St. Louis is no stranger to having legendary performers come from our fair city. Josephine Baker was born here, Tina Turner met Ike here, and Chuck Berry always seemed to be a musical ambassador for our city. It only makes sense for Emery Entertainment to key in on St. Louis’ love of music and bring in the Artists Lounge Live, a series of performers who pay a loving homage to some of the biggest singers in the business. Spearheaded by Michael Ingersoll, who has an impressive resume including Broadway’s Jersey Boys, TV’s Chicago Fire, and appearing in the silver screen production of Walk the Line.
I got the chance to spend some time with Ingersoll in which we talked about what Artists Lounge Live means to him, his undying love and affection for each of his performers, and what it’s like to perform with his wife, Angela, who is known for her flawless performance of one of the greatest musical divas of all time—Judy Garland.
Jim Ryan: How did you come up with the idea for the creation of Artists Lounge Live?
Michael Ingersoll: I was in the first National Tour of Jersey Boys. I played Nick Massi of The Four Seasons in Jersey Boys for three years and that’s where I was introduced to the concept of baby boomers and their parents going crazy over young people singing their favorite songs.
We had over a million people see it in Chicago alone. So immediately after Jersey Boys, the four of us that were playing The Four Seasons at that time formed a group called Under the Street Lamp. Under the Street Lamp is a ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop group. We began making specials for public television. Under the Street Lamp made three PBS specials. We then toured nationally and internationally all on this concept that there’s still an audience out there that loves just to hear this music live done at a really high level. So basically, we’re giving these folks an opportunity to experience this nostalgic ‘50s and ‘60s music live at a Broadway caliber level.
What we’re doing is using Broadway performers who embrace these catalogs. We’re not only singing the music, it’s a show as well. The artist is sort of a liaison for that star’s story. So you learn about what was happening in the icon’s life when they were making this music. We want it to be the kind of evening that totes that Pixar line where its “family friendly for everybody” but there’s some there’s some mature humor as well. We’re not the kind of show that’s ever going to drop the F-bomb, but that doesn’t mean that things are always milquetoast.
That’s where Artists Live Lounge came from: seeing that audience be hungry for that music and then wanting to deliver it to them at a really high level.
How many tribute artists do you promote?
Well, it’s funny—I wouldn’t call them tribute artists because it’s not necessarily what they do. You know, they’re actors, they’re storytellers, they’re musicians that happen to be embracing this catalog. I think that tribute artist can sometimes have the connotation of something cheesy, that’s out of Vegas. What we’re doing is we’re taking people that are at the top of their game, that have put in their 10,000 hours, that just happen to be singing our country’s [musical] story.
The gentleman that’s doing Nat King Cole [Evan Tyrone Martin], for instance, is a regional theater actor in Chicago. He is an incredible actor, multi-award winner, but he has a huge love for Nat King Cole and he delivers the catalog beautifully and he’s a storyteller. So, the stories are coming from somebody who is great at doing that, who’s great at weaving that spell throughout the evening.
But the you know the short answer is about a dozen at any one time, different ones come and go, but you know we’ve got artists that celebrate Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, Jackie Wilson and the Motown era, and Paul McCartney.
Are there any artists that you wish you would have in your repertoire?
I haven’t thought about things that way because each of these concerts are things that we create from the ground up. We match the catalog to the performer or the performer to the catalog depending on how I know the person. We create the set list together, we create the narratives together, the flow of the show together so I haven’t yet sought something that has already been done. This is content we’re creating and it’s in the tradition of what I learned in Jersey Boys.
Do the artists present a complete transformation or do they put their own spin on the artist they represent?
I wish there were a simple answer, but I’ll do my best. These are not impersonators. They do not pretend to be Elvis, they do not pretend to be Judy Garland. They come out as that person’s ambassador, that memory’s ambassador. [My wife] Angela is singing the material, telling Judy’s stories, and Angela is telling her own stories. It just so happens that when she opens her mouth to sing “Over of the Rainbow,” it’s almost ghostlike because you feel like Judy is in the room. Our artists embrace their treatments, their style, their vowels. They embrace some of their most iconic choices, but it’s a three-dimensional embodiment.
It’s not a cheap copy, it’s not a silly tribute, and I’ll just tell you, here’s the difference: If somebody walks out on stage and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Judy Garland and tonight we will be…” your audience members crosses their arms and sits back and says, “Oh, well, we’ll see about that. I’ve seen Judy and I know Judy.” So now you’re you know you’re working from that point of view.
However if your singer comes out and says “Hi everybody, I’m Angela Ingersoll and today we’re going to be celebrating Judy Garland,” by the third song, or sometimes by the third note in Angela’s case, the audience goes, “Damn! that sounds like Judy Garland.” It’s a subtle and incredibly important difference and distinction in terms of the context of what you’re doing in that circumstance.
As you’ve said, your wife Angela pays homage to Judy Garland. How did she choose that icon?
Well she’s been rehearsing for it since she was five. She has loved Judy her entire life, ever since she met her as Dorothy in the The Wizard of Oz. But the reason that she embraced it so significantly in terms of branching out into a concert career was when she played the role of Judy Garland in a play called End of the Rainbow. It debuted on Broadway and in London. When she played Judy in Chicago, The Chicago Tribune said she was the best Judy Garland Chicago has ever seen barring the icon herself. And then The Sun Times said it, and then Time Out Chicago said it, and then a lot of other people said it, and the show began selling out. When the press and the community reacted to her portrayal with that sort of enthusiasm, we knew that we had something special.
The goal is that I want somebody who remembers being in the room with Judy or Nat or Elvis or Bobby Darin, who remembers being in front of their television set when the music was new and remembers what that feeling felt like. When people come to one of our shows I want them to feel the way they felt when they were watching Judy herself. Not that they’re fooled that it’s her, but that the feeling in their gut is, “Oh my goodness, I remember these emotions, and I am so glad that I get to feel all this one more time.” That’s our goal.
You were in over 1300 performances of Jersey Boys. Can you talk about that experience?
It was the highlight of my career. I was there to work with the original Broadway team, I was there to work Frankie Valli, I met Bob Gaudio. We performed on the Oprah Winfrey show, we performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, we performed on the Emmys. We were largely treated like the band, like The Four Seasons, which is kind of amazing to be an actor and you step into a role in a juggernaut that’s so big and it’s so good at helping the audience suspend their disbelief. I got to pretend to be a rock star for a few years—that really was cool as hell, it was amazing.
A lot of these people, they experienced this music during Vietnam, during the Korean War. This music brought back serious memories for these people, both when they were getting married and now [that] their partner isn’t here anymore. I mean, huge life events. And so when they were in the audience for Jersey Boys—I mean it’s an amazing story, but you can see from the stage these people being so deeply touched by being able to experience this music three dimensionally on this scale.
Seeing people that happy—I mean in just two hours later they were that happy and on their feet every single time, 1300 times in a row—it felt like you were doing something good for people. You felt like you were doing something that was worth your time, that surpassed entertainment. That’s how I got bitten by this bug and I wanted to carry that forward and continue serving those people in that way.
When I saw Jersey Boys here in St. Louis and they told the story of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” it kind of blew me away.
Oh my goodness, yes! Who knew? That’s really where I was like, if you can introduce the context of a song to an audience who might not know the context, they will listen to that song like they have never listened to it before. And the song is forty years old, but see, that’s a new experience, that’s a new and powerful and indelible experience. That is exactly what we’re creating with the Artists Lounge Live Series. That is exactly where I learned it and how powerful it is, from Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice—they’re brilliant.
The first show you’re bringing to St. Louis is Elvis My Way. What should we expect from that show?
Brandon Bennett played Elvis in the Chicago a run of Million Dollar Quartet for three years. So again, you know it’s somebody who’s a great storyteller. He is from Ponchatoula, Louisiana. So, having a person come in and sing this music he was born to sing—I mean, look at him. For the love of God, he looks just like Elvis. He comes from the land of where that music was being made, so you can expect an authenticity—a simple, sweet, humble and funny authenticity from Brandon. When his energy meets Elvis’s music, it feels like the same energy that Elvis approached music [with] because they’re from the same land, they’re from the same people, there from the same ninety-five degree summers with a hundred percent humidity.
The thing I love most about Brandon is that he’s so tender with this music that you get the full emotional impact of the sweet songs. But when he decides to really rock out, it’s very hard to stay in your seat. When he’s doing “Blue Suede Shoes” and “That’s Alright (Mama)” and “(Let Me be Your) Teddy Bear,” he just commits his ass off. So that’s the thing, it’s not that he looks and sounds a ton like Elvis, it’s that he commits with the energy that Elvis committed to his music. That’s when the audience knows they’re watching something that feels authentic.
Is there any chance that you will bring Happy Together, where you and your wife perform together, to St. Louis?
Oh, hell yes. If we are invited to bring that to St. Louis, we will be here for sure.
What kind of songs do you sing together?
Man, its anything from sweet to silly. We do “Islands in the Stream,” Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love,” but we also do solos as well. I do “Save the Last Dance for Me” from The Drifters, Angela does some Judy Garland stuff, but she also does some Donna Summer. It’s eclectic and fun. Here’s the other thing —Angela is hilarious. She is the Jerry to my Dean. I get it in the kisser all night long. She is so damn funny; she’s such a hot dog and I just take it. The audience really likes to see me get a licking and I get one.
The biggest thing is we don’t take ourselves too serious. I would say that’s important not only about our show but about all the Artists Live Lounge shows. A lot of people think that they’re coming to see a tribute show and in some respect of course they are, but I want them to leave thinking “Oh my god! I never expected to laugh that much!” or “I certainly didn’t expect to cry and I did both.” Then after the show, our artists are always the last to leave the lobby. Anybody who wants to take a picture, to say hello, to share a story, I want them to be able to meet that person and have that be a three-dimensional experience in relationship.
And they stay until the very last person has had an opportunity to say hello so they can thank them in person for making their performance possible.
That culture of gratitude is one that I think is often lacking in the entertainment industry and certainly in the very plastic entertainment industry and I think of that culture of gratitude is something that’s very important for anybody who steps on a stage under the Artists Lounge Live umbrella. │Jim Ryan
The Artists Lounge Live series kicks off with Elvis My Way from November 2nd – 5th, then brings An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas from December 7th – 17th, and continues with Judy Garland: Come Rain or Come Shine April 12th -15th. Please visit www.playhouseatwestport.com for show times and ticket prices.
You can also learn more about the Artists Lounge Live at www.ArtistsLoungeLive.com