James Naughton is both an actor and a singer, and thanks to one particular songsmith, he uses both talents amply in a new PBS program.
Tunes by Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner – and 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee — Randy Newman make up the set list of the “American Songbook” offering “James Naughton: The Songs of Randy Newman” on “Live From Lincoln Center” Friday, April 4 (check local listings).
The storytelling nature of many Newman songs attracted Naughton, who has won Tony Awards for Broadway’s “City of Angels” and “Chicago” in addition to working often in movies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Good Mother”) and television (“Hostages,” “Gossip Girl,” the three main “Law & Order” series).
“It went really well,” Naughton tells Zap2it of the New York performance staged and taped at Lincoln Center in January. “It was kind of a high-pressure situation, because I had put the show together basically for that evening. I had done it exactly once before, only because I thought I would like a chance to do it somewhere out of town before I went into New York with it.”
Naughton adds, “When you’re learning all that material in a period of two to three months, if I’d had a chance to play it for a week or two beforehand, I could have developed a little muscle memory … but that wasn’t the case at all here.”
In the process, Naughton applied his own sensibility to Newman’s lyrics, which have fueled such popular hits as “Short People” and “I Love L.A.,” plus many creations for movies.
“The second song in the set is called ‘Shame,’ ” Naughton reports, “and I introduce it by saying, ‘I like to think of it as a much-too-long message left by an old guy on the answering machine of a much-too-young woman.’ That’s what interpretive artists do.
“Randy doesn’t write ‘June Moon’ love songs, and he doesn’t write choruses, which means that learning them is even more difficult. Songs like ‘The Great Nations of Europe’ are political and philosophical, and ‘God’s Song’ is how Randy imagines God might answer the question of how we reconcile the suffering that goes on in the world with the idea of a merciful, benevolent God. They’re big, serious subjects, but he finds a way to come at them and make them accessible. And even funny.”
Naughton confirms he’s “always liked story songs,” which is why he says he takes to Newman’s material, which he calls “character-driven stuff.”
“The first time I put together an evening of music was 1997 or 1998,” he says. “I’d been doing ‘Chicago’ on Broadway, and I had an encounter with (pianist) George Shearing. The two of us performed together at a tribute to [composer] Cy Coleman.
“I had a couple of songs to sing, and one was a torch song from ‘City of Angels’ that actually was sung by one of the female characters, this beautiful ballad. I’d never sung it in public before, and I learned it for that event. I also had a funny song from ‘I Love My Wife,’ and I told my wife, Pam, that I thought I’d just do that one. She asked why, and I said, ‘I don’t want to bomb out in front of George Shearing and [another guest, jazz singer] Joe Williams.’ She said, “You rehearsed them. You’ll be fine. Do ’em both.’ “
Naughton did, and when he sat back down afterward, his wife told him, “George Shearing loved the ballad. When you started to sing it, he put his head back and smiled the whole time.” Later that night, Shearing offered to work with Naughton on building a show of his own, suggesting selections in a five-hour meeting at Shearing’s home, then following up with an audiotape of additional ideas while Shearing was on vacation in England’s Cotswolds.
“It was at that point,” Naughton recalls, “that I said to Pam, ‘You know how I’ve been talking about putting together some sort of singing show for 25 years? I think this may be the kick in the butt that’ll get me to do it.’ If this guy [Shearing] was going to put that much time into my singing career, maybe I should take it seriously and do something about it.”
Naughton then landed another benefactor in legendary stage and screen director Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”), who saw a benefit production he staged and offered to “present” him … the result being Naughton’s show “Street of Dreams,” an “affirming” experience in the performer’s view.
“I always thought of myself as an actor who sings, and it’s been interesting. Instead of sitting around waiting for someone to hire you to do a play or a TV show or a movie, there’s something you can work on in between. It’s satisfying and, frankly, just a lot of fun.”
Set to be directed this summer at the Berkshire (Mass.) Theatre Festival by his daughter Keira in what he calls the “ridiculously smart” one-man play “Cedars,” by Erik Tarloff, Naughton – the father-in-law of fellow Broadway star Kelli O’Hara (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”) – sent Newman a suggested set list before the PBS taping. The return message was, “That’s cool, man. Have a good time.”
“My wife died last April,” Naughton says, “and I said to myself, ‘Am I ever going to sing again? And if I were, what would I like to do?’ I happened to be listening to a whole bunch of Randy Newman CDs I had, and I sat down with my music director John Otto and said, ‘I want to do a whole show of this stuff. What do you think?'”
Otto also liked the idea, then Naughton called his agent, who learned the season at Lincoln Center already had been set … but those in charge were willing to add a show specifically for Naughton, which then sparked PBS’ interest.
“That was fun,” he says of the sequence of events. “It was like, ‘Wow. I guess this is really gonna happen.’ “