NiteLife Person of the Week, Lennie Watts, launching Singnasium Project with May 16 Event

BY ROB LESTER****Want to get voice and career “in shape”?  The new place to “work out” will be at a Singnasium.  On Tuesday, May 16, come learn about and help kick off this new not-for-profit/ all-in-one place to learn, grow, and develop. And, since the new NYC venture, the brainchild of NiteLife Person of the Week Lennie Watts, is all about music, you’ll get plenty of entertainment in the kick-off event from those associated with the teaching and resource center — and a few talented friends, like Broadway veteran Sally Mayes. The benefit/ information-spreading night on Tuesday — taking place at the Laurie Beechman Theatre inside the West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42 Street, is just the first public “We’re here!” celebration situation to present information and music, music, music.  It’s billed as “an old-fashioned barn-raising” (with fundraising and awareness-raising implied, with a side of music).  It sounds like a great night and the whole big endeavor sounds better and better the more I learn about it in a sit-down meeting.  

Singnasium will have a scholarship component, outreach programs to schools, mentorships, practical “How To” programs, small classes with individual attention, different levels, auditions for placement, and new ideas brewing from staff brainstorming, with donations already coming in—not to mention (but I will) terrific prizes for Tuesday’s raffle, ranging from a night on Broadway to a week at a beachfront condo, from fabulous flowers to fireworks (V.I.P. seats at the annual Macy’s July 4 extravaganza).  Speaking of fireworks, the whole thing sounds like it’s exploding with bright new ideas.  I was eager to sit down with the organization’s organizing head for head-start on learning more about the learning that will be happening.

As a line in the musical The Fantasticks puts it: “You wonder how these things begin.”

An eager and upbeat Mr. Watts told me, “It started in October when I sat down with a couple of people and told them what I wanted to do.” They were people he trusted, respected, and wanted involved. “I guess it really began with a meeting in December.  We approached the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.  The 501(c)3 non-profit arrangements, E.I.N. [Employment Identification Number, for tax status], incorporating, setting up bylaws — they do all that. They called us back right around the holidays.”  And soon they were, literally, starting to be “in business.”  As he talked, I saw a more serious and pensive look on and a change in voice tone.  The often offhand old hand at teaching has something new on his hands: moving into a more formal set-up, rather than what he experienced for years as a freelancing independent contractor and director/teacher/coach for hire. “It started to feel real, when I found myself on the phone with lawyers.  And I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”  His dream project was getting closer and closer to being in his grasp.  “We plan to start in the fall.”  Not a tiny bit at a time, not a soft opening, not a tentative toe testing the water, but diving in.

We didn’t meet in their own headquarters building, for the simple reason that they don’t have one yet.  (But they’re looking for the right Manhattan spot to house their classes, a library, offices, etc.)  So, Singnasium’s Lennie Watts and I sat and talked in a convenient midtown location which —who knows? — might easily be a stone’s throw away from where he and his teaching staff and singer students will end up. And if somehow they don’t find the ideal location by fall, they’ll start off renting space somewhere else to have classes called “Singnasium at _________,” but they are actively looking at space and are open to recommendations.  

       Many know Lennie from his long and very visible presence in the cabaret world.  He is not only a longtime teacher, but a go-to director of choice for cabaret vocalists putting together shows, and a performer himself.  He’s also toiled as cabaret venues’ booking manager and has had musical theatre roles that have found him traipsing down Oz’s yellow brick road as the loveable but Cowardly Lion to a sedentary position as The Drowsy Chaperone‘s Man in Chair.  Additionally, he was voted by its membership and the President of MAC, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, a position he’s settled into for several years now.  Other members of MAC’s Board of Directors are on board with the new venture.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they sing, too!  John Koprowski, MAC’s rock & roll-loving treasurer, will bring his financial acumen to Singnasium’s money matters.  And money certainly matters.  Now accepting donations, tax-deductible through the umbrella organization Fractured Atlas, the Singnasiumers are justly proud that numerous people who have heard about their plans — solid teaching, outreach to kids and teens, scholarships, etc. —  have already given money.  “I just want you to know that I believe in what you’re doing” is the kind of thing several people have said as they suddenly hand over a check.

     Lennie, ever the realist, and his fellow instructors have been around the music block for years, so they are well aware of what new and established performers need and want in order to grow and survive in the competitive New York-based environment. Practical coachings and lessons (several students per group, maybe 6-10, for example) and lecture-style classes (bigger groups) will cover such things as auditioning, putting a singer’s “book” together, finding the right songs (there will be a big resource library of audio and sheet music students will have access to), and learning hands-on how to approach recording a CD—  with sessions in an actual recording studio set-up.  The people who teach will be the people who have been proven successes with expertise in what they are covering.  “Not everyone who’s a great performer can be a good teacher,” Lennie states in no uncertain terms, even though he acknowledges that one might pick up pointers by seeing such talents in their shows. All too rare are the sensitive, focused, articulate instructors who can “read” what a student may need and have been in the trenches and can communicate how they do the work and work the magic.

    Lennie’s popular classes, often with longtime musical partner Steven Ray Watkins at the keyboard, will be part of the offered courses.  “The Arrangement Experience” workshops have been the brithplace of some of cabaret performers’ most creative and memorable reinventions of established songs –most recently and powerfully demonstrated by the shows by the quartet called Those Girls, and “Summer in the City” has oriented newcomers to how things work in the Big Apple.  His “Boot Camp” program has also attracted the serious, ready to work in a concentrated fashion.

       The May 16 variety show/fundraiser features appearances by Amorika Amoroso, Frank Dain, Meg Flather, Lynly Forrest, Julie Gold, Kim Grogg, Tanya Holt, John Koprowski, Sally Mayes, Sidney Myer, Phyllis Pastore, Melissa Robinette, Lynda Rodolitz, Jim Speake, Kim Sutton, Those Girls (Karen Mack, Eve Eaton, Rachel Hanser, Wendy Russell) Amy Wolk, Kristine Zbornik and the Singnasium Orchestra: Steven Ray Watkins on piano, Don Kelly on drums and Matt Sharfglass on bass.

“I’ve taken Kristine Zbornik’s class and learned a lot from her,” he states, giving one example of a musical comedy veteran he’s happily bringing on as an instructor, who’s nailed cabaret (fearlessly, I might add), musical theatre roles from NYC to Vegas, paid her dues, learned, taught, and gone from piano bars to Forbidden Broadway to, well, Broadway.  In down-to-earth matters of earning the bucks, Phyllis Pastore will bring her expertise in resume-writing and job seeking and Melissa Robinette will teach about the business side of show business.  Drag performers will be welcomed to the mix, as long as they sing in their own voices with live music, and will be guided through preparing themselves as musical theatre performers ready to audition when productions of shows like La Cage aux Folles or Kinky Boots come along.  And ever-ready Watts has come up with an idea of showcasing the guys who moonlight in female garb for work in a group presentation where they also perform as their male selves in men’s stage outfits: It will be called —Wait for it— From Drags to Britches.                      

     “Our classes will be reasonably priced,” stated Lennie, who doesn’t want to see aspiring performers of talent fall into the trap of having a day job or “temp” job that tempts them to stay in it forever, sapping their energies and time, as they put studying and auditioning on the back burner too often and years go by.   Scholarship-funded participation will be a big part of the student population, with selection determined by demonstration of financial-need reality and ongoing auditions.  Scholarship members, especially, will be involved in educational outreach, a crucial part of this not-for-profit’s goals and mission.  They’ll be going into schools — at all grade levels — to do performances, workshops, demonstrations, Q&A sit-downs with motivated aspiring performers, and more. With a smile coming over his face and a memory returning, he told me how impactful it was for him as a schoolkid when artists came into the classroom and introduced him and his classmates to the performing arts.  In these days of cavalier and ever-increasing school budget cuts to arts programs, Watts and his colleagues know that such in-school programs are more important than ever.  (His MAC associates, such as Kim Grogg, have been proudly partnering with the after-school Wingspan Arts programs, and give stage time at the annual MAC Awards show to present its outstanding students in song.)

     Also in the works: a fall fundraiser, opportunities to audit a sample class, and what he calls the “Personal Trainer Program” — taking the term from what one might get in a gym, matching established higher-profile performers with those who want to model themselves on the niche they’ve carved out.  

It sounds to me like this man whose work on the cabaret stage and theatre stages is heading into what could well be the best new stage of his career.

   More info to come as the plans develop.  Be sure to check news at www.Singnasium.info  

Above Poster Design: Frank Dain

Photos of Messrs Watts & Watkins at the Laurie Beechman Theatre by Natasha Castillo