Jimmy Webb on His Love of Cabaret, Its Traditions, Its Venues, Its Intimacy: A Conversation with the Bistro Awards’ 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree

May 1, 2022 | By

It was a special treat to be able to interview one of my two favorite songwriters (the other being a certain Mr. Sondheim) in advance of his receiving the 2022 ASCAP–Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to helping me get to know the man, the interview evolved into a kind of retrospective on the great clubs and cabarets of Manhattan’s past, which seems fitting.

GG As you’re about to get back on the road touring, I wanted to know how COVID and quarantines and lockdowns have affected both your performance and your writing process in the last two years.

JW Well, in March of 2020 I came off the road, and there was a whole uproar on TV and the Internet, and I said to [my wife] Laura that I think this is more than just a passing thing. We were booked solid, and I wondered if we should start taking precautions. Two days went by, and I got a call from my UK agent saying that they needed to postpone a tour I had booked, and then it became an avalanche or rainstorm of postponed engagements. No one ever canceled on me, but they were all referred to very politely as “postponements.” Within a week my schedule was blank. I think a lot of artists either reacted or they were proactive, but one way or the other we all stopped working. I have done twelve gigs since March this year, and I am gradually picking up, even though there’s still a lot of ambiguity out there. For instance, I have played for audiences that were vaxxed and masked, and I have played for audiences which have done nothing whatsoever.

Jimmy Webb / Photo: Henry Diltz

Backstage, I have been pretty strict about people moving around. They wear masks, and I close my dressing room and I don’t do autographs or photos. You know, back in the day, Gerry, I spent more time with my fans out front than I did on the stage, literally. I loved that. That was really an important part of my life. I took a lot of energy from it. I love my fans.  I loved that they loved me, and it was feedback that I really needed. I didn’t realize how much I was going to miss it, but a year and a half into this thing I was feeling—Christ, I’m going to kill myself if I don’t play for somebody. 

GG Did your writing continue? Did it make up for some of that loss?

JW It did get me back to writing, but it wasn’t like, “Okay, let’s switch to writer mode and we’ll write a bunch of hit songs!” It’s not that easy and in fact the sameness, the monotony, the pounding drumbeat of COVID, COVID, COVID was kind of stultifying in a way, creatively. I wrote about a half dozen songs toward a new album, and I’m still working on those. I did a lot of note-taking for the second volume of my memoirs. I did think a lot about the whole process of performing. [I’ve looked] at performing in two ways. Stage one was me trying to cut hit albums and compete with Elton John and do these expensive, highly produced projects, then following them up with tours, playing with a band. The last one I did like that was Suspending Disbelief, which Linda Ronstadt produced with George Massenburg. About the same time, my friend Harry Nilsson died. That’s kind of a line of demarcation for my performing. 

I was working in New York with Michael Bennett. My songs became much more sophisticated. As you well know, Broadway pieces are often meant to advance the plot, so they aren’t really songs in the sense of pop songs. They are a different animal. Sometimes you get a crossbreed like Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” and it will work in both milieus but, by and large, if you write 14 songs for a Broadway show and the show doesn’t open, those songs go into a closet and never come out. 

GG Let me ask you about that because, particularly for our audience, the stories surrounding your shows with Michael Bennett—Scandal and Children’s Crusade—have reached mythological proportions. Is there any thought of recording what exists?

JW I don’t like to go into too much detail. It’s very, very unpleasant. I loved [Michael] with all my heart, and I think the feeling was somewhat mutual. When everything fell apart—and it fell apart because of HIV—we were a week from technical rehearsals on Scandal when he closed it down. There were 150 people working on that show. When he dissipated his assets in New York and headed for Arizona, he specifically endowed me with all the musical rights to Scandal, so the music still exists and, in fact, the choreography still exists, because the lead dancers are still alive and all the choreography was completed, including a ménage à trois—a pas de trois if you will. It was going to be terribly sexy, which really worked against releasing it at that critical time. He gave me all the rights just to make sure there would be no contest in the future for the music from it and from Children’s Crusade, which he was going to do at Madison Square Garden. He had a square model of the Garden on his desk about six feet long and all these little people that he moved around inside. That’s how far along that was. It was going to be like Orlando Furioso, like street theatre. The audience would be invited to put on costumes and join the show. It was way out beyond what anyone had dreamed of doing. This was before Cirque du Soleil. It was going to be something quite brilliant. 

With a superhuman effort, and deep pockets, someone could resurrect Scandal. Treva Silverman would be essential; she wrote it quite brilliantly. It was very funny, and we had the perfect stars like Swoosie Kurtz. It looked like a winner. 

Photo: Sasa Tkalcan/Helsinki Festival

It was about that time I started to do cabaret in New York. It was divorced from that period of trying to compete with Elton John. The universe had not been working with me on that part of my life, but I found a home in cabaret. I remember the first shows were at Jan Wallman’s. I think there were about 60 seats. There was a tiny bar, and you went through a curtain into the showroom—about as big as my living room. I loved it, and I immediately got a charge out of being that close to people. I always loved the smaller audiences. I mean a hundred thousand times better than the big audience. I could have my way with the smaller audience; I had a kind of knack for it. I always played Jan Wallman’s in the winter, and I remember walking out after a show with a warm feeling inside and the snowflakes landing on my black overcoat and loving New York and loving to be in New York. Like the song says, it was enough. And then I played The Ballroom several times when that was still a mecca. I did well; I always did good business in NY. I did pretty much a residency at the Algonquin. I was devastated when they closed that down. I loved being part of that history—the Round Table and all that. 

Then I worked at what was probably the artists’ favorite venue in NY if you took a poll – The Bottom Line. There was something about that place: the position of the stage and the 180 degrees of the audience. And the bar was in the show room, which was cooler than hell. But, in the same breath, I have to say the toilet was in the dressing room. It was the worst dressing room in NY—no question. But I endlessly played there and went there to see other people.  I wouldn’t miss a Warren Zevon appearance. Virtually everyone played there. It had a great historical feel to it. It had a great Village feel to it. You didn’t know what you were going to get. It could be very sophisticated, or it could be very raw. It could be simple 12-bar blues or it could be cerebral rock like Zevon. I have nothing but fond memories. These were places I had an emotional connection with. Just after 9/11, I started playing Feinstein’s at the Regency—again, a small room. I did shows with Glen Campbell there, with Paul Williams, with The Fifth Dimension. Then, finally, they trusted me to do the room myself. I did that for a long time and sadly I was eventually part of the contingent of people, including Liz Callaway and other close friends, who closed the place down. I remember being on the stage and looking at the clock on the back wall. Everyone who played there remembers that clock. It wasn’t there on purpose; it was part of the breakfast décor. That place was torn down every night after the shows. The stage came down, the piano came down. All the trappings of a nightclub were erased, and in the morning it opened as a diner for the hotel. At night, like magic, the stage would reappear. The Regency had a touch of class that appealed to me, and I became very close friends with Michael Feinstein—[a friendship] which continues to this day. I went on to have great shows at The Cutting Room, the biggest place I played in NY. It had a nice stage and footlights and an arched proscenium. It had an even worse dressing room than The Bottom Line. The waiters would come through with trays of food, saying, “Excuse me….” It was hysterical and just perfect.

Sadly, I haven’t played New York since COVID, and I am anxious to do it again. I do concerts around the world, and it is immensely reassuring to me at 75 to see all those warm bottoms in the seats. I can come out and banter with the people as if we are best friends, and in some way we are best friends. I am also emotionally connected to the old Cinegrill in Los Angeles. People would say, “Why are you playing this old hotel? You could be playing at blah, blah, blah…” and I would say, “Why would I want to play anywhere else but the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where sometimes I could look up during my show and see Marilyn Monroe sitting at the bar?” That’s what I love about cabaret. I love the tradition of cabaret, and the more that is done to erode the traditions of cabaret, the more harm is done to it. It’s something I never intended to do, but I look back on my life and think that one of the most rewarding slices of the pie was this little career that came along in these types of venues. 

GG One last question. I am a big fan of your film work. I especially like Voices and The Last Unicorn. Is there any thought of collecting your movie scores and songs in album form?

 JW I think you’re the only one who’s ever thought of that. 

GG It’s a great body of work that I think people would appreciate if they knew it was there.

JW The first thing I’ll do after we hang up is I’ll tell Laura. We have had some really great success with vinyl lately. I don’t know if you have seen my new vinyl album, SlipCover, which is also on CD. 

GG I was listening to it yesterday!

JW It’s a beautiful record. It’s a visit to the past, really. A full-size LP with my self-portrait—yes, I said self-portrait—on the cover, and it’s my attempt to identify the Great American Songbook Part Two. It’s all piano arrangements; I have never done instrumentals before but that’s what this is. I do Billy Joel, I do McCartney, I do Randy Newman, I do Zevon, I do Mike Brown, who wrote “Pretty Ballerina” for the Left Banke. I do Stevie Wonder. I did “Moonlight Mile” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, which sounds a bit like [Erik] Satie. I emphasized the classical references wherever I could, to show off the fact that these people were real composers and not just rock-and-roll icons or whatever. They are beautiful compositions that could have been written by Harold Arlen or Yip Harburg or any of the greats that preceded us in the Great American Songbook. The record is 99.9% vinyl, and it’s a beautiful pale blue color and every album has a different design on the vinyl. It looks beautiful. 

GG Thank you, Jimmy, and congratulations on your award. 


Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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