~ BY ROB LESTER
Singer Susan Winter is like the hamburger you order after you give up your no-carbs diet; she’s on a ROLL again. She’s rolling out Love Rolls On…, her superb 2009 cabaret show which was preserved for the record, meaning her first CD which was voted the outstanding recording of the year when the annual MAC Awards rolled around. No wonder— it and she are like the ROLLS Royce choice when it comes to classic NYC cabaret because she sings great songs in a way that can thrill with her strong, polished old-school nightclub smarts, but is smart enough to pull back to a purr when the much-mentioned special cabaret “intimacy” experience is needed. A savvy storyteller in song and anecdotes, her Love Rolls On… rolls its more tender charms around your ears and the emotional impact aims straight at your heart for precise hits. So the New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits series, that’s been going on this year (curated by Stephen Hanks), has a surefire success enROLLed in its school of Grade-A “This is how it’s done” lessons. The heavenly act is named for a down-to-earth Dave Frishberg song (“Our Love Rolls On”) about longtime grown-up relationships and will be seen at the Metropolitan Room on the seventh of October at seven o’clock. That’s the first Friday in that month that is sneaking up on us too soon again as it has a habit of doing annually.
Musical director/pianist Rick Jensen (who celebrates his birthday earlier in the week with a show at Don’t Tell Mama, another venue Susan Winter has played in the city) returns to the material along with bassist Tom Hubbard for this act. At its sentimental centerpiece is the story of her parents’ romance during World War II, with Susan reading bits and pieces of their correspondence, punctuated by appropriate love songs, like “Isn’t It a Pity?” by the Gershwins, a bittersweet reflection on two people not meeting during their yesterdays, and “All My Tomorrows” with a lyric by Sammy Cahn and music by Jimmy Van Heusen, the composer she dedicated another memorable show to. On the second and fourth Sunday afternoon of each month, as co-host of Open Mic @ the Met, The Metropolitan Room is also a regular destination for the wondrous Winter and her cheeky chum Deb Berman, a former NiteLife Person of the Week and future New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits series artist (November 16). On her own, stylish Susan’s most recent act was the rapturously reviewed A Woman for All Seasons which she performed at both the above-mentioned venues and took to London.
Time flies. Looking back on Love Rolls On… Susan articulately expresses her thoughts about the years rolling on since she first put it together. She told me, “We all live on borrowed time, though we never really think about it in those terms. Or should I say, we rarely think about it because, every once in a while, we are particularly grateful or we feel humbled by some event or another. I sing. I get to work with incredible musicians who share my love of the art. I get to stand up in front of people who pay money to see and hear what I do. And I even get to read or hear someone say nice things about my work that make me feel glad I went through the effort that it takes to make it come together. It’s truly a special time in my life.”
New York is full of singers. Does she consider herself competitive? Only with herself, “to be the best I can at that moment, working to fine-tune my own skills.” So revisiting this old show is not a reason to coast as Love Rolls On…rolls on. “I am also continually trying to learn more, challenging myself to do even better, go even deeper. So I guess that’s competitive. The pejorative nature of the word, however, suggests a contest of sorts. This business can be ruthless and we need to develop a tough skin to take part in it. But compete with others? Then I end up comparing myself; that never works.”
Although Susan Winter, who also won a Bistro Award, became known to the current crop of cabaret-goers in just the last ten years, she’s no newbie as a singer. “I didn’t do it for a very long time, but my first job was when I was 14, singing at a restaurant for tips and dinner. Later in my teens, I got to tour with Bob Carroll in local jazz clubs and later, I joined a top 40 band. In my 20s, I became a regular at Catch a Rising Star, but with a full-time teaching job, I usually opened the show and went home soon after. I finally took a leave from teaching and joined a band to work full time out on the road. I did that for a year and came back to the classroom and a steady 3-year gig at Riccardo’s in Astoria. It’s the place where Tony Bennett got his start. I worked every Friday and Saturday night, from 9-3 AM, until the birth of my oldest son took precedence. Soon after, I had a second child. With two sons, a husband and a teaching career, I had very little time left over to sing. I took small gigs here and there or got up at parties, but that wasn’t satisfying and simply reminded me of what I was NOT doing. I knew I wasn’t going to run away to join the circus, so to speak. I had already done that before the kids came along. I had to wait until it was my turn. And fortunately, I have a husband who enjoys my performing and encourages me to keep on doing it. I regret nothing, but I also have no illusions. I love what I do. I love the rehearsal and the performance. I love the collaboration and I love putting it all together. I don’t love the self promotion. In the seventies and eighties, I had performed in clubs for audiences who were there, I worked as many as six nights a week, doing five sets a night. That’s a lot of songs and a lot of singing. And I was paid for my work. What a concept! But watching Lady Gaga reinvent herself has taught me much. Tastes change and audiences are fickle. The business makes the adjustments. And so must I adjust. In, “Here’s to Life,” there’s a line that says, “And even though I satisfied, I’m hungry still…” I guess that describes very succinctly why I continue to do it.”
She recalls a long-ago inspiring concert by a star: “ I remember seeing Lena Horne on stage in her one-woman Broadway show years back and being amazed that ‘at her age’ she could do what she was doing. Well, I’m that age now and I still feel the same age inside that I always did. And I’m very I’m grateful. I intend to find ways to keep doing what I do till, I suppose, I can’t do it anymore. And I mean sing. After all, I still play tennis and golf and I intend to do them, too, until I can’t anymore.
One of the numbers in her show is smart songwriter Susan Werner’s “I Can’t Be New.” Well, maybe this other Susan W. can be. This retired teacher is always learning. For her, putting together shows takes serious homework — which she takes seriously. “For me, it’s been like going to graduate school and doing theses or even dissertations. Shows involve planning, research, assembling the right team, trying out bits and pieces here and there. I was doing a new show each year for a while and then learned that I could pull out what I came to call ‘modules’ from different shows and create something totally new. And because I need to keep singing, I enlisted my pal Deb Berman and we created Open Mic @ the Met. This way we could get to sing and provide a comfortable platform for others to strut their stuff. By using different pianists, singers could try out someone new.”
Susan Winter won’t be around the scene so much now as she and husband Joe have sold their Long Island home and moved officially to Florida for much of the year. She’ll be back again and again, as life and love roll on, but October 7th is kind of a rare sighting for the songbird-turned-snowbird. She’s lined up work down in Florida, too, so she’s just spreading the love and the love songs around. Do get around to seeing her Love Rolls On this time and you can thank me later for recommending this NiteLife Person of the Week. She’ll be playing both her ROLES – solo singer and open mic co-host— this coming week. And that makes the NYC cabaret week strong.
You can sample the recording of this show here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/SusanWinter
You can make reservations for the October 7 show at the Metropolitan Room here: http://metropolitanroom.com/event.cfm?id=220927&cart
The venue is at 34 West 22 Street. Admission is $25 plus a two-beverage minimum.