Marilyn Maye: 96 Years (And Counting) Of the Great American Songbook

The legendary cabaret singer is celebrating her 96th birthday with more than 20 shows at 54 Below.

Marilyn Maye celebrating at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Kevin Alvey

It is written, sort of: When one reaches that remote age of 96, one can have as many birthday parties as one damn well pleases. Marilyn Maye, who hit that magical number on April 10, has already generously celebrated with 20 of her 7 o’clock shows at 54 Below. And now the partying has spilled over into May, with performances on May 2, 5, and 6. “I keep moving and keep singing, honey,” Maye tells Observer. “Positivity has a lot to do with it. That’s what I do. I don’t cook.”

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Her concerts are quick and constant sellouts, and the audiences are dotted with famous friends who show up to cheer her unique achievement. This year, Gloria Steinem, Lee Roy Reams, and Carson Kressley put in appearances. Last year, a contingent of contemporary chanteuses—Melissa Errico, Liz Callaway, and Donna McKechnie—came out to learn from her.

“The fans keep coming—those beautiful, loyal people who like what I do,” Maye says. “I don’t sing over their heads. I don’t sing to the balcony. I look them right in the eye and sing to them. I connect to them. I don’t sing for them. I sing to them. It’s like we are having a conversation when I’m singing.”

Show tunes are front-and-center for these birthday celebrations at 54 Below. Maye means it as a doff of the cap to the trio of Broadway producers who run the now-nonprofit nightclub: A Little Night Music’s Tom Viertel, Company’s Steve Baruch, and Back to the Future’s Richard Frankel. As soon as the birthday-bashing subsides, she’s off like a shot to other gigs—one in Palm Springs and another in New Orleans—but she’ll be back in New York on July 20 as part of the annual Jazz in July series at the 92nd Street Y. 

Like Barbara Cook, Maye is a great one for acting the words she sings, squeezing all the life and juice out of a lyric. “You gotta live the lyric,” she says. “You gotta entertain the audience. There’s an ego trip some take—I call it self-serving—when they hang on to an unimportant word or an unnecessarily long note. Who cares? We’re sitting there waiting for the next note. Entertain me. You gotta entertain me. I give up my time, my energy, my money to hear you. It’s your job.”

Story songs are a Maye specialty. Her most requested number—bar none—is a touching ditty that June Carroll introduced in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952 and that Nancy Wilson drove into our DNA: “Guess Who I Saw Today,” the torturously slow-acting lament of a housewife who accidentally discovers her husband philandering. “I think you can turn songs into roles—something personal you can play,” Marilyn says. “‘Fifty Percent,’ the 11 o’clock number from Ballroom, is a married man’s mistress who’s grateful for what she’s got.”

When nightclubs took a nosedive in the ‘60s, Marilyn’s ability to sing and act at the same time opened new doors—to summer stock. She took on two roles by Jerry Herman (Mame Dennis and Dolly Levi) and one by Cole Porter (Can-Can’s Pistache), then an assortment of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies girls: from Sally (“Losing My Mind”) to Carlotta (who has Marilyn’s personal anthem, “I’m Still Here”). Her Dolly experience led to her recording Marilyn Maye Sings All of Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (meaning the songs Dolly sings and the songs she doesn’t sing).

The Mame song that Marilyn most relates to is “If He Walked into My Life,” and that “He” has two crucial associations. It is possible that she might not have ever gotten out of her native Kansas had not the first “He,” Steve Allen, ambled into The Colony Club in Kansas City in 1963, caught her act, and brought her to New York to perform on his television show. On her fifth and final appearance, an RCA executive heard her, and seven albums resulted from that. 

While here to record them, she played clubs around town, including The Living Room where in walked the second “He,” Ed McMahon, who said, “You’ve gotta do The Tonight Show!” which she did—76 times. Johnny Carson had her on more than any other singer.  

Vocal training has been a major part of Marilyn’s life, and, in recent years, she’s reversed engines and gone to the head of the class to lead master classes in the art of performance. “Teaching has been very good for me,” she contends. “It seems to have given me an added dimension. Actually, I think that the best teacher is experience. The more that I work, the more that I learn, the more that I can pass on to people who really have a passion for singing.” 

Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s “Here’s to Life” and James Taylor’s “Secret of Life” are songs that bring Maye real pleasure to sing. “It’s such a great philosophy—living in the moment. It’s what I believe in, appreciating every single day of your life. I love closing shows with ‘Secret of Life,’ leaving the audience with ‘The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it.’” And Marilyn Maye does it better than anybody. 

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Marilyn Maye: 96 Years (And Counting) Of the Great American Songbook