Ann Hampton Callaway writes (and sings) the songs
By Gregg Shapiro
It’s indisputable that the gays love their divas. And, when said diva is a member of the community, as in the case of Ann Hampton Callaway, so much the better. While adept at writing and singing her own songs, and known for interpreting tunes from a wide range of sources, Callaway’s songs have also been recorded by Barbra Streisand, Janis Siegel, Donna McKechnie, Lillias White, Laura Benanti, Karrin Allyson, and Harvey Fierstein. A first-rate humanitarian and artist, Callaway took time out of her busy performance schedule to answer a few questions for OutClique magazine in October 2017.
Gregg Shapiro: What can you tell me about your process of writing songs for specific events such as “The Women’s March Song (We Stand, We Rise, We March Together),” written for the 2017 Women’s March, and “Carry On,” written for Hurricane Katrina?
Ann Hampton Callaway: 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.
GS: Regarding “The Women’s March Song” and your participation in the “What the World Needs Now Is Love” Broadway For Orlando project, can you please say something about your personal history of activism and how you see your role as an artist when it comes to activism?
AHC: When injustice, inequality, and hatred is 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 sixties 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 LBGT 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.
GS: Can you please say something about the writing process when it comes to creating music for movies, including the theme song from the TV show The Nanny and “Pourquoi” from the movie Blind?
AHC: 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.
GS: As someone who has numerous awards and citations to her name, including a Theatre World Award, 15 MAC 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?
AHC: 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.
GS: Do you have a place of honor for your awards?
AHC: 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.
GS: This interview is taking place while you are on tour in Europe. What have been some of the highlights so far?
AHC: I just finished singing on an RSVP riverboat cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest. Getting to entertain an American and international audience was a joy and hearing some of the native music from the Balkan countries was fascinating. I never knew that 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.
GS: In what ways do European audiences differ from American audiences?
AHC: 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.
GS: Your concert tour continues in the states throughout the fall and winter of 2017 and 2018. What can people expect from these shows?
AHC: 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.
GS: Will you find the time to record a new album in the midst of your very busy schedule?
AHC: I am recording my new CD Jazz Goes to the Movies November 14-15 ten days after finishing my Birdland run. It’s coming at an enormously busy time but hopefully on the heels of doing 10 shows, we’ll be deep into the songs and ready to do a great CD.
GS: Finally, I interviewed your sister Liz Callaway a few months ago when she was going to perform with the gay men’s chorus here in Fort Lauderdale. As you know, you have both long been embraced by the LGBTQ community. As an entertainer, as well as a member of the community, what does that mean to you?
AHC: My LGBT family means the world to me. We have a shared history of doing all we can to overcome the obstacles to equality, happiness and personal authenticity. The LGBT culture is a diverse and lively one and as a singer, it’s hard to beat the electricity of an audience well-represented by this kindred sector of humanity. When I was starring in Swing! on Broadway, my co-star Everett and I would listen for laughs at the start of the show and if we had lots of them we knew our brothers and sisters were out there and it was going to be an exciting show.