Cabaret Setlist: Taking a Chance on Songs (Part 1)—Byron St. Cyr Dares with “The Miller’s Son” (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

December 6, 2021 | By

Repertoire for the Once and Future American Songbook

Article #19 in this ongoing series.

Usually, for these Cabaret Setlist articles, I’ll look at a song and trace its creation, along with its performance and recording history, then add the insight of contemporary singers who have performed the number recently. For this installment—and the next one—I’m changing things up a little. In each article, I’ll have a look at a performance in which a singer has pushed the envelope when it comes to what’s “appropriate” cabaret repertoire. The performer will talk about how he or she took a risk with a song and created something exciting, thought-provoking, and memorable.

But before we get to that, here are a few scenarios to consider:

  • You’re a female cabaret performer in your early seventies, and you’d like to make a statement about aging in your upcoming show. You’re considering the idea of opening with “Born This Way,” the Lady Gaga hit. You like the irony of it, though you usually don’t sing this kind of material. You’re pretty sure you can make it work. But it does feel a little like a stunt—and you’re not the kind of singer who relies on stunts. Will the audience think you’ve gone over a cliff if you go Gaga?
  •  You’re a white, female, jazz-oriented singer who’s always loved the song “The Eagle and Me”—introduced in the 1944 musical Bloomer Girl by Dooley Wilson, who portrayed a runaway enslaved man. This is a song that’s been covered largely by Black performers (Carmen McRae, Lena Horne, Shirley Horn). You long to sing it, but would doing so be seen as a cultural-appropriation offense? There’s that problematic dialect in the song (“River it like to flow. / Eagle it like to fly.”) Sure, the song was written by white guys (Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg). And Bing Crosby sang it, and later Barbara Cook. But that was at a time when cultural mores were much different than they are today. What to do? Drop the idea of performing the number? Or treat it as a sort of “museum piece” and go for it?
  •  You’re an experienced male cabaret performer. You’re gay—out and proud—and you’ve been comfortable throughout your career with changing the nouns and pronouns in songs to fit your orientation: “Wait Till You See Him,” “Ain’t He Sweet,” “To All the Guys I’ve Loved Before.” To be honest, you’ve been a little judgy when you’ve heard other gay men sing love songs with romantic lyrics about women. But, all of a sudden, you can’t get the song “All I Need Is the Girl” out of your head, and you think you want to sing it “straight,” as it were. After all, if you change “Girl” to “Man” or “Guy,” you’ll have to tinker further with the lyrics in order to make the rhymes work. Will your friends and fans roll their eyes if you keep the song hetero? Will they think you’re creeping back into the closet after all these years? Maybe finding explanatory introductory remarks will help make things work—or will they just make it sound like you’re apologizing?

A Cultural Realignment

These are the sorts of dilemmas that may crop up in cabaret circles these days, as the culture dramatically realigns its attitudes on discrimination, inclusion, and privilege.

Male cabaret performers may now sing with impunity songs written for women, and women may sing songs written for men. This can still startle in some cases, but it’s a fairly commonplace practice. Interestingly, even back in the early 20th century, singers were known to present songs irrespective of their gender “appropriateness.” Did anyone bat an eye when Judy Garland sang “For Me and My Gal” (with or without Gene Kelly in tow) or when Al Jolson (a highly problematic figure, of course, in terms of racial stereotyping) sang Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (including the line “The heavenly blisses of his kisses fill me with ecstasy”)?

Age appropriateness is a factor that seems to operate quite differently on either end of the spectrum. I personally think that that hypothetical 70-something singer who wants to perform “Born This Way” should go for it. She could bring down the house with it. But a 30-something performer thinking about giving us “I’m Still Here” or “Here’s to Life” should definitely take a time-out and think some more.

Repertoire issues centering on race, ethnicity, and religion appear to be more complicated than other factors. To begin with, there are some songs that probably shouldn’t be performed these days by anyone of any background, unless the selection is framed in a historical context by use of some artful spoken patter. For instance, several songs that Irving Berlin wrote or co-wrote early in his career (“My Father Was an Indian,” “Colored Romeo,” “Chinese Firecrackers,” along with a half dozen or more songs about a man who finds himself inside a harem) are fascinating artifacts, but they’re obviously not good choices for most set lists.

And, though it may sometimes seem unfair, some songs have come to be stamped with a racial or cultural brand that is dangerous to infringe upon. I’d advise white people nowadays to ponder a bit before taking on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” (and I write this as someone who thinks the late Eydie Gorme’s rendition is just about perfect). In the same way, if non-Jewish cabaret performers are intent on singing Berlin’s “Sadie Salome (Go Home)” or “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler on the Roof, they’d best have solid reasoning for doing so.

All this said, choosing unexpected, unconventional material does have its pluses. I’m all for surprises in a show. When they’re happy surprises, that is.

Committing to the Song

Today, I’m pleased to share one such happy surprise with you: Byron St. Cyr’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s “The Miller’s Son” (from A Little Night Music). The singer-actor included it in his 2017 Don’t Tell Mama show, 4600 Mithra: My New Orleans. This is definitely a case in which taking a gamble when assembling a set list worked for a performer. (Incidentally, I interviewed St. Cyr before the sad passing of Sondheim on November 26.) You can watch St. Cyr perform the song here.

“4600 Mithra” refers to the address of St. Cyr’s grandparents in the Pontchartrain neighborhood of New Orleans. On visits there, young Byron would absorb the musical sounds of the environment, which included not just the New Orleans jazz going on outside but also selections from his grandparents’ collection of Broadway show music.

St. Cyr would go on to play jazz saxophone as a young man. Later, he became a musical theatre performer, and a devoted Sondheim aficionado. In his 20s, he became interested in the source materials for Sondheim’s musicals. He watched Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night (the basis for A Little Night Music), which he found to be “a grounded comedy of errors.” He admired the way Sondheim and his collaborators managed to find the perfect places in the story to insert the songs.

“The Miller’s Son” is sung in the musical by Petra, a maidservant who indulges in athletic but discreet sexual encounters when she’s not fantasizing about possible marriages she might enter. The song finds her musing about what her life would be like with each of three increasingly well-heeled (but, also, increasingly unlikely) candidates: the miller’s son, a businessman, and the Prince of Wales. Which is the best choice? Petra’s answer comes easily: find a guy to go to bed with right now. Her personal credo is “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”—big time.

Byron St. Cyr  (Photo: Marc Safran)

When he was putting together 4600 Mithra, St. Cyr and his musical director, Drew Wutke, found that they needed a few more uptempo numbers for a show heavy with ballads. Wutke had on hand a swinging arrangement of Lerner & Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. It could work for one of the empty “uptempo” slots in the program. Could “The Miller’s Son” fill a second slot?

St. Cyr had not before thought of singing the number, but he had previously performed other numbers that would not ordinarily be sung by a Black, gay man. Among those gambles: a medley of songs that celebrated sex-positive “Musical Theatre Sluts.” (Selections included “Bring on the Men” from Jekyll and Hyde, “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees, and “I’ve Got What You Want” from The Apple Tree.)

Although A Little Night Music was not one of the shows St. Cyr had discovered as a boy at 4600 Mithra, he felt it was representative of the kind of theatrical music he’d learned to appreciate from those first cast albums he’d grown to love. In subsequent years, he’d listened to various vocalists’ interpretations of “The Miller’s Son,” including a likable rendition by Sara Ramirez (listen here), which he’d discovered in the depths of “a YouTube rabbit hole.” He realized the song was “its own three-act musical,” similar in structure to “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company. “It really tells you everything about this character in the span of a song,” he says.

The song’s intricate, hastily spat lyrics also appealed to him: “It’s really juicy. They’re fun words to play: ‘A wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass.’ The wordplay that Sondheim does? You don’t really get those kinds of lyrics very often in contemporary pieces.”

Over the course of their long collaboration, St. Cyr and Wutke have worked out a winning procedure for developing a suitable arrangement. They will get together in a rehearsal room, and St. Cyr will turn on his cellphone’s “Voice Memo” function. They’ll come up with “reference” music: recordings with arrangements that might be useful to draw on for the song in question. And then they’ll improvise.

Finding the Musical Style

The director for the Mithra show, Jim Brigman, had suggested that the show was about musical style (and, perhaps, musical styles). What St. Cyr had absorbed on those visits to New Orleans was a rich variety of music that pulsed in that city. He kept this in mind as he and Wutke set to work.

For “The Miller’s Son,” they decided they wanted different “feels” for certain portions of the song. In the slow opening measures, St. Cyr would sing much as D’Jamin Bartlett had sung in the 1973 premiere and on the original cast album. (Listen here.) As the song picked up steam, they would go with a swinging “Ella Fitzgerald vibe,” as exemplified by this version of Irving Berlin’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.”  This portion of the song served as the musical “home base” for the entire number. The performance would grow in intensity, and by the time they reached the “Prince of Wales,” verse, the song would take on a “very New Orleans Jazz” sound, similar to the percussive arrangement for Harry Connick Jr.’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” also called “Go to the Mardi Gras” (Henry Roland Byrd, aka “Professor Longhair,” Theresa Terry). Watch and listen here.

The pair found a good key to sing in, and they started improvising, capturing everything on St. Cyr’s phone. No real “road map” was involved, says St. Cyr. “We just said, ‘Let’s play and see what happens. If you have an impulse, follow the impulse. We’ll listen to it and adjust…. We can add punches later.’”

Some of those punches came during band rehearsals, when St. Cyr and Wutke were joined by bassist Joe Wallace and drummer Derek Swink. Swink experimented with different percussive effects, including sounds from washboard and spoons.

One of the marvelous things that came out of St. Cyr and Wutke’s improvisations was an interlude that includes snippets from many of the other songs in A Little Night Music. At first, St. Cyr was tentative about this, interpolating only a bit of “A Weekend in the Country.” But he decided that if he was going to include one such quotation, he needed to add more. Wutke prodded him to take things even further. This playful segment is one of my favorite parts of the song’s arrangement.

Many of those initial impulses from St. Cyr and Wutke’s improvisations wound up in the final version. Once the arrangement was set, the singer’s biggest challenge was making sure that he had a handle on the tongue-twisting, lung-challenging lyrics. He insisted on putting the song early in the show, so that he’d have the freshest focus possible.

The song was enthusiastically embraced by audiences, and St. Cyr has resurrected it for subsequent shows. He and Wutke call it one of their “jewels.” It always kills.

Playing the Role

During the entire process of building the arrangement, St. Cyr remained intent on putting his own spin on the song. He is a dedicated actor, and his acting skills inform his singing on the cabaret stage. He likes cabaret because it allows him to “stop hiding in someone else’s skin.”

I ask St. Cyr to give me his thoughts on the question of “who can sing what” on today’s musical stages.

“In cabaret, I think it’s a hard line to find,” he says. “It really depends on the content of the lyric. What’s really cool about ‘The Miller’s Son’ is that, in this day and age, there’s nothing in the lyric that says that I could not sing this song or be this character. It’s really all about the options of who I will marry, and what aging is, and how kids and married life and responsibility take some of the adventure out of it all.”

I ask him how he approached this song as an actor? Was he portraying Petra? Playing himself? Fabricating a brand-new character? Or was he just presenting the song to us for a good listen, the way Jolson did with “I’m Just Wild About Harry”?

He says that, for “The Miller’s Son,” his point of view was “me, experiencing the song.” But he grounded the performance in the possibilities for romantic and sexual connection that Sondheim has Petra consider.

“It’s saying these words and accepting the reality of those words, and the possibilities and adventures [presented by] those words.”

For other songs, however, St. Cyr acknowledges that finding the divide between “daring” and “offensive,” between “let’s go for it” and “hold on a sec,” is not so easy.

St. Cyr in performance.

Ordinarily, St. Cyr notes, it would seem impossible for a white vocalist to sing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Old Man River.” But then he found a notable exception: Judy Garland. “Somehow, I hear her sing ‘Old Man River’ and I’m—‘Absolutely!’ There’s something about the absolute pain in her eyes and the appropriate lyric changes that [make it] not offensive.” Watch Judy here.

St. Cyr was influenced by artists who took a presentational attitude toward certain songs in their repertoire. In his youth, he grew to admire the work of such figures as Sammy Davis Jr., Nancy Wilson, and Lena Horne, who would regularly record the Broadway hits of the day, irrespective of whether or not the material was exactly “right” for them as Black artists. St. Cyr admires their openness and adventurous spirit—and he relishes the musical results these vocalists delivered.

“There was something exciting. There was showmanship. Yet also something intensely personal and private and unique every time they took on one of those songs.”

On the other hand, St. Cyr notes that there are certain songs he’s retired from his book in the last year, because “this isn’t where I am now.” He understands the idea of taking responsibility, of “checking in with your gut” in terms of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. That said, he won’t tell other performers whether they should sing a song or not.

Sometimes, he suggests, there’s a need to give things a good push. There’s a need to challenge perceptions, and certain songs help meet that need. In those cases, bravery is in order.

“If something scares me, I tend to say, ‘OK, I’ve got to lean into it.’ If I listen to a piece of music, read a play, or see something that thrills me so much that the idea of doing it scares me because it seems like it might be hard, then I know, well, I guess I’ve got to lean into that feeling. We don’t get better by staying safe. We have to lean into the discomfort.”

He advises singers to find collaborators who can help them make good judgment calls about the risks they may or may not want to take—something he found years ago in Wutke.

“I couldn’t have done these things on my own. I couldn’t have made ‘Miller’s Son’ on my own. Honestly, the idea probably wouldn’t have popped into my head. Having someone to collaborate with, to bounce ideas off of, makes all the difference.”

***

Byron St. Cyr is currently the understudy for the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Scrooge in a production of Mark Shanahan’s A Sherlock Carol at Manhattan’s New World Stages. 

Stay tuned for “Taking a Chance on Songs, Part 2,” in which I’ll speak with singer Meg Flather about her performance of “Lonely Room,” Jud Fry’s song from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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