BWW Interview: Sue Matsuki of WINTER RHYTHMS at Urban Stages
The Godmother of Cabaret is leading the charge for Urban Stages.
Urban Stages is one of the staples of the theatrical community of New York City. For thirty-six years the midtown Manhattan-based company has been producing new works by diverse audiences, and though the new works upon which they focus are theatrical of nature, come December, their WINTER RHYTHMS concerts turn the theater into a world of music where cabaret artists and concert performers can showcase their works. The popular series had a great season in December of 2019 and it looked like they would do the same in 2020. Instead of doing the same, though, Urban Stages is doing something new and taking Winter Rhythms to the internet.
For eight years Sue Matsuki has been a part of the Urban Stages family and the Winter Rhythms programming, becoming more involved in a variety of ways, and this year Sue is more involved than ever with the programming and the filming of the music shows being broadcast, beginning November 30th. Curious about how the shows and series were coming along, I reached out to Sue for a chat about the history of Winter Rhythms, the community that supports Urban Stages, and a rather interesting nickname that she has.
This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced in its entirety.
Sue Matsuki, welcome back to Broadway World. Thanks for chatting with us today, this time about the URBAN STAGES Winter Rhythms shows.
Thank you so much Stephen and thank you again for helping us promote this series at Urban Stages. We're all just trying to keep art alive, right?
You have a long history of work with Urban Stages - and though the mission statement of the company is theater, every December the organization presents this concert series that involves many members of the cabaret community. What is the basic history of Winter Rhythms?
The theater itself has been around going on 37 years as of 2021 and Winter Rhythms started 12 years ago in 2008. I think I have been part of this series since 2012. I started by doing a show there and then the next several years, I did a show and produced a show. My shows hit and I had good numbers (mostly because of my casts' names and because I really marketed my shows) so last year, Tom Toce, the Producer, asked me to come on board as his production assistant. We had a nice working rhythm (Get it?! Winter Rhythms!) so this year, Tom graciously asked Frances Hill, the Director, to make me his co-producer. It's been a really wonderful experience working with these AMAZING people.
Usually, Winter Rhythms is a combination of theater, spoken word, classical, jazz, comedy novelty acts, and Cabaret. This theater has always been inclusive of all the arts across the board. Frances Hill has very interesting and "out of the box" tastes when it comes to the arts. ALL creativity is accepted and respected at Urban Stages and we have always been BIPOC sensitive, even before this became such a serious issue. At Urban Stages talent is talent.
Winter Rhythms' growth has been astounding. It has become a much sought after invite at the end of the year. The festival received the 2015 Ruth Kurtzman Benefit Series Award, the 2016 Bistro Award for Best Benefit Series, a Time Out Critic's Pick, and was featured in Cabaret Scenes.
For the history of Urban Stages' first 30 Years please visit:
It's a very ambitious undertaking that involves many performers - have you ever clocked how many artists appeared in the series in one season?
Historically our catchphrase was: "20 shows over 20 days with over 200 performers" but, as you know, this year, it all had to change. This year we are producing 6 shows over 19 days featuring 40 artists and 20 songwriters! However, what remains constant is the level of talent, the diversity of talent, and that all proceeds go directly to spreading free and affordable art, theater, and education throughout NYC via our Outreach Program.
So, clearly, the series is going to take on a different format for 2020. First of all, let me congratulate you and the company for making the decision to move forward with a virtual presentation, rather than scrap the whole thing altogether. Put a picture in my head of what the 2020 Winter Rhythms will look like.
Thank you. We are also very proud that we were able to produce such a wonderful series this year even with all the limitations we were facing. Like many of us trying to produce art these days, we really had to think about how we could produce high-level shows that felt "real", like a Cabaret show. We learned so much producing our annual Gala in September and realized that doing a multi-camera shoot, using Zoom for group numbers, and hiring a video editor and director was the way to go. We decided that we would only do Winter Rhythms if the product looked and sounded great. It does!
For Winter Rhythms, we bumped this all up a notch and like many of us, the learning curve on all of the technology came fast and furious. We first made the decision to Celebrate the Songwriter which I will discuss below, but then we hired an incredible team which included: director/video editor, Kristan Seemel; Tech Director Kim T Sharp as the videographer doing a multi-camera shoot; Vincent Scott, Assistant Director; lighting design by Madeleine Burrow; and sound design by Jaime Terrazzino. This team created what looks like a TV shoot for each of the 6 shows we are presenting this year.
We are discovering that all of the virtual entertainments are hitting some tricky areas, with unions and copyrights for filmed performances. How did that affect Winter Rhythms 2020?
This is exactly why we decided to Celebrate the Songwriter this year. We had to secure several rights for the Gala and, well, it's expensive and we're struggling to keep this theater open. However, since we are a theater we felt obligated, morally, and legally, to pay rights to the songwriters. There was no way we could produce even three shows paying for all these rights. We even looked into securing a Cabaret License from ASCAP and BMI but again, that's fine for any shows produced live in the theater, we'd be covered just like a regular Cabaret but, as soon as you go viral, there is no license for that. ASCAP and BMI cannot know what to charge if they do not know how many viral "hits" any one show would get. So...I suggested that we focus this year's festival on original music and the Songwriters, who are another part of our artistic family.
Our Producer, Tom Toce being a songwriter himself, was all for this idea and he and I just decided to do a much smaller series and to ask our friends to do their original music. For my show, "How Original!", I did half of my own tunes and then asked friends of mine for permission to use their tunes. We are premiering each show and then running it for 3 days and then the next show will premiere and run for 3 days.
You are mostly known as a singer, but people don't really know that you are actually a songwriter as well, do they? What was your experience like, transitioning from singer to songwriter?
Not to sound "like that" but songwriting comes easy to me! Trust me, they are not all gems but I'm pretty good with lyrics and I have also co-written as a composer. I work with incredible collaborators, Gregory Toroian, Paul Stephan, and Dan & Michele Page who are all team players...no egos, it's just about what's best for the song. Gregory, Dan, Michele, and I all won the MAC Award for our song "One Stop Shopping" which is in my show.
A trick I learned from the great songwriter and bassist, Jay Leonhart, was to write down phrases that catch my ear to inspire my writing down the road. I have a book that is filled with song concepts, a few hooks, some lyrics but I have to be honest, I do not pick it up very often. I recently joined Tom Toce's Songwriter's Alliance group and have been so inspired to write again. This is my next Covid project...to write songs! Gregory (Toroian) and I have agreed to meet once a month in 2021 to just work on writing.
I love to sing other people's original songs and usually remember their lyrics better than my own...LOL! In "How Original!", in addition to songs that I co-wrote, I feature the music of Bob Levy, David Finck, Mary Liz McNamara, Paul Resnick, Dan & Michele Page, Mike Campbell, Audrey Appleby, Meg Flather, Zoe Lewis, and more! It's quite a sampling. To me, it's always an honor when a songwriter approaches you and asks you to do their tune. I try my best to take very good care of their "baby".
With six different filmed-in-quarantine shows taking place, how was the concert series curated? Was it by committee or with one or two people leading the charge?
As soon as we realized we had to shift gears, Tom and I just called a few songwriting friends. It had to happen that fast because we wanted everything "in the can" for editing before we got hit with the next wave of Covid. We were 1 day away from inviting all these other folks to do a whole different program featuring American Songbook but when we realized we could not do this, we had to ask people we knew who could throw a decent show together quickly. I wasn't slated to do a show this year so I just threw my show together and Tom asked a few of his to do his show. I had already asked Steve Sieck if I could produce a show of his original tunes (I'm a big fan) so he was the only original show concept that we went forward with and then I thought of Tracy Stark and Gretchen Meyers because they work with each other all the time. Meg Flather came to me saying she and Rosemary Atwood and Tracy Stark could reprise "Unexpected Trio" but we had just booked Tracy for the other show so we thought about it for 2 seconds and said, "Yes"! The "Urban Stages' Artists Entertain" show is composed of cast members from all the different shows we've produced at Urban Stages.
What was the learning curve for the talent and the production team, going from twenty days of live performing to six filmed concerts? Were there any difficulties adapting to the change in medium?
I touched on this above on the production team's learning curve but for the talent, I can say that we were all aware of there being no audience. We all NEED that applause but, honestly, everyone rose to the challenge. We all performed to the camera with the same intent and connection as we do in a live performance and then just took a beat to go to the next patter run/song. We were also able to edit dead spots so the look of each show is really fantastic. In my show, because I'm me I guess, (LOL, whatever that means!) I actually spoke to the audience by sayings things like: "I know you want to sing with me here...go for it!" OR when I introduced Skip Ward and Gregory Toroian I said, "It's OK to clap in your living room." For me, it made me feel more connected to whoever was going to be on the other end of that camera. However, performance-wise, singing "in the zone" (connection wise) should not change at all if you are following what we call Cabaret technique!
Also, another layer of production was to follow all Covid rules. We only had the tech team and the cast in each session and we did two sessions a week over 3 weeks cleaning all equipment between each act. For Steve's (Sieck) show where there were 15 singers, so we had to stagger their tapings and put them in different safe spaces until they taped their spot.
You are not the only artist with such a devotion to Urban Stages - many people support the organization, people like Karen Akers who is not only a legend in the industry but a woman known for her good taste and judgment. What is it about Urban Stages that, so, attracts people to throw their support and artistry behind the company?
Karen Akers is a goddess and has always been there for Urban Stages. Whenever we call she says, "Where and when?" We all love her and our audience loves her. This year we also have Karen Mason doing a guest spot in Steve Sieck's show which meant the world to Steve to have someone like Karen agree to sing his song. Historically, EVERYONE has been on that stage, KT Sullivan, Jeff Harnar, Richard Skipper, David Sabella, Natalie Douglas, and SO many more Cabaret stars and Broadway stars. For our Gala we had: King Downing and Michael Riedel as our hosts, Tony Award Winners: Trezana Beverly, Reed Birney, and Jim Dale along with Bill Bowers, Joe Iconis, George Salizar and MORE all there because Frances Hill called. Saving this theater is important to the people who got started there or who have been with us for a long time. We are always so grateful for their participation.
It's come to Jesus time: these concerts are not free. A lot of artists have been posting online shows for free, or for tips because artists need to make art. But Urban Stages is a business that needs to stay in business; there is a small cost for attending these shows - tell us why this nominal ticket price is so important to Urban Stages and to keeping the company alive.
There's something about the concept of "saving the theater" that resonated with all the incredible talent I just listed above and to every single person who has ever given their time and talent to this festival. Yes, we ask everyone who is reading this to come see this year's Winter Rhythms or to make a donation to Urban Stages so that we can continue to do what we do...create art! I promise you though, you will get a beautiful, full show experience AND you are supporting and celebrating the Songwriter! If you are a singer, you should watch to get some new material!
It is just $20 per show which means one fee for the household, not per person and, if you buy a second ticket, it is just $10. We also offer a series package of $60 for all 6 shows making each show just $10. We gratefully accept any donations. All proceeds go to our Outreach Programs. Your tickets will keep this theater open. Speaking of support, I would personally like to thank two dear friends, Russ Woolley of Wright Bros. and Lori Kaplan of Bratenders, who sponsored my show.
Sue, in the cabaret and club community you are often called The Godmother of Cabaret, but it feels like you are also The Godmother of Urban Stages. What is the genesis and history of your nickname?
It's funny...it started with a backhanded compliment (I think) when a reviewer who was evaluating all the MAC nominees for Female Vocalist said, "And Sue Matsuki who is considered to be The Godmother of Cabaret did a fine show but she won't win because..."
Nice right? LOL! Anyway, from that, it just kind of stuck. What that person did not know is that the real Godmother of Cabaret was a moniker for the great, late, Jan Wallman who happened to be one of my mentors along with Trudi Mann, Julie Wilson, and Marilyn Maye. Jan was very special to me so to have her nickname bestowed upon me was a gift and a responsibility that I take very seriously in all that I do. When people tell me, "I was told by so and so that when I got to New York, I should look up Sue Matsuki and have coffee because she will help you and bring you into the Cabaret fold." This was a bigger compliment than people just liking my work. It's an honor and, in the name of all of my mentors, I will follow through on my promise to help anyone in the arts as much as I can at Urban Stages or in the Cabaret Community.
Before we say goodbye, would you please give me the rundown of the Winter Rhythms series and the link for tickets?
With pleasure and THANK YOU! Here is the schedule:Sue Matsuki & Gregory Toroian in "How Original!"
Premieres Monday, November 30 @ 8:30 pm EST then accessible online through to Thursday, December 3. MAC and Bistro award-winning songwriters and jazz duo are presenting a program of their own original tunes along with some of their friends' tunes. Featuring Skip Ward on bass with Guest Stars: Audrey Appleby and Deborah Stone. Director: Vincent Scott. Sponsored by: Wright Bros. Real Estate and Bra Tenders.
Meg Flather, Rosemary Atwood and Tracy Stark in "Unexpected Trio"
Premieres Thursday, December 3 @ 8:30 pm EST then accessible online through to Sunday, December 6. Each with a different writing style, this multi-award-winning trio for singing, music direction, and songwriting team up for an unforgettable, evening of their original songs, literally singing each other's praises!
Premieres Sunday, December 6 @ 8:30 pm EST then accessible online through to Wednesday, December 9. A group of Tom's songwriting friends joins him to present the songs that were written or practiced during the Pandemic. Starring: Tom Toce, Matt Corriel and Jo Kroger.Gretchen Meyers and Tracy Stark in "The Tracy & Gretchen Show"
Premieres Wednesday, December 9 @ 8:30 pm EST then accessible online through to Saturday, December 12. This year's MAC award winner for Major Female Vocalist and Bistro Award winner for Best CD, Gretchen Meyers joins her long-time, multi-award winning, Songwriter/Music Director Tracy Stark for an evening of their original songs. The sublime to the WHAT?!"My Side of Town: The Music of Steve Sieck"
Premieres Saturday, December 12 @ 8:30 pm EST then accessible online through to Tuesday, December 15. Starring: Mary Sue Daniels, Robert Fowler, Bobby Harden, Tanya Holt, Lina Koutrakos, Susan Mack, Larry Marshall, Katie Dunne McGrath, Jeannine Otis, Erli Perez, Doug Sheppard, Gregory Toroian, Dorian Woodruff, Lisa Yaeger and the songwriter himself, Steve Sieck with Special Guest: Karen Mason. Music Director: Gregory Toroian. Director: Lina Koutrakos.
"Urban Stages' Artists Entertain!"
Premieres Tuesday, December 15 @ 8:30 pm EST then accessible online through to Friday, December 18. Starring: Karen Akers, Aya Aziz, Aaron Lee Battle, Natalie Douglas, several cast members from the play Bars and Measures by Idris Goodwin, Roderick Lawrence and Salma Shaw and Sue Matsuki all singing the original music of their friends and collaborators. We also pay tribute and honor the musical genius of composer/musical director, the late Barry Levitt a special friend of Urban Stages. Music Director: Tracy Stark.
Urban Stages' Winter Rhythms 2020
November 30 - December 18, 2020
Tickets are $20.00 (per show with a 50% discount for your 2nd show)
$60.00 Festival Pass for all 6 shows!
Purchase tickets at urbanstages.orgDonations are gratefully accepted, and all ticket proceeds go to
Urban Stages' Outreach, Arts in Education.
Thank you so much for talking with me today, Sue, and for helping keep such an important artistic household as Urban Stages thriving. We all appreciate it.
Stephen, at this time of giving thanks, let me THANK YOU and everyone there at Broadway World for doing all that you do for our community and the arts.
Photos provided by Urban Stages.
From This Author Stephen Mosher
Stephen Mosher is the author of The Sweater Book (a collection of his photography featuring celebrated artists from the entertainment communities of New York, Los
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