Saturday Afternoon Contest on 42nd Street: Teens Compete for $$$ as Motivation to Sing Great American Songbook Standards

By ROB LESTER**** “George & Ira who?” “Cole who?” “Irving who?” Ask many teens about writers of the Great American Songbook and you may get blank stares. But this Saturday afternoon, several teenagers who have learned to love the standards written decades before their time are singing them at NYC’s Laurie Beechman Theatre.  It’s a competition. Big money is involved. Talent will be evident, and audiences get the other kind of reward: the rewarding experience of discovering that talent and witnessing young people falling in love with the classic music from the golden age (here defined as 1970 being the cut-off year) that must not and will not die.

Philanthropically prolific Adela and Larry Elow, warmhearted longtime supporters of cabaret (as evidenced by their generous contributions to the Mabel Mercer Foundation and its annual Cabaret Convention and other Songbook-related events) and Cabaret Scenes Magazine, are again putting their money where their mouth is.  This time they are also putting their money quite literally into the mouths of babes, as a motivation to learn, appreciate and SING the gems of the writers whose last names they WILL know and continue the legato legacy of, with love and luck. (Photo of Mr. and Mrs. Elow by Maryann Lopinto)

The full grant is in the amount of a $50,000 endowment fund, created specifically to “encourage teenagers to learn and perform The Great American Songbook, as composed between the years 1900-1970.”  The Elows’ grant — restricted to this use — will be administered through the Mabel Mercer Foundation and provide annual cash awards across the next decade for three students per year.

This year’s participants were chosen among pupils who attend Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Talent Unlimited High School and Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS). Each of these facilities requires auditions before enrolling students, and each school may select up to four participants for the concert competition.  There is a $2,500 first prize, a $1,500 second prize and a $1,000 third prize. Other gifts, such as sheet music, recordings, and books about this genre of songs will be presented to participants.

While the votes are being counted, the audience will be entertained by teenager Joie Bianco (pictured here), a talented high schooler deemed too accomplished herself to fairly compete, as she has already been for some time on NYC cabaret radar: she won a special audience award competing against adults at age 14 in Metropolitan Room’s MetroStar Talent Challenge, later won the same venue’s MetroMinor singing contest for teens and pre-teens (in a tie), and was chosen to participate in two summer intensives in Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Initiative for high school students in Indiana, where, in her first summer she won a special prize as Most Promising.  She has performed in numerous benefits at Metropolitan Room and made her full-length cabaret debut show debut there for her 16th birthday last year, and was invited to do her own set on Long Island in Long Beach’s annual Artists in Partnership annual Cabaret Festival. Recent appearances have been at American Popular Song Society and at Carnegie Hall in their Mentors concert and two consecutive years appearing in the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Cabaret Convention concerts, at the invitation of FOundation Artistic Director KT Sullivan.  That last-name prestigious opportunity for exposure and experience will also come to the grand prize winner in this Saturday’s Songs Were Meant to Sing While We’re Young contest.

The program’s title comes from the first line of the William Engvick lyric to a melody by Alec Wilder and Morty Palitz, which is now 75 years old: It is called, Songs Were Made to Sing While We’re Young. To be assured of seating,  reservations are essential and may be made by calling the Mabel Mercer Foundation offices at (212) 980-3026, or by E-mailing them at
The judges are: Village Voice and Huffington Post commentator David Finkle; cabaret entertainer Jeff Harnar; producing director of the York Theatre, James Morgan; jazz vocalist La Tanya Hall; and music author/historian and producer Deborah Grace Winer. Their choice as the first prize winner will also be invited to appear during the opening night performance of the annual Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention on October 9 at the Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

Yes, today’s teenagers will and must, like their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents be exposed to and fall in love with —and SING —the worrks of the great writers, such as those mentioned at the opening of this article: George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the others in the pantheon, like Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, Duke Ellington, Carolyn Leigh, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Hoagy Carmichael, Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz, Cy Coleman, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Burton Lane, Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Jerry Bock, SHeldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim, Frederick Loewe and one whose 100th birthday can be celebrated this year: Alan Jay Lerner.  Of course, all except Stephen Sondheim on this list are gone now, but their songs must not disappear as this and the upcoming generations come along and new music fills the airwaves and iPods.

The contest is one strong and exciting way for the young explorers to be encouraged on their voyage of discovery.


The program this Saturday begins at 2 PM and is expected to last two hours. There is a $20 admission plus a $20 food/drink minimum. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is at 407 West 42 Street inside the West Bank Cafe in NYC.


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