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Inside her new cabaret at 54 Below
Recently, on a chilly April afternoon in her downtown studio/office, Broadway veteran Melissa Errico prepared for At the Corner of 54th & Crazy, the cabaret she'll perform tonight and Thursday-Saturday at 54 Below.
As she set up her music stand and shuffled through loads of sheet music, she was relaxed but focused in that striking NYC power-mom way, laughing while sharing anecdotes about her young daughters. But when she started singing, Errico transformed, replacing the casual parent in yoga pants with a fully committed performer.
Rehearsing "No More," the usually-male duet from Into the Woods, her head seemed to dip back instinctively with ecstatic energy before her eyes focused intently ahead. She swayed when the tune swelled, and her voice, somehow both earthy and ethereal, lent an almost magical richness to the song's melancholy story.
A few moments later she presented a third self, the intent scholar, when she stopped to discuss the thorny lyrics, working through a slew of ideas with accompanist Tedd Firth.
Errico will present all her facets in her cabaret, which will mix well-known favorites and lesser-known tunes, all within a rotating set list to render each show dynamic and unique. "What I love about cabaret rules is that there are no rules," she says. "I'll be telling theatre war stories, as it wouldn't be a Broadway career without disasters. And as a mother of three kids under seven, married to a traveling husband, you need a sense of humor. But when you have a home life, you realize how bumpy show business is. It's all crazy. And wonderful. This is my way of telling my story. That's where the title of the show came from."
The daughter of a pianist, Errico often listened to her father at the famed Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. She started her own career not only by being signed to a major record label, but also by performing at Café Carlyle and Birdland, as well as downtown with her brother.
This legacy of musicianship, plus years on Broadway in hits and misses alike, have now led Errico to create her production with a renewed focus on storytelling. "I've wound my way back and returned to the core of my interest in theatre," she says. "That's not to say I don't appreciate a tasty jazz player or rhythm somewhere: I was a nightclub rat, and I want my kids to experience that, too---seeing mommy in her crazy pantyhose and lipstick. But I'm not trying to make a musical statement like I was when I was single and downtown. Now, I'm going back to my roots as an actress, with a lot more life experience."
Errico has chosen songs that resonate deeply with her personal life. "The Boy Next Door," for example, holds multiple meanings. "When I think about this song, I look at the life of an actor: how we're always falling in and out of love with a composer or a song," she explains. "But there are some things that are with you forever, and for me, this is one of those, since I've been singing it since I was 12. I was young and infatuated with Judy Garland, and the way Vincent Minnelli shot that movie [Meet Me in St. Louis], you could see he was in love with her. I remember appreciating seeing that, and it still touches me in all those ways."
Meanwhile, "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, reconnects Errico with a favorite personality type. "I'm attracted to eccentric people, especially being one myself," she laughs. "I love reinventing the complex story of complex people, in my own context: I want to be a good mom. I want to be in a show. I'm pulling myself together to audition. You find yourself in two lives, trying to be one person. This represents where I'm at, questions I'm asking myself, and it lights me up."
To keep the show lively, Errico and her director, Richard Jay-Alexander, have added several surprising song choices and interpretations. "Richard helps me to avoid anything that's obvious," she says. "As in, I won't be singing 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' after a life of being associated with Julie Andrews." (Early in her career Errico starred in a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady as Eliza Doolittle, a role that Andrews originated.) "Instead, I'm doing a surprising version of 'Feed the Birds,' and [Richard] was the one who thought of an offbeat way to acknowledge my own charity work in a way that touches me."
Jay-Alexander also pushed Errico to embrace the heartbreak inherent in show biz. With that in mind, she has prepared a song from Passion, a production she starred in about a year ago. It was an experience that rendered her both overjoyed and devastated. (She suffered vocal health issues and was replaced for the end of the run.) "Passion was the greatest experience of my career," she says. "Hurting my voice and leaving the show was the hardest thing that ever happened to me."
Pausing for a moment, she smiles. "But I feel great, and really, the overriding emotion of everything in this show looking back---and looking forward---is gratitude. Each night I will be feeling grateful to be there, singing."
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City