PS Classics, the label dedicated to the heritage of Broadway and American Popular Song, recently released a brand-new album from award-winning nightclub and concert artist Jeff Harnar, I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words.
Hearing his life story through the songs of the late Stephen Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist known for changing the landscape of musical theater, Harnar wove over 25 Sondheim classics into an original narrative, reimagining them for an LGBTQ audience and creating a self-portrait of a proud gay New Yorker in the contemporary world. I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words features a 20-piece orchestra conducted by renowned jazz piano virtuoso Jon Weber.
In celebration of the album’s release, Harnar performed special concert engagements in New York, LA, and Minneapolis. National tour dates will be announced soon.
The vocalist took time to talk more about the album and his love for Sondheim with Instinct.
Hi, Jeff! Thank you for taking some time to chat with me about your new album I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words. This originally started as a cabaret act?
Yes, and it still is a cabaret act! That’s how it began.
What inspired you to put this project together and tell your story through Sondheim songs?
It began in 2014 with a singer named KT Sullivan, who asked me if I wanted to do a duet show with her. I adore KT and I’ve done lots of shows with her, so I said yes, and she said, let’s do Sondheim. Now, I was already in my 50s, and I had never really sung Sondheim before. An occasional song here or there, but I’ve just been so intimidated by his material. Since I was going to have a friend on stage with me, I thought, maybe I should take the plunge.
Looking at the songs, I said to her, I love you KT, but I don’t want to sing any love songs to you. I want to sing true to my sexuality, which I’ve never done on stage. I mean, it’s no secret that I’m gay, as I gesture to my Judy Garland poster (laughs). It’s just that I’ve never really addressed it in my performance work. But I thought with KT and the brilliance of Sondheim’s lyrics, I could somehow be a little bit more authentic on stage, and that began this journey.
We collaborated with 91-year-old Sondra Lee, the original Tiger Lily in Peter Pan and Minnie Faye in Hello, Dolly!. She’s one of my Broadway heroes and she directed us, and then we collaborated with Jon Weber, who is a jazz virtuoso. That was also new for me. I’ve primarily worked with a pianist, usually Alex Rybeck, who is a wonderful arranger. He’s kind of my Wally Harper, and we’ve celebrated 39 years of working together, but Jon is a jazz pianist, and I thought that might also open something new for me.
That constellation of KT, Jon, Sondra, and me got a New York Times review that brought Stephen Sondheim to see the show, which was seismic in my little world. He was very supportive. So, it was in my head that at some point, I’d like to see what my own musical self-portrait would be using his lyrics. What I particularly love about the show, which translates to the album is, once I say hello to the audience, I don’t speak again. Every word out of my mouth is his. The music is Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.
How has the album been received by listeners?
This is my first album in 17 years, so there’s that element, but it’s my first album to come out with social media. So, I’m very aware of how people are responding, and it’s beautiful. I’m hearing from a lot of people who are identifying with the songs I’ve chosen. A lot of the songs I’m singing were written for women, but because I’m singing the correct pronouns, they’re now appropriate for me. I’ve heard from a lot of people who are hearing their own story and identifying and that’s the most wonderful thing. It’s been very joyful.
Care to mention a couple songs that you included?
Sure! Obviously, the title track “I Know Things Now” is Little Red’s song from Into the Woods, but I have put it to a walking bass beat, and it has to do with my sexual awakening. I put it together with the song “More” from Dick Tracy. ‘One is fun, why not two? And if you like two, you might as well have four? And if you like four, why not a few? Why not a slew? More!’ That’s part of my story (laughs). There are songs like “Losing My Mind,” which I put together with “Loving You” from Passion, and I’ve put together a suite of songs that allow me to sing “Getting Married Today.” Most people know it as ‘not getting married today.’ It involves other players in the musical Company, but I wanted to make it a monologue.
I dated a wonderful, extraordinary Norwegian man in the 90s, who asked me to marry him three times. At that time in Norway, gay marriage was legal, but not in America. For me, it never even entered my mind to think of marrying a man. So, the terror of what that kind of commitment would mean, and it was a huge leap of faith to marry someone from another country. I searched “Getting Married Today” with “I’m Calm” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Forum and made it stand on its own as a gay man’s nightmare. The threat of their commitment.
Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from the album?
Oh, several things. I would love for people to hear the lyrics in a brand-new way. Whenever I’m performing someone else’s material, that’s always my intention. As a singer, I like to imagine that I’m birthing the songs as I perform. That none of these ideas ever happened and I’m the one having them. Saying and creating these words. I’m hoping that people will hear familiar songs and maybe revisit them with what they might mean.
I do the song “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” to my cell phone, and it has to do with texting. To me, it brings the song into the 21st century, so I’m hoping people enjoy it on that level. Jon Weber created orchestrations for a 20-piece orchestra that are jazz influenced, so these orchestrations won’t sound like the Broadway cast either. They’re very jazzy. We do a version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and we took inspiration from Lea Delaria’s swing version of it. It’s great fun.
In honor of the album’s release, you did some live concert celebrations around the country. How did they go?
They’ve been good! All the official engagements are done, so now we’re just going to start performing. We’ve got Provincetown coming up, North Carolina, and we’ll do more dates in New York.
What is it about Sondheim songs that draws you to interpret them?
As a nightclub and cabaret singer, the lyrics are everything. It’s the very first thing I go to, and I’ve always been drawn to Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Comden and Green. I’ve always been drawn to witty, clever, intelligent, insightful, profound lyrics because if I choose them correctly, there’s a chance I might sound witty, profound, and intelligent when I’m singing them (laughs). Sondheim not only ticks all those boxes, but he brings the language into the 21st century.
There is no question as to why I’m singing these songs. They’re of today. There’s nothing rarefied or antiquated about them. They’re of the moment, and he somehow translates the climate of the human heart into words in a way that I can’t when I’m talking, which is why I don’t speak in the show. There’s nothing that I could say as myself that would in any way illuminate what he says so vividly. He’s one of our great poets, and I’m so grateful that I was alive during his time and got to see some of his musicals.
Which Sondheim show is your absolute favorite?
I’m going to give you the basic answer and just say whichever one I’m singing. Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece, and I love that Company has this New York edge to it. I wasn’t born in New York. I was born in Manhattan Beach, California, so it’s a long journey to get to Manhattan, but I identified right away with that New York edgy, brassy, caustic thing that’s in Company, which I love. Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George are also some of my favorites.
Have you always had a passion for singing and performing?
Yes, I started when I was very young. When I was nine. I did The Music Man in a community theater in Chicago, and some talent agent saw me. By the time I was 10, I had all my union cards. I was doing boy soprano jingles and had this flourishing career until my voice changed!
What are some future goals you would like to accomplish with your career?
You’re witnessing one. I cannot tell you what a dream this has been. For a boy who listened to cast albums while living in the suburbs of Chicago to come to New York and sing the songs that I love, and often for the composers who wrote them, such as Stephen Sondheim, there are at least 10 of my heroes that where I got to sing their songs for them, it’s been extraordinary. Also, to be making a living doing what I love and to have it recorded, it’s nice to feel like I’m leaving something because I’m not planning to have children. Recordings are forever, so I am living a dream right now.
I’m not sure what the next one might be, but I would like to maximize this opportunity. It’s very rare for a person like me to have a Sondheim album come out on PS Classics label, which recorded the last 13 Sondheim albums. They worked hand in hand in hand with him in the studio. So, I couldn’t have been in better hands than I was with PS Classics. Then to have an orchestra, that’s a huge deal! I am absolutely living a dream right now, and I am so grateful.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug?
Every year in Manhattan, we have the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual cabaret convention that happens in Rose Hall at Lincoln Center, and I co-host. This will be my ninth year co-hosting one of these nights with Andrea Marcovicci, and our night is a tribute to Yip Harburg. That’s October 26. I also work as a director helping other singers get their nightclub acts together, so I’ve got a bunch of singers opening their shows. My calendar is pretty full for the rest of the year!
Stay up-to-date and connect with Harnar by following him on Facebook, Instagram, or visit his official website. I Know Things Now: My Life in Sondheim’s Words is now available on CD and all digital streaming platforms.