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Interview: Alysa Haas


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Q: What started your love for music, and how old were you at the time?

A: I have always been surrounded by music. My grandmother, who unfortunately passed before I was born, was a Yiddish folk singer. My mother Bira Rabushka is a violinist; my father Georges Haas was a world famous oboist; and my stepfather Joseph Rabushka is also a violinist. I was raised listening to classical music. I was lucky enough to be able to attend and sit in the pit of my parents' orchestra of the world famous New York City Ballet. At the age of six, I was allowed to climb through the pit door to watch the ballets. Being able to combine music and dance opened my mind and body to musical expression. Even today, when I listen to the radio, I can hear the vast repertoire of the NYCB. I remember the dancers, picture the movements, sets and costumes, and most of the time, I can name the composer. At home, we listened to all musical genres. Folk music such as Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Woody Guthrie, and Yazmin Weavers, were a big part of my life. I remember playing records and my mom and I would sing along. My brother, Avi, introduced me to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Billy Joel. I grew up watching musical movies, my favorite being “On the Town," where I became in awe of Frank Sinatra. My love of the many musical movies, including “Oklahoma!," “Singing in the Rain," “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," transferred into my love of musical theater and Broadway. I didn’t listen to jazz until later, and started attending concerts in NYC at the bar in the Carlyle Hotel, where I met my bassist, Paul Beaudry. It was Paul who introduced me to places like Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Smoke, and the Village Vanguard.

Q: When did you decide to become a singer? Were your parents supportive of it? 

A: I was lucky enough to grow up in an incredible arts center called the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts (NWCA), which was founded by my mother, Bira, in 1978. Early supporters included many prominent actors and performers, such as: Colleen Dewhurst, Jill Clayburgh, E.G. Marshall, Lucie Arnaz, Larry Luckinbill, Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz. The children and teens in the arts center were always writing, producing, and putting on a show. I fell in love with singing songs and participating in small musicals as well as all forms of dance, primarily ballet. It wasn’t until I saw “A Chorus Line" on Broadway when I realized that I wanted to major in musical theater. I was a musical theater major at Webster University in St. Louis, and got my BA in musical theater from Fordham University at Lincoln Center. After auditioning and realizing the how hard it would be to gain a paycheck quickly, I went back to school and received my graduate degree from NYU in Speech Pathology. During my 14 years of practicing Speech Therapy, I began taking cabaret classes to get back in touch with my performance skills. I remember my audition in 2004. I sang “Only In New York” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie." After my audition, they said, “Welcome!” and from that moment I was hooked into cabaret and performing in front of an audience and haven't stopped singing since. My parents, being musicians, were thrilled! They were delighted to see my natural comfort, humor, and, musicality on the stage. They were never typical “stage parents”, and would always critique me as a musician and a critic. They were and continue to be extremely supportive.

Q: How did you learn how to sing? Did you receive any formal training?

A: I studied voice throughout college and continued to study with Glenn Seven Allen. I took master workshops with Helen Baldassare, Kevin Scott Hall, Lucie Arnaz, and Betty Buckley. I knew that my strengths were musicality and interpretation of songs.

Q: You do comedy as well. Do you ever combine the two?

A: I don't do “stand-up” if that is what you are asking, but I love laughter, and I love to see people smile when I'm performing. In a recent review of my last show at the Metropolitan Room, in NYC, they compared my humor to the young Bette Midler. I felt so honored, to be put in the spotlight of such an icon. I grew up listening to Danny Kaye, Steve Martin's “Wild and Crazy Guy” album, and Tom Lehrer, and have seen a lot of cabaret and musical theater on Broadway, with inspirational performers such as David Burnham and Liz Callaway. “Spasm”, offers the listener combination of comedy with sultriness. They can also hear it in “I Can Cook Too,” “Crazy Eyes,” and “Sequined Mermaid Dress." I was lucky to be connected to songwriter and lyricist, David Cantor, who writes great tunes with steamy and humorous lyrics. When performing live, much of my humor falls into the banter that leads into the songs. It's wonderful to hear people respond positively, with laughter, to the stories I tell on the stage. 

Q: How were the covers on “Spasm" chosen?

A: All the cover tunes were songs that I had sung in my cabaret shows. My first show, “A Jazzy Kind of Love" in 2009, included “Spasm,” “Slap That Bass/Hit Me With a Hot Note,” “The Sweetest Sounds/How High the Moon,” “If I Were A Bell,” “Sequined Mermaid Dress,” “Crazy Eyes,” and “My Funny Valentine.” Jeffrey Klitz (my music producer on the CD, “Spasm"), who was music director for “Guys and Dolls" on Broadway, originally wrote all these arrangements. When I decided to create a new show, I wanted to include many of the tunes from my first show. Jeffrey was working on “Priscilla Queen of the Desert," so my bassist Paul Beaudry introduced me to the incredible pianist/arranger, Tedd Firth, who had worked with musical icons such as Tom Wopat, Lee Ann Womack, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Maureen McGovern, Faith Prince, and Linda Lavin. I was honored to have him work with me. He took my ideas and created wonderful arrangements to “Ever the Same,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “I Can Cook, Too,” and reworked “If I Were a Bell" and “Sequined Mermaid Dress." In creating the CD, I realized that I was not tapping into my past with my love of pop and rock tunes.

I always loved “Make You Feel My Love” sung by Billy Joel, (originally written by Bob Dylan), but Adele had just recorded it. I knew I had to bring a fresh new feel to it, and with Paul Beaudry’s arrangement (who also arranged, “The Man I Love”), and the collaboration of my incredible musicians, Tony Jefferson (drums) Bernd Schoenhart (guitar), and Jeffrey Klitz (piano), we were able to create a tune that later I learned, had similar feel to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher.” It got a wonderful response in concert and I knew it would be a nice addition to my CD. Jeffrey Klitz quickly arranged “In My Life,” playing this warm yet sad melody, and I began to sing. Immediately, we knew we had something beautiful. We added guitar to bring in some more warmth to the tune. It was well received at the Metropolitan Room, and when we recorded, we knew we had an amazing take.

Q: How did you end up covering a Rob Thomas tune?

A: I always loved the music of Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20. It’s a funny story how I was able to sing one of his songs. We had met in a restaurant. I had not recognized him at first, but after my mom heard him talking about his band, we began to interact. It was then, his wife stated that, “I should know him because he won a Grammy!” At that moment I recognized him and had a sudden moment of great joy and became quite giddy. I happened to have my demo CD on me and made a bold move, giving it him. By the end of the evening, I gained the courage to ask him if I could sing one of his tunes, and happily, he said “Yes.” Later that evening was quite exciting because he actually listened to the demo CD and tweeted to me that he loved the songs, and actually tweeted to his fans. I have to admit I was overcome with joy that night. He was so kind, and I am ever so grateful. As I sat down reading song after song, I knew right then, choosing a song by Rob Thomas would be challenging. He is a poet and writes amazing stories filled with beautiful and visual metaphors. After ciphering through for about a month or so, I was deciding between “Someday,” “Ever the Same,” and “Lonely No More." My decision came to record “Ever the Same" was when I heard his acoustic version on his 2005 album “iTunes Originals." I felt I could make my own personal connections to the lyrics and tell a story, and knew it was the right choice.

Q: What musicians have had the greatest impact on you and why?

A: That’s easy an easy answer, my parents. I feel I inherited musicality from my parents being a child of two phenomenal musicians, and being raised in a family, where the arts have had a huge impact on my life. It’s difficult for me to separate music from dance. The repertoire of NYCB was a major influence, and musically they were the most diverse company in the world. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins choreographed to so many different genres.

Pianist Hélène Grimaud, playing Ravel’s “Adagio Assai” from “Piano Concerto in G" always makes me emotional. Trumpet player Terell Stafford, playing almost anything, brings about an excitement within. The songs of Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Cy Coleman, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Leonard Bernstein are all an inspiration. Tierney Sutton and her ability to use her voice as another instrument, with such complex tonal rhythms and arrangements, opened my eyes to new ways of singing. I have seen Liz Callaway and David Burnham in concert several times, and they tell beautiful stories, singing from the heart. David can make me laugh one minute and cry the next because he brings truth and honesty to every performance. I guess I can say, musicians who make me feel something deep inside, whether emotions are of sadness or joy, will always have the greatest impact on me.

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