The small room at Don’t Tell Mama in New York’s theater district was packed one Spring day 9 years ago. Marilyn Maye, then 85 was and still is the sweetheart of New York’s bustling cabaret circuit, shared her humor, talent and wisdom in stage performance with a dozen or so participants for five hours each day. In addition others – including an enthusiastic 90-year-old fan from Maye’s hometown, Kansas City, wearing a KC baseball cap – audited the day long class. Even rock singer Helen Reddy stopped by .
It’s apparent that Maye, who’s performed her entire life, loves sharing what she does. “I have to pass on what I know, the nuts and bolts,” she told me. Each participant provides Maye with a lyric sheet and performs two songs on stage accompanied by Barry Levitt on piano. “I’m all about the lyric; I’m all about the audience,” explains Maye. She gives tips on using the microphone: “It’s your best friend. Don’t grasp it.” She also shares tips on head and hand position: “There’s no energy in hanging hands.” She doesn’t just tell the audience, she gets up and demonstrates. Her techniques are effective. She shows them how “You can be a jazzer and still communicate the meaning of the song.”
She imparts wisdom in all aspects of stage performance from the more technical to physical appearance. “You need to be with your audience continually,” she asserts. The outspoken Maye says it like it is. “I hate bar stools except at a bar, not on stage,” says Maye. “Don’t sit down because everything goes down too. Fat is not attractive; cover it.” She told one woman to remove her animal print scarf and another to wear dark makeup and not to forget lashes. She even offered to teach her how to put them on. “Lashes give you expression you don’t have. Get them at the drugstore.” She advises, “Eyes are a great communicator; sing into their eyes.”
Maye is supportive and offers encouragement to her students. “Stay calm, honey,” she tells one as she asks Levitt to play it again a half tone up. She marks up lyrics changing words to fit the performer. And with another participant, “Get your words in your DNA; we’re talking phrasing, kids.” She again approaches the stage like the wise grande dame sharing well earned stage wisdom. “Honey, I love it that you’re smiling but open your mouth. You can get better tones.” And adds, “You sing with your ear and your mouth. Listen to yourself.”
Even Maye is still learning. “Their performance shows me the things that I need to convey to them,” she told me. “It’s so second nature to me, it’s automatic. This makes me think about it and break it down.” She closed the class singing Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You” a couple different ways to drive home the differences in performance. And with her accumulated wisdom “We have the luxury of doing personal communication in a night club. We can tell the people we love them.”
Maye, who does private coaching as well as master classes, turns 94 today. She’s currently starring in “94, Of Course There’s More” at 54 Below in NYC. Marilyn Maye IS truly a master class. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this nonagenarian’s inspiring performance on the cabaret stage.