Breathing New Life -- and Variety -- Into Primetime TV

He's been called the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, but Michael Feinstein--an internationally acclaimed performing and recording artist, archivist and historian--now has a new title: Television Pioneer.

Which is another way of saying that if you tune in to PBS this Friday and see a live, multi-generational parade of artists singing classic songs, dancing to a big band and cracking jokes, there's nothing wrong with your TV set.

It's a bold move by Feinstein and PBS to revive the variety show, a vibrant and venerable tradition--and if there's any justice it will find a permanent home on primetime television.

"Michael Feinstein at the Rainbow Room" (9 p.m. EST) celebrates the recent re-opening of New York's landmark nightspot atop 30 Rockefeller Center, and the glittering club provides the backdrop for a night of high-energy entertainment. With Feinstein as the performing emcee, backed by a swinging, 17-piece band under the seasoned direction of John Oddo, viewers may well ask: Why can't this kind of show be on TV more often?

Conventional wisdom has it that variety shows--once dominated by household names like Carol Burnett, Glen Campbell, Dinah Shore, Perry Como and Dean Martin--lost favor in the 1970s, as America's once monolithic TV audience fractured into niche groups. They began disappearing when viewers no longer flocked to a common ground of television entertainment, preferring to watch shows that catered to more narrow, personal tastes.

But Feinstein, a five-time Grammy nominated artist, wants to rekindle the flame. He's presenting a night of songs by George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and other giants, plus newer writers, hoping to attract a sizable, diverse audience. And this week's installment (a second show from the Rainbow Room will be broadcast by PBS on New York's Eve) features a dazzling blend of new and old talent.

June Squibb, Oscar-nominated for "Nebraska," almost steals the evening with the salty "I'm Living Alone and I Like It," from the Sophie Tucker songbook. Jessica Sanchez, an 18-year-old American Idol sensation, delivers a jazzy "I Say a Little Prayer." Feinstein performs his usual magic on classics by Cole Porter, Gershwin and Mercer, and there are stellar appearances by Tony-winner Christine Ebersole, TV and Broadway star Cheyenne Jackson and the tap-dancing Manzari Brothers.

Producing a show like this takes a staggering amount of work, and some may find it hard to believe that Feinstein has time to breathe these days: Besides the PBS shows, he conducts the Pasadena Pops and a new orchestra in Palm Beach; he hosts "Song Travels," a successful NPR show, and his Great American Songbook competition for high school kids is entering its seventh year; he's just recorded a new Christmas album, and his long-awaited new nightclub, "Feinstein's on Broadway," will open in June as part of an expanded entertainment complex at Birdland in New York.

During a recent interview, Feinstein reflected on the genesis of the Rainbow Room shows, and his latest foray into television programming--following an earlier PBS series on his passion for the Great American Songbook.

JG: How did the idea for this show come about?

MF: I had been talking with Paula Kerger, the head of PBS, and she wanted to continue our collaboration. But we mutually decided to try something different, and create the incarnation of a variety show, with a modern sensibility. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time.

JG. Why this particular form of TV entertainment?

MF: Well, the first thing it suggests is variety--having an assortment of different performers who somehow create a cohesive form of entertainment. It's all based on shows that multiple generations grew up enjoying but are lacking in the media today. There's a widespread belief that these shows don't work. The argument is that, 30 years ago, everybody watched Carol Burnett's show, where Kate Smith might sing a song by the Carpenters, but that crossover doesn't exist anymore. Our world is fragmented with niche-driven TV and recordings and they (TV executives) don't believe people would like a broader program.

JG: So why buck the conventional wisdom now?

MF: PBS is just as mindful of demographics and expanding its audience as any network, and we promised them that we would deliver a multi-generational show. To their great credit, they immediately understood the value and potential of this, and we got the green light.

JG: What are some of the other obstacles you faced?

MF: I think the biggest network fear is based on short attention spans. When I first did TV interviews and sang songs, they'd say, 'Let's do a 12-minute sequence with 2-3 songs." I could do a ballad for three and-a-half minutes and they didn't worry. Nowadays, they want me to do two-and-a-half minutes and sing a medley of songs! They're absolutely terrified that someone will change the channel and lose interest if you go longer - and that under-estimates the ability of the human soul to focus on something deeply creative and artistic.

The big difference with PBS is that they genuinely like what I do, and they're so wonderfully supportive. They didn't impose any conditions. They trust me, so it's really about the quality of the work. There was nobody saying, 'Let's hurry up the show, let's keep it moving.' We did a live performance in sequence, which is very unusual, and we built it around the great power of TV--which is that when you're looking into a camera, a viewer has the strong feeling that you're looking right at them.

JG: As a kid, what was the lure of variety shows for you?

MF: The best part was the excitement of not knowing what was coming next. There was a cross-pollination of music and people, and it had a real spontaneity. It was unexpected and fun. If you were watching Carol Burnett, you never knew which song, which character she'd do next. Actually, it would be great to have her on one of our shows.

JG: What's the chance of making this a permanent show?

MF: I think the best thing in our favor is that there is so much talent out there, all across America. We have so many people who are known as actors, really famous, but nobody knows that they can also sing or do a sketch. Beyond that, a show like this could be an important forum to introduce young talent. There are so many gifted young people today who have eclectic tastes, and we need to showcase that. Not every kid wants to be a pop star singing stuff you hear on the radio. I want to be a TV portal for those young performers, because nobody else is doing that.

JG: So we shouldn't expect to see a heavy metal band from Detroit on a future show, right?

MF: Not unless they sing Cole Porter songs! Who knows, we'd probably want to check them out!