Singer Jeff Harnar is sweet on Cy and Steve

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
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Jeff Harnar
Jeff Harnar

For openly gay vocalist Jeff Harnar, life truly is a cabaret. Since the late 1980s, Harnar has received multiple accolades for work as a performer, including awards from the Mabel Mercer Foundation, the Chicago Cabaret Professionals, Manhattan Association of Cabaret (MAC), and Broadway Cabaret World, to mention a few.

Following a 17-year break from recording, Harnar has released two albums on PS Classics; "I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim's Words" in 2022, and his latest, "A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman" in 2023.

Jeff Harnar  

Gregg Shapiro: Jeff, I'd like to begin by asking you who came up with the witty title for your Cy Coleman celebration act, and subsequent album, "A Collective Cy"?
Jeff Harnar: Gregg, you are the very first to ask. When I was starting out in cabaret in the 1980s, a young man named Sebastian Hobart did a Cy Coleman show with this title. Sadly, he was a casualty of the AIDS epidemic. All these years later I have assimilated his witty appellation and have awaited an opportunity to shine the spotlight on his memory and give him the credit he deserves.

What's involved in the process of selecting songs for a cabaret tribute show and album such as "A Collective Cy?"
My director Sara Louise Lazarus, my music director Alex Rybeck and I have the gift of a long collaboration. Our first project together was 1989's "Carried Away: Jeff Harnar Sings Comden & Green." The process is much the same now as before. We each make a list of songs that might be a good fit for me and then compare notes. As much as I love Cy's music, I'm always looking at the lyrics first. I need to feel I'm a reliable, believable narrator of the lyrics I sing. This album owes as much to exceptional lyricists Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields, and David Zippel as to Cy Coleman.

In the liner notes, you write about when, as a boy, your parents gave you the original Broadway cast recording of "Sweet Charity," a musical about a taxi dancer. It was a pretty racy musical at the time. Nearly 60 years later, could you ever imagine a parent giving that album to a child in 2023?
We were living in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City back then and I had a great aunt who was the fashion editor of Seventeen Magazine. I have to believe she suggested the album to my parents. The show was new on Broadway at the time and my Aunt Fran would've seen it. She was my Auntie Mame. The following year she gave me "Man of La Mancha." That was really a lot for a child to digest!

Despite the subject matter, which is relatively tame by today's standards, "Sweet Charity" has great songs, including "Rhythm of Life," "My Personal Property," and, of course, "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Why did you choose to include those three songs?
I had a childhood obsession with "Rhythm of Life." The fugue-like counterpoint melodies were easy to grasp and a joy to sing. At that age, who knew what those words meant? Revisiting the song now in my 60s is coming full circle back to a youthful place of musical bliss. On the album, I'm thrilled to have jazz singers Nicolas King and Danny Bacher as special guests on that track. Cy has to be smiling to hear Nicolas scatting and Danny on the soprano sax.

"My Personal Property," from the film version of "Sweet Charity" is a sublime "I love New York" song. I get huge joy singing about the city. It's such a defining part of my soul. And Alex has cleverly woven in the melody of "My City" from "Seesaw" around the song to truly make the arrangement feel "personal."

"If My Friends Could See Me Now" was a must-have song, one of Cy Coleman's greatest hits. For our purposes, I've used the lyric to express a very intimate feeling of gratitude, which is my overriding feeling about this album happening. As Dorothy Fields penned for "Sweet Charity," "All kinds of music is pouring out of me."

Were you active in the theater department at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois?
Absolutely! New Trier's magnificent theater department was pivotal in nurturing my musical dreams and honing my youthful talents. Just last week, Toby Nicholson, one of our directors and choreographers came to see "A Collective Cy" at Hey Nonny in Arlington Heights (Illinois). How thrilling to reconnect with him and to have an opportunity to express my profound gratitude for the gift of being one of his students.

Also at that performance was Mary Brown, my music teacher at Joseph Sears Grade School in Kenilworth (Illinois). She was especially supportive of my passion for music at a time when it really mattered. Oh, to see her smiling face in the audience all these years later. Priceless!

Did you perform in any Cy Coleman musicals in high school?
Alas, no Cy Coleman. The musicals I was fortunate to do at New Trier were "Take Me Along," "The Boyfriend," "Mame," "Oklahoma!," and "Kismet."

A couple of other North Shore natives, Ann Hampton Callaway, and her sister Liz Callaway, can be heard performing duets with you on the album on the songs "I've Got Your Number" and "Our Private World," respectively. What does it mean to you to have them on the record?
Two highlights of the album were duetting with my New Trier classmates Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway. What a magnificent musical reunion that afternoon in the studio was for me. Ann was "Mame" in our New Trier production - I like to say she was 16 going on 42. Brilliant then, brilliant now. Liz and I co-starred in "Kismet." Check out YouTube if you want to see ten minutes of 1977 Sound Super-8 proof!

Do you think Cy Coleman has received the full recognition that he deserved?
Frankly, no. Part of the blame was his own brilliance. With regards to his Broadway scores, Cy was a musical chameleon, writing jazz for "City of Angels," R&B for "The Life," and comic operetta for "On the Twentieth Century." As such, Cy himself disappears. When you hear Sondheim, you pretty much know you're hearing Sondheim. Cy was much more difficult to button down because his writing styles were always in service to the shows he was writing. Thus, Cy Coleman never became a household name, though virtually everyone knows his songs such as "Big Spender," "Hey, Look Me Over!" and "The Best is Yet to Come."

After not releasing studio albums for a few years, you have now released two in close proximity: "I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim's Words" and "A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman." Does that mean your fans won't have to wait for the next Jeff Harnar album?
Yes, it was 17 years between albums ... and then two in a row! It was a stroke of karmic, cosmic serendipity that these two albums happened in consecutive years. I thank executive producer Ron Thomas for initiating and envisioning the Sondheim album in 2022. That entire experience was a miracle.

And then executive producer Alvin Kabot had truly championed that the Cy Coleman album would finally be recorded. It had almost happened in 2006 but the funds weren't there. Sadly, Alvin was a casualty of COVID. But he earmarked the money for the album when putting his affairs in order and thus this long-held dream came true.

The mantra was right there in the title of a "Sweet Charity" song ... "Baby Dream Your Dream." The lesson for me is that if your dreams don't come true at first, they may come true at last. I'm grateful to both of those angels for making the albums possible and to PS Classics for giving both albums such absolutely first-class productions. It helped enormously to have 13-time Grammy nominee Bart Migal on the team as producer and engineer.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, where do you think the cabaret scene would be without people like us?
Let's think even bigger ... Where would the world be without people like us? I can certainly speak to what the world of cabaret has given me. In it I have found a platform for creative self-expression where the only limits are my own. Here I've found a cadre of like-minded artists who, like me, do what they do, with people they get to choose to work with, and mostly for the joy of it all.

Because cabaret is defined by its intimacy, it's not where you go to make big money. And to your question, on a very personal level, cabaret gave me the forum to "come out" onstage. It wasn't until I began singing Sondheim in my 50s that I had the courage to embrace my sexuality as a performer. Until then I was quite coy about the pronouns in my singing. Somehow Sondheim's lyrics were the succinct ammunition I needed to authentically express the complexities of my openly gay heart in front of an audience.

The opportunities are less apparent in the Cy Coleman piece. Only a few telltale "he's" as the object of my affection tip my hand. But I certainly haven't retreated; my truth is fully in these songs. The cabaret scene has given me all that and more. Alex Rybeck and I just celebrated 40 years since our first show together. To have a musical partnership and friendship with that kind of continuity is a dream realized for me. I don't know where I would be, were it not for how embracing the cabaret scene has been to me.

In terms of music, you are steeped in the cabaret world. But is there a style of music or a performer that you listen to for your own pleasure that might surprise your fans?
[Laughs] I'm hopelessly devoted to the songwriters of the Great American Songbook. Of course, the definition of that Songbook keeps expanding. Certainly Judy Collins, Amanda McBroom, Linda Rondstadt and the Beatles have assimilated into the lexicon.

As for pleasure listening, I'm quite fond of silence. I like to give my brain a rest from the lyrics I'm forever rehearsing and keeping on my lips. But kd lang, Patsy Cline and The Manhattan Transfer can always soothe me.
Also, I'm out most nights discovering new artists or reveling in the greats, so there's a lot of music around me always. I feel so richly blessed to be in an epicenter of so much talent and creativity. To quote a Carolyn Leigh lyric from one of Cy's favorite songs, "All I want in this world is some kind of music that my heart can listen to and cheer!"

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