Happy 40th Anniversary
By: Alix Cohen
June 4, 2023: Ham and eggs, Abbott and Costello, A bushel and a peck – when a performer and musical director achieve artistic symbiosis, bloom in friendship and finish one another’s sentences, we have a match made in cabaret Heaven. Though neither artist is exclusive, what they have together continues to grow and enhance the careers of arguably two of the best, most creative people in the field. This is (kind of) how it happened.
When, where, how did you meet?
Jeff: In high school I was enamored with the team of Barbara Cook and Music Director Wally Harper. It was a dream to find someone who could help me personalize my songs and create my own cabaret act in the way Wally Harper was doing so brilliantly for Barbara Cook. In 1983, while still finishing my undergraduate at NYU, I first approached Stephen Flaherty, who was doing wonderful arrangements at that time for singers. He gave me a list of names, with Alex Rybeck’s at the top. I went to hear Alex play at NYU and was very impressed. And the price was right: $25 an hour! Ah, 1983.
Alex: Jeff and I met at my tiny apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. He had called me to set up an appointment to see if we might work on a cabaret show together. He had gotten my name (along with several others) from club owner Erv Raible. I had moved to NYC three years prior, and was already playing for a number of cabaret singers at the time.
Young Jeff – Photo courtesy of the performer
Your Initial impressions?
Jeff: Alex is an extraordinary pianist and intuitive accompanist. The very first impression was glorious musicianship. He was a gentle and encouraging presence from our very first meeting, but also made it clear that his primary focus was as a songwriter. The cabaret dream was mine and not his. I’m happy to say that’s evolved. Today he’s certainly one of the most highly regarded, most sought after music directors in New York City.
Alex: I honestly don’t remember my first impressions, but since I agreed to work on his act, I’m sure they were favorable!
The first show?
Jeff: After we did our two songs at the audition for Palsson’s (now The Triad) they said, “That’s great. How long is your show?” “You just heard it,” I replied. They laughed and said we’d have a month to build a show, giving us a Monday at 11 p.m.! “Forbidden Broadway” had just opened its now legendary run in that room and they were filling the late show spots.
Young Alex – Photo courtesy of the performer
Alex was incredibly collaborative and supportive in that month of building the show. For instance, there was a 50’s pop song I wanted to sing (“Her Royal Majesty”) and in that pre-YouTube, pre-internet time, Alex was able to hear me sing it a capella and transcribe a chart. I was dazzled. Another example: I was studying with James Raitt who had suggested a treatment of “Who’s Sorry Now?” as a “music box” gentle ballad. Alex ran with that idea and created something magical extemporaneously. From the very beginning I felt the excitement of hearing arrangements come to life, specifically crafted for me.
How did it go?
Jeff: That first show at Palsson’s was sold out with mostly NYU and high school friends (50 people at a $5 cover) and was an absolute joyride for me.
Alex: I don’t remember much about it; I guess it went well enough that we were offered more dates and kept working together. Each time, we tweaked, honed, and built upon what we’d done before. We were both entranced and inspired by the partnership of Karen Mason and Brian Lasser, and we emulated their approach to cabaret.
Alex and Jeff – Photo courtesy of the performers
Did you become professionally exclusive immediately or was it a process?
Jeff: I worked exclusively with Alex for solo shows from that night onwards. Shortly after that first time Alex introduced me to Sara Louise Lazarus’s performance class and – boom! – I found a magical combination of mentors. My next vision was to have Sara direct the two of us to take our work to the next level. She, Alex and I are a very treasured constellation in my life. The many shows we’ve created together are precious memories. It’s miraculous to me we three are collaborating on this anniversary show together. Very few get this gift of time as a team.
I didn’t stray from Alex until I began cruise ship work and needed orchestrations in order to work with the ship bands. By then Alex was getting busier, too. Other opportunities presented themselves for me to do duet shows with KT Sullivan and Shauna Hicks and to work with other music directors, including Christopher Denny, James Followell and Jon Weber. Alex and I have recorded four albums together, with our fifth coming out in September (“A Collective Cy”). My one other solo album the Sondheim album with Jon Weber
Alex: Jeff and I have never been exclusive. He’s worked with other pianists, and I’ve always worked with different singers. But I’ve been involved with most of Jeff’s major shows and recordings, and we have come to be regarded as a team. A frequent feature of our shows (especially early on) was extended medleys and wacky duets, which no doubt cemented that image of us as musical partners.
Top photo: Director Sara Lazarus, Alex Rybeck and Jeff Harnar
How was Alex different from others with whom you worked?
Jeff: My one major solo show collaboration with another music director has been the Sondheim show with jazz virtuoso Jon Weber. A primary difference between those partnerships is that Alex’s arrangements typically are compositions that he prepares based on imagery and textures I give him as suggestions. They’re recipes on a page. With Jon, arranging tends to happen in real time and, because of his jazz vocabulary, tends to remain very fluid even in performance with varying measurements each time and some secret ingredients that can’t be notated.
How was Jeff different from others with whom you worked?
Alex: Two things have stood out to me about Jeff from the beginning: his savvy about the business side of performing (he was more knowledgeable and strategic about booking policies than any other singer I’d worked with before) and his industriousness. He learns material very quickly, and accurately. Once learned, he retains it forever.
How has the way you work together changed over time?
Jeff: Alex and I have a shorthand with each other creatively that’s a gift of time. Certainly he knows my voice, its strengths and weaknesses. He also knows my heart so well by now he can intuitively “hear” how songs might sit on me. It’s a precious dividend of these years together to have that kind symbiosis. A big change since 1983 is that Alex has become very busy with major artists who have expansive calendars, yet he’ll always carve out time for our work and always makes me feel like I’m in the center of attention even though I know he’s spinning many plates simultaneously.
Alex: I’m not sure if our essential process of collaboration has changed radically. We’ve certainly both grown as people. Experience plays a part, so does changing taste. We were maybe more experimental when we started out because we were looking for what “worked” – and the only way to discover that is to try a lot of different things. We now approach any project with a body of knowledge we didn’t have back then. That means we can bead in on things more quickly, and hopefully avoid going down unproductive paths.
Jeff: There are so many memories I cherish. I vividly remember us in his apartment as I pitched our show to Comden and Green over the phone. They had initially sought to discourage us from the project but agreed to this one phone call. Alex was beside me giving me courage. After I hung up we continued rehearsing and didn’t hear his phone machine pick up their call back. I left Alex’s apartment to head to my singing waiter job at Mrs. J’s Sacred Cow.
When I arrived the bartender said, “Call Alex immediately.” When I did Alex played the voice message of Betty and Adolph giving us their blessing. Jump to our opening night and there they were, along with Jule Styne to cheer us on. Their initial “no” then became, “You must keep doing this show.”
Alex: Among countless memorable evenings, one I’ll never forget was performing our tribute to filmmaker Vincent Minnelli in Liza’s New York apartment! It was a small, intimate gathering that happened to include Michael Feinstein and Stan Freeman, as well as Liza’s little black dog (a Toto look-alike) running in and out of her music room throughout the program. At one point, Jeff and I were doing “The Trolley Song” about three feet from Liza, and Jeff just had to stop and laugh because it was all too surreal!
What would surprise his fans about Alex?
Jeff: Most fans know, but others might be surprised to know that Alex has a pet snake named Petula. Mercifully snakes are deaf so Petula had not suffered too much abuse from my rehearsing. In all seriousness, the world has yet to fully grasp what a brilliant song writer Alex is. I’m including one of his gems in our anniversary show, “What a Funny Boy He Is” with lyrics by Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”). The breadth of his styles is remarkable. As I was 40 years ago, I’m still prepared to lose him to the world of his songwriting success.
What would surprise his fans about Jeff?
Alex: I don’t know. Maybe that the innocent schoolboy veneer is not the whole picture! His sense of humor is wicked, sharp, and rapid. And his repertoire of vocal impressions is vast and merciless!
Photo by Kevin Alvey
Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck “Our 40th Anniversary Songbook” 7 p.m. June 13 at 54/Below.