By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
Although Celia Berk has been singing professionally for just over a handful of years, she’s already collected an impressive collection of awards, including two MAC Awards and a LaMott Friedman Award for Best Recording.
On October 17th she will appear at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 28th annual Cabaret Convention at Jazz at Lincoln Center in “‘Swonderful: The Music of George Gershwin.” The evening will be hosted by Jeff Harnar and Andrea Marcovicci and will feature performances by a stellar line-up of cabaret stars.
A successful corporate executive by day, Celia Berk started out as an actor, then returned to music later in life. I recently spoke to Ms. Berk, a native New Yorker, about her upcoming Jazz at Lincoln Center performance, her musical journey, and her eternal love for New York City.
Shari Lifland: You’ll be in excellent company at this year’s Cabaret Convention, sharing the bill with cabaret legends including Karen Akers, Steve Ross, and Mark Nadler. Can you divulge what songs you’ll be performing?
Celia Berk: For my solo, I’m doing “Embraceable You.” I’m also doing a duet with Karen Akers. Both of us tend to gravitate toward lesser-known material by great songwriters and we have found a song called “What Are We Here For?” that we’ve put a little spin on that we think the audience will enjoy.
SL: A duet with Karen Akers. What does that feel like?
CB: Just the idea that she would say, “Sure,” when asked to perform with me was as big a thrill as anything that’s happened. I have learned a lot from her in some of the throw-away things that she says. She’ll go, “Don’t cut off that sound.” Or, “Don’t worry about that.” And the sound that comes out of her. The way she stands on a stage. To be on the stage with somebody like that, as opposed to watching them from the audience, is just extraordinary. That’s going to be a really thrilling moment for me.
SL: What does the music of Gershwin mean to you? Do you have a favorite Gershwin tune?
CB: To me, Gershwin is the intersection between classical and the Great American Songbook at its finest. Even the song I’m doing with Karen—which nobody even knows—people are going to walk out humming it. That’s the magic of this songwriter.
I love “He Loves and She Loves.” So many of the songs are just iconic, including “Embraceable You.” For the Gershwin program, Jeff and Andrea said, “Let us know what you’d like to do.” So everybody scrambled, and you hoped you’d get first dibs on the song that you want. I was not the only one who wanted to sing “Embraceable You,” so I got in there fast.
SL: You’ve appeared at the Cabaret Convention before. Can you talk a bit about the experience?
CB: The first time (in 2014) I wasn’t part of the originally announced program. It was an evening of Irving Berlin, and KT Sullivan, who runs the Mabel Mercer Foundation, had heard my first album, which was about to be released. One day I logged into Facebook and there was a message from her: “Do you have a favorite Irving Berlin song?” I most certainly did. Again, it was a lesser-known tune, “Yiddishe Nightingale.” My musical director Alex Rybeck and I inserted “O Mio Bambino Caro” in Yiddish into the middle of the song. I came out shaking in my boots, because I’d only been singing out in the hinterlands, and suddenly there I was at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I remember sitting backstage with Alex and saying, “There must be step between a church in Upstate New York and Jazz at Lincoln Center.” Somebody very kindly said to me, “Yes, you’re the link between them,” which really was such a nice thing to say. It really put me on the map.
The second year was dedicated to World War II songs. I remember I finished my first song and was about to start the second, when I was interrupted. Out walked Debbi Whiting to present me with the Margaret Whiting Award—absolutely unbelievable.
SL: Your second album, “Manhattan Serenade,” debuted in April 2016 and won the LaMott Friedman Award for Best Recording 2017. It’s a big, heartfelt love letter to New York. During your 2016 show at the Metropolitan Room you told the audience, “My greatest love affair is with New York. Always has been, always will.”Although you were born in NYC, you grew up on Long Island. When did you first fall in love with the City?
CB: That quote was my segue into “Embraceable You,” and I sang it as a love song to the City. My point was that after a while, every song sounds like a love song to New York.
I have always belonged in New York City. I just knew I never belonged in the suburbs. I had a perfectly lovely childhood and adolescence, but every year my birthday present was a Broadway show. And every Saturday from junior high school on, I would borrow a Long Island Railroad commuter ticket from a friend of my father’s and I would come into the City and have a voice lesson. I would usually arrive an hour early and since my voice teacher was near Lincoln Center, I would park myself in the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. That was the highlight of my week. When it came time to go to college, I wanted to be near New York, so I went to Hofstra, where they have a three-quarter replica of the Globe stage. I got to be in the Shakespeare Festival. And every week I would still go to the City for my voice lessons. By the time I graduated, I had my SAG and Equity cards.
SL: Talk a bit about your early years after college, pursuing an acting career, and what led to your decision to join the corporate world.
CB: I realized that the one thing I hadn’t thought about was what the life was like, and I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like the constant pursuit of the job. Even when you got a job, once it ended, you had to start all over again to find the next. I decided to take a year off and I got a job as a secretary. I loved getting up every morning, knowing where I was going, and knowing what I was going to make. It turns out I’m really good at the things I do during the day, and I think this is the way it was meant to be for me.
SL: Although you took weekly voice lessons for 20 years (with the same teacher) while working a corporate job, you’ve only been performing for about seven years. What was the precipitating factor in your decision to finally take the leap and perform professionally?
CB: It wasn’t a good factor. My brother died. There are moments in your life that feel like atomic bombs, when there’s a crater in the middle of your life and you have to decide what you’re going to do with it. I remember saying to someone that it either leaves a hole or a space, and that I had to believe it’s a space or I’d lose my mind. The next question to myself was, “Well, what’s going to go into that space?” Someone sent me a paper weight that says, “What would you try to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I remember looking at it and saying, “I would sing.” That surprised me. I felt I’d never been a singer; I was an actor. Then I realized that I’d been singing for the last 20 years!
SL: What was your first public performance?
CB: I had done a little demo track of a couple of songs and I played it for my voice teacher in her living room. One of her other students, Sarah Rice, who was the original Joanna in Sweeney Todd, was finishing her lesson. She listened and said, “We have a group that gets together in a church upstate. You should come up and sing with us. There are just enough people to make you nervous, but you can sing anything you want.” I said, “OK,” but I really felt like I was going to the guillotine. It took my doing about six months of those performances before I stopped being nauseous for an entire week beforehand. I would send text messages to Alex right before I would go on: “Please, I want to make sure my body is left to medical science!”
SL: Your musical conductor, arranger, and album co-producer Alex Rybeck has worked with so many Broadway and cabaret greats: Michael Feinstein, Tommy Tune, Faith Prince, Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, and many others. How did you come to work with him?
CB: Just to be in Alex’s universe is simply amazing, as well as Jeff Harnar, who has been the director for both of my shows. Through a chain of networking, I was introduced to Ted Sperling, and then through him, to Alex. I knew of Alex through all of Liz Callaway’s albums. I said to him, “Full disclosure. I’m a corporate executive. I have no intention of quitting my “day job,” but I take the music very seriously.” He said, “Sure, come on over.” I sang for him, and he said the same thing my voice teacher said: “Are you ever going to do anything with this?” I said, “Well, I think I’d like to record something so I can hear what I’m doing.” So we went into a studio for three hours and recorded four songs. They were very raw technically. The owner of the studio came out and said, “Who are you?” Then he added, “I expect to hear great things from you.” And that was amazing.
SL: What advice do you have for other performers who may be afraid to take the leap?
CB: I was thinking about this walking down the street today: if you aren’t terrified periodically, you probably aren’t throwing yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s also important to find people who will respect whatever it is that you’re afraid of. They won’t dismiss it, but they won’t baby you, either. I think it’s OK to be afraid. If you do it for the right reasons—for the love of it or because you just can’t imagine not doing it—you’re going to be successful, no matter what anybody else says. It will be your definition of successful. You’ll go nuts if you’re only trying to please somebody else.
I just keep trying to put myself in the room with people who do things that I don’t know how to do. That’s all.
SL: What’s coming up next?
CB: This year the five women who were nominated for the MAC Award for best vocalist (Sally Darling, Meg Flather, Josephine Sanges, Lisa Viggiano, and Berk), came together to do a benefit for Trinity Place Shelter LGBTQ Youth Program. Our next program will be the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at Don’t Tell Mama, benefiting the University Community Social Services Meatloaf Kitchen.
Shari Lifland is a New York City-area writer who loves being in the room where it happens–on or Off Broadway.