They say you should do what you love in life. If that’s the case, then for Fred Miller life must be a cabaret.
A performer in varied theatrical venues for many years, Miller, 61, found his niche in the late 1990s, when he focused his long-time passion for Broadway tunes into a series of musical lectures that he could present to audiences from his piano. His first subjects comprised a Mount Rushmore of American songwriters from the age of art deco, when adults dressed smartly for dinner and were always clinking martini glasses — George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Jerome Kern — the “Big Five,” as Miller refers to them.
That first series has grown to nearly 70 “Lectures in Song,” where Miller plays, sings, and talks about the lives and work of entertainers who created a great American art form. He travels several times a week to bring his lectures to libraries and other public venues and to retirement communities, where he finds appreciative audiences for music of a certain vintage. On Sunday, May 12, at 3 p.m. Miller will be at his piano when he presents his program on the fabled tandem of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in the Princeton Public Library. Admission is free.
“I fell in love with American popular song way back when,” Miller says. “That’s why I do what I do. Most of the people who attend are at least my age and a whole generation later. For all of them it is very much like having someone open a scrapbook of their lives. These songs were very important in that day because they sustained people’s notion of love and character.”
A native of Albuquerque, NM, Miller had musical training as a child and grew up in a musical home. His father was a neurosurgeon who played the violin professionally in his younger days, and his mother was a child nutritionist, homemaker and singer. A couple of times a year he visits New Mexico where his mother lives, and where in August he will give his lectures in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
As a young adult he grabbed a guitar and took the cross-country journey to New York City, arriving as the Greenwich Village folk scene was giving way to the era of the singer-songwriter. He soon realized he was not going to make it in a world that would produce James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Instead, an earlier time attracted him.
“I remember being in a piano bar in New York where they were playing songs from ‘Oklahoma,’” he said. “I was coming out of my rock’n’roll period and I started to listen to these great songs. This was right before the movie ‘That’s Entertainment’ and the nostalgia kick of the ’70s.”
Miller parlayed a position in a New York City school into a job as a music teacher. He connected with a theater group in the Village and immersed himself in the music of Broadway and the history and the biographies of those who wrote and sang the songs.
“It was the most natural thing,” he said. “To me it’s a miraculous thing. I never get tired of these songs. I started getting into the old classic movies. Everything evolved that way. Working in the schools got me started — learning the songs and playing them for those kids. I was always able to play by ear and I knew I wanted a career in music.”
New York became less attractive to him as a base. “I felt like a straw in the ocean,” he said. In the mid-1970s he ventured out to the picturesque towns along the Delaware River in Bucks and Hunterdon counties and worked as a pianist in restaurants and bars. He gave up restoring a house in Jersey City and put down roots outside of Stockton, within walking distance of the Wickecheoke Creek, which is crossed by the only covered bridge still in use on a public road in New Jersey.
Miller lives with his three dogs in a converted stable at the end of a wooded lane. During a recent conversation he said, “I’m making it up as I go along,” referring to his musical enterprise. But the same comment could apply to his home. It looks perfectly natural in the bucolic countryside and has more than a few rustic architectural touches that could be at home on a musical stage. There are multiple pianos and a studio with rows of chairs, shelves lined with scores from shows, and framed posters and other memorabilia festooning the walls.
The studio is home to one of Miller’s other projects, the Copper Penny Players. For more than 30 years, Miller has held a 10-week series of classes in musical theater performance. These sessions take place throughout the year, and repeat customers sign up time after time for the learning pleasure and camaraderie. At the end of the 10 weeks, the group gives a performance at Phillips Mill, outside of New Hope, or, as it will on Sunday, June 9, at the Napurano Center for the Arts in nearby Sergeantsville. On Monday, June 10, the next 10-week series begins.
In the 1980s Miller also started a more ambitious series, Silver Dollar Productions, producing dramas, musicals, operettas, and small cabarets. After a dozen years, though, the responsibility of assembling ensemble casts, props and costumes, and selling tickets and doing the marketing became too much. The Copper Penny Players would live on and in 1999 Miller was ready to embark on his “Lectures in Song,” which was underwritten by the Hunterdon County Library and the Art Alliance of Philadelphia.
With that resume Miller may be the most articulate expert on 20th century American popular song in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, a region that became home to many legendary musicians, singers and tunesmiths. His lectures cover the works of composers such as Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, and Alan Jay Lerner (plus the Big Five and others), singers such as Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, and Bing Crosby, and the notable eras of World War I, the Harlem Renaissance, the ’20s, the Depression, World War II, the British Invasion, “Hootenany” and into the 1980s.
“I do have perennial favorites among my 69 different lecture subjects,” Miller said. “Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, Rodgers and Hart, Dorothy Fields — simply because each happens to be responsible for an unusual numbers of songs that I love. Every “Lecture in Song” is interesting to me because I only select songs I like and rarely include anything that doesn’t please me. I perform on the premise that if I like what I’m doing, an audience is liable to like it, too.”
Miller’s voice is in the mezzo tenor range and can definitely reach the back row of the theater. His lectures come to life through his singing, his ability to accompany himself, and his ready knowledge of history and biographical details, such as the subtle differences between Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
“Rodgers and Hart are youthful cheekiness and sparkle,” Miller says, “while Rodgers and Hammerstein provide a rather grand, self-conscious maturity. Hart himself was a totally impulsive child in need of Rodgers’ stern control, while Hammerstein was the artistic architect of their plays. Personally, I prefer Rodgers and Hart because their songs have much greater range and color, a reflection of Larry Hart’s huge emotional swings. No other musical entity consistently hits the highs and lows of life and love with more dazzling flair than Rodgers and Hart.”
Miller is realistic, however, about the prospects for those who want to make a living in the limelight.
“People say, ‘I want to be a performer,’ and I say no, don’t do that unless you really want to,” Miller said. “You have to be your own boss, max out your credit cards, then maybe you can do it. A lot of it has nothing to do with music. It’s getting on the phone, making yourself known. If you want to be in the arts you have to create your own niche. It’s very satisfying and it’s worked for me, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
He also seems to wrestle with what the future holds for his beloved music form.
“It’s a different age today,” he said. “There are no movie musicals anymore, and that’s fine. I don’t expect them to come back. You can’t create that artificially. It was a Golden Age. There were all these huge productions, but in the future who is going to go back and listen to them?
“Now with the commercialization of everything, things become packaged immediately. In the old days studios would take a young Judy Garland and groom her into an entertainer. It’s always been a commercial business, always very competitive. But now it’s just multiplied by a factor of 100. The speed in which everything happens, people just don’t have time to develop. That takes time.”
Miller has found at least two other enterprises that are helping him generate a living. He has created accompanistonline.com, which provides recorded accompaniment for vocalists and musicians in myriad styles, from Broadway and pop-rock to orchestral and big band, for $50 per piece plus delivery costs. In September he will also launch singingtelegramsinternational.com. The online greeting card field is a crowded one, Miller acknowledges, but no one else seems to be doing them with vintage photographs and a “follow the bouncing ball” approach.
Meanwhile, Miller has a busy schedule bringing the music he loves to appreciative audiences, and then returning to the countryside that flanks the Delaware River, just as George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, George Gershwin, and others did in an earlier time.
Fred Miller, Lecture-in-Songs: Rodgers and Hart, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Sunday, May 12, 3 p.m. Free. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.