Rock May Tumble and Punk May Crumble, but Michael Feinstein Insists Old Songs Are Here to Stay

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The second show is over and the waiters are stacking the chairs. Pianist-singer-music-scholar Michael Feinstein, still dressed in his tux, sits at a round table in New York's Algonquin Hotel nibbling a late supper. In a secluded booth off the Oak Room, where he's just performed, Feinstein is holding court for tonight's celebrities—Stephen (The Two Mrs. Grenvilles) Collins, Tammy Grimes and Roddy McDowell. They have stopped by to thank him for his moving renditions of Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Arlen, Berlin, etc. "Michael, dahling," says Grimes, who's wrapped in scarves and looks like a Hirschfeld caricature, "have you seen a French film called La Ronde? There's a duhvine song in it you must sing." "I think I know it," says Feinstein, who breaks into song, à la Georgie Jessel: "La Ronde the voild I searched for you!"

Sitting at a piano in the Oak Room, Feinstein could be an 8 X 10 glossy. He's devilishly handsome, with dark hair, blue eyes and a smile that goes up like a Cadillac V. He's there to please, but on his own terms. When a patron requested Stairway To Heaven Feinstein wrinkled his nose and said, "You don't really want to hear that." He then launched into a bitchy impression of Ethel Merman belting out a ballad.

Feinstein's impish humor and musical savvy have helped make him the new king of cabaret, the one to see and be seen seeing. Even Jacqueline Onassis, faithful to Bobby Short uptown at the Carlyle Hotel, recently snuck off to the Algonquin to check out this 30-year-old phenomenon, who spends most of the year on the road celebrating the music of pop's golden age, the '30s and '40s. During his nostalgic rendition of I'll Be Seeing You, tears welled up in Jackie's eyes. So far, Feinstein's two LPs, released by a small, independent label, have sold an astonishing 40,000 copies each. A third, Remember: Michael Feinstein Sings Irving Berlin, is due this month. And yes, that was Feinstein at the grand crooning, "I like New York in June, how about you?" in the NBC miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.

The Reagans were on to Feinstein early, having first heard him on New Year's Day 1985 at the Walter Annenbergs' house in Palm Springs (Feinstein is an annual attraction there). When Reagan approached the piano, Feinstein began improvising. After a pause, Reagan shouted across the room, "Hey, Nancy, he's playing the theme from King's Row, my best movie!" Last October, Feinstein performed at the White House and was invited to stay for dinner.

This July, at the Hollywood Bowl, Feinstein will appear as a guest artist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the death of George Gershwin. The name Gershwin has special significance to Feinstein. In 1977 lyricist Ira Gershwin, George's brother, hired Feinstein to catalog closets full of lyrics and music. At the time Feinstein was selling pianos in Los Angeles and doing free gigs at nursing homes. He was introduced to Ira through his wife, Leonore, a friend of June Levant, Oscar Levant's widow. Michael met June after phoning her to tell her he'd just bought some rare Levant acetate recordings at a music store in Los Angeles. For three weeks' work Gershwin offered to pay him $500.

The amount of cataloging was so overwhelming that Feinstein's stint was extended to six years, until Ira's death in 1983, a year after 90 presumed-lost Gershwin works were found in a New Jersey warehouse. "I became the son Ira never had," says Feinstein. "It was a love affair. It really was." Gershwin became father and teacher to his young charge. "Ira is the one who taught me how to interpret a lyric," says Michael. "He gave me a connection to the real thing. He encouraged my performing, telling me to practice, practice, practice. People say I gave him a wonderful life, but I couldn't have given him as much as he gave me."

Before his death at 86, Ira Gershwin named Feinstein literary executor of his estate. After Ira's death, his widow, Leonore, 86, was able to change that, causing a bitter estrangement between the parties. Feinstein has reportedly quipped that he's composing two pieces in Leonore's honor, Rhapsody in Bruise and Instant Recoil. "I don't recall saying that," says Feinstein with a snicker. "But I probably did. I mean it sounds like something I'd say."

Through Gershwin, Michael met such legendary lyricists and composers as Arthur Schwartz and Harry Warren, who have since died. "I feel I came along to meet these people at the end of their lives in order to perpetuate their music," Feinstein says.

At his piano in the best supper clubs from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, Feinstein often introduces a song with some musical history and spices things up with a never-before published verse. His cabaret cachet began in small L.A. clubs six months after Ira's death. He quickly then emerged as the rage of Hollywood. Liza Minnelli helped. The first time she heard him perform at a private party a bond was formed. "When he sings and plays a song, his delivery makes it feel as if it was written just for you," says Liza. Like Feinstein, she grew up memorizing almost every ballad and show tune. "He's one of the best friends I have in the whole world," she says. "He's as close to me as anyone in my family."

If there's another thing Minnelli has, it's show biz connections. On Feb. 22, 1985 she threw a bash at Le Mondrian so that 200 of her closest friends, including Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins and Gregory Peck, could hear Feinstein in action. "It was the kind of party if it hadn't been thrown for me, I wouldn't have been invited," he says. Since then it's been nonstop bookings. In the fall, he and Liza will do a concert tour of Europe. For his just completed engagement of 10 weeks at the Algonquin, he was paid more than any other performer at the 80-seat Oak Room, an estimated $9,000 a week.

Feinstein's suite at the Algonquin looks lived in (an L.A. condo is his home base), with sheet music, tapes and compact discs stacked everywhere. The afternoon light alters Feinstein's appearance. Although he sits tall at the piano, he's slight, about 5'7". "Friends tell me a transformation takes place when I sit down to perform," he says. His schedule has kept those friendships on a casual level. Michael is single and romantically uninvolved.

Feinstein admits he is not a great singer—or a particularly inspired pianist. What he does have is a great gift for soft-selling a song, for putting it over with such enthusiasm and warmth that it seems brand new. "I don't make myself more important than the song," he explains. "Of course my voice isn't technically perfect. If a singer gets every note right but there's no feeling, forget it."

Some other singers who have mined the past for musical inspiration get poor marks from Feinstein. There was Linda Ronstadt and her three nostalgia LPs with Nelson Riddle. "The only word I can use to describe what Ronstadt does is clinical," says Feinstein, carefully choosing his words. "She's not the real thing. She doesn't understand those songs." As for Barbra Streisand's Broadway Album, he says, "It's wonderful that she's done it, but she doesn't have what she used to have. The excitement, the pang I used to hear on her early records is gone. That's because she's now out for perfection. She's lost the emotion."

Feinstein says his method for nurturing the feeling in a song started in childhood. Born and reared in Columbus, Ohio, Michael was the youngest of three children. His father, Ed, was a salesman for a meat packing firm, and his mother, Mazie, a housewife and tap dancer. His parents have since moved to L.A. At 9, Michael's talent was noticed. "I took him to see The Sound of Music," says Mazie, who calls her son Tootsie. "After we got home I went in the kitchen to fix dinner. I heard him at the piano we'd just bought playing Do-Re-Me with both hands. I asked him who taught him that and he said nobody. I scolded him because I thought he was lying to me."

As a youngster Michael preferred collecting rare 78s of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Al Jolson to listening to the Top 40 favorites of his contemporaries. As for friends, he says, "I couldn't communicate with people my age. I didn't understand them. I was very isolated." Having hated high school, he skipped college and in 1976 settled in L.A.

Back on stage at the Algonquin, the shy kid from Columbus is now surrounded by people he understands. Elegantly dressed couples of various ages hold hands and quietly sing along: When the things you plan, need a helping hand, I will understand, always. In a world that Feinstein finds over-amplified and vulgarly sentimentalized, he offers proof that a more civilized era once existed. If that romantic time can't be relived, it can at least be revived—two shows nightly.

From Our Partners