It has been a busy year for the New York based performer Craig Pomranz. He debuted his brand new cabaret, The Break-up Show at the Metropolitan Room, won a MAC Award for Best Male Performer 2012. The new hit show received great reviews and now he is about to premiere it at The Pheasantry in London. Just as he gets ready to return to the UK, Craig talks about the process of creating his shows, winning the MAC Award, his thoughts on cabaret, how he likes his red velvet cake and more.
How do you and your director Ronald Cohen work together to put together new shows?
It is not easy. We all know so much music and there is always a song you want to do. Sometimes it can start with that one song I desperately want to sing, or Ron has an idea, or something one of us has read in the newspapers sets us off. We develop completely new shows two or three times a year, which I always perform first in New York or LA. My music director and I learn music quickly. New material keeps us on our toes and keeps the show fresh and lively.
Additionally, we leave space in the show to add last minute music or ideas so we can shape a show for each different venue, incorporating any interesting, fun, local news from that area. We have a lot of fun during the development phase. We have done Love and the Weather, with love songs involving rain, wind, snow and heat, and Love and Real Estate, all about finding new places to make love!
The Break-up Show works well because, well, everyone loves love songs. People start out wondering how depressing it is going to be, but of course there have been many hilarious songs written about breakups and revenge. We mix in songs of longing for love that never happened and of course a few old-fashioned torch songs for a little tear-jerking. It's all about reaching out and connecting with the audience.
What was the most challenging part of writing the show?
For this show, it was challenging to take the audience from rollicking in the aisles to quietly sniffling into their Kleenexes. We worked on the transitions and found some thoughtful and wry songs to keep it interesting and funny, yet really quite moving.
When this show was being created, what was the collaboration process of creating the show with your producer/director Ronald Cohen and music director Stephen Bocchino like?
We laughed hysterically as we tried dozens of songs, some very obscure and some very familiar but presented in a new way. Ronald has an encyclopedic knowledge of theater and the Great American Songbook, and even though I pride myself on knowing a lot of songs, he can still surprise me with something I have never heard. He has a dry sense of humour and I lean on him to help me frame the show and outline what I might say.
Steve is one of the greatest accompanists of singers I have ever worked with and can find a musical solution to any medley or transition we want to build. He is also more knowledgeable about the pop, early rock side of music, which introduces me to songs I would not think of. This helps to add a lot of texture to the shows. I cannot tell you how many times someone has come up after a show to say they never really listened to the lyrics of a pop song they have always loved until they heard our interpretation.
How did your recent engagements at the Metropolitan Room go when you performed this show?
This is a show people really love and relate to. Who hasn’t had their heart broken? And people tell us that the show is very therapeutic, as they laugh and cry together over this universal experience.
You won a MAC Award for Best Male Vocalist this year. What was it like to win the award?
A total surprise. MAC called to ask if it was OK to add my name to the nominees – I hadn’t even heard about it because the Metropolitan Room put me up for the nomination, but hadn't told me. Being chosen by fellow performers is especially meaningful and I was thrilled to win this year. It gave me a chance to celebrate and thank some of my fans (some of whom were present at the awards) who are the real supporters of Cabaret.
How did you discover cabaret?
Cabaret sort of discovered me in a Ruby Keeler moment. I was a college kid singing in a piano bar and the owner of a club asked me if I had a nightclub act. Someone cancelled on him and he wondered if I wanted to take a week gig, starting the following Friday. I had always been trained to say yes to everything: “Can you ride a motorcycle?” “…Yes.” “Can you walk a tightrope?” “…Well…yes…” So, of course I said yes! I immediately called Ron Cohen and said, “Now what do I do?” We sold out through word of mouth, we were all surprised and thrilled and it has continued.
What’s the best thing about performing cabaret?
Definitely the intimacy factor. Touching one person with music is my greatest reward, rivaling nothing. Music is so powerful, and the audience connection so visceral.
Who or what has inspired you the most as an artist and why?
That is not a fair question…(laughs). I have spent my life since age 11 working professionally, so there have been so many influences. I certainly have my favorites and guilty pleasures. Sammy Davis, Jr. was a constant visitor to St. Louis, my hometown, and was a huge influence. But singers like Doris Day and Frank Sinatra opened up a new way of articulating songs by telling stories through the lyrics as well as their beautiful sounds. All of my training is as an actor and I approach everything from a theatrical/acting point of view.
What are your thoughts on the current New York cabaret scene?
Pessimists always say that the best days are in the past and cabaret is too expensive and too in-bred, too self-indulgent. But that is often said about Broadway and movie musicals too. We all know that this is a cyclical thing and when times are tough, whether economically or emotionally, people who know about cabaret want to that kind of intimate experience to reflect on.
The real issue is getting the word out. The Great American Songbook cannot get the kind of exposure it used to see on the old variety shows and talk shows. The media does not cover this genre the way it could and in my opinion should. Of course shows like America's Glee and SMASH! and movies like Chicago and Dreamgirls all help. Audiences will always want to come see a single person standing in the light, attempting to take them on an emotional journey. I see talented young people discovering the art form, bringing their own approach, and feel very hopeful.
The most memorable cabaret performance you’ve ever seen?
Another unfair question…! When I first got to NY, the owners of a small restaurant asked me to come upstairs and see their new cabaret room. It was a narrow tiny place up a flight of stairs called Brothers & Sisters. I had no idea what cabaret might be at that time other than what I had seen in the movies. The lights went down, and from the back of the room this large blonde lady in a caftan began singing a capella while squeezing past the crowded tables towards the stage…it was Barbara Cook. She was singing "Sing A Song For Me" and I was in heaven. Also, I knew I could do this! I could stand in a crowded room and silence it by singing.
The best shows for me are the ones where you leave feeling you know the performer and they have taken you on a wonderful journey.
A more recent memorable show was Barbra Streisand at Madison Square Garden. She built a show with a lovely, well thought-through arc, incorporating surprising song selection with charming and funny patter. We forgot that we were in a huge arena as she held the audience in the palm of her hand. Granted, we had house seats, but it really was a cabaret performance, not a “Barbra’s Greats Hits” concert.
Please complete the sentences below:
My favourite part of the day is…2am with a favorite old movie about to start on TV.
If money were no object…I would open my own clubs and spend more time bringing the Great American Songbook to the masses and help young singers.
I have a weakness for…a great pair of legs…oh, and red velvet cake, but not with cream cheese frosting...
Cabaret is…love crossing the footlights.
Dates: Sept 18 and 19, 2012
Venue: The Pheasantry
Tel: 0845 6027 017
For more information and bookings, click here or call 0845 6027 017.
Craig Pomranz's official website: www.craigpomranz.com