Sara Zahn, an essential interpreter of the American Songbook, turns to wordsmith Sammy Cahn for her new cabaret evening dubbed The Cahn Film Festival, focusing on the late songwriter’s movie songs. A three-night engagement plays Sundays at 7 PM May 4, May 11 and May 25 at the Metropolitan Room.
The show is actually not so “new.” It’s Zahn’s return to Cahn, the Oscar-winning writer of “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “All the Way,” “High Hopes” and “The Second Time Around.” This is a refreshed version of her evening first seen in the mid-1990s.
“The first time I did it was for an ASCAP songwriter’s showcase at Rainbow and Stars, then I did a run at the Triad on 72nd Street — 11 PM shows on Friday nights, after Forbidden Hollywood,” Zahn told me. “I got great reviews from the New York Times, Rex Reed and Encore Magazine, but at that time slot and location, I couldn’t draw flies. I really took a major hit on that one, and felt badly because it is such a good show and never really got its due. I wanted to record it, but it just didn’t happen.”
What she has recorded — and you must order it this minute if you don’t already own it — is “Witchcraft: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh,” a survey of songs from the many phases (and collaborators) of the career of Leigh, who most famously penned pop songs and musical comedies with Cy Coleman (Little Me and Wildcat, “Witchcraft,” “Firefly,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “When in Rome,” “Pass Me By”). It’s a rich listen, with an emphasis on story, mood, emotion. There’s a gorgeous mix of sex and regret and rue about it. (The disc was an extension of Zahn’s Leigh-centered cabaret act Young at Heart.)
The new engagement of The Cahn Film Festival surfaces in the year following the 100th anniversary of Sammy’s birth in 1913. Cahn died in 1993. Original musical director Christopher Denny and original director Barry Kleinbort reunite for the show. Jered Egan is on bass, and Rex Benincasa is on drums.
“I figured I’d pull off the cobwebs and give it another showing,” Zahn said. “Barry, Chris and I went over the show with a fine tooth comb to make sure it held up after all these years and that it still ‘fit’ me. It really did on all fronts, so here we are…again.”
Zahn explained her Cahn connection. “I was singing demos for Jule Styne during the creative process of [the Broadway musical] The Red Shoes,” she said, “and Sammy Cahn called him to say he wrote a new song with Burton Lane and wanted to demo it. Jule recommended me to sing it, and that’s how I met Sammy and Burton. I did the demo, and Sammy loved the way it came out and wanted to do a project with me: an album of the songs he had written that were his personal favorites. We started working on choosing songs, and other logistics, and then Sammy’s health took a turn and he died before we could ever really get the project rolling.”
She continued, “In 1994, when Michael Kerker from ASCAP asked me about doing a composer for the showcase up at Rainbow and Stars, I spoke to Barry Kleinbort — who had directed and help me put together three other previously critically acclaimed composer/lyricist shows I had done: Leonard Bernstein, Charles Strouse and Carolyn Leigh — about putting together a Sammy Cahn show. Barry said that Sammy’s catalog was so extensive — over 1,500 songs! — and that we needed something to give us parameters to narrow the catalog down.”
Kleinbort told her that since Cahn won so many Academy Awards for Best Original Song (and was nominated more than 20 times), they should pull from the movie catalog call it The Cahn Film Festival.
“Well, I was sold, and so was Michael Kerker,” Zahn said. “The Rainbow and Stars gig was so well received, we decided to put the show up at the Triad. Bad move. Even with those great reviews, the location and late time slot on a Friday night just didn’t serve us.”
Zahn has been working in show business for more than 50 years — as an international performer, award-winning songwriter and familiar singing voice on TV shows, animated films, jingles and voiceovers. Her cabaret shows earned her a Backstage Bistro Award for Outstanding Female Vocalist and The Hanson Award from MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs), as well as participation in The Berkshire and American Music Theatre Festivals. She has performed in the Lyrics and Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y, at Rainbow and Stars, The Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green and in a three-month engagement at Michael’s Pub.
Cahn was born Samuel Cohen in New York City. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Polish Galicia. He grew up in the rich melting pot of the Lower East Side. He learned to play violin and performed while in his teens he performed with bar mitzvah bands and in the pits of burlesque theatres, where he met pianist Saul Chaplin. They began writing together (“Rhythm Is Our Business,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” and the adaptation of “Bei Mir Bist Du Shon”). The broke up after they went to Hollywood in the ’40s. Cahn’s later primary collaborators were Jimmy Van Heusen and Jule Styne. Chan and Styne wrote songs together for 19 films between 1942 and 1951.
Frank Sinatra recorded 89 of Cahn’s songs. The Cahn songbook from the 1940s to the 1960s includes the durable standards “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” “It’s the Same Old Dream,” “Time After Time,” “It’s Magic,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Things We Did Last Summer,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry,” “The Tender Trap,” Love and Marriage,” “Come Fly With Me,” “High Hopes,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “The Second Time Around,” “My Kind of Town” and more.
He penned lyrics for two Broadway musicals — Skyscraper (“I’ll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her”) and High Button Shoes (“I Still Get Jealous,” “Papa, Won’t You Dance With Me?”)
The last song Cahn wrote, which Zahn sang for a demo, was called “All We Need Is Love,” with music by Burton Lane. Incidentally, Zahn sings the Cahn-Styne song “You Make Me Dream Too Much” in the vibrant “Styne in Hollywood” studio album on the PS Classics label.
Zahn shared a handful of the song titles to be heard in The Cahn Film Festival: “Time After Time,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “The Second Time Around,” a medley of well-known songs written for Frank Sinatra, a medley of popular songs written for Doris Day.
“All in all,” she said, “30 songs are covered either in their entirety or as parts of medleys. We have songs that were cut from projects and not ever done, songs that were cut from one project and used for another project, etc., plus a lot of recognizable songs.”
Any chance this show will be recorded?
“I’m having the Metropolitan Room show recorded on multi-track each week,” Zahn said. “We’ll pick the best tracks of each show, get it mixed and mastered, and Harbinger Records — which released my ‘Witchcraft’ album — will release Sammy Cahn later this year. I’m also in the works to release a Leonard Bernstein CD, taken from a live show I did in Philadelphia some years ago for the American Music Theatre Festival.”
Tickets to The Cahn Film Festival are $20, with a two-drink minimum. Doors open at 6:30 PM. The Metropolitan Room is at 34 West 22nd Street. For reservations and information, call (212) 206-0440 or visit metropolitanroom.com.