If Marilyn Maye’s Amazing Musical Ability Isn’t Enough for You, There’s Always Her Shtick

Maye has so many songs in her ‘book’ and so many weapons in her arsenal that she can mix it up plenty. The current set features less in the way of her epic medleys and more that’s on the comparatively quiet side.

Steve Sorokoff
Marilyn Maye at 54 Below. Steve Sorokoff

Marilyn Maye
54 Below
Through November 14

Marilyn Maye loves to see us smile. So much so, that she begins the show by walking through the house. As Ms. Maye looks directly into our faces — often just a few inches away — she then starts to sing about them. First, it’s, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” leading into, “I Love to See You Smile,” and then, “That Face.” (Between Bob Gaudio, Randy Newman, and Alan Bergman, this is also a welcome medley of living songwriters.)

There’s no one alive who shares Marilyn Maye’s amazing musical ability as well as her sense of humor and boundless capacity for old-fashioned shtick, i.e., the bits she does with the audience, her band, or both. In the opening medley, one of the lyrics refers to the wind, at which point her drummer, Eric Halvorson, makes a wind sound effect, assisted by bassist Tom Hubbard. She turns at him and signals that the wind isn’t loud enough, and he dutifully amps it up. What makes this especially notable is that there’s no reference to the wind in Mr. Newman’s lyric, she interjects it just for the purpose of this entertaining bit.

Ms. Maye does a variation on this a few beats later: As she launches into the second segment — her shows, like operas or plays, are divided into a sequence of acts. The preoccupation with our punims extends into “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Faces.” The sight change in lyrics triggers a laugh from the crowd, which covers over her segway between acts. 

Like the late Tony Bennett, Ms. Maye is one of the major geniuses of very literal interpretation: When she sings “Get Happy” — not in this show, but it’s a signature of hers — and comes to the line, “Sing hallelujah, c’mon get happy,” the whole trio comes to a standstill until everyone in the house sings, “Hallelujah.”

In “Accustomed to His Face,” she quickly gets to “his ups, his downs,” and now it’s one of pianist Tedd Firth’s many moments to engage in a bit with her. When she sings “up,” he goes up the keyboard; when she sings “down,” he heads in the opposite direction, but evidently it’s not down enough for her. So she repeats the word a few times, and at each instance he dives lower and lower into the bass clef. This gets a major laugh from the house, but it’s still not enough; she pauses and makes a one-word comment on her own sense of humor, “Cheap.” Needless to say, that gets the biggest laugh of all.

In general, this is a more thoughtful, introspective set — Ms. Maye has so many songs in her “book” and so many weapons in her arsenal that she can mix it up plenty. She started the year at Birdland, then played 54 Below in April, and also headlined at three major celebrations for her 95th birthday — the topper of which was her epic solo debut concert at Carnegie Hall, backed by the New York Pops. After all these shows, she hasn’t come anywhere close to exhausting either her repertoire or her audience.

The current set features less in the way of her epic medleys and more that’s on the comparatively quiet side — not that her chops weren’t up to it; she shoots for those high notes, then hits ’em and holds ’em. She delivers a slow and funky “I’ve Got the World on a String,” making it sound more like one of composer Harold Arlen’s many blues numbers. 

Then there’s a sequence of several songs by Steve Allen, the man she credits with getting her out of the Midwest and onto the national scene 60 years ago, his wistful ballad “I Love You Today,” and “The Start of Something Big.” The latter is invariably loud and punchy, like a Vegas opener, but Ms. Maye delivered it in parlando, talking the lyrics in rhythm and pitch, almost like Rex Harrison. “Joey, Joey, Joey,” from “Most Happy Fella,” is an interior monologue set to music, which led to “Luck be a Lady,” rendered as a low-key jazz waltz.  

There was no truly larger-than-life ballad, like “Fifty Percent” or “Guess Who I Saw Today”; instead, she delivered an intimate subset of very personal love songs, “Ev’ry Time,” and and a seasonal sequence of “Lazy Afternoon,” “Autumn in New York, “Autumn Leaves,” and “When October Goes.”  

Then there’s another end-of-summer song, “Bye Bye Country Boy,” by Blossom Dearie and Jack Segal; I have long suspected that Ms. Maye holds this 3/4 number in reserve, just waiting for that moment when she wants to prove again that she can break every heart in the house whenever she wants.

Ms. Maye typically ends her sets with James Taylor’s “Secret o’ Life,” followed by “Here’s to Life.” When other singers — apart from the late Shirley Horn and Joe Williams — do the latter, I wish they wouldn’t; they make you feel like it’s a celebration of the self, what I call a “Victory Lap” song akin to the dreaded “My Way.” Yet, when Marilyn Maye sings, “Here’s to life, here’s to love, here’s to you,” she really makes us feel like it’s been about us all along.

The New York Sun

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