As the longtime cabaret backers Adela and Larry Elow approached their 90s, their thoughts turned to today’s teenagers and what the Great American Songbook means to their future — whether they know it or not.
“Most of them aren’t aware of this music, because their parents are young people, too,” said Adela. Larry, a jazz pianist and composer in his earlier years, was more blunt. “Their parents are rock addicts,” he lamented. “But the songbook is our great legacy.”
To drive that point home, the couple, members of the board of trustees of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, created an endowment for budding singers, to be distributed as part of the organization’s annual New York Cabaret Convention. This year marked the third Adela and Larry Elow American Songbook High School Competition — and, because of Covid-19, the first to be held online for the 1st Virtual Cabaret Convention. As usual, competitors performed songs written between 1900 and 1970. Only students from New York City public performing arts schools requiring auditions were eligible, and this year the winner and finalists are all women. Four are artists of color.
The foundation’s artistic director, the cabaret veteran KT Sullivan, noted that several alumni of the competition are already rising stars — among them last year’s winner, Anaïs Reno, still only 16, who has performed at Birdland and Feinstein’s/54 Below.
“When these young artists perform songs from the American songbook for their peers, they all get excited,” Sullivan said. “Because the songs take us somewhere — they’re stories.” Reno, Savannah Lee Henry (this year’s winner), and the other 2020 finalists shared details of their own stories, and where they see themselves headed.
Anaïs Reno, 16
Born in Geneva, raised in Manhattan; class of 2021, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.
Influences “Definitely more dead singers than living singers,” among them Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Hartman and, recently, Carmen McRae. The daughter of a violinist and a former opera singer, Reno was self-conscious as a child about “only liking the old stuff. But the moment I didn’t care about what other people were doing anymore, I let myself love jazz without any apologies.”
Stage presence “This may sound clichéd, but onstage I feel the most myself; I can be free physically and emotionally,” said Reno, who is drawn to bluesy ballads. “I have a pretty dark tone, and I find myself attracted to the sad aspects of things — not morbid, but realistic.”
Teacher’s notes John Prestianni, a musical director and accompanist at LaGuardia, hasn’t taught Reno, but he admires her soulful alto and precocious interpretive powers: “What impresses me most is her confidence — to sing for an hour and 20 minutes at Birdland in front of 150 people with the lights low would be hard for most 40-year-olds.”
Signature song “‘Mood Indigo’ has become a staple because it has a lot of emotional depth, and I’m a sucker for the lonely thing,” Reno said. “But I’ve probably performed ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues’ more than any other song. It’s got so many layers; because of the melody and the feel, it’s saying, ‘You know what?’ I don’t need nothing but the blues.’ It’s proud in a way, and sassy.”
I have dreamed “I want to be a jazz singer, to record and perform and tour. That’s how I want to spend the rest of my life.”
Savannah Lee Henry, 18
Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; 2020 graduate of the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, now a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University.
Influences “Growing up, it was musical theater and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s music,” said Henry, whose mother turned her on to Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross. “My dad used to record musicals on our television, like ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘The Music Man.’”
Stage presence Henry has a lustrous soprano that can caress a ballad or shift to a supple belt. “I try to create a sense of warmth when I’m onstage,” she said. “I want people to see me perform and feel comfortable and supported.”
Teacher’s notes Jeff Statile, the artistic director of P.P.A.S. musical theater at Rosie’s Theater Kids, called Kelly “a dynamic performer, with vocal versatility and power. She is fit for the Broadway stage, with flexibility to pursue roles that carry both legit and pop sounds. A future star.”
Signature song “For college auditions, I was told to sing ‘Almost There’ from ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ and it totally worked, so I’ve been using it for professional auditions,” she said of the song from an animated Disney musical. “It’s just so optimistic; it radiates joy. And there’s a high note at the end, which people love to hear.”
I have dreamed “The dream for me is Broadway,” Henry said, adding that she hopes to inspire young artists as others did her. “If I succeed, then a little Black girl will have someone to look up to. People who need more representation onstage will see themselves there.”
Leonay Shepherd, 18
Born and raised in Harlem; 2020 graduate of Professional Performing Arts School, now a freshman at Pace University.
Influences “My mother is a huge musical theater enthusiast, so I grew up going to see Broadway shows.” “Wicked” and one of its leading ladies were particular favorites. “Kristin Chenoweth was my biggest idol ever. I really related to the character of Glinda; I’m super bubbly and I love pink,” said Shepherd, who also admires Broadway alumna Ariana Grande.
Stage presence Shepherd described herself as “a belter, though I’m working on my head voice and a mix of styles. I’m pretty energetic and bubbly, but I have a softer, more vulnerable side. I’ve found that in the characters I’ve played, and in me.”
Teacher’s notes Statile called Shepherd, who has also studied dance since childhood, “a true triple threat.” As the Leading Player in P.P.A.S.’s production of “Pippin” last March, “She brought wit, power and mystery to the role.”
Signature song “A song that I sing a lot is ‘I Hate the Bus,’ which I sang when I played Emmie in ‘Caroline, or Change.’ The character feels close to me because I spent a lot of time with her, and because of her youthfulness and honesty and rigor, and her insistence on change in world where she could have been complacent. It’s a really powerful song — and there’s a huge belt at the end.”
I have dreamed “I would love to do everything — Broadway and cabaret, and I’m open to TV and film,” Shepherd said, adding, “I’m half Puerto Rican and half Caribbean, and growing up, I didn’t see many people that looked like me in musical theater. So that’s another driving force in my head — I want another little brown girl to see that if I can do it, she can do it.”
Born on Long Island, raised in Far Rockaway, Queens; 2020 graduate of LaGuardia, now a freshman at S.U.N.Y. New Paltz.
Influences Weaned on R&B from the ’90s and early 2000s — Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson are favorites — as well as gospel, Poroye said that her LaGuardia studies “allowed me to expand my musical vocabulary. For the first time I was exposed to classical music,” along with jazz and musical theater.
Stage presence “To be honest, my performance style is a little reserved,” she said. “I’m definitely working on being more of a performer, being able to draw people in.”
Teacher’s notes Prestianni, who has coached Poroye, praised the versatility of her soprano: “I’ve heard her do opera and jazz, and it’s something to be able to sound like Kathleen Battle and then like Billie Holiday.” He added that she has a bit of dramatic magic: “Cabaret is about more than singing; it’s about being able to tell a story, and I feel like she can do that without even trying.”
Signature song “I sing ‘Burn,’ from ‘Hamilton,’ a lot. It’s a ballad. but it picks up speed and intensity, and it’s musically and lyrically and emotionally well-constructed, like a lot of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music.”
I have dreamed “I want to write and record and produce music,” Poroye said. “I’m also studying environmental science, and I’m interested in fighting climate change. But that’s not so much a backup plan as a passion.”
Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens; class of 2021, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School in Queens.
Influences “My mom used to play a lot of songs from the ’60s, and a lot of country, actually,” said Parasram, who also found herself drawn to ’90s R&B and older recordings by Otis Redding and Sarah Vaughan, as well as Amy Winehouse.
Stage presence “There is a weight that lifts off my shoulders as soon as I start to sing. I’m usually very quiet, but when I’m onstage I just light up.”
Teacher’s notes The voice instructor and chorus leader Steve Kirby has been struck by the “extraordinary color” of her tangy, rangy soprano. “Her voice lends itself to many genres,” he said. “She has so much talent that you don’t know which way to go with it.”
Signature song “‘Beyond the Sea’ is a good song for my personality because it’s very mellow, yet upbeat in a way,” Parasram said. “It’s a hopeful song, and I’m a hopeful person.”
I have dreamed “I write lyrics and come up with melodies in my head, though I can’t play them. I want to have my own take on music — to sing my own songs and jazz standards, with my twist on them.”
Kylie McNeill, 18
Born and raised in Manhattan; 2020 graduate of Professional Performing Arts School, now taking a gap year.
Influences The daughter of musical theater fans, McNeill grew up listening to original cast recordings of “Wicked,” “Avenue Q” and “Grey Gardens,” and worshiping Julie Andrews: “I used to watch ‘The Sound of Music’ and pretend I was her on the mountains.” McNeill also listened to Lady Gaga and Twenty One Pilots. “And I went through an emo phase,” she said. The original “Little Shop of Horrors” star Ellen Greene proved a more enduring favorite; a current one is Cynthia Erivo — “She’s just incredible.”
Stage presence “It’s taken me a while to find confidence, but I have,” McNeill said. “I just like to be true to the character or to what I’m singing, and not let my insecurities get in the way.”
Teacher’s notes “Underneath her introverted exterior, Kylie is a natural talent, with a sarcastic and comedic flair,” said Statile. “She brought subtlety to all of her work, and is an excellent listener.”
Signature song “‘I Can Cook Too,’ from ‘On the Town.’ I was assigned the song for a showcase in my sophomore year, and it was my enemy — because as this character I’m singing about how amazing I am. That was terrifying when I was 16, but now that I’m 18 I’ve learned to judge myself less, and singing it is fun.”
I have dreamed “I want to keep moving forward, stepping out of my comfort zone and expressing myself to the fullest — through singing, acting, songwriting.” During the pandemic, McNeill has been crafting musical comedy songs and posting them online. “I really miss theater, but for now, I can do it from my bedroom.”