I caught up with Jenni Burke and Michael Barber, the hosts of Curtains Down, a “wildly popular soiree that brings a sprinkling of Broadway, pop and jazz to the new and improved Statler’s Piano Lounge every Monday night!” in the upstairs space at Statler’s this Thanksgiving Monday. They are truly a delight to talk to and I was thrilled that we had a few moments before the show started to sit down and chat.
Amanda Campbell (AC): I know it seems silly to ask you this, but for the people out there who don’t know, could you introduce yourselves for me, please?
Michael Barber (MB): Should we introduce each other or should we introduce ourselves?
AC: You can introduce each other if you’d like. That could be fun!
MB: This is Jenni Burke. She is a beautiful actress and singer; she is very successful, successful on stage and screen. She recently landed a TV pilot-, which is really exciting! She’s also a wonderful singer and she performs every Monday here and every Friday at the Drake– which is a wicked space. She’s also totally connected, if you want to know anyone in the business; musicians, musical theatre stars… she knows everyone. She’s totally plugged.
Jenni Burke (JB): This is Michael Barber, and he is one of the few musicians who can play anything that you put in front of him. Which made him the perfect- the only person- to do a gig like this. He also has a delightful personality and he is compassionate to singers, and is loved by all near and far and he can really do it all. He’s a musician; he’s a musical director, and he’s worked all across Canada. He can lift, arrange, sight read… and the skill that is most amazing is that he really gets every style and Curtains Down is a perfect chance to bring all these [music] communities together. I didn’t know when we started that that was a goal of us here, but it’s become really important to me. He recently played in the pit for Spamalot here; he did that show with Martin Short…
MB: Martin Short’s one-man show.
JB: Yeah, Martin Short’s one-man show. He played for Lord of the Rings, basically he played all the big shows here. He did some stints at StageWest, he was a resident at the Stirling Festival Theatre. This guy is plugged in too. Especially in the jazz community. He went to Humber and studied jazz…
MB: Wow! You should be my publicist! You did such a nice concise little bio.
JB: You did a nice little bio for me too.
MB: You know, also we really respect each other, which makes these Mondays really fun. We get to really connect- we connect during the week to talk about the show- but these nights keeps us connected when we are so busy- in a busy business where you might not see people for… months at a time.
JB: We are juggling so much as artists, so getting to work with Michael every week is really a gift. He also has some pretty incredible people skills. You know, some musicians are really shy, but he can really help with the hosting gig, he actually enjoys-
MB: I love it. I really love the attention; I’m not going to lie.
JB: We have good fun.
MB: Is that more than you ever wanted to know? You can edit it down. You can just say, “Michael plays the piano and Jenni sings.”
AC: No, that’s good! I like it! I was also wondering where the idea for Curtains Down came from.
JB: That’s a good question. Julie Michaels, the booker of this room, and a jazz artist and singer, she would hire me to do one-night gigs here from time to time. She came to me with the idea of doing a cabaret here- and she was like ‘you know a lot of people…’ So we decided to do a three-week trial in April, and the response was through the roof. It was clear that there was a need in the community for a place for people to come together, so now the three-week trial has turned into six months, and they want to keep it going here at Statler’s. And we do too.
MB: We should say that Statler’s now has two fully functional stages. We should promote that.
JB: Yeah, we get everyone saying how great it is that Michael and I are doing the Cabaret, but really, it’s Statler’s that allows us to have it here. We really take over their Monday-, which used to be a down night…
JB: Yeah, and now it’s the busiest night of the week.
MB: At least that’s what they tell us.
AC: So, why do you think that it’s so important to have a space for performers- especially young people- to sing and promote their upcoming shows on a weekly basis?
MB: Well, it’s like Jenni said- there’s two real reasons. The first is, there’s the community supporting and performing for each other. Bust also, when you’re a performer, you need to perform- so if you’re between gigs, you can come and sing and you can get some feedback. I know some people come before their auditions to sort of give their songs a dry run. It’s a safe place too, so if you mess up… well, it’s better to mess up here than at Carnegie Hall.
JB: I think, yeah, there is an inherent need for a place like this in such an insecure business. Many people are still in the business just because there is a love and a need to perform in them, and sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of work- people have said to me that when they were feeling blue in their career or in their lives, they were so grateful to be able to come here and sing on a Monday night.
MB: The networking that goes on here is unbelievable. We’ve seen people who just met each other-
JB: Become best friends!
MB: Yeah, or end up working together. Musical directors hook up with singers… I’m not sure there’s too many other places like that here in Toronto. …Did you already talk about the show that used to happen like twenty years ago?
JB: No. When I first moved here I used to go to this thing called Curtains Up. It was at the Limelight Dinner Theatre- after the show closed- at like 11 o’clock, we would all get on the TTC and go there-
MB: So, it was really the community performing for each other…
JB: Yeah. I mean, anyone could go, but it was mostly us. And that’s where, as a young performer, I met so many people… from all sorts of different communities. Even among the arts community, there are many divisions between the styles- musical theatre and jazz, and singer/songwriters, and the pop community- just like the divide between musical theatre and “straight” theatre and film and television. I’ve always been idyllic and wanted to have a place where they all came together… people come up to sing something [at Curtains Down] and sometimes they say, “this isn’t a musical theatre song…”
MB: And that’s accepted.
JB: Yeah. Composers try out their new stuff. We’ve had famous jazz singers come sing. Measha Brueggergosman came and sang all these amazing songs without a mic and…
MB: We were all like “shit, she’s talented.”
JB: The mix makes it so much fun. We love all different kinds of music.
MB: We do.
AC: Well, it’s clear to me why Curtains Down is filled with all sorts of performers and musicians, but what do you guys get out of it? What are your favourite parts of Monday nights?
MB: For me it’s really, it’s a real buzz to have all these people together. It’s also the challenge- to sight read everything and to try to nail everything in front of the audience. I like the pressure and the people and I like working with Jenni. It really becomes part of my week and I like knowing that Monday, I’m coming here.
JB: I like being connected to this community- meeting all these new people, people- a new generation- that I don’t know if I would have met otherwise. They have such energy and enthusiasm and their unbridled joy and they’re so excited at the end of the day about what they’re going to sing next week. I also found that I get such joy from hosting. I had no idea. It’s one of those things where you have to just go with the flow.
MB: It’s like hosting a party every week.
JB: Yeah. I love getting to pick the theme. And letting go- knowing that it’s not going to be perfect- it’s still going to be magical. I’d also like to invite everyone at U of T to come either to sing or to listen. I always love hearing ideas for new themes. We’ve had reunions here and birthdays and holidays….
MB: Like today, it’s Thanksgiving. I’m serving up the turkey at Intermission.
Jenni Burke and Michael Barber host Curtains Down, a Cabaret that seeks to have artists come together weekly to share songs, stories, promote shows, to inspire one another and to celebrate being an Artist in Toronto. Monday nights, 8pm, at Statler’s Piano Lounge. 487 Church Street. For more information and to see the line-ups of singer from past and present- join their group on Facebook. “CURTAINS DOWN!!!! MONDAY NIGHTS@ STATLERS PIANO LOUNGE.”