Call Redialed: Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf: "More About The Melody" at Birdland
The last time Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf & I did an interview together, she was playing in the orchestra of the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music (that starred Angela Lansbury & Catherine Zeta-Jones). While I've seen Mairi in the past nine years, since our last interview, it was high time for us to catch up professionally & find out what's been happening!
On her night off from the current revival of My Fair Lady (currently playing at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont), Mairi is taking center stage at Birdland with an all new show, More About The Melody. Mairi is hosting an evening that explores beautiful melodies from Broadway and beyond. Joining her will be George Abud (The Band's Visit), Kerstin Anderson (My Fair Lady), Ariana DeBose (Summer, Hamilton), Claybourne Elder (Sunday In The Park With George), Adam Kantor (The Band's Visit, Fiddler on the Roof), and Julia Murney (Wicked, Lennon), plus a dazzling band, all of whom will shine a spotlight on the music that drives your favorite stories.
More About The Melody will play on Monday, August 6 at 7:30pm at Birdland (344 West 44th Street). Click here for tickets!
1. It's been quite a few years since we have done an interview together! In fact, the last time we did an interview together, you were playing in the revival of A Little Night Music on Broadway! So, catch us up on what's been the biggest change for you over these past nine years? At Night Music I was playing an old Italian cello I’d just purchased. It never felt completely comfortable, so a couple years ago I sold it. I’m now back to my mother’s cello full time. It’s not a “fancy” instrument, but I’ve played it since I was twelve and I love the familiarity. Also, my husband, Marc Phaneuf, and I moved to a house just outside of NYC, in Westchester. It’s a sweet and peaceful spot. We can both be home during the day, and working on our own things, or teaching lessons, with little audible overlap. I feel very fortunate.
2. You will be returning to Birdland on Monday, August 6. It's also been a while since you've done a solo concert. What made now the right time to do one? I’ve wanted to do a show at Birdland for a long time, and am thrilled Jim Caruso (host of the Broadway at Birdland) offered this date. Putting up a one-off show like this is a tremendous amount of work - I think you have to feel inspired and excited to make it happen. Waiting this long means I’m very ready to dig in!
3. The concert is entitled More About the Melody. What should fans know about this concert before coming? It will focus on some of my favorite melodies in Broadway, pop, folk and jazz music. We’ll highlight the melodies in different ways, sometimes by eliminating the lyrics entirely, but also showing different versions of melodies people may know well.
I’ve been previewing on Facebook the process of making a jig out of "Climbing Uphill" from The Last Five Years. I first played it in 2001, and since then have wondered whether it could work as a purely instrumental jig. Steve Gibb, the guitarist and fellow Scot, helped me find the A, B and C sections. Then we added Ben Power on bodhran. Ben also plays Irish whistle and is giving me some coaching on Celtic ornamentation. Then I’m looking forward to featuring bassist, Alex Eckhardt on a song from her show, The Band’s Visit!
4. You have quite a few friends joining you for this show! George Abud (The Band's Visit), Kerstin Anderson (My Fair Lady), Ariana DeBose (Summer, Hamilton), Claybourne Elder (Sunday In The Park With George), Adam Kantor (The Band's Visit, Fiddler on the Roof), and Julia Murney (Wicked, Lennon). What are you looking forward to most about playing with this crew? It’s fun to work with your friends! They’re all brilliant artists, and I love having one or two songs we’ve chosen together — to give special treatment to outside of a show, or a full-production. For me, it’s similar to classical chamber music. You try and form a group with like-minded people, and then make the most beautiful and enjoyable art you can.
5. What has been the most challenging part for you about putting this show together? What has been the most fun? The challenge is being responsible for all aspects of the concert: director, stage manager, arranger (for some of the songs), copyist and MD. My friend, Ben Rauhala - who’ll also be featured - says my brain hurts because it’s being squeezed by all the hats I’m wearing! He would know as he puts these kinds of concerts together all the time. I take my many hats off to him.
6. Most of the time I see you, you are playing as part of the band on stage, but in this concert you are front and center. What do you like about being the focus of the show? What makes you most nervous? I like the idea of being able to shine a light on the music I love, and create an environment where hopefully I can enjoy performing and sharing that music. I’ve surrounded myself with some of the greatest musicians and singers I know, so I’m able to look to them to find the perfect answer for any musical conundrum. We were rehearsing yesterday, and got to what is usually a cymbal roll leading into the climax of the song. There’s no drum set on my show, and I wondered about a cello gliss instead, but my version sounded lame. Our pianist, and my long-time collaborator, Simon Mulligan, immediately suggested the perfect thing for me to play. That’s the dream as a musician - to collaborate with brilliant people. I'll also end the program with a jazz standard arrangement by, and featuring, my husband, Marc Phaneuf. That's a pretty cool thing to get to do at one of the most iconic jazz clubs in the world.
What makes me the most nervous? Finding time to PRACTICE anything between now and then.
7. You have played in almost every Broadway orchestra over the years: The Boy From Oz, The Bridges of Madison County, revivals of A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and now the current revival of My Fair Lady. What is one or two fun stories from the pit you can share with us that has happened to you. (plus I think I found the title of your next solo concert, From The Pit) From The Pit sounds awesome! My favorite moments are when something or someone goes “up.” Shows are so well run, but sets get stuck, and actors forget lines, and everyone scampers to make it seamless for the audience. I’ve certainly had my own moments - once, at Fiddler, I almost dropped a tub of gum, with a couple pieces clattering on the wooden pit floor. I tried to grab the tub, only to knock it over completely, and have hundreds of tiny, hard gum pieces cascade off the cello and onto the ground. We could hear the sound reverberating through the theatre. I guess that day there was a rainstick in Anatevka…
8. What do you still want to accomplish either as a cellist or outside of cello playing that you haven't yet done? I’m hoping to make some albums. This concert will be peppered with cello/piano arrangements of some of my favorite Broadway songs - that’s the album I’d love to finish within a year. I’d also love to play with more folk-rock musicians. James Taylor would be a dream.
Outside of cello playing? My garden could use some serious weeding!
9. At this point in your career, do you have any hardships with playing the cello as you are constantly always having to learn new music? I think learning new music all the time is what keeps it interesting. Particularly when I can find a way into playing the music I love most. Of course you worry about the physical pressures of getting older, and what it will mean for your playing, particularly as a string player. Another reason to grab these moments and make the most of them.
10. We have known each other since 1993. Broadway has known you since 2002. What is something we don't know about Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf that you are ready share? Interesting question! I spent 25 years of my life working hard to make a life in America a reality. Now that I’m here, settled, and have citizenship, I’m more drawn to explore and enjoy where I’m from. This concert reflects both my Scottish background and my love of great American song-writing.
Even more personally, I had a brush with cancer a couple years ago, and coming through it gave me a stronger sense of wanting to make the most of my life, and worry a lot less. One of the songs in the show will be a Pete Seeger-type sing-a-long with the audience. I’ll be playing the tambourine…
More on Mairi:
Originally from Scotland, cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf has established a busy career in New York City as a solo, chamber, Broadway and recording artist. Since 2002 she has held chairs in 16 Broadway shows, including The Bridges of Madison County, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and, currently, My Fair Lady. Off Broadway credits include the premier productions of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years (Chicago 2001, NYC 2002) and the 2013 Classic Stage revival of Stephen Sondheim's Passion.
Mairi has been a featured performer with John Pizzarelli, Jeremy Jordan and Jason Robert Brown. She has appeared in multiple TV broadcasts, including the Live From Lincoln Center Broadcasts; Lang Lang's New York Rhapsody, Joshua Bell with Friends @ The Penthouse and Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin' To Do.
As a classical soloist and chamber musician, she has performed in the major venues of Europe, Asia and the US. Highlights include performances of the Saint-Saens, Elgar and Dvorak Cello concerti.
Mairi attended Chetham's School of Music, where she studied with Nancy Green. She continued her studies with Green after being awarded a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music in London. Other cello influences include Steven Isserlis (International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove) and Gary Hoffman (Ravinia's Steans Music Institute). In 1994 she moved to the US to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she completed Master and Doctoral Degrees with professor Judith Glyde.