In Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” Amanda irreverently announces, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” Marin Mazzie is currently proving just how potent it can be in her cabaret act at New York’s 54 Below, which runs from January 22 through 26. Coming from a three-time Tony nominee (“Ragtime,” “Passion,” “Kiss Me, Kate”), you might expect show tunes to dominate the act, which Mazzie has put together with director Scott Burkell. Or even a song or two from a recent venture: her role as the Bible-spouting mother in the musical “Carrie.” But the emotional markers on this autobiographical journey are the top-40 tunes that were emanating from the radio in the Rockford, Illinois, home in which the Broadway belter grew up. That means re-interpreting a wide range of pop hits, including Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England,” and the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic, “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Mazzie even manages to sneak in a little bit of TV’s “The Partridge Family” nostalgia with “I Think I Love You.” The singer and actress spoke with ARTINFO’s Patrick Pacheco about mining the emotional complexities of deceptively simple songs.
Noel Coward notwithstanding, do you think these songs are underrated?
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to take these songs that you listen to as pop tunes on the radio and I wanted to deconstruct them and show what great songs they are, to make people look at them a little differently. Like “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” It’s simple yet such a fantastic song, and so timely. It’s about standing up for yourself, living your life, freely and openly, and having the right to do so. I looked at the songs of Janis Ian and Carly Simon, too. They’re profound in their own way. And that’s what makes them so memorable.
Did any one sound define the period for you?
Well, I do go back to my parents’ era, to songs they danced to. “That’s All” and “Tenderly.” My dad managed a television station and my mom loved music, so the radio was always on. There were many different sounds but the Bacharach-David songs are really definitive of that time. And Tom Jones.
We loved Tom Jones! Still do. A sexy, sexy man and sexy performer. He sings and you know there’s something going on behind it. He sang a lot of the Bacharach-David songs. I was a kid watching the “Tom Jones Show” with my mom and we’d joke about throwing our underwear at the TV set! [laughs]
Is it the operatic emotion that attracts you?
Yes. Lots of people have great voices but if there’s no emotional connection, no interpretation to a lyric, then it doesn’t matter how great your voice is.
How do you make that connection on a Bacharach-David song like “Anyone Who Had A Heart”?
I approach any song from an acting standpoint, finding things in my life to apply to a song. I could relate to that song. Not when I first heard it as a kid but in my later years, post-high school, post-college… having had really horrible relationships. Being screwed over by someone in my life, not being able to leave the sickness of that relationship, recalling that, and putting that on a song.
What was the biggest surprise in putting the act together?
Scott and I became really excited about “Weekend in New England,” the Barry Manilow song. I don’t want to make a generalization but some people might think it’s “corny” or “schmaltzy.” And we discovered it as a really powerhouse song.
In going back to your youth, did you learn anything about yourself?
Even when I was young, around 10 or 11, I loved the complex emotions behind these songs. Hearing these songs about love lost, I always played into them even though I hadn’t experienced that. I wondered how it would happen and asked myself how I’d react.
Do you think that emotional precocity is something that actors have in common?
As actors, I think that’s just ingrained in you. You start exploring and being interested in other people’s lives, emotions, and scenarios. You start thinking about the neighbors that you went to visit as a kid, this one woman who was alcoholic, who had [a lot of] kids, and she just couldn’t cope. You become so aware of just how much it takes for some people to just get through a day. And that’s juxtaposed against your own growing up, listening to music that’s just sexy and fun, like “Midnight in the Oasis,” and the joy of being a kid.