I have been Facebook friends with Jesse Luttrell for several years now and he's always been on my radar as someone I have wanted to interview. I have heard many of Fred's great arrangements attending a New York Pops' concert. The fact that I now get to interview them together is icing on a very delicious cake!
Jesse & Fred are returning to Feinstein's/54 Below with Jesse Luttrell: SHOWSTOPPER, an unforgettable solo homage to the golden age of American entertainment, unleashing Jesse's shattering voice and theatrical, post-modern vaudevillian style with an evening of treasured swing, big band, and show songs. Jesse Luttrell offers an exciting departure from the traditional evening of standards. SHOWSTOPPER is a high-energy show that includes stellar custom orchestrations by acclaimed New York Pops orchestrator Fred Barton.
Jesse Luttrell: SHOWSTOPPER will play Feinstein's/54 Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway & 8th Avenue) on Friday, January 19 at 9:30pm. Click here for tickets!
Jesse Luttrell: I've been doing SHOWSTOPPER for about three years now all over the country and I'm always excited to return to New York and 54 Below where it all began. The audiences in New York are almost always the polar opposite of what you get out of town..and they've known me here for over a decade from my humble beginnings schlepping drinks in the piano bar - so they definitely keep me on my toes!
Fred Barton: Jesse always injects new material into his SHOWSTOPPER show, and I can’t wait to unleash the new stuff – and I can’t wait for my 8-piece Broadway Band to sink their teeth into the new charts I’m whipping up. And of course we’ve got the best of Jesse's "hits," and they’re always a blast to perform.
2. Since this is our first interview together, let's go back to the beginning for a minute. How did you two come to meet?
Jesse Luttrell: I was in a musky basement bar full of drunks singing SWANEE at the top of my lungs and Fred had wandered in that night to see an old friend after making a final pilgrimage to a bar down the street that was closing. Our tastes aligned completely so we started talking about working together - which eventually meant cutting an album and then putting together my solo act several years later.
Fred Barton: My show tune piano bar days were back in the late 1990s. After that, the piano bar world collapsed into mainly rock-pop sing-along stuff. But one night, I heard that Rose’s Turn was closing – the former legendary Duplex, where international superstars such as Barbra Streisand, Joan Rivers, and Fred Barton got their start. So I fatefully went down there to pay my last respects. I happened into Marie’s Crisis next door, where I hadn’t been in years, and shortly before 4AM, I happened to see this kid singing a big solo with the most incredible voice I’d heard in years, and with that old-time showbiz THING you just don’t see much anymore. I felt like James Mason in A Star Is Born, standing in the back of a crappy club watching Esther Blodgett toss off a little tune called "The Man That Got Away" as if it were nuthin’. Fred, meet Jesse, Jesse, meet Fred. WHOA. I’m glad I went downtown that night.
Jessee Luttrell: There are few arrangers/orchestrators around who understand my needs as a performer. It helps that Fred and I are cut from the same showbiz cloth, but he also approaches every arrangement from the point of view of an actor. It won't come as a surprise to most when I say I'm a large personality with a big voice - and Fred is able to not only match that in his arrangements, but also he gives me the confidence I need to pull back when I need to.
Fred Barton: We’ve got an exact set of sensibilities, philosophies, and musical tastes in common. This kind of magic collaboration has happened to me maybe three times in my forty years in the biz (I started at 18! I’m still under 60!) – in fact, I even wrote a musical called The Two Svengalis which describes exactly what happens when two people not only complement each other, but bring better than the best out in each other. You can’t bottle, sell, or steal that. In Jesse, I found a partner in crime, a "consort battleship," as Shaw wrote in Pygmalion, who would, could, and will go the distance, not shy away from the possibilities and the challenges of wrestling with one’s own potential and talent. Jesse has one thing that many super-talented people could always use more of – intelligence. He’s the smartest artist I’ve ever worked with, and the street-smarts he’s applied to his performances and his career has made all the difference, for him and for me.
4. What is the most challenging part of your collaboration?
Jesse Luttrell: Having to schlep all the way from Brooklyn to the UWS for our rehearsals. Everything else is buttah.
Fred Barton: It’s all too easy to rest on the laurels, fall into comfort zones and patterns. Every single show, Jesse extends the boundaries and we put ourselves to a higher test. Every arrangement I write HAS to be better than any I’ve done before – I’m compulsive. It can be nerve-wracking, but otherwise, you’re a one-trick pony and people have memorized you before you even open your mouth or given the downbeat. A known quantity, or "brand," to use that dreadful word, can lead to predictability and a typical career, and neither is what Jesse and I have in mind.
Jesse Luttrell: I think when people hear that I sing "standards" they automatically have a picture in their head that I'm going to come out in a conservative suit and curate a polite evening of cabaret, which seems to have become the "industry standard" (whatever that means). I think of myself as more of an entertainer than a docent of the "Great American Songbook." Let's do some terrific songs, get the audience on their feet, and blow the roof off the joint while we're at it. Why not?
Fred Barton: Much as I love what’s now known as "The Great American Songbook," it has taken on connotations of reeling off stuff from the Golden Era, not always with a point of view. Frequently that means it’s either what I call Attack Of The Graverobbers, i.e. Gladys Bubkes Performs An Evening Of Sarah Vaughan or whomever (as if Sarah wrote the songs) – hiding one’s abilities (and limitations) inside the work of a bigger name than anyone could hope to be oneself – or performing the most pretzel-ized, twisted, new-fangled arrangements to try and freshen it up – to which I say, write your own song and leave Gershwin be. In Jesse’s show, as in my symphonic Pops work, I make it my mission to completely inhabit these songs, whether familiar or un-, with our own sensibility, but as if the songwriters are sitting at the piano with me. It’s much harder to honor the original creators of the songs, reflect expertise with their original contexts and values, yet infuse the work with your own sensibility and point of view, than it is to just riff, or copycat.
6. What is the biggest departure you took from your career path because you wanted to try something else?
Jesse Luttrell: I started professionally in musicals when I was 16 but as I saw the landscape of Broadway changing my interests shifted intensely to solo/concert performance. I wanted to do my own shows and make my own choices. I remember I had a really great year once playing all my dream roles back to back, but had a huge emotional crash after the last role. I didn't want to go back to chorus work and I didn't know what I wanted to do next so I started going to the piano bars to forget about things for awhile. It took getting a little lost to find out what I really wanted to do.
Fred Barton: All I ever wanted to do was musical theatre on Broadway, but I peaked too soon, accomplishing that in my mid-20s, before that was common. I jumped from a bunch of Broadway to composing a bunch of TV music in my 30s, which was a wild leap in creative energy. Then, after returning to my cabaret and piano bar roots, fate decreed that I should spend the next 14 years writing huge symphonic arrangements for the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall and around the country – and now show-making with a one-of-a-kind talent in Jesse Luttrell. I just keep answering the phone and doing what it tells me.
Jesse Luttrell: HAH! Penniless Bums! from the Jule Styne musical SUGAR: "see how two melody masters suffer a string of disasters just to become two penniless bums..."
Fred Barton: "Live Till I Die." Now don’t get me wrong – neither of us has a death wish, or any expectation of rolling over with our legs in the air anytime soon (at least dead.) But that song is the kingmaker of Jesse’s first set, and it captures how we feel about performing: no half-way, no sorta, no kinda, no crushingly restrained holding back in search of suffocating chimerical faux-sophistication (only a faux-sophisticate like me could use the phrase "suffocating chimerical faux-sophistication"). Judy Garland used to say, "I’m going to go out there and give ‘em Two Hours Of POW." We like POW. "Before your number’s up, fill your cup, live till you die." Jesse conveys that song’s message big-time.
8. With the concert being called SHOWSTOPPER what do you feel is the biggest "showstopper" of your own career thus far?
Jesse Luttrell: The biggest "Showstopper" of my career so far has been taking the leap by quitting my job and pouring all my money and effort into developing my solo act. I've always had the best results by painting myself into a corner - it's really the only way to make things happen in showbusiness.
Fred Barton: Having the New York Pops at Carnegie play a huge arrangement I created, and playing the piano for it center stage. The place absolutely came apart, and conductor Steven Reineke called me out to stand center stage for many bows. I thought, "Wow, Judy Garland stands center stage at Carnegie. Me? Who am I, anyway, am I my resumé?" (Answer: YES!) And the other was my one-man show Miss Gulch Returns, which started as my personal club act in 1983, and is still selling CDs and being produced in theatres around the country these 35 years later.
Jesse Luttrell: I know this is weird, and maybe a little too meta, but I'm totally deaf to applause...Like- I hear it but I can never tell if it was a golf clap or if they really liked it - so after the show my first thought is "did they clap" and my friends are always like "shut up, you're stupid.." Then we run to the bar.
Fred Barton: "Do I need a coat to go smoke?"
10. I have a new segment to my interviews called "I Can See Clearly Now," where I try to clear up misconceptions about people. What do you feel is the biggest misconception out there about yourselves that you just want clear up?
Jesse Luttrell: Hopefully this isn't too petty....but....I'm compared a lot to Judy and Liza, I think because I have a hearty spin in my voice - but I don't do it to try to sound like anyone - it's my natural voice. There are videos of me as a little kid singing at the top of my lungs with almost the same voice I have now (except in a different octave of course lol). Judy always said "be the first rate version of yourself not the second rate version of someone else." I like me..imma do me. Anyone who says I do otherwise doesn't know me or my work and should stay home and download my album from itunes or my website www.JesseNY.com (end of shameless plug).
Fred Barton: I don’t flatter myself that anyone gives me enough thought to have misconceptions, but since my earliest years, I know I can strike people as elite and condescending. It’s actually self-imposed perfectionism, and I know it’s not always fun to be around, but it’s no fun for me either – but if you’re not going to be as close to perfect and brilliant and fabulous as anyone could possibly be in this life, and communicate and inspire insights to and within people to the best of yours or anyone else’s abilities, what are you doing on the stage?
Jesse Luttrell has quickly become one of the most in-demand young concert artists in New York and around the country. He starred in the critically acclaimed musical revue BAWDY, which ran in New York City for an unprecedented 6 years. Jesse regularly headlines with award-winning Broadway stars in "American Showstoppers," the acclaimed concert series at New York’s Schimmel Center and on tour. His critically acclaimed debut album is featured on iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby, and is being streamed daily to countless fans around the world. Before pursuing a solo career, Jesse began as a ballet dancer and trained on full scholarship with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and The Rock School/Pennsylvania Ballet. He then made the switch to musical theatre, and toured the country starring in a variety of roles including the "Pharaoh" in Joseph And The Technicolor Dream Coat, the "Emcee" in Cabaret, "Frank-n-Furter" in The Rocky Horror Show, and multiple roles in Cats, Peter Pan, 42nd Street, Meet Me in St Louis, Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, Evita, and Carousel.
Fred Barton just completed a 563-performance run as pianist, musical director, arranger, and actor in the hit off-Broadway show Spamilton, also music-supervising the recent Chicago and Los Angeles productions. His orchestrations are played regularly by the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall and major symphonies around the country. On Broadway and national tour, Fred conducted Anthony Quinn in Zorba, Hal Prince’s production of Cabaret, Cy Coleman’s City of Angels and Robert Goulet in Camelot. Fred debuted as the original arranger/pianist for Forbidden Broadway, and created the book, music and lyrics for his 1983 one-man show Miss Gulch Returns! (Back Stage Bistro Award), still produced by theaters nationwide. TV credits (composer and/or arranger): HBO’s Cathouse: The Musical, Olivia, Wonder Pets!, Eureeka’s Castle, and The Magic School Bus (Emmy Award.) Fred has produced and arranged numerous CDs, including Jesse Luttrell’s debut album. The "American Showstoppers" concert series with the Fred Barton Orchestra, top Broadway performers, and the best Golden Age Broadway songs, just completed its fifth year.