What makes someone want to become an impresario?
We all understand the yearning to be a star, or even a performer at the back of the stage—a backup singer, a dancer in the chorus. The TV series Smash is a highly entertaining reminder of how hard such people work, against all odds, to make it, or just to perform from time to time.
So we can comprehend the drive that gets performers onstage at venues like…oh, let’s just say the Venetian Room, in the Fairmont Hotel. Someone like Laura Benanti, for instance—a Tony-winning actress (for her Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy)—who happens to be performing there, for the Bay Area Cabaret series, on May 12. She’s the latest of the performers BAC has booked since 2007, among them Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Chita Rivera; jazz vocalist Jane Monheit and soprano Patricia Racette; jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey; and singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester.
But what about the person who organized that series and signs the performers?
That would be Marilyn Levinson, an intellectual property lawyer until her father’s sudden death persuaded her to pursue her true passion. Which was? “I wanted to bring nationally renowned vocalists to San Francisco and present them in intimate, elegant venues,” says Levinson, who lives in Larkspur and has offices in Marin and San Francisco. She started big: One of the first concerts she produced brought famed Broadway singer Barbara Cook to Davies Symphony Hall.
Davies is elegant but hardly intimate. What Levinson really wanted was to produce shows in the setting that piqued her imagination as a child, the place that stayed in her dreams. For other kids, that might have been a lake, a park, a secret groves of trees; OK, maybe a mall. For Levinson, it was the Venetian Room.
Levinson’s mother had worked with the San Francisco Civic Light Opera, the predecessor to today’s Best of Broadway, bringing in the “opening-night crowd” and organizing financial guarantors for the shows. (“So we had in our home Alfred Drake, John Raitt, Ricardo Montalban….”) On the heavy-opera side, her uncle, James Schwabacher, founded the Schwabacher Debut Recitals, which showcase up-and-coming classical singers in, yes, intimate settings. He also was president for many years of the Merola Opera Program, a summer training program for young opera singers.
With all that show biz surrounding her, Levinson spent a lot of time at the Fairmont’s legendary supper club. “I’ve been like a Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian Room my whole life,” she says. “I’d haunted that room for years.”
Since 1947, the Venetian Room had been the swanky setting for stars from Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole to Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett; but it closed in 1989. “San Francisco has so much history encapsulated in hotel ballrooms,” says Levinson. “To me, it felt like a tragedy that the room was not in use.”
Now it is. First hired to present “supper-club evenings” for the hotel’s centennial, in 2007, Levinson has been bringing singing stars to the Venetian Room for Bay Area Cabaret since 2010, when Marvin Hamlisch performed on opening night. BAC 2.0 is a selection of programs for a younger audience, presenting performers like Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp of Rent. Skewing even younger is BAC’s Bay Area Teen Idol competition, which began last year. (The judges included Eden Espinosa, from the original cast of Wicked, and American Idol’s musical director, Michael Orland.)
With 10 finalists, the second annual Bay Area Teen Idol competition (before judges such as Mary Wilson of the Supremes) takes place May 6. Wrapping up the BAC season the following week is Laura Benanti, who has also appeared in Nine (opposite Antonio Banderas), Into the Woods, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Opening for Benanti is Robert Conte Thornton, last year’s Bay Area Teen Idol winner.
May 6, Bay Area Teen Idol competition, 3 p.m.; May 12, Laura Benanti, 8 p.m., Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., San Francisco, bayareacabaret.org