Photo Credit: Kai Ravelson
Sue Matsuki interviews Blake Allen of “AN EVENING WITH…” Series
Blake, I hope that you read my review on An Evening With…Peggy Lee here on Cabaret Hotspot! Needless-to-say, I was most impressed with the show, the cast and the concept. Was this series your idea or the brainchild of Producer, Danny Marin or the both of you? How did this series come to be?
“Wow! Yes, I read the review. Thank you so much for the words and the pointers!
This series was my “brainchild.” I grew up listening to the oldies being raised on MGM Musicals, Disney, and classical music. The idea really stemmed from talking to people my age and hearing them say “Mary Martin was the original Maria in Sound of Music?” or “Della Reese was a famous singer?” and it just left an emptiness inside about how great music and great artists are being forgotten in this millennial driven society where pop music (for the most part) is about the beat drop and not the art of storytelling or true singing. I love a good screlt and belt, but give me a story with purpose and not just volume.
When I decided to do the series, I was going to start with Mary Martin, because she has had an important place in my life for as long as I can remember, but then Della Reese passed away. I noticed the press seemed to only touch upon “Touched by an Angel” or “Harlem Nights.” So, I decided to do a concert of her greatest hits mixed with songs I grew up with, or songs that are amazing people forgot about and to tell the stories of her life. “An Evening With… Series: Della Reese” ended up being the only concert in New York City (that I could find) dedicated solely to Della Reese’s memory after her passing in November 2017. And the YouTube videos we played!
As I got working, her music, and particularly her arrangements, were not available, so I started transcribing what I heard and adapting it to fit my brand as a composer / arranger / orchestrator. [This process was definitely true with “When Do I Get Mine” from The Sherman Brother’s Busker Alley where I just transcribed the melody and created basically a whole new song inspired by the original as the sheet music didn’t exist.] Basically, why not just create something new? That has been the basis of everything in this series out of a necessity.
Looking back, Della Reese was definitely a first concert. Though the audience had fun, and the music was great, I would change so much about the concert, and change some decisions I made. Every concert we learn something new about what works, what doesn’t, what is possible and impossible in the time frame and budget, etc. The big thing was I noticed a need for help if I wanted the concert series to grow – the idea was there, but it needed more.
I invited Danny Marin to my Mary Martin concert (which her goddaughter came to!) to see if it was something he wanted to help me with. I made more arrangements than transcriptions this time, and though half the concert was not available (Jordan Tyson sang “Ain’t it a Shame About Mame,” which I only could get a lead sheet mailed from London), songs from her Broadway shows were easy to find. One of my favorite parts of the concert series is the adventure to find the music. I utilize the Library of Congress and NY Performing Arts Public Library as much as possible.
Danny’s idea for medleys came after Mary Martin. The very first medley / mashup I created was the “Annette Funicello Medley“, but it really wasn’t until “Knees Up Mother Brown” that I found my true crazy passion. Now a staple of the series, every concert has at least one “mega mix” with “Latin Medley #2“ and “Conquest Medley” being some of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my career. [The biggest highlight on a personal level is giving the NY premiere of Roger Sherman’s post 9/11 lyric to “It’s a Small World” sung by my dear friend and Company Member, Josh Daniel.]”
What is your personal musical background? And Danny’s?
“I started piano at age 3. My mother majored in piano pedagogy. I wanted to be a concert pianist, but my grandmother died at age 10 and left me a violin, so I picked that up. And then I grew. When I was 16, I switched to viola, but I still kept piano up. In high school, I started composing and arranging. I went to Brigham Young University where I got my Bachelor’s of Music in Viola. I did one year of grad school at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), finished my masters at NYU (where I also studied song writing and composition), and am currently getting my PhD. I write what I call “musi-opera,” which is a blend of musical theatre voices singing operatic material that is usually extremely macabre. As a violist, I have played on Broadway, with the NY Pops, Little Orchestra Society, and continue to perform new works and commissions regularly. I am very active in both of my worlds as a writer and instrumentalist.”
So, you’re the classic “under-achiever” is see? (She says tongue-in-cheek!) WOW Blake…just WOW!
“Danny is a musical theatre actor from Los Angeles! He was recently in Naked Boys Singing and is a Broadway World Cabaret Nominee.”
How did you put the cast together? I see that you have a regular cast of about 10 performers and then you have other guests join you in the various shows. Do you audition your talent or are all of these people, people that you work with or know?
“Della Reese started with asking a couple friends of mine (Kristina Nicole Miller, Christine de Frece, Jan Sport, Andre Jordan) and then a couple Broadway stars to help lure people to show up. For Mary Martin I asked a couple other friends to do it (Kerry Conte, James Crichton, Josh Daniel, Jordan Tyson). I asked these people because I knew they would be wonderful with the material, and I want to give my friends work. It wasn’t until Danny Marin got on board with The Sherman Brothers that he had the idea to create An Evening With… Series Company Members. The founding members are: Kerry Conte, James Crichton, Emily Croft, Josh Daniel, Christine de Frece, Spencer Glass, Kristina Nicole Miller, Jack Scott, and Jordan Tyson, who all sang at The Sherman Brothers.
For every concert, I try to, at least, get people I know or have worked with before to sing because I know they are going to be great with that particular material. I then always try to sprinkle exciting talent for the audience as bait. For instance, I had to ask Bret Shuford to sing for the Sherman Brothers because he is part of the Disney Family and is obsessed with the Sherman Brothers. Even though I knew him, I had never worked with him. Other people, like Nya, I have never met and never worked with, but I saw her sing Rihanna at a concert and knew I had to have her perform Dionne Warwick’s material. (She is a guest artist in February!)
I have added to the An Evening With… Series Company. Christine DiGiallonardo and Emily Trumble both performed in the concert series and then showed interest asking if they could be a part of the Company. There was a need when they asked, and so, of course, I said yes!
Each company member is required to do at least 2 concerts a season. They can do as little, or as much as they want. This allows them to be attached to the series but still allows them to have tours and other concert work without the fear that they won’t be asked again because they weren’t able to do a concert. Emily Croft, for instance, booked Rock of Ages tour, so she won’t be back until our Doris Day concert in July, and that is fine! It’s also wonderful for me because I get to know their singing, their personalities, and what works best for their voice so I can let them shine while throwing weird curveball arrangements at them. Christine de Frece has also told me multiple times “thank you for challenging me in musical ways I am not in my daily life as a musical theatre actress.”
If there is an audition process…how does one audition for you? Cabaret Hotspot! is an on-line magazine for singers so, I’m sure our readers would love to know if there is any opportunity to be considered for this wonderful cast.
I love finding new singers that are fun, talented, easy to work with, and always excited for an adventure. The best way to sing at one of the concerts is to just email me at: email@example.com or on Instagram: @aneveningwithseries. Show me a video of you singing your favorite song – not what you think I want to hear, but what you wish to show to the world.
An example is Chris Blem who has been asking me to sing at every concert, but he was either out of town or I felt he was just not right for the material. For Peggy Lee, he finally was PERFECT and sang one of the highlights of the evening. His friend, Jane Bruce, also asked if she could do the Peggy Lee concert as she loves Peggy Lee. I went and saw her perform a solo show (her and guitar) and knew she had to share that talent with our series, which she did, and now she has added these Peggy Lee songs to her rep.
My one advice to prospective singers is just be aware that my arrangements can be weird and tricky. We also get “archival” videos from the concerts, which the artists can use however they want. They aren’t the best audio and visual quality, but they document the history and keep the songs living on the internet.”
What is the criteria for your cast members? Clearly they have to be excellent readers. Do they need a Broadway or Off-Broadway credit? Are you looking solely for Broadway-type voices?
“No. I have typically gravitated towards Broadway voices because that is the world that I am most infused with. We’ve had Lisa Raeme, who is a sexy, smooth, jazzy-rock singer who has been on The Voice. I’m always looking for new people to highlight and showcase to the best of their abilities and with how they want to be spotlighted!”
While I’m on the subject, why a predominately Broadway type cast for shows that feature jazz, pop and standards of the featured artists’ day? Is this the “hook”…Broadway voices sing it all? Are you giving them an opportunity to show their other chops?
“This is one of the things I thought was most interesting about your Peggy Lee review – I never thought of it in this way other than I know how to work with the Broadway voices really well. Daniel Dunlow over at Green Room 42 said “Blake Allen’s hit big-band show,” and I thought that was intriguing as well. When doing Peggy Lee, I said to myself “Alison Fraser is so wonderfully eccentric and always down for everything, I have to ask her to sing “Is That All There Is?” because I know she will blow the audience away.” This is how I have thought about these concerts – what story do I want to tell, and who will sing it best. I am always curious to work with different people, so being on Broadway is not a pre-requisite, especially with this being in a cabaret house, and both Danny and me active members of Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC).”
I guess it’s all relative to how the listener takes it in, but I’m intrigued at reading the above and learning it’s more about the appropriateness of the voice with the material to you. Good to know!
So, the Peggy Lee show was very well-researched and delivered by you from the piano as the host, Musical Director and orchestra leader…do you research and write the script?
“Oh, there is SO much to this question. I become so “method” with these concerts: I become obsessed with the singer/songwriters, and it is only after I buy biographies, autobiographies, I watch hours of YouTube, and I listen to hours of their music do I feel . 70% of the time, I choose the music and then find the story, but sometimes, the autobiographies point me to songs that I never would have known that have the most amazing stories to them – particularly the post-WWII North Korea POW manipulation of “Tennessee Waltz,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed” by Willard Robison, and discovering a true gem of an art song “Clouds” by Ernest Charles. Or, you learn which songs mean most to the artist, which might be surprising, like Dionne’s “Two Ships Passing in the Night.”
This concert series would definitely not be what it is without the YouTube videos and the fun stories (like Jodi Benson on the stand at Peggy Lee v. Disney court case – thanks James Gavin for writing about it!). I also keep track… in the past year, I listened to Patti Page 704 times, 658 Peggy Lee, 508 Dionne Warwick, 321 Annette Funicello, etc. I hope that helps describe the dedication!”
Dedication and your hard work clearly paid off in the quality of the work Blake. Bravo to you on this process and PHEW man!
This is a cast of many (16 singers) with a mini-orchestra (10 in the Peggy Lee show) so, this is a very expensive series. Who financially produces this show? Do you have sponsors? Do you get any backing from any educational organizations?
“We are always looking for sponsors! PLEASE! If you know of any, send them our way! Or studios that want to give us a discount for advertisement, etc. We have received a couple generous donations through our website: www.aneveningwithseries.com to help keep the series running. All donations 100% go to the series, but the concert has mostly (at this point) been sustained by itself, except for Della Reese, which I paid for out-of-pocket, but it helped launch the series.
Let me be clear about it, however. I don’t get paid. But, I do fight for the performers to get what is standard for a house like GR42. Of course, we all realize the time commitment, and I strive to have a dialogue with the performers and work around singers’ schedules for rehearsals and help in any way that we can – I never want someone to feel that, in order to do these concerts, they have to sacrifice financially. Like singing first so they can get to their job, or only coming to soundcheck but having a recording of band rehearsal, etc. How ever I can help the singers and band, I do. The arrangements aren’t easy, so I let the singers have a music stand if they want. I trust the band, I trust the singers, and in the end, we always have a wonderful time sharing with the audience, which is ultimately the end goal.”
I read that your Mission Statement (if you will) is that the series’ intention is: “for musical preservation and to educate your audiences about American Music”. Tell us a more about why you are doing this series and more about your full Mission Statement.
“You are correct. The end goal is to keep the history of these singers and songwriters alive – to tell their story to the 100+ people in the audience and those who see the YouTubes.
Music isn’t preserved very well, it is forgotten about, it is put in a box and not labeled, someone else will do it, etc. These problems occur way more than people want to admit. The more concerts I do, the more I realize how lost music is and true gems fall away. Luckily sources like Spotify, iTunes, YouTube and The Library of Congress exist. Because I’m a contemporary instrumentalist, I have always felt the only way to preserve music is to perform it for a new audience. Music is a living organism, and unless it is performed and kept vibrating, it won’t survive. On the flip-side, some songs, though wonderful and beautiful, can feel outdated in a modern lens, so through intense research and absorption, I hope that the new sounds we create on stage give the originators enough credit while making the audience care about going home and listening to the celebrated singers like Peggy Lee and Della Reese. Maybe we’ll one day be on PBS. Maybe we’ll one day be on the radio. Maybe we’ll one day win an award. Who knows! But that is not the point. I do hope, and it honestly is my truest dream, that whoever spends their hard earned money to see An Evening With… Series, leaves learning something new and feels enriched having listened to music they might not have ever heard, and in turn, artists like Della Reese will live on for them and the friends they share their experience with. This is the reason we do the show. This is the reason the hundreds of hours are worth it.
By the way, and you’re hearing it first!..we are recording a small EP of some of our “acoustic” songs from our first season that we will then start selling at the shows and online to help pay for the series. All proceeds will go directly back into the series. Our first single is going to be “Tennessee Waltz” with Kerry Conte and Mike Rosengarten (Company Member and Whobethems guitarist), which will be released the day of the Dionne Warwick concert, Feb 22nd. At that concert, we’ll also be selling the EP (CD and download card) before it is released to the general public in March, so all y’all will want to be there!”
I can second that statement…y’all, and I mean all of my readers, WILL want to be there for the next and then probably all of these shows!
How do you decide on who to feature in the series? in 2018 you honored: Della Reese, Mary Martin, Patti Page, The Sherman Brothers and Peggy Lee. It’s quite an eclectic list. (See 2019’s featured honorees and schedule below.)
“I chose these 5 artists for our first season knowing that at any time The Green Room 42 could just say “thank you so much, but we are no longer going to be presenting this series,” so I chose artists that would fill my soul artistically as well as would be interesting for the audience. Moreover, because of the amount of time it takes for each concert (sometimes it feels like I’m writing a full-length musical), the artist has to intrigue me enough otherwise I know I wouldn’t be able to do the best work on the concert. In the end, people are paying to see these concerts, and we want to give the best product we can to the audience.
Excitingly, we got green lit for a Season 2, and I understand how wonderful and rare an opportunity it is. I have a running list on my iPhone of potential artists. If someone talks about an artist I have never heard of, I write it down, or if a song turns on at a bar or a singer sings a song, I write it down. It is sad, but we realized that the bigger the name of the artist in today’s lens (Peggy Lee v. Patti Page, for instance), the more people will show up. We are hoping to definitely work passed this hurdle.
Danny and I combed through the options to see what would best advertise the concert series to help with longevity. If we can really sell a second season, we can add more not so well-known-today artists in the 3rd season (like Marty Robbins, Claudine Longet, or Mildred Bailey). I mean, Eartha Kitt is our “wild card” for this season, but I hope the audience comes in with a little more knowledge than just “Monotonous,” Catwoman, and Emperor’s New Groove…
Originally, we hadn’t planned on honoring Dr. Seuss rather than Nat “King” Cole, but I learned it is Nat’s100th birthday in March! I think we are the official Green Room 42 Centennial Celebration, just like we were with Patti Page’s 90th in October! And with Natalie being one of my top-5 favorite singers of all time, it would be an injustice to do a concert on her father without touching on her. The series typically focuses on 40s-70s, but Natalie is just too special to not forgo her. Just wait for the megamix!
More specifically, Della Reese was because she passed away. Mary Martin was because I have always wanted to do a concert of Mary Martin. The Sherman Brothers was because they are the most influential songwriters in my life, and the concert coincided with my 30th birthday. Patti Page was because my grandmother suggested it, and I only knew “Old Cape Cod,” but then quickly learned she is the most selling female singer of all time and I knew half of her rep but had no idea who she was and no one else did either. Peggy Lee is because of her Christmas album and Latin-inspired albums.”
I am curious about your process, some of which you told us about above but, when writing a show, which comes first for you…the music with the script being written around the tunes or the script first with the songs being dropped in?
“It depends on which part of the process I am in, to be honest. Every show is different. For Peggy Lee, I had the entire thing mapped out and was almost done with the concert, and then a random the song “An Empty Glass” turned on, and it shocked me so much I had to add it into the program somewhere, so I rearranged “Black Coffee” to include it. Thankfully, Grammy winner Tim Young is a champ. I did not know Patti Page really at all, so I read her autobiography and chose songs she loved as well as stories I thought interesting. The great thing about megamixes is that you can cover 20 songs in 7 minutes all under one theme. With The Sherman Brothers, I knew what songs I wanted to highlight because it was highly personal, but while reading Moose by Roger, I found out about a lot of the stories and songs I had never heard of that meant something to him, like “Things that Might Have Been” being his favorite lyric he ever wrote because of his later-in-life sobriety or “Freedom” being his favorite of Richard’s music.
Because the process is so intense, and the transcriptions, arrangements, and orchestrations take weeks, I usually have a set list created a month in advance, sometimes more. For instance, I started reading the Dionne Warwick autobiography 2 days after Peggy Lee (17 Dec). A set list was sent out to the cast Jan 22 with option selections sent out Jan 2. Once the arrangements are done, then I can write the script. The books are highlighted, the YouTubes saved, there are post-its everywhere, I have a notebook with scribbles. It is a lot of work.”
What’s the best thing about doing these shows at The Green Room 42?
“The Green Room 42 has been absolutely wonderful. Daniel Dunlow took a chance on our little show, and I hope he is satisfied with the continued growth. His suggestions for improvement have been helpful. It is really astounding how every concert gets better, and it is half because of the help of GR42. I also have brought some interesting things to them, like that NY premiere of a Roger Sherman lyric I talked about previously. The stage size is wonderful – there are a lot of smaller stages in NY, and I like big lush sounds, so a 9-foot grand piano, with 5 strings, brass section, 2 percussionists, 1 woodwind, and 4 singers on stage, and we are all comfortable? Yes please! I also love that the shows are affordable to a younger crowd that might not be able to see things at other, more expensive venues. The fact it is also in Times Square is helpful. Just like with every concert series and every venue, we have our quirks and needs that are sometimes difficult to come by, but we have also seen a huge growth in GR42 as well – their sound has improved, their lights, their organization, their generosity, they got that beautiful screen to project onto (our first 2 concerts only had a small TV!). I cannot reiterate enough just how immensely grateful to Daniel Dunlow and Marty Gasper for all they do for this series, for being part of the family, and for having them take a chance on us!”
Thank you so much Blake for taking the time to speak with me. I think this has been a fascinating interview with incredibly insight as to why you do this and a look at just how much work goes into just one concert. You are amazing! It’s been a real pleasure! Cabaret Hotspot! wishes you all success in this year’s series.
The Green Room 42’s 2019 An Evening With… series is listed below. I strongly encourage you all to make a reservation and treat yourself to a very special night out.
February 22nd @ 7:00 – Dionne Warwick
April 25th @ 7:00 – Nat King Cole & Natalie Cole
July 19th @ 7:00 – Doris Day
October 18th @ 7:00 – Eartha Kitt
December 13th @ 7:00 – Shirley Bassey
For more information on this series please visit:
The Green Room 42
@ The Yotel Hotel
570 10th Ave 4th floor
New York, New York 10036
You can also friend Blake and An Evening With…Series on Facebook and please visit: