“If Carole King can do it, I can do it,” Neil Sedaka told an indulgent, golden-oldies crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday night. And with that, the 75-year-old pop songwriting legend announced his next project: a Broadway show.
Carole King is Sedaka’s former squeeze; they dated in high school, when she was simply “Carol Klein.” The muse for the current Broadway smash Beautiful also inspired Sedaka’s 1958 hit “Oh! Carol.” Is there room on the Great White Way for a little jukebox one-upmanship?
As an encore, Sedaka gave the Strathmore audience a taste of one song from the work-in-progress biomusical, referring to a slip of paper atop the Steinway because he “just wrote it,” he explained.
A rough transcription:
“I stand onstage, go through the paces
that’s been a dream of mine for such a long time
It has consumed my every waking moment
No one can change this heart of mine.
I’ll keep this dream alive inside me
There’s something deep within that keeps me going
I won’t be satisfied until I’m showin’
That I can reach you with my song.
And when I come out on the stage
I seem to come alive in sharing my devotion
And I’ll make sure I please the crowd
The message from my heart that reaches your emotion.
I’ll try to touch you with my soul
Until I open all the doors
And now I give my heart to you
I do it for applause.”
Few artists can be described as the backbone of the music industry, but Neil Sedaka tunes have been covered by the best, from Frank Sinatra to Frankie Valli, ABBA to Queen, Homer Simpson to Elvis, as an opening slideshow reminded. Sedaka later made the point, though, that he wrote only one song “on assignment” for someone else that he didn’t first record himself: “Where the Boys Are” for Connie Francis, featured in the 1960 film of the same name.
And he sang it for us, in his still-crisp tenor-altino chest voice — so beautiful it seemed to make even him teary-eyed.
“I’m a crier,” he confessed to the audience. He cruised through the 1950s tra-la-la and doobie-doo American Bandstand songs he was first famous for — “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (the original version), and “Calendar Girl” — each song floating on a sentimental breeze like a torn-off calendar page. But he finally landed it by mining hits from his comeback years on Elton John’s Rocket Records label: “The Hungry Years” (which elicited his first standing ovation of the evening and a request from the audience), and what he calls his “miracle song,” “Laughter in the Rain.” The crowd added thunderous love, leaping to their feet after the next four songs. Sedaka was visibly moved.
Sedaka’s back? He never left. His 60-year career — songwriting since age 13, mimicking harmonies of Les Paul and Mary Ford, and forming his first band in high school, The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) — has out-lasted the love that didn’t keep The Captain and Tenille together. “Solitaire” has been covered by no fewer than 60 artists, by his count. Between 1959 and 1963 he sold 40 million records.
But what makes him a consummate entertainer is that he’s still selling records in 2014, ever catering to new audiences: from the classical set — he is Juilliard-trained and is simultaneously touring with resident orchestras nationwide to showcase his first-ever symphonic piece, “Joie de Vivre” — to the neophyte set, with a children’s album he did as a token to his grandkids, reinventing lyrics to suit them: “Waking Up Is Hard to Do,” “Where the Toys Are,” etc. There’s even an all-Yiddish album in his tool chest, and it was a song from that release, requested by a “forever young” man in the front row, that released a floodgate of audience tears: “My Yiddishe Mamme.” So soon after Mother’s Day.
From that, he moved gracefully and seemingly improvisationally into Frederic Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, Op. 66. This is when the tears truly flowed for me, because (personal note alert) that was the last piece I mastered in a short-lived classical piano career, recalling my own mother’s joy each time I played it. Perhaps his mom, Eleanor, was also on his mind.
Among lighter moments: Sedaka moved aside to share a time-capsule clip, “the first-ever music video,” which he took credit for in 1961 to accompany “Calendar Girl.” Belly laughs ensued as cheeky blondes in early-Lady Gaga-esque outfits paraded past his goofy cutaways and dances. Well, Sedaka proved Friday that he can still cut a small area rug, as he high-kicked during “Love Will Keep Us Together” and shuffled or soft-shoed to vary the pace from pacing to perching at his Steinway. The man’s fairly adorable.
There were a few awkward moments. When he invited backup singer Jennifer Somo to sing what was formally his 16-year-old daughter’s part in “Should’ve Never Let You Go,” she stood downstage in a restrictive torch-style gown largely with her back to the audience, singing to him upstage. He also did not fully introduce his band, whose groovy, aging members deserved much credit for the drippy synthesis. They especially went to town on the jazzy 1976 version of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” a promised highlight for his Broadway show. (This critic’s advice on that: Stick to the voluminous tried-and-true material.)
“Don’t say that this is the end,” his Strathmore fans seemed to plead as they indeed were hard-pressed to break it up. When they begged for another, more substantial encore, Sedaka made the international gesture for “sleepy time” and swiftly exited.
Guaranteed, he’ll be back.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
(opening montage of cover artists and music clips)
“Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen”
“Where the Boys Are”
“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (original version)
“Next Door to an Angel”
“Should’ve Never Let You Go”
“Love Will Keep Us Together”
“The Hungry Years”
“Laughter in the Rain”
(“Calendar Girl” music video interlude)
“My Yiddishe Mamme”
Frederic Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, Op. 66
“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (slow version)
Untitled selection from “The Life of Neil Sedaka” (working title) Broadway show