KT Sullivan

Every Night Is Ladies' Night

KT Sullivan Adds a Chapter to the Great American Songbook

By WILL FRIEDWALD                      MAY 2, 2011

My favorite—or at least the most recent—of KT Sullivan's many classic moments occurred in January at the Metropolitan Room during a tribute to her friend, composer Mickey Leonard. At the end of "Why Did I Choose You?," as she reached the climactic lyric ("If I had to choose again…"), rather than proceed to the final line ("I would still choose you"), she paused and looked as if she were pondering the question. She sat at the edge of the stage, apparently mulling her options for an entire chorus before finally concluding.

It was not for a lack of certitude. Of the major singing-spieling divas who regularly play the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel—including Andrea Marcovicci and Maude Maggart—Ms. Sullivan is by far the funniest and most entertaining. She combines the chops of an opera singer with the perfect punch-line timing and self-deflation of a baggy-pants comic. Her full-throated soprano is remarkable not only for being beautiful, but for, quite possibly, being the only thing about her that isn't funny.

During the last 20 years or so, Ms. Sullivan has devised 18 shows built around the Great American Songbook, both alone and with partners (usually the pianist-singer Mark Nadler). Her latest, "Rhyme, Women & Song," which she'll bring to the Oak Room for a month beginning Tuesday, is a departure in several respects. It focuses on the work of "music-making ladies," and because the last 40 years produced many more of them than the preceding era, she said, "I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the second half of the 20th century."

When Ms. Sullivan began playing the piano and singing as a 12-year-old in Oklahoma circa 1970 (she doesn't divulge her age), she immediately fell in love with Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." From there she became obsessed with the great showtunes, particularly those dating from the 1920s through the '50s. She trained in opera, only to realize that "there are fewer successful opera singers in this country than there are senators," and discovered that she preferred the possibilities for self-expression and humor in the American Songbook. "I define the songbook as songs that have endured," she said, almost begrudgingly, "which means it's now time for me to get around to Joni Mitchell and Carole King."

Ms. Sullivan moved to New York in 1983, and, except for a dalliance in Hollywood, where she played strippers and secretaries in cop shows like "Remington Steele" and "Police Squad," she has lived here ever since. She found better roles on Broadway, like the lead in the 1995 revival of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and opposite Sting in 1989's "The Threepenny Opera," but it has been on the New York cabaret scene that she has reigned nearly unchallenged.

Last Monday, she had a few friends over to her 43rd Street apartment for a "stumble through" of "Rhyme, Women & Song." The main issue was the "overture" by pianist Jon Weber and bassist John Webber (the two had a band in Chicago together called Webber Report). It had yet to be decided whether they would open with a collage of '80s-era pop hits by "girl bands" like the Bangles and Joan Jett, or a more traditional Oak Room medley of songs by Kay Swift.

Ms. Sullivan's closing medley, however, was fairly set: She jumps around among snippets of 29 numbers by female authors ("Because I happen to be 29," she joked), sequenced as incongruously and hilariously as possible, deliberately juxtaposing the dark and the comic, as when she segued from "All the Sad Young Men running from the … Big Bad Wolf!" Because it was a rehearsal, the singer's accounting was slightly off: She realized she'd omitted one song—"Both Sides Now"—and sang it on my answering machine an hour later. It's to Ms. Sullivan's credit that, in her shows, nothing is sacred—even the Great American Songbook—and yet, at the same time, everything is. It's almost as if the more fun she has with this music, the more seriously we can take it.