Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interview with Michael Putman Estwanik of The American Songbook Project

By Byrne Harrison

Michael Putman Estwanik was raised in Cleveland and graduated from Boston College with majors in Psychology and Theatre Arts. In the 1970s he served as Dean of Admissions at San Francisco’s Lone Mountain College, well-known for its outstanding performing arts and fine arts programs. In 1978 he moved to Lake Tahoe to fulfill his dream of founding a theatre company - and being a ski bum. There he began giving historical tours of the Lake Tahoe region which led to his 30 year career in the global event planning industry which has now brought him to 62 countries and 49 states.

In 1991 he moved to New York City and continues to work as a global event planner and a volunteer in the entertainment industry. He offers exclusive invitation-only small travel programs called JAUNTs (Journeys for All Us Nice Travelers) to destinations such as Cambodia/Vietnam, African Safaris, Slovenia, Argentina, etc. For seven years he served as President of the Board of Directors of MAC, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. He has been a producer/investor of a few Broadway and Off-Broadway shows including Urinetown and Charles Busch’s Swingtime Canteen. He is often asked to speak at industry events on the topics of creativity and current trends in incentives and meetings.

In 1999, he founded The American Songbook Project, a charity organization whose mission is to preserve the American Songbook for future generations. He noticed that most young people only had access to rap and hip hop recordings which can often carry messages of racism, sexism, violence, and homophobia. TASP brings Broadway and cabaret singers into New York City schools so that our young people can hear some of the great American songs (both old and contemporary) that are part of their heritage. With these programs, TASP hopes to be planting the seeds for new songwriters, singers, and if nothing else, new listeners.

On Friday, November 4th, at the historic Hudson Theater, The American Songbook Project will hold their annual "Name That Tune" benefit. At this spirited gala, guests are encouraged to wear a costume depicting a favorite song title. Those wishing to compete in the costume contest are judged by a celebrity panel of Broadway stars and fashion aficionados (the winner gets more than bragging rights - the Grand Prize is a trip for 2 to Monte Carlo). There will be stage performances as well as a live auction of fabulous items, including travel adventures around the world.

Despite his understandably busy schedule, Michael took a moment to talk with StageBuzz about the upcoming benefit.

I have to start by saying that last year's Name That Tune benefit was one of the highlights of my year. I was amazed at the clever costumes and the talent that was assembled there. How did you come up with this theme?

When I lived in San Francisco back in the 1970s, I worked as Dean of Admissions at Lone Mountain College which had amazing performing arts and fine arts programs. One year it was my turn to host the Halloween Party, and I came up with the idea of having everyone dress as a song title. It was such a huge success that I repeated it several times. Then when I moved to Lake Tahoe and founded a summer theatre company, I used this as our annual fundraiser. I have seen some very introverted people attend these parties and have a blast because there is no way you can walk by anyone and not want to meet them and learn what their song title is!

You started The American Songbook Project to preserve and promote classical and contemporary popular American songs. In particular, you bring this music to the schools in order to foster the next generation of songwriters, performers and audience members. What have the reactions been like among students who may not be very familiar with the traditional American Songbook?

You really have to see it to believe it. Kids, like anyone in the world, embrace songs and music. Many of them don't know any recordings but rap and hip hop, so when a great melody is given some playtime they sit and think “Where have I been?”

Last year's benefit honored the incomparable Margaret Whiting and Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer. Tell me a little about this year's honorees.

We are honoring Broadway composer Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mabel, Milk and Honey, etc.) and Guild Hall in East Hampton. Both of them celebrated their 80th birthdays this year. You can listen to any of Jerry Herman’s scores and the one element that his songs have more than any other composer is this: so many of his songs contain lyrics that are not only uplifting, they are life-affirming. And beautiful Guild Hall has been presenting artists in concert of the American Songbook for 80 years. They are a model example of diversity in programming that any community arts center should admire.

With an honoree like Jerry Herman, I imagine we're going to hear quite a few of his songs at the benefit.

Not as many as we wish. There just isn’t enough time to do his treasury of songs justice. So we are only presenting three songs.

Who will be performing this year?

Our artists will include Andrea McArdle who starred on Broadway in Jerry’s Girls, plus Meredith Patterson (42nd Street’s Peggy Sawyer and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas) and Jeffry Denman (White Christmas).

You also have a fairly amazing set of celebrity judges for the costume contest -- Bravo's Chris March, Tony Award-winner William Ivey Long, Jane Kaczmarek, NY 1's Frank DiLella, casting director Tara Rubin and Cindy Hoddeson from the Monaco Government Tourism Office. How did you assemble this year's eclectic group?

They’re all friends and some of them were there last year. They know what a blast it is to be involved.

I loved last year's costumes. If I remember correctly, yours was "Try A Little Tenderness" and the winning costume was "Cry Me A River." What were your favorite costumes last year?

Oh dear, I would offend if I mentioned any and left some out. Best thing to do is visit our website and view the video from last year and judge for yourself!

Can you give us a hint about this year's costume?

You just have to come and see for yourself.

What would you say to anyone who is still trying to decide about coming to the event?

If you are looking for a way to spend an evening that 1) supports an important charity, 2) guarantees hilarity, great food and drink, and once-in-a-lifetime entertainment, 3) offers an atmosphere where you and a few hundred strangers can become fast friends simply by saying “what song title are you supposed to be…?" and 4) gives you a chance to win trips to Monte Carlo, Argentina, Ireland, Costa Rica, Beverly Hills, and many more, this is the evening of which you have been dreaming.

If there are people who are out there who may not be able to attend, but would like to support The American Songbook Project, how can they?

I understand this question all too well. Make a donation of any size. The reason we have this benefit is because we pay the singers and pianists who perform in our school programs. Our culture is always asking artists to donate their time and talents. Do we ask this of anyone else: bankers, plumbers, mechanics, bus and subway drivers, etc ? Never. We ask schools for a donation to offset our costs, but if they have no budget, we come anyway. We have never turned down a school who wanted one of our programs because they didn’t have it in their budget. So a donation of $10, $25, or $50 means a great deal to us. It goes directly toward helping us bring these programs into NYC schools where we can introduce this unique part of our birthright to young Americans who would never have access to it if it weren’t for us and the donations of our supporters.

The American Songbook Project's Name That Tune benefit will be held Friday, November 4th, 2011, at the Hudson Theater (145 West 44th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues)

6:30 - 8:00 Reception & Silent Auction
8:00 - 10:30 Dinner, Program, & Live Auction

For ticket sales, please contact: Claire Cashman (914.834.2868) or visit

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