Interview: Billy Stritch
Liza, the White House and a celebration of one of Broadway's greatest composers
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He's played in countries around the world for Liza Minnelli, performed at the White House for both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and is a massive fan of Sonny and Cher. But what else do you need to know about Billy Stritch before he brings his new show I've Got Your Number - The Jazz of Cy Coleman to London's iconic cabaret and jazz venue The Crazy Coqs? Well, we were on hand to find out.
What first inspired you to get into performing?
Well, I've been playing the piano for as long as I can remember, but when I played in the third grade talent show and got applause for the first time I was hooked! I knew from that point that performing was going to be the life for me.
You've performed with some of the biggest names in the business, can you pinpoint your favourite and why?
I've been lucky to work with some of the greatest singers in the world and have enjoyed a 22-year collaboration with Liza Minnelli, so I'd have to say she is my favourite of them all. I also loved the experience of working with Charles Aznavour in Paris, as well as great theatre legends like Chita Rivera, Bea Arthur and Tommy Tune.
What would you say is both your best and worst performance to date and why?
Performing at the White House for Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush was a thrill and certainly among the most memorable experiences, as well as the month I spent with Liza at the legendary Palace Theatre on Broadway. As far as the worst performance, I'm sure there have been some but I've really blocked them out.
Who would you most like to perform for or with?
Again, I love performing with Liza, but I also love playing and accompanying singers at the cast party open mic nights at New York's Birdland. You never know who's going to show up to sing on any given Monday, and it really keeps me on my toes.
Where do you prefer to work - stage or screen?
I haven't done much work on screen, although I did have a really fun experience onscreen in the second Sex and the City film. I'd have to say I do prefer live performing because it's immediate and spontaneous and there's nothing like the thrill of the audience's reaction.
What inspires you to write a show to celebrate someones work or career, and how do you decide what form the story takes?
I created a show a few years back that celebrated the music of Mel Tormé, which was fun and easy to put together because there was such a wealth of wonderful material to choose from. The only obstacle was trying to hone it down to 75 minutes. When I celebrate a performer or composer, I always try to concentrate on the music and not - in the case of Mel - do any sort of imitation. I also try to get in just enough background information without overloading it with facts and dates. For me, the music tells the story and speaks for itself.
What did you do to get in the mind frame of Cy and to select which of his works to put into the show?
I was fortunate to meet Cy back in 1991 and, because he was a pianist as well, we really hit it off right away. I used to go to his office and just hang out sometimes, and we'd play for each other. He was amazingly prolific and incredibly generous and I'm grateful that he encouraged me as much as he did. His musical vocabulary is very rooted in jazz, so it really resonates with me. I was also part of a musical revue of his music that played off-Broadway in 1991, and hopefully my co-collaborator David Zippel and I will get a chance to bring it to London sometime soon.
What's your musical guilty pleasure?
I love many kinds of music and don't think of any of it as a guilty pleasure. I do freely admit that I was a huge fan of Sonny and Cher when I was a kid and she is still one of my all-time favourites. She always finds new ways to reinvent herself and has a terrific attitude about herself and showbiz in general. I also love Lady Gaga.
You have a pretty busy schedule how do you manage to fit all that in and create new material?
It's not always easy, and luckily I have a lot of shows throughout the year with Liza and other singers as well, so when I'm asked to create a new show for myself I basically have to book the show way in advance and then I have that goal to work toward. That's the case with this new show at Crazy Coqs. I was asked back in March or April and we settled on this week in October, so I knew that regardless of what else was on my calendar I would have a new show to present and a certain amount of time to put it together. This week at Crazy Coqs will be the premiere of the Coleman show and I'm delighted to present it in London first!
If you weren't doing this job now, is there anything else in the world you'd love to do?
I'm not really certain I have any discernible talents in any areas besides music, although I sometimes think I'd make a pretty good therapist. Also, I really love dogs and would probably do well in something dog-related.
Billy Stritch's I've Got Your Number runs at The Crazy Coqs from Tuesday, October 15th, until Saturday, October 19th. Shows start at 8pm. Tickets are priced at £25 each, and you can book online by visiting www.brasseriezedel.com/crazy-coqs.
Photo by Shannon Lee Parker