For seven years, Paul Wilborn and Eugenie Bondurant have been working through the Great American Songbook, bringing the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and many others to appreciative audiences in the upstairs lobby at American Stage.
This weekend, the husband-and-wife team are back with Poets on Broadway, a tribute to lyricists of the 20’s and 30’s — like Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer. As usual, Wilborn — once a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times and now executive director of the Palladium — will be on piano and vocals, while Bondurant — a film and TV performer who for many years has taught acting — will be singing and impersonating jazz age personalities like the acerbic Dorothy Parker.
Accompanied on clarinet and other horns by Frank Bowman, the duo will punctuate their songs with commentary and a little theater history. If the show is anything like past efforts, it should be low-key, intimate, and gently sophisticated.
Their new show is a revision of a show first offered several years ago, called “Poets of Tin Pan Alley.” In its present version, says Wilborn, the cabaret offers lyricists from a period that was “the high point of American songwriting ... and we talk about why. These guys didn’t just pop out of nowhere — at that time, you had light verse being published in newspapers and columns. All these guys were getting their stuff published, and so you had this great musical tradition mixed with people who actually knew how to write.”
Wilborn puts each show together, and carefully researches the songs and personalities. “Paul is a student of the American Songbook,” says Bondurant.
“He’s really amassed quite a collection of songwriters, their histories and their biographies.” Recently, says Wilborn, he found all his investigations paying off.
“We just played the Suncoast Jazz Classic, and these are folks who know this material inside and out, they grew up with it. They get together every year…and listen to old jazz and swing jazz and as we did our show, they agreed with all my facts. No-one came up and said I was wrong. ... So I think we’ve at least established our bona fides.” Still, he never lets the researcher in him become more important than the showman. “I try to do it in story form and not just facts,” he insists. “We try to put it into a humorous story context.”
One of the more interesting Wilborn/Bondurant narratives concerns the way this duo met. Wilborn had left the Bay area to work for Associated Press in Los Angeles and was covering the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial in Beverly Hills. After the day’s work, he proceeded to a book release party in Westwood, near UCLA. Meanwhile, Bondurant had been invited to the same party, and had reluctantly decided to put in a brief appearance before she got back to packing up her things and leaving L.A. for her hometown of New Orleans. (After more than a decade, “I’d gotten tired of L.A.,” she says.) Just minutes after getting to the party, Wilborn introduced himself, and “after a few minutes of conversation, I thought ‘what a nice, interesting man,’” says Bondurant. But “I’m moving, not interested in dating, but nice guy — or so it seems, you know, in Los Angeles, you never know.”
Wilborn contacted her soon after and had to “jump through a lot of hoops” to prove he was worth the actress’ time. Bondurant left for the Big Easy as planned, but returned a little later because “I had this duplex in L.A. and my downstairs tenant was moving. And I had to be there to renovate the apartment. And it was a mess.” The slow going gave Wilborn all the time he needed — and within a few months, the two were engaged. Then, says Wilborn, “Pam Iorio offered me a job in her administration, and I changed from journalism to the arts.” The move to the Bay area was pleasing to both partners, who found the local arts scene just the change they needed. Now both happy Floridians, Wilborn and Bondurant are enthused to be part of a vibrant arts community.
Which brings us back to “Poets on Broadway.” “Why was this era so great?” Wilborn asks. “Not only did you have the Jewish musical tradition coming with the immigrants, you had the African-American musical tradition from the big cities that added blues to the classic musical tradition of Europe.” Add to these the clever “society verse” of the New York newspapers, and the result was a stunning outpouring of intelligent, sensuous lyrics. Expect to hear about this confluence of inspirations during the show: speaking from the piano bench, Wilborn is both musician and historian, trying between songs to place everything in context. And it works well: I saw Wilborn and Bondurant’s previous American Stage cabaret — about Rodgers and Hart — and gratefully learned a few things (for example, the difference between Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein) that I may never forget.
I’m guessing that “Poets on Broadway” will be even more interesting — for example, when Bondurant presents Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” not as a song but as a recitation. Or as Wilborn says, with characteristic modesty, about the 70-minute medley, “You know it has a beginning, middle, and end. So you’re able to do a nice little arc of a show in that time.” A “nice little arc of a show”: that’s what Wilborn and Bondurant offer. Think of it as a friendly guided tour — of the best songwriting this country’s known.