There are essentially three different ways to sing the Great American Songbook: musical theater, cabaret, and jazz. This week, New Yorkers had a chance to study all three with paragon representatives of each, beginning with Brian Stokes Mitchell at Carnegie Hall, and the openings of long runs by Mary Cleere Haran (at Feinstein's) and Paula West (at the Oak Room). One thing that becomes abundantly clear, even in the purest examples of these, is that the three subgenres of the American Songbook are constantly chafing against one another, rubbing off and interacting.
Mr. Mitchell is probably the most celebrated Broadway leading man of his generation. When, a few years ago, he began doing solo shows at night clubs like Feinstein's and the comparatively intimate Frederick Rose concert hall, Mr. Mitchell made it clear that he was going to do more than sing traditional show tunes in a traditional way, and focused on numbers with a jazz beats, and pop songs as well. In his solo Carnegie debut on Monday, Mr. Mitchell brought the two halves of his performing persona together, singing most of his Broadway arias as a near basso and his pop-oriented pieces in a much higher baritone. His is a thrilling voice, in the great tradition of Alfred Drake and John Raitt, and to hear him do such heavy-duty leading man songs as "My Friend" (from "Sweeney Todd"), "Some Enchanted Evening," and "The Impossible Dream" gives one a charge akin to hearing a great opera singer in full throttle.
Mr. Mitchell's great accomplishment in the jazz-cabaret sphere is his adroit medley of two train songs, "Another Hundred People" and "Take the A Train," in which Stephen Sondheim becomes funky, and a rather pedestrian lyric that somehow got attached to Billy Strayhorn's great melody becomes amazingly elegant. It was riveting to hear him sing this with a full 42-piece orchestra.
Conversely, it's harder to make some of the more intimate numbers work in such a cavernous space. In a smaller room, Mr. Mitchell can transform himself almost magically into a 10-year-old boy in "Hooray for Tom," part of a childhood sequence that culminates in "New Words." Of the smaller-scale pieces, "It Amazes Me," done as a duo with the expert pianist Tedd Firth, was the most effective. Although Mr. Mitchell, who turns 50 this month, has room to grow in this area, the evening overall (which also included duets and huggies with four guest leading ladies, notably Reba McEntire) was a triumph.
At its best, cabaret is a subset of musical theater and jazz, with more up-close intimacy than the former and more talking than the latter. There is no finer exemplar of the art of high cabaret than Mary Cleere Haran. She's been writing and starring in elaborate, one-woman mini-musicals for nearly 20 years in New York, with certain reliable constants, including a refreshing lack of pretentiousness (rare in cabaret). Ms. Haran has a gift for incorporating details from her personal life into each show (this was the first time she didn't mention the nuns who taught her in Catholic school) without acting like she thinks it's all about her. She can also be spittake level funny, muttering punch lines under her breath, Bob Hope-style, to make us pay more attention to them.
Ms. Haran sings mostly legato, but her dialogue is staccato, packing a lot of information into short breaths. For this tribute to überdiva Doris Day (Ms. Haran's first show built around a performer), she weaves a narrative around Ms. Day's career. Backed by piano (Don Rebic), bass (Chip Jackson), and guitar (Lou Hirschorn) in a replication of the Page Cavanaugh Trio, which accompanied Ms. Day at her zenith, Ms. Haran concentrates on the classy songs from Ms. Day's films, eschewing her many novelty hits (except for the zingy "Shanghai").
Like that of her idol, Ms. Haran's singing is sweet, rhythmic, and effortless, and her show makes us feel like we've shared a deep emotional experience.
Just as Mr. Mitchell transformed Carnegie into a Broadway theater, Paula West remakes the Oak Room as a jazz club. It's a crime that neither Ms. Haran nor Ms. West has made an album in at least six years — Ms. West in particular needs to record with the remarkable backup group that has accompanied her for the last two years at the Algonquin, helmed by the sensitive pianist George Mesterhazy and the hard-driving guitarist Ed Cherry. In addition to drawing inspiration from such larger-than-life black foremothers as Ethel Water and Pearl Bailey ("The Goodbye Song"), Ms. West's strength is in reaching beyond the traditional boundaries of the cabaret or jazz songbook. She channels songwriters such as Bob Dylan via a thoroughly reharmonized "Don't Think Twice," and Hank Williams, whose "Jumbalaya" she reconfigures from a country-cajun hybrid into pure rhythm and blues. She does even more for Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Elvis Costello, driving their melodies with an irresistible swing and giving their melodies the same kind of three-dimensionality she brings to Rodgers and Hart.
Repertoire-wise, Ms. West can move in multiple directions. Even as she treats the singer-songwriter movement of the '60s, she continues to exhume the furthest reaches of the '20s and '30s. It's far from unprecedented for a jazz or cabaret singer to take a rock song and make it seem more sophisticated than the original, but what Ms. West does with the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is astonishing; even with the aid of four back-up singers, you don't expect to hear the song re-animated with so much soulfulness as well as subtlety, or for the Oak Room, New York's most famous cathedral to the Songbook, to become a church in the most direct sense. We all left feeling like our souls had been saved.