By Tom Stajmiger   Published Feb 19, 2002 at 5:29 AM

Welcome back to Theater around Town, my new column here on Each month I interview theater artists working in the Milwaukee area and bring you their stories. This month I talk with one of the world's top cabaret stars, Ann Hampton Callaway.

Ms. Callaway will perform with cabaret superstar Amanda McBroom February 22-23 in the gorgeous Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Michele Brourman is the Music Director for these performances. Ms. Callaway and Ms. McBroom will also teach a cabaret performance master class while in town.

Ms. Callaway, a multiple winner of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Award, as well as a Tony Award nominee, is one of the most widely-acclaimed singer/songwriters working in pop/jazz today.


Her sold out Milwaukee performances last August were unanimously praised by the critics, including Elaine Schmidt, who wrote in the daily paper, "She gets audience members laughing between numbers, but she absolutely mesmerizes them when she begins to sing."

In addition to her Broadway debut run in the musical "Swing," for which she received the 2000 Theatre World's Outstanding Broadway Debut award, the Chicago-area native's many credits include the theme song to the television series "The Nanny" and the lyrics to the song Barbra Streisand sang to James Brolin at their wedding. She is also the only composer recognized by Cole Porter's estate as having collaborated with the esteemed composer by having set her music to his posthumously-discovered lyric, "I Gaze in Your Eyes." Callaway is also the winner of ASCAP's "Johnny Mercer Songwriting Award."

The following is a conversation I recently held with Ann.

OMC: You are a Chicago-area native. What was your family like? How did that influence your career?

AC: I grew up in a very musical family. My mother Shirley is now a prominent vocal coach to Broadway and cabaret performers in New York but has always been a wonderful singer and pianist. I always heard her performing great standards, show tunes and classical songs in our home. She did club work, private engagements and sang with the Chicago Symphony Chorus in numerous concerts in their heyday years and those are nights that inspired me deeply.

At one point, I wanted to be an opera singer and studied many years to develop my craft. My father passed down his love of jazz to me. As a child I learned to scat sing from him and developed a keen appreciation of the great jazz singers and instrumentalists from his record collection, inspired by the hip jukebox of his hangout, Figaro's. My dad, John, a well known journalist who started in radio news and went on to become one of television's finest interviewers, gave me his rhyming dictionary when I was 10 and I still use it to this day when writing songs. He gave me my passion for writing and helped shape the way I think about things, keeping a fire under my quest for knowledge and my curiosity about life.

My sister Liz and I are grateful that our parents never forced us to do things. They inspired us simply by their own enthusiasm. We were taken to shows and concerts from an early age and were always supported in our own efforts to perform. I started writing songs when I received a guitar for Christmas when I was ten. That same year Liz and I were given piano lessons. I'm grateful I learned to play the piano like my mother because it guarantees me independence as an artist -- I can play and sing anywhere in the world and while I love singing with jazz trios, big bands and symphony orchestras, there is something powerful about the intimacy of a solo performance.

I was also privileged to go to New Trier East High School, which had a phenomenal performing arts department and got to star in many shows and learn about the craft of acting, which I majored in at U of I. It was a great childhood to become who I am today.

OMC: Did you spend any time in Wisconsin as a child? Have you ever performed in Wisconsin?

AC: Many favorite vacations as a child took place in Wisconsin. Also, I was conceived in Wisconsin and so it has a special place in my heart. We went to the Dells a lot. My dad and his wife currently have a place in Racine so it will continue to be a place to come to relax and enjoy. I am excited to return to Milwaukee where my cabaret debut last season was such a joy. I found the theater scene superb and the audiences absolute heaven.

OMC: How does your Midwestern upbringing help you to prepare for a Milwaukee audience?

AC: Being a fellow Midwesterner will hopefully be an asset when I perform in Milwaukee. I'm proud to be from the heartlands. We all share a certain sense of humor that will make for a hopefully easy rapport. Even though I've lived in New York for a long time, I have kept my friendly spirit. I look people in the eye and say hello. I refuse to become a cynic; it's against my roots.

OMC: Has going to New York helped you as a singer? If so, how?

AC: Moving to New York was a great boom to my career. While it is a challenging city to live in, it is clearly the mecca for jazz, cabaret and theater and its opportunities and sense of artistic community are invaluable to me. I have met and performed for, and with, some of the finest artists of our time and that has both educated me and given me a place in the music business that I am very grateful for. That is not to say that New York is the only place to have a career. There is great art everywhere in the world and part of what I love about all the traveling I do is discovering the wonderful artists who make their homes in places besides New York.

OMC: The Milwaukee area is new to cabaret. If you were to describe what a cabaret performance is, what would you say?

AC: Cabaret is an intimate, personal, flexible art form. Artists of all kinds of music perform in cabaret spaces and because of the physical closeness with an audience, the emotional connection is easier. I hope when the audience leaves my show they feel that they perhaps arrived as strangers and left as friends. I share my heart and soul with my audience. They will have opportunities to laugh, cry and relive the first time they fell in love and other such momentous moment of their lives.

Music has the power to heal, awaken, restore and inspire. I live by the creed stated by Paul Valery, "Art is the collaboration between God and the artist. The less the artist does, the better." So while I hope my personal style of singing jazz standards and "Ann-dards" (my own compositions) is entertaining, it comes from a spiritual place and will hopefully touch people as well as delight them. And spontaneity is the order of the day, so while Milwaukee audiences may be more used to more structured musicals and revues, they will enjoy the part they play in keeping things loose and fresh in cabaret performances.

OMC: You have performed live on the Broadway stage, sang in large concert halls, played in small clubs, and made several recordings. Which is your favorite medium? What most draws you to perform in smaller cabaret venues, as opposed to larger concert halls?

AC: I love performing in all these venues and while it is perhaps most thrilling to be singing at Carnegie Hall or on a Broadway stage, there is something magical about being in a small cabaret. It is the emotional connection that you feel. I try to keep that intimacy standard wherever I perform, which gave my debut on Broadway a uniqueness, but it is easier to accomplish in small room where you can look into the eyes of a young couple and sing to them the words of love you know they are feeling for each other.

OMC: How do you choose your music for a cabaret performance? Is it the same from show to show?

AC: I choose songs first from their lyrical content. Their words must be imaginative and say something I need to say. And the music must be something that excites me. I like a song that builds a world where you can live in and that tells a story you can enter and play a part in. It needs to have a beginning, middle and end and take you somewhere you weren't at before you heard it. If it has wisdom, all the better. Irony, bravo. If it's sexy, I'm interested.

I weave these songs together so that they become a journey. Some of my shows have stated themes, some do not. But you always learn who I am and what is important to me from them. Some shows are set but if I'm doing a solo show, I keep it loose in case something inspires me in all that closeness.

OMC: How did your show with Amanda McBroom come about? What can we expect to see in this show?

AC: The show with Amanda came about from an opportunity in L.A. at USC. We'd been friends for years and fans of each other's singing and songwriting so we jumped at the chance of putting an act together.

I got to spend some time with Amanda at her home and enjoyed our creative process immensely. Working with her collaborator, the brilliant songwriter Michele Brourman, at the piano has also been very satisfying. We made use of time that I was in L.A. to do my solo show and tried songs out and came up with moments that bridge our styles and sensibilities well. It was fun writing a song with Amanda for the act "The Diva Song" which is a spoof of what we singers get called a lot these days. We've performed our act twice in L.A. and once in New York at the 92nd Street Y and the response has been tremendous.

We open with two duets and then do our solo sets closing the show with duets of original songs we lovingly call Ann-dards and Amand-ards. Our encore is a rousing rendition of Amanda's hit, "The Rose," which Michele sings on as well. There's an emphasis on us as songwriters, which gives the evening a very personal quality. The audience comes away with a real sense of who we are after traversing the alphabet of emotions from A to B.

OMC: I understand that you have a new CD coming out this month? Tell us about the CD. Will it be available for sale at your shows here?

AC: I'll be doing a song or two from my upcoming CD "Signature," which is a collection of signature songs of the great pop/jazz singers who inspired me. It comes out February 26 but I'm expecting to have some advance copies to sell at the show.

OMC: You're so well known on the cabaret circuit, but to some of the public you are best known as the woman who wrote and sang the theme song to the television show "The Nanny." How do feel about the progression of your career thus far? What would you still like to accomplish?

AC: I feel very blessed to be doing what I love, singing and writing. And I'm so grateful I have never needed to do anything else to support myself. I've had many of my dreams come true but there are plenty more still to be realized. It is sometimes challenging being one of the "keepers of the flame" in a time that favors other kinds of music, but I wouldn't do it differently. The world deserves timeless, expressive music and as long as I live I'm going to sing it and try to write it. I hope to reach more and more people in my concerts and recordings. And I hope to inspire the next generation to keep the flame alive.

Some of my goals are to do a one woman show on Broadway, to do a book show on Broadway, to have a TV show (which may be happening on PBS this year), to write a musical, to write a catalogue of songs that lives up to my highest standards as a writer, and to keep getting deeper and more true as a singer. I feel so lucky to be alive. When I grow up, I want to be the kind of singer that makes you feel lucky to be alive too, when you hear great music coming out of me.

To order tickets to the Ann Hampton Callaway and Amanda McBroom performances, call (414) 291-7800. For more information on these performances or the master class, call (414) 479-2773.

Tom Stajmiger is a long time performer in the Milwaukee area and Artistic Director of Stepping Out Productions.