Lounging around the lobby of London's Art Deco-inspired Savoy Hotel soaking up the 1920s atmosphere fit for a Fred Astaire movie isn't part of most ordinary jobs. But for Mary Cleere Haran that kind of drudge work goes along with the glamorous territory of being one of New York City's most celebrated cabaret singers.
A native of San Francisco, Haran began her show-biz career as a champion Irish step dancer and violinist. Both left her feeling unhappy and hemmed in. "Out of sheer frustration I started to sing," she explains. "Then I found I had a voice and it opened up a lot of things for me because I could get onstage and become free." She moved on to working in musicals but finally settled solely on singing at age nineteen when she saw Peggy Lee perform. "She was remarkable, bizarre, and seductive," Haran recalls. "It was all so feminine and sensual compared with the rock scene, which was so noisy and macho."
By the late Eighties Haran had moved from California (a state she refers to as "the birthplace of cultural bewilderment") to New York City. She became a fixture at nightspots such as Rockefeller Center's now-defunct Rainbow and Stars and the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel (where she still performs), gaining acclaim for her literate, well-researched, entertaining revues, which concentrate on individual composers (Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern) or themes (movies from the Depression, screwball comedies).
This Friday and Saturday, as part of the Manhattan Nights in Miami concert series, Haran will pay tribute to George Gershwin's 100th birthday with "The Memory of All That: George Gershwin on Broadway and in Hollywood." (She'll be joined by her accompanist, musical director, and sometime singing partner Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.) Although the composer's centenary occurred this past year, Haran firmly believes in Gershwin's timeless appeal both as a personality and a musician. "Of all the songwriters, he is the most romantic and mythic," she asserts. "Because of his early death [at age 38], the way he looked, and the fact that he straddled both worlds -- writing pop songs and concert music -- there is something so dashing about him. The music is so alive and it has such a distinctive New York jazz visceral kind of quality to it. What's great about the lyrics is that they're not that serious; they're playful and ironic and witty." Perfect for the singer who likes her poignant moments peppered with humor.
Earning a living by crooning tunes from the great American songbook may be a long way from Irish step dancing, but Haran has no plans to dust off her tap shoes anytime soon. "I love being able to make money doing this," she says. "It's a great job. I love the research, and I love to create kind of a world up there." As Gershwin said: Nice work if you can get it.