The “je ne sais quoi” of Great Talent

By Edna Landau

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This week, I am deviating slightly from my usual format and answering the one question I have been asked repeatedly throughout my career: How can you tell if someone has the potential to be great? Although there is no response that fits all situations, I hope that the experience related below will reveal some of the answers. 

It is Saturday night, March 26, 2011. I am sitting in a small chair, almost elbow to elbow with the person next to me at New York City’s Metropolitan Room. The place is packed and there is much anticipation in the air. Finally, the lights dim and a highly attractive 26-year old Juilliard-trained soprano in an elegant green gown takes the stage. She lifts the microphone and begins to sing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “All the Things You Are”. I get the goose bumps during this very first song, always a sign that something special is happening. At the conclusion of the song, she thanks everyone who made her show possible and tells us how lucky she feels to be sharing her favorite music from the Great American Songbook with us. I, in turn, feel lucky to be there. Everything I read in Stephen Holden’s very enthusiastic New York Times review has come to life within a very few minutes. Jennifer Sheehan has won my heart with her gracious, unpretentious welcome and warm, comfortable stage presence. The spell is never broken over the course of the next one and a half hours. 

I ask myself afterwards: How did this happen? How did she totally distract me from my aggravation over the astronomical sum of money I had just committed to paying when I parked my car in a garage across the street? First and foremost, it was her joy in performing, but that wouldn’t have gripped me for long had it not been coupled with a beautifully thought-out program, interspersed with personal vignettes about her career and the meaning that many of the songs held for her. She shared her awe about sitting on the same stage as Audra McDonald and Stephen Sondheim on the day she graduated from Juilliard. (Ms. McDonald gave the commencement address and Mr. Sondheim received an honorary degree.) She then proceeded to sing two Sondheim songs that captured how she felt on that day. A delightful song called “Do You Miss Me” gave Ms. Sheehan the opportunity to share her first experience hearing Andrea Marcovicci as a teenager in her native St. Louis. Little did she know when she purchased Ms. Marcovicci’s cd (which included that song) following the concert that she would later become a significant mentor in her career. She introduced her rendition of “I’ll be Seeing You” by relating how she once performed it in a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients and midway through the song, heard them humming along and saw some of them reaching for their neighbor’s hand. One got the impression that her various appearances at nursing homes were among her most memorable. None of this sounded calculated or artificial. Ms. Sheehan was subtly transmitting to me why I should care about hearing this music at this particular time. 

It was a long and demanding program. Ninety minutes of singing and talking without a break. Her voice never faltered. Her Juilliard training, combined with an obvious flair for acting and a musical gift that was repeatedly displayed in her perfect intonation and exquisite phrasing, was always in evidence. She coupled disparate songs in unexpected ways, choosing to have us reflect on the timeless beauty of “Some Enchanted Evening” through the lens of Adam Guettel’s “Fable” from “The Light in the Piazza”, which immediately followed. (Adam Guettel is Richard Rodgers’ grandson.) I felt enriched by the introduction to two songs by Susan Werner, whose music I had never heard before. I found myself whooping and cheering along with everyone else at the conclusion of an irresistible and virtuosic “If You Hadn’t But You Did” and wishing that the program wouldn’t come to an end. When it did, Ms. Sheehan barely paused long enough to take a drink of water and immediately dashed out to the venue’s main exit (where her sister was selling cd’s) so that she could be sure to greet her appreciative audience and personally thank them for coming. I was one of the first to add my name to her mailing list. It’s not that I need to receive more e-mails or Facebook invitations. I just want to be sure to know the next time she is performing within 100 miles of my home. 

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011  

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