Joanna Morton Gary, 2015

Tell us a bit about your professional background.

I like to refer to myself as the last diva standing in what was formerly known as the borsht belt. During my tenure as the resident “girl singer” at the Nevele Hotel, Kutshers, and now The Villa Roma, I’d been blessed to share the stage with some of the greatest entertainers in show business history. Names such as Shecky Greene, Rita Moreno, Red Buttons, Tony Martin, Steve and Eydie, Robert Klein, and Alan King just to name (drop) a few. Working with, and worshiping at the feet of the show biz heroes I grew up watching on “The Tonight Show”, I paid attention and learned my craft.

That being said, for most of my career I’ve carved out a niche for myself as the “go to girl” doing whatever needed to be done, (entertainment wise,) kind of like a musical mercenary. I often take a gig saying “What do you need, and for how long do you need it?” I’ve had to be flexible to keep myself employed. What that usually means is, whatever the gig required me to do, I would do, and to the best of my ability. If there was cocktail reception for a business or political event, I’d sink my teeth into some quiet, jazzy Gershwin and Jobim. If they were having a party and wanted to rock the house, I’d belt out some classic Motown or Top 40. Wanna have a good ole’ country hoedown/barbeque, I’m there in a cowboy hat and boots singing some Reba or Shania. Thinking of putting together a nostalgia weekend, I’ve got hours of 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s songs I’m just dying to sing for you. Need an opening act for a show biz legend? I can accommodate you there, too.

When and why did you become involved in Broadway Direct Concerts?

I heard my childhood friend Sue Matsuki was performing with BCD and I popped in to say hi, and also to check out the show. I came back several times because I loved the concerts and have always had the dream of someday performing my own New York cabaret show….. (And let’s face it Sarah Rice is kick ass cool!) I hung around like a hungry cat after every show. Eventually Sarah invited me to join a concert and sing one song. I picked a very personal song that I had never gotten to sing, but desperately wanted to. Something that would make me feel like an artist. Something I could never “get away with” in a regular hotel set. Something that to me felt very risky, but I was ready to take that risk.

At rehearsal Sarah pulled me aside after I had run through my song, and I just knew I had blown my chance to sing with the group. It was the price I would pay for being too self-indulgent. Crestfallenly I waited for the blow. Instead she asked if I had two more songs. It was a shame I only had about TWO MORE HOURS of material with me……and…as they say…. the rest is history.

How do you pick songs?

I look at the season and the theme, who’s playing, where I feel the magic lies with the person at the piano, who’s singing, what kind of material is most likely to be covered, what the overall esthetic of the concert will most likely be. Then I ask myself what I’d really like to sing. I whittle down the three hours of material I’ve chosen to the top ten songs. Then I examine those songs, think about how I’d like to introduce them, what I think will be the most entertaining, most thought provoking, least self-indulgent, and then I decide to scrap the whole list and look again. I procrastinate like that for a few weeks until Sarah sends me the “last call” email demanding that I make a decision. Then I go with my gut.

How do you prepare?

I listen to my chosen songs on a continuous loop for a few days, many different arrangements/artists. YouTube is a great tool for that. Then I try to find the core of what the songs mean to me? How do the songs work in their own narrative? Where do they work in mine? What makes them personal? What gives them emotional value at this moment in time? Once I’ve done that, then I work through the lyrics as if they were a monologue. To whom am I speaking? Who am I when I’m in that moment? When I’ve done that, then I think about how to introduce them and present them in a way that will land. Then I think about the arrangements. What would be musically cool and dynamic, but also best serve what I’m trying to communicate?

Then the day of the concert I eat a small protein rich meal right before I leave home, do a vocal warm up in the car on my way to the space, pray I’ve downloaded the music in the right key, and that I remember all my words.

What do you like about performing?

Without a doubt….The chance to make a memory. Very early in my youth a fellow hospitality worker told me “We’re not here to make beds, hamburgers, or drinks. We’re here to make good memories that will last a lifetime”. I’ve never forgotten that. I always try to carry that with me. No matter where I go, what I do, even when I get lost in all the mayhem and hullabaloo, I always go back to that principal….I’m here to make a memory.