KT Sullivan brings Broadway to the young

KT Sullivan
KT Sullivan
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with singer and actress KT Sullivan about her involvement with , a nonprofit organization that brings singers from Broadway shows and cabarets into New York City schools to introduce young people to popular American songs.  

Born in Boggy Depot, Okla., Kathleen “KT” Sullivan is an American singer and actress known for her musical theater and cabaret performances. She recently finished a series of cabaret performances titled “Dancing in the Dark” at The Oak Room in New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. Sullivan has also toured the nation in shows such as “Annie Get Your Gun” and made her mark on Broadway with musicals like “No, No Nannette,” “Three Penny Opera” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.”

The American Songbook hosted its annual “Name That Tune” masquerade gala on Nov. 6 at The Edison Ballroom in New York. The event was to highlight and applaud the work of American singer Margaret Whiting and director Michael Mayer, while also raising money for The American Songbook Project.

Q: Could you tell me a little about The American Songbook Project and your involvement with it?

Sullivan: I’ve gone to a few schools before and whether they’re little toddlers sitting all around, or teenagers who you don’t think you’re going to get their attention, what I’ve noticed is if you sing an interesting lyric, you’ve got their attention (laughs) and they’re not always used to hearing the words. They’re used to hearing just a beat sometimes and they’re transformed by the stories, and you can get their attention which is a nice pleasant surprise.

Q: OK, and what is an interesting line?

Sullivan: (Laughs) Well, for instance, Amanda McBroom has a song (sings) “I’m 21 and I’m 5 foot nine, got a face and a body to change your mind, I’m a picture so fine to see. Whenever I walk the streets of town the men and the boys they all fall down calling ‘darling come home with me, oh pretty darling, come home with me.’ Dreaming is a way to pass the time, dreaming everything will turn out fine. Dreaming is the only thing that’s mine. Me, I live in dreams.”

That’s the woman [who] wrote “The Rose” and that song is not so well known, but the kids will follow the story. And the next line is “My daddy he’s a business man, got a big old castle in Switzerland and a mansion by the sea.” She goes through different stories, within the story about this woman who’s living in dreams. And the kids start coming with you. It’s really wonderful. And if you’re with Mark Nadler he’ll sing a song about Minnie the Moocher, or something. Or, I sing a song by Jerome Kern called “My Husband’s First Wife.” These funny songs, they’re ready to laugh at jokes they haven’t heard before.

Q: So what does you going to the schools and visiting the schools do for these kids?

Sullivan: I hope they’re exposed to other kinds of music; it’s like a history lesson. Kids tend to think that their music [is the] only kind of music. It makes them aware of things that have come before and the American traditions like Irving Berlin “I love a Piano” and as I’m singing “I Love a Piano” and sit on the keys, and “I Love a Piano” was written in 1914. And Alexander’s Ragtime Band was in 1911: (sings) “Come on hear! Come on hear! Alexander’s ragtime band,” they understand that. And then when you tell them it’s written almost 100 years ago, it’s their history lesson, what Americans have given to the world.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band swept the world, and ragtime swept the world just like rap is sweeping the world now. There was a thing called Ragtime in 1911 that swept the world, which is America’s contribution to the world’s culture. And it was a combination of a Jewish immigrant like Irving Berlin mixed with his influences in the black culture [that] brought us ragtime. What, with Scott Joplin and Fats Waller, these people all came together to create something that’s very American, and it’s melting pot music. And it’s their history lesson in what America has to offer then and now.

Q: Why is the American Songbook Project an important nonprofit organization, when there are so many out there?

Sullivan: It’s important to me because I sing at a place called the Algonquin where the cover is $60 and there’s sometimes a pre-fixed menu of $60, which you can’t get out for less than $120 before tax and tip, so these kids will not be exposed to this music which I love so much. So when I go into schools, I feel like a missionary (laughs). Getting music which I love that I think should be exposed to more people and to people that aren’t up in years and wealthy, to get exposed to young people so that they’re aware of their history and their culture and the world’s culture, and it’s music that I don’t want to die!

And there are people even writing it now, like I mentioned Amanda McBroom,but there’s other people like my friend Francesca Blumenthal who wrote a song called “The Lies of Handsome Men,” which was recorded by Cleo Laine. There are great songs being written today and you can get them to listen to the songs of the past and then they’ll listen to some great new songs being written and I can get it beyond the walls of the Algonquin or Feinstein’s or the Carlisle where people from the Upper East Side can dine, but these kids in the schools will never hear this music unless we take it to them, and the Songbook Project brings it to them.

Q: Have you had a particularly moving moment while working with this organization?

Sullivan: Well, I guess it was when I was with Mark Nadler and [he said] “Anybody here want to play the piano?” [He picked] up a little boy, who’s like, 6, and doing a duet with him on the piano, and of course there were hundreds of kids, they got so excited because one of them was up there involved with it; bringing the kids up to the piano, little kids playing a duet with Mark Nadler on the piano. They could see it could happen to them; that they could be a part of this music. It was exciting.

Q: Great. Is there anything else you would like to say? Maybe about the upcoming event?

Sullivan: Well this event is very important. I adore Margaret Whiting. She represents the Great American Songbook so much. In fact there was a movie last year about Julia Child ("Julie & Julia"), where at the end of the movie you have a recording of (sings) “Time after time I tell myself that I’m so lucky to be loving you”. It was so touching at the end of the movie [to hear] Margaret’s [Whiting's] voice, Margaret's one of the great legacies. [She] would always come to my show when I was starting out, she was encouraging to me and so [the fact that] they’re going to honor her is great. This is another generation coming up that should hear this music. It was great to hear her voice in a movie theater, and she was so happy to hear it too.