and Ivor Novello music, he’s got the original scores. A lot of this was sent from England just a couple of days ago, actually. Those beautiful orchestrations — I wish I had a full orchestra. I just have harp and violin, to kind of give a taste of it. But it’s just beautiful. I listen to it and it just transports me. I hope to do it justice.

Q: What other music will be on the program?

SARAH RICE: Noël Coward. I’ve got some Flanders & Swann. It’s sort of loosely of the era, because the actual era of Downton Abbey is very narrow, and Gosford Park is in the ’30s, so we’ve said, “And More,” to stretch it. It’s basically between the two World Wars. An era of elegance. There’s some British music hall, and there’s actually a Cole Porter song that was done by Bea Lillie. I’ve got a Tessie O’Shea song, “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty.” I have a whole fairy section.

Ivor Novello led quite a colorful life. It’s interesting how Coward and Novello’s lives — they were always circling around each other professionally and socially. Noël was a little younger, but I’m trying to add into the show what their relationship was and all that kind of stuff. I have some good juicy tidbits. It was just a fun time.

What we’re trying to create is the feeling that you’re in one of those salons. And of course 54 Below is the perfect place for it.

Songwriter and matinée idol Ivor Novello.

Q: Your voice is in spectacular shape. What’s your secret?

SR: To quote Natalie Dessay, I work like a dog! I study twice a week with my teacher, and just try to remain as active as possible. We work very hard on trying to get bad habits away. And she teaches Barbara Cook, so this technique is very good longevity. As Claudia Cummings once said, if you’re in reasonably good health and you keep singing, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to keep it into your old age. It’s just that most people don’t want to work that hard.

But I think Jan Peerce sang every day, or at least vocalized. Robert Merrill, too. You just keep doing it, and take good care of your health. The studying, I think finding a teacher who works for you is very important.

Q: But Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill weren’t sopranos!

SR: Again, I think that with the airplane and everything like that, and the way people are scheduled today, it’s impossible to stay healthy. You’re in Frankfurt one night and you’re in Stockholm the next, going back and forth. People used to take the summer off, and you’d travel by ship, so it took you a week to get anywhere. I just think that today’s pace is very hard on people. But Anja Silja, here she is in her sixties, and she sounds fabulous! I heard that Rosalind Elias also sounded great in Follies. There’s no reason, again, as long as you don’t have incredible health problems — the opera companies may not want you — but there’s no reason you can’t sound good. And I love the fact that in cabaret, 80 is the new 40. It’s true!

Léon Theremin plays his invention.
Hollywood horror movies and old-time radio shows made abundant use of the theremin’s “otherworldly sounds.”

Q: You’ve recently started to play the theremin in your act. How did you pick it up?

SR: I was doing a concert at Tom O’Horgan’s house. I had taken a break, and when I got back to singing again, I was doing a concert called “The Other Side of Broadway,” Broadway composers doing classical music. Tom O’Horgan was directing, and we were rehearsing at his house. He had one of the original RCA theremins, from 1929 or something. I first heard it, and it was the most otherworldly sound I ever heard. The old RCAs sound like a cross between a woman and a cello. It’s the most unearthly sound you ever heard. I was just hooked by it.

But they’re not easy to come by, and it wasn’t until about eight months ago that I thought, I’d really like to do this. And so I borrowed a theremin from a friend while I was waiting for mine to come, and learned to play it. And now I have my own. It’s not an RCA, those are expensive, like $15 thousand. I hope to get one someday, but the modern ones are fine. I love it.

Precision theremin playing is a whole other thing. I don’t do spooky woo-woos. I play it as an instrument. It just had this otherworldly sound to it that’s fascinating to me. I use it like a singer. Whatever instrument you have played, you will play the theremin like that. Clara Rockmore, the goddess of the theremin and the muse of the man who invented it, was a violin prodigy, and she had to give it up because she had rickets in her bowing arm. The theremin for her was a lifesaver, because it allowed her to play her repertoire on the theremin. She played like a string player, her intonation and everything. It’s just beautiful. But I play it like a singer, because that’s what I bring to it.

It’s a fascinating instrument, and the people who play it are interesting. They tend to be outside the box. It draws a lot of different kinds of people, and a lot of really wonderful musicians. It’s a lot of fun.

In Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta:
Finding the sweet mystery of life.

Q: I heard you play it in your Halloween show. It lends a lot to the act.

SR: I’m a lot better now! A lot better with the pitch. The thing is that you’re just playing the air, electrical waves. There’s no frets, there’s nothing. You’re totally playing by ear. It just takes time.

When I was first learning it, the pitch would go a little wonky sometimes. It still does. A friend likes to say that it’s like being an ice skater: if your mind wanders for a split second, you can wind up on your ass on the ice. It requires perfect control, and then you’ve got electrical current that changes, which changes the pitch field on you. So suddenly it’s in a different place.

Q: You’ve played Victorian heroines and now you’re immersed in the Downton and Gosford world. How do you think Lady Crawley would react to the theremin?

SR: She’d probably be wigged. The truth is that the theremin was invented during that era and was commercially produced during that time. Technically it could have been around then, and the truth is that English aristocrats have their bizarre side. It probably would have been something that would have been fairly popular, if it weren’t so hard to play. It was supposed to be in everybody’s living room. It would enable anyone young or old to play. The truth is that it’s the world’s easiest instrument to learn how to play — badly. Because all you have to do is wave your hand in the air and you make pitch changes.

With a close friend.

Q: What else can we look forward to in your show?

SR: There’s going to be a lot of comedy. It’s not just beautiful music. A complete concert of Ivor Novello music would be like eating a dinner of Christmas roses. I have put the British music hall in there, there’s some funny Ivor Novello, some fun Coward. I’m hoping that it’s going to be heartbreaking and touching and funny. It’s not just going to be listen to the soprano yodel pretty tunes. And I have a lot of good gossip!

It isn’t going to be stuffy at all. It isn’t all just soprano high notes. There’s gonna be a little chili sauce in there, too. A little chili sauce on the Christmas roses, which I guess is a confection.

But tiaras are welcome — even for the women — and you don’t have to worry about getting home in time for Downton Abbey. And if you’re bereft from the end of the season, come, and this will restore your heart.

Sarah Rice: Glamorous Nights & Careless Rapture
Music of the Era of Downton Abbey, Gosford Park & More
Sunday, March 3, 7PM
54 Below
254 West 54 Street, New York
With Sarah Rice, Vocals & Theremin
Seth Weinstein, Piano
Maria Banks, Harp
Jonathan Russell, Violin
For more information and to place your reservation, click here.

The Divine Sarah

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