Date With the Past : Performer Builds Career on Songs of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin


When Michael Feinstein was playing small nightclubs in his native Columbus, Ohio, nobody predicted the musical success that was awaiting him.

He began and ended his formal piano training at 5, when his piano teacher realized that he was not learning to read music, but was playing everything by ear. And, as for the music he liked to play, well, popular standards from the 1920s to the 1950s hardly seemed a way to reach one’s contemporaries in the 1970s to 1980s--or so he was told.

Never mind.

Neither the way he plays nor the old songs he sings has stopped the 34-year-old’s meteoric rise to stardom.


As recently as 1984 he was just a cabaret performer. Since then he’s recorded seven records, played three Broadway engagements, and performed in London for Great Britain’s Royal Family as well as at the White House for President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

He brings his 1990 Broadway-originated concert, “Piano and Voice,” to the San Diego Civic Theatre, Wednesday through Monday.

Although Feinstein played for a sold-out benefit performance at the Old Globe Theatre last year, this show, produced by the San Diego Playgoers Series, marks Feinstein’s first public performances in San Diego.

And, as usual, he will be playing what he likes: George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart. And, he promises, you can count on hearing “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “I Love A Piano.”

“I had been playing piano off and on for years, but I didn’t seriously consider that that would be a profession,” said Feinstein at the Westgate Hotel where he had come for a day of interviews.

His career got started, indirectly, when he gained and lost a job as Ira Gershwin’s literary executor.

The job had been a dream come true for Feinstein, who in 1976, the same year he met Gershwin, had taken on a job as a piano salesman in Los Angeles.

For six years after he met the lyricist, Feinstein devoted his time to cataloguing Gershwin’s collection of phonograph records, sheet music, unpublished manuscripts, scores and lyrics, and to finding out just how Gershwin wanted his songs to be performed.


“Being with the creator of these works was not only exhilarating, but a valuable experience I couldn’t get from any other source. I learned what Ira liked, how he liked his songs sung, what he liked pointed up in the lyrics. I soaked up as much as I could that he was willing to share.”

Feinstein said that he would have happily devoted the rest of his life to protecting Gershwin’s literary estate, but a falling out with Gershwin’s widow (for reasons Feinstein declines to disclose) after Gershwin’s death in 1983 ended that job, and Feinstein found himself playing nightclubs again.

“It was very depressing because I felt I’d let Ira down,” Feinstein recalls softly. The rift eventually healed, but not before Feinstein found himself, to his surprise, with another career on his hands.

He took a job at some small clubs and later at Le Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, and he found celebrities like George Burns, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Stapleton and Dear Abby flocking to hear him.


Part of that was due to the influence of another famous friend, Liza Minnelli, who got things going by giving him a star-studded party at Le Mondrian.

Feinstein met Minnelli at a party, but the connection clicked, in part, because of Gershwin. Ira Gershwin was Liza Minnelli’s godfather and had been the best man at the wedding of her parents, Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland.

But Feinstein’s greatest asset remains his knowledge of the Gershwin material. For, as critics have commented over the years, it isn’t Feinstein’s voice or even piano playing that make him so special. It is his style, his understanding and his infectious love for the music he plays that sets him apart.

A date at the York Hotel in San Francisco, and his first record, “Pure Gershwin,” in 1985, was followed by an engagement at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room and a second album, “Live at the Algonquin” in 1986. Then came a flurry of television appearances, engagements at the Hollywood Bowl and on Broadway, and Feinstein soon found his career was on fire.


Now Feinstein has committed himself to preserving and reviving the work of other pop composers. He is planning to record an album of songs by Hugh Martin, the Encinitas-based composer who wrote “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the score for the original and revived “Meet Me in St. Louis” with Ralph Blane. “Meet Me in St. Louis” will come to the San Diego Civic Theatre next summer.

Feinstein just produced an album of Burton Lane songs. And he is now working on an album of unpublished Gershwin songs. The songs are good, Feinstein says. But he doesn’t expect them to have the same impact as the old songs.

“No matter how good any of these songs might be, because they’re heard for the first time, you don’t have the advantage of 50 years of memories.

“Music is a way of accessing one’s memory banks. It triggers memories. The newer Gerswhin songs will also be considered distant cousins.”


For Feinstein some of those memories involve sitting with his parents and watching “The Lawrence Welk Show” as a child. “A very important tradition,” he says with a smile.

And while he said he would never have believed 10 years ago that he would be making a living performing the work that he adores, in retrospect he is not all that surprised that these songs are here to stay.

“The romance is important in those songs and romance is important today. People are crying out for romance.”