Those piano lessons didn't go to waste; today, the grown-up Nesbitt makes his living on the cabaret circuit. He's in Tucson this week to open Invisible Theatre's annual cabaret series, Sizzling Summer Sounds, at the Arizona Inn. Note that these are sit-down concerts, with all attention focused on Nesbitt and the songs he sings.
"Just tinkling in the corner in a restaurant bores me," he says. "I don't like being background music. You're only getting half the song, just the music, not the words, and the words are the most important thing. I love the people who write the melody, but even more, I like the lyricists. That's always been my big interest, and that's why I got restless when I was a kid taking classical piano lessons. Beethoven and Grieg didn't really have lyrics, at least nothing I wanted to sing. This Tin Pan Alley kind of music came more naturally to me."
Luckily for Nesbitt, over the past few years, cabaret has become chic entertainment again, not just a nostalgia trip for older folks.
"It's a very personal kind of performance," Nesbitt says. "So much of our entertainment now is impersonal, in big halls or stadiums or on TV, but cabaret audiences are usually small, 100 to 150 people, and they say, 'I thought he was singing just to me.' As a performer, you can really make contact with every person in the audience. And I may be biased, but cabaret artists are the most talented singers I know. And the material they pick is the greatest music of the last 100 years."
Nesbitt's Tucson performances will feature such standards as "You Are Too Beautiful," "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Anything Goes," as well as more recent songs in the same vein.
"People say, 'Your material is so old,' but it's the greatest music of the 20th century," Nesbitt insists. "It's the work of the great poets of Tin Pan Alley. We just don't have them anymore. Sondheim is barely writing. Jerry Herman is not writing anymore. And so many of the shows on Broadway now are revivals, so a big problem for me is finding material that is current. We used to get our material from current Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals. Now, forget it. Some of my stuff is almost 100 years old."
Nesbitt repeats that although he loves a good melody, it's the lyrics that must captivate him before he'll perform a song. "I don't do 'Memory' and things like that, because with so much of today's Broadway music, the lyrics are like a Hallmark greeting card. And that's dumbed down our audiences a little bit. People are going to think I'm a snob, but I don't like these big, spectacular musicals like Miss Saigon. I don't do Phantom, because I've never in my life gotten the lyrics right. I just make them up. Nobody knows the difference."
Nesbitt is based in Key West, Fla., but he spends a good part of the year performing elsewhere in the country, particularly in San Francisco and in Europe, especially London and Germany; this fall will mark the 20th time he has performed in Munich.
"In Germany, they're crazy about Sinatra," he says. "That gets more play in Europe than in America. They love swing; they love big band music; and Sinatra is the god. Even if their knowledge of English isn't good, they still love it. When I'm there, I sing a couple of Marlene Dietrich songs in German, but they love to hear West Side Story and My Fair Lady in English. I can't imagine American audiences sitting through Brecht and Weill in German."
Nesbitt's performances this Thursday, Friday and Saturday launch Invisible Theatre's cabaret series at the Arizona Inn. With at least one show per day, nine acts will be showcased between now and July 18, including:
· Jazz great Joe Bourne at 8 p.m. July 5;
· Liz McMahon paying tribute to Patsy Cline at 8 p.m. July 6-7;
· "Hooray for Hollywood," a tribute to songs of the silver screen, featuring McMahon, Betty Craig, Jeff Haskell, Jack Neubeck and Stuart Moulton as Carol Channing, at 8 p.m. July 9 and 2 and 8 p.m. July 10;
· Cellist Harry Clark and pianist Sanda Schuldmann performing romantic classical selections at 2 p.m. July 11;
· Lisa Otey, Anna Warr and Walter Belcher in a boogie woogie evening of rhythm and blues at 8 p.m. July 13;
· Trombonist-pianist Rob Boone and harpist Christine Vivona performing jazzy love songs at 8 p.m. July 14;
· Amanda McBroom, composer of "The Rose" (recently ranked in the American Film Institute's 100 top movie songs), at 8 p.m. July 15-16 and 2 and 8 p.m. July 17;
· The Bass Lesson, Jay Leonhart's one-man show exploring the strange life of a professional bass player, at 8 p.m. July 18.