Michael Feinstein to Guest on "Sing! Sing! Sing!" with Will Friedwald This Saturday at 10 a.m.

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Michael Feinstein to Guest on "Sing! Sing! Sing!" with Will Friedwald This Saturday at 10 a.m.

Friedwald and Feinstein the Perfect Pairing to Celebrate Life and Work of Oscar Levant

By Matt Silver

Oscar Levant stars alongside Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris (1951).

Calling all Great American Songbook devotees: I urge you in the strongest possible terms to tune-in to “Sing! Sing! Sing!” with Will Friedwald this Saturday at 10 a.m., when Michael Feinstein, renowned vocalist and the foremost living authority on the Songbook, joins the show to celebrate the life and work of Oscar Levant, a polymath of prodigious talents and profound psychological struggles, who at various times in his life was the highest paid classical pianist in the country, a classical music composer and conductor, a memorable popular songwriter who composed music for over 20 movies and acted in several more (including the pretty famous one pictured above), and a pioneering comedic personality in midcentury America. 

Yet, despite presence and prominence in seemingly every artistic medium of his era's popular culture, Levant—and his eccentric, neurotic, multifaceted genius— is largely forgotten today, especially when compared to his contemporaries and close friends, George and Ira Gershwin, whom he revered and whose accomplishments and artistic legacies plagued his own sense of self-worth.

Over the past several months, Levant, dead since 1972, has reentered popular conversation as the subject of Good Night, Oscar, Doug Wright’s (I am My Own Wife) buzzy Broadway play starring Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes, who won a Tony for his unsparing portrayal of Levant, tics and all. With that production scheduled to end its Broadway run at the end of the month (August 2023, for posterity), it’s the perfect time for Friedwald to revisit this talented, troubled man’s life and legacy.

And Feinstein, as the foremost living authority not just on the Songbook but also the Gershwins, is uniquely qualified to speak to the contours of the Levant-Gershwin dynamic; it was through Levant’s widow June, a former vaudeville performer herself, that a 20-year-old Feinstein first met Ira Gershwin in July 1977. He ended up working for Gershwin for the next six years. Part librarian, part amanuensis, the young Feinstein catalogued and archived Gershwin’s extensive phonograph record collection and did the same for all of his unpublished sheet music and rare recordings.

Michael Feinstein. Photo by Gilles Toucas

“He introduced me to his peers and contemporaries,” Feinstein told me when I interviewed him for the Jewish Exponent in 2020, “and thus opened a world for me that was the most magical experience that stays with me to this day.”

Among those Gershwin peers and contemporaries, few would’ve been as talented and none as colorful as Levant—even if that color was often a very deep, dark shade of blue. And while Levant’s death predated Feinstein’s arrival in Los Angeles, the young Feinstein was privy to all the stories.

“He was an original,” Feinstein tells Friedwald. “He was true to his code, regardless of the price—and he did pay a price for his choices and eccentricities. And left a rather odd but enduring legacy.”

Learn all about those choices and eccentricities that made Levant's legacy so odd and so enduring by tuning-in to “Sing! Sing! Sing!” with Wall Street Journal music critic and KSDS’s own Will Friedwald this Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Come for Will’s comprehensive and generation-spanning dive into the Oscar Levant songbook, and stick around for commentary on the man playwright S.N. Behrman described as “a character who, if he did not exist, could not be imagined” from the modern American treasure who’s heard all the stories from the most authoritative sources, Michael Feinstein.

That’s this Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (PST) on KSDS Jazz 88.3, jazz88.org, and the KSDS app. And immortalized on-demand here.   

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