Ann Hampton Callaway writes (and sings) the songs

Westchester County’s Ann Hampton Callaway is as adept at writing and singing her own songs as she is at interpreting tunes from a wide range of sources, from the American Songbook to jazz standards to the singer/songwriter movement that began in the 1970s.

Callaway’s own songs have been recorded by an impressive array of performers, including Barbra Streisand, Janis Siegel, Donna McKechnie, Lillias White, Laura Benanti, Karrin Allyson and Harvey Fierstein. 

A humanitarian as well as a performing artist, Callaway took time out of her busy schedule — she recently recorded the CD “Jazz Goes to the Movies” after finishing her Birdland run — to answer a few questions prior to her March gig at Ridgefield Playhouse.

What can you tell us about your process when it comes to writing “The Women’s March Song (We Stand, We Rise, We March Together),” created for the 2017 Women’s March, and “Carry On,” written for Hurricane Katrina survivors but just as powerful for the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria?

“In times of strife, I sometimes find the only solace in coping with major challenges is writing a song. The emotion inside of me needs the power of music for release and the specificity of words for impact. I aspire to collective healing and reflection as well as collective action. I think of myself as a vessel and, if I can be a messenger of hope, then I feel I’ve done something useful.”

Regarding “The Women’s March Song” and your participation in the “What the World Needs Now Is Love” Broadway For Orlando project, would you talk about your personal history of activism and how you see your role as an artist when it comes to activism?  

“When injustice, inequality and hatred are moving to obliterate love, life and human rights, I turn to music to stand up and be a call to action or a voice of reason. I grew up in the ’60s with role models like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, who did not sit idle when there were wrongs to be righted. I cannot sit idle when hard-earned rights for women are being threatened and when the safety and rights of my LGBT family are in danger. How do we transform the violent energy in this world? By harnessing love and compassion through deeds and works. Music is a healer and a builder of bridges.”

Ann Hampton Callaway. Photograph by Bill Westmoreland.

Would you say something about the writing process when it comes to creating theme songs and music for movies, including the theme song from the TV show “The Nanny” and “Pourquoi” for the movie “Blind?

“Occasionally, I am fortunate when someone thinks of me for a project. I met Fran Drescher after a show of original songs I performed and she came up afterwards, telling me she wanted me to write for some upcoming projects. In order for me to write ‘The Nanny’ theme song, I interviewed Fran on the phone, which gave me the perfect line to describe her. I asked, ‘In a nutshell, who is Fran?’ She said, ‘She’s the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan.’

“I loved working with Sasha Lazard on the theme for the Alec Baldwin film ‘Blind.’ Sasha guided me each step of the way as we tried different approaches for some key moments in the movie. Originally, my song was going to be translated in French. But when I wrote a love song with the one French word ‘pourquoi,’ it felt correct for the scene when the two leading characters finally get together and share how they feel.”

As someone who has numerous awards and citations to her name, including a Theatre World Award, 15 MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets) Awards, two Backstage Bistro Awards, a Nightlife Award, a Johnny Mercer Songwriter Award and Broadway World New York Cabaret Awards, among others, what does it mean to be recognized in this way?

“It is lovely to be acknowledged by my peers and leaders of the music scene. We work hard for the sake of doing what we love and believe in. When people award you for these efforts, it is an honor and greatly reassuring.”

Do you have a place of honor for your awards?

“My platinum records are downstairs by my piano. My Tony nomination and awards you mentioned are upstairs in my office. When I look at them, I feel like I am on the right track. And a silver tray of my first MAC Awards has been used for many years as a prop in my show with my sister Liz, ‘Sibling Revelry.’ They’ve been on countless airplanes to countless cities.”

This interview is taking place while you are on tour in Europe. What have been some of the highlights so far?

“I just finished singing on an RSVP riverboat cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest. Getting to entertain an American, international audience was a joy and hearing some of the native music from the Balkan countries was fascinating. I never knew that (Dave) Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ was inspired by Bulgarian folk songs and their 5/4 meter. Hearing firsthand what it was like living through wartime and under the Communist regime gave me much to reflect on.”

In what ways do European audiences differ from American audiences?

“It depends where I am performing. Sometimes I feel European audiences are more sophisticated in their listening skills. London audiences used to be more reticent but have become more boisterous over the years. I love how Spanish jazz audiences are passionate about American music and know how to show the love even if they don’t understand all the words.” 

Your concert tour continues in the States throughout the winter of 2018. What can people expect from these shows?

“No matter what show I am doing, how big or small the venue is and whether I am doing a solo show or performing with my sister Liz or another wonderful artist, audiences can always count on me giving my all. I am baring my soul more than ever after going through many personal challenges. I will not hold back anymore. No Callaway show is without surprises of spontaneous fun, laughter and a few tears if I am doing my job right.”

Ann Hampton Callaway performs March 2 at The Ridgefield Playhouse. For more, visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.

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