She does jazz. She does cabaret. She does musical theatre. And for a few precious evenings, Marilyn Maye did Provincetown.
There are a lot of singers about whom one says, “oh, yeah, right, them, they’re okay.” That doesn’t happen with her. The world is clearly divided into two groups of people: people who fanatically and frantically adore Marilyn Maye–and people who have never heard of her. That’s it. To know her is, very simply, to love her.
Ella Fitzgerald called her the “greatest white female singer in the world.” For Johnny Carson, she was the “Super Singer” (and he had her on his show for a record 76 appearances). She’s been named an official jazz legend by the American Jazz Museum and is listed as one of the best performers of the best compositions of the 20th century by the Arts Council of the Smithsonian. She has been heralded throughout her career for her amazing vocal dexterity, the sheer excitement, boundless energy and authenticity of her performances, and the unique party atmosphere she creates wherever she appears.
That’s the word she uses, too: party. “It’s always a party,” she says. “It’s always a lot of fun. It’s called entertainment for a reason!”
I had the privilege of interviewing Maye in 2011 when she first started performing in Ptown–though even then it wasn’t her first visit. She’d been renting a house near Commercial Street for three summers already, “and I saw all the performers,” she says during this year’s show, “and I thought, why can’t I do that?” It’s a modest anecdote from an acknowledged superstar. She confessed that when she first floated the idea, she was told Ptown expected drag queens. She had the perfect answer: “So I’ll tell them I’m a drag queen!” she said, then added, “well, a conservative one!”
Producer Mark Cortale was obviously thrilled, and so have been all her Ptown audiences ever since.
In fact, I really have to talk about her audience for a moment. Sold-out, standing-room-only shows, and I have never seen people respond to a performer the way they respond to Maye. There was a veritable stampede for seats (“usually you only get that with the drunken crowds,” confided one usher) and the cheering began even before she stepped onstage.
And what a stage presence! Maye turned 90 this year and has the energy of someone a third that age. She sings, she talks, she dances, she kicks–while wearing heels, mind you—and all the while every single audience member feels she’s addressing them, personally and directly. It’s part of who she is. She establishes an immediate and transformational rapport with people who listen to her, and you would swear when that happens you’re the only two people in the room. That’s not a device; that’s a gift.
But the real gift is the voice. In turns husky and honeyed, it’s the voice of a thousand smoke-filled nightclubs, the voice of glamour and mystery and late nights and doomed love affairs. She hits notes that probably have other professional singers running back to their coaches, and does it with grace and a definite personal je ne sais quoi. Maye takes your hand and leads you into her world… and you never want to leave it again. That’s all right, because Maye’s in no hurry for you to leave; she’s as generous with her time as she is with everything else.
Performing as always with a simple trio–bassist Steve Doyle, drummer Daniel Glass, and of course pianist and singer Billy Stritch, who has been performing with her since he was 19 years old–Maye’s amazing energy, perfect voice, and dynamic stage presence are a rare treat. An extra show was added on this year; make sure you get your tickets early for next season’s performance, and in the meantime see if you can’t make your travel schedule coincide with hers to hear her at one of her other venues; they’re all listed at marilynmaye.com.