And Yet My Heart Still Swells: An Interview with Eric Michael Gillett

Award-winning vocalist, actor, director, and former ring leader Eric Michael Gillett is infusing the work of Lorenz Hart with deeply personal meaning. Learn why this year’s Cabaret in the Music Room balladeer connects so sincerely with the emotive lyricist and how chance has influenced Gillett’s work both inside the ring and on the stage, then hear him live at Caramoor.

Caramoor’s Cabaret in the Music Room series has historically featured female artists such as Jennifer Sheehan, Rebecca Luker, Liz Callaway, and others. What are the greatest similarities or differences between your performance style and that of these vocalists? Are there signature nuances in your performances that avid Gillett fans will recognize?

I’m seldom comfortable with compare and contrast questions when it comes to my colleagues in the field.  Each of the ladies you name here (Jennifer, Rebecca, Liz) is a completely unique artist and puts an individual stamp on any material they perform.  I suppose, if I were to look for a connecting thread, it would be that I believe I, too, have a unique viewpoint and bring my own individual interpretive skills to my material.   I can say that the artists I admire(d) most in this world of the Great American Songbook would be the late greats Julie Wilson and Margaret Whiting, along with the elegant Mary Cleere Haran.  The work of those three ladies inspired me from my very first cabaret performance in NYC all those many years ago.  Julie and Margaret, in particular, took me under their wings and remain my gold standard when I’m singing for an audience. I believe those who follow me in performance have come to expect a level of honesty that strips the lyric down to its most basic elements, then filters it through my own perspective.

Why Lorenz Hart? Do Hart’s lyrics carry any significant meaning or symbolism for you?

The question, “Why Lorenz Hart?” has been asked of me many times since I started working on Careless Rhapsody.  The answer is surprisingly simple.

ERIC MICHAEL GILLETTHart was a man who was famously unlucky in love.  He was considered unattractive by the standards of his day though, to tell you the truth, I’ve seen far more “unattractive” people find true love. So, I have to believe there were other forces at work, forces inspired by his conflicted nature and the times in which he lived.  But, in his lyrics, he found a place to put all of the longings, all of the passion he, himself, must have felt.  Passion and longing are a part of our human DNA, no matter your age, looks, orientation, or whatever conditions may stand in the way of one having a sane and loving personal romantic attachment. His pain is our gain, for the lyrics he wrote have inspired lovers for how many decades now, and will continue to do so for decades, even centuries to come.  As an artist who has had his own romantic up’s and down’s and who, at this point, believes he will probably end his time on this planet alone, I relate largely because, though I’m not particularly lonely, I am alone and yet my heart still swells with each new spring, with each new possibility and, yes, with each great love song I encounter in my work.

Hart wrote, in the verse to “Careless Rhapsody,” “music is the food of love/to get us in the mood of love. / It strikes a tender tone. / Sweet melody can light a spark, / So let us both ignite the spark/with music of our own/Sweet music of our own.” That says it all.  The melody to that verse, by the way, is gorgeous. But the lyric is what elevates it to the level of passion.  And we’re all entitled to our passion.

Nearby Somers, NY is considered the “cradle of the American circus” due to local Hachaliah Bailey’s owning the first circus elephant in the U.S. and later forming Barnum Bailey Circus. You served as a ringmaster for 12 years and have coached circus performers in subsequent years. Has your unique job history informed your on-stage persona at all? Will fans of the circus connect with Eric Michael Gillett, the cabaret singer?

It’s true, I was the 27th ringmaster in the history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.  The twelve years I spent with Ringling, from late 1986 to early 1998, were a rich and exciting time for me.  It took me my entire first year on the job to learn how to “be” a good ringmaster. The first year, I “played” one.  Being an actor first, I put on the trappings of what I thought the character should be but, as I grew into the job, I realized that a ringmaster’s real job, at least in terms of the performing aspect, is to speak to each audience, whether it’s 2,000 or 35,000 people (and on occasion, it was!) as if he is speaking one-on-one to an intimate friend.  To project the most positive aspects of your own personality to an arena the size of the Superdome or Madison Square Garden is taxing work, but it’s made easier if you play to each house as if they are friends in your home, invited over for a very special party you happen to be throwing.

Gillett as the Ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, circa 1987

Gillett as the Ringmaster for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, circa 1987

I performed in New York cabarets through many of my circus years, starting in 1993.  The joy of those early performances at Danny’s Skylight Room and Eighty-Eight’s, was the feeling of freedom that came from being allowed to truly connect, one-on-one, with every single person in the room. Suddenly, the world was intimate, all the better for being so. And to be able to tell a personal story, utilizing music for which you felt true passion and excitement, was the icing on the cake.

If I learned any useful skills in my circus years, at least in regards to my cabaret work, it would have to be that ANYTHING can happen in performance and you have to be ready to roll with it.  A ringmaster never announces that a particularly difficult trick will be performed.  His true verbiage is usually something on the order of “And now, so-and-so will ATTEMPT to perform…” whatever the particular trick may be.”  Knowing that what should happen is not necessarily what will happen opened me up to an improvisatory style in my story-telling and an ability to react in the moment no matter what happens in performance.

Adela and Lawrence Elow, Caramoor Trustees and longtime supporters of Cabaret at Caramoor, often work very closely with the Cabaret artists they’ve hand-selected. How will this partnership inform your upcoming performance? What have you most enjoyed about this hands-on approach?

Adela and Lawrence Elow pose with 2014 Cabaret in the Music Room star Rebecca Luker

Adela and Lawrence Elow pose with 2014 Cabaret in the Music Room star Rebecca Luker

There are no words to describe Adela and Larry Elow.  I often pinch myself that they have chosen me for this grand adventure.  We are kindred spirits musically, and they bring both a generosity of spirit, as well as a true artistic integrity to their involvement with Cabaret at Caramoor, just as they do to everything they do.  We have had grand times discussing the show itself, getting to know each other on a deeper and more personal level.  It is because of Adela and Larry that I recorded the album for Careless Rhapsody, which will be available to the public for the first time on May 9 at Caramoor and, in fact, the album is dedicated to them.  I trust their taste completely, and I am beyond grateful to count them as friends and supporters.

And, before I close out, I must add that I feel the same way about the entire Caramoor experience.  Larry and Adela had me out to see the grounds and to experience one of the tent events last summer.  I fell in love with the magic of the place and with all of the staff who were kind enough to introduce themselves.  I cannot wait to join this family as a performer and to experience a true Caramoor audience. I know the night will be filled with magic.


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