A Conversation with Chris Wells

| June 24, 2017

A Conversation with Chris Wells

June 24, 2017

By Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes

Cabaret Scenes sat down with The Secret City’s founder, Chris Wells, on the eve of its 10th anniversary, to discuss I Love a Gershwin Tune: A Gershwin Cabaret. The Obie-winning organization’s fundraiser will be held on Monday, June 26 at the former penthouse of Ira Gershwin. (For tickets visit www.thesecretcity.org). With the incomparable Tedd Firth on piano, the evening will feature a diverse group of singers and actors who share a love of the legendary songwriter.

The Secret City began in October 2007 when four friends on the floor in a room on 14th Street discussed “a monthly event celebrating creativity, community and connectedness.” Described as “part ceremony, part salon, [and] part show,” each gathering has “a different theme and an ever-changing roster of artists and performers.”

To encourage participation by all lovers of art, events are free (with a suggested donation) and include a potluck, coffee, as well as childcare. After moving to Dixon Place on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2010—where Wells debuted his new musical, It Will All Work Out, in 2017—The Secret City moved to the West Coast in 2012. Quarterly shows ran at the Bootleg Theater in Silverlake, Wells’ home before his move to New York. 2013 witnessed a third expansion of The Secret City, with a Hudson Valley debut at the historic Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock.

Victoria Ordin: As I read about the history of The Secret City, your Obie-winning project nearly ten years old, I noticed the recurrence of the word “joy.” It’s a long way from 14th Street, when you and three others sat on the floor to discuss a project that would bring together a wide range of performers! What prompted you to create this community? What did you initially envision?

Chris Wells: I was living in the city and feeling like the economy and the political climate were driving creative people away, as well as providing fewer opportunities for connection that wasn’t about having or spending a lot of money. I envisioned a gathering that was an offering to the creative community—an event and a place that would inspire and bolster people of all kinds using art and performance. At no cost and with free childcare! And a coffee hour afterward. 

Victoria: That makes sense. The financial crisis hit the city so hard and even those who previously had substantial disposable income for theater or music had to dial back spending. I see The Secret City moved to Dixon Place in 2010, the venue where your wonderful musical, It Will All Work Out, enjoyed a successful run this past spring. Did these two projects feed into one another?

Chris: Absolutely. I started working with Jeremy Bass [musical director on It Will All Work Out] on songs years back. So many of the songs in the show span the past seven to eight years. We have a large catalog now, so the show features just a few. And the stories in the show are drawn from my collected stories that I wrote for The Secret City, so yeah, the show very much reflects the content of The Secret City.

Victoria: What made you decide on Gerswhin for the gala this year?

Chris: The venue is the home of one of our board members, Karen Sloe Goodman, and her husband Paul Goodman. And she offered it as a spot for a fundraiser. When she mentioned that it had once been the home of Ira Gershwin I thought, “We have to have an evening of Gershwin music!” Karen is a huge music fan and even has her own bluegrass band—The Shovel Ready String Band—so they’re more than comfortable with live music in the house. And there’s a beautiful old upright piano in the living room.

Victoria: The space sounds heavenly. Can you describe it?

Chris: Yes. It has this incredible wrap-around deck with the best views of New York City I have ever seen. You can see the Hudson, the Palisades, the Harbor, uptown, downtown and the entire West Side. We decided summer would be the best time.

Victoria: Once you settled on Gershwin, how did you go about picking performers?

Chris: That was the fun part. I thought of all of the  wonderful singers I know who know how to sell a song and have a style about them. I reached out to folks who’ve performed at The Secret City in the past, and a couple of people who are new to us who come through friends of The Secret City.

I’m thrilled at the line-up. Julian Fleisher is an old friend and I’m a big fan of his incredible voice and charming swagger. He’s performed in a bunch of musicals—Coraline, February House—and is known for his shows at Joe’s Pub with his Rather Large Band, as well as his work at WNYC.

Eisa Davis is also someone who’s got great experience with her own material, as well as interpreting others. She performed at our most recent Secret City event at Joe’s Pub — last Sunday– and sang one of her original tracks. Eisa is also an award-winning playwright and actress, having appeared in Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park and Passing Strange at the Public and on Broadway.

Nancy Harms is a wonderful jazz singer who was introduced to me several years ago and came to The Secret City awhile back when we presented some swing music. Nancy often is at the Metropolitan Room and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and works internationally a lot. She’s one of the best jazz interpreters out there.

Sally Ann Triplett is someone I met recently through Jennifer Maidman, the fantastic U.K. bassist who played in my show It Will All Work Out this spring. Sally appeared on Broadway in Sting’s show, The Last Ship, and in Finding Neverland. She’s also a star of the West End where she played Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes.

Erik Liberman is a pal and such a beautiful singer! He’s appearing right now in War Paint on Broadway, and was in that wonderful show about Kurt Weill called LoveMusik.

Diane Davis comes to us through Saidah Arrika Ekulona, a fantastic actress who happens to serve on our board. Saidah has been a huge help in making the evening happen. She knows Diane from Williamstown and brought her on board to be part of the event. Diane has appeared on Broadway [Festen, Old Acquaintance], Off Broadway, regionally, and all over TV and film.

To make the evening extra special, I asked pianist extraordinaire Tedd Firth if he would be the musical director and also provide accompaniment. I’ve worked with Tedd a bit in the past and have enjoyed many of his live performances from his work with Julian Fleisher to Marilyn Maye to Jim Caruso’s Cast Party. We’re really lucky we got him, and all of the fabulous talent who’ve agreed to perform.

Victoria: That is some lineup! How did you go about picking songs?

Chris: Each singer has been asked to pick and perform one song from the Gershwin songbook. I’ll be emceeing the show. We’ll gather in the living room of this gorgeous, historic and culturally significant home with its extraordinary views of this great city and art center, while listening to singular artist interpret some of the best American popular music ever written, some of it written while the duo were living in these apartments, as George had the penthouse next door.

Victoria: Is there a way for people who cannot make the event to contribute?

Chris: Absolutely! We welcome donations of whatever size. We also have an online auction running right now and that link can also be found on our website: thesecretcity.org




MONDAY, June 26, 2017 at 7:00 P.M.

at Ira Gerswhin’s Former Penthouse

75th and Riverside

New York City

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Cabaret Features, New York City, New York City Cabaret Features, Regional

Comments are closed.

Read previous post:
Michael Feinstein: Ella on My Mind

The program was enriched by three young, talented guest vocalists.