'What Matters Most' :: Michael Ricca on His New Cabaret Show

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday February 13, 2020

Boston theater and cabaret artist Michael Ricca has, accompanied by pianist Ron Roy, entertained crowds at Scullers with shows that celebrate the music of Michel Legrand and proven that he's "Still That Boy" (the title of his 2014 show).

And Ricca's reach hasn't been limited to Boston; he's taken his show in the road to Chicago and NYC, as well as around New England.

Now Ricca is ready to return to another venue he's lit up in the past - Central Square Theater, where he'll be performing his newest show, "What Matters Most," March 6 - 8. The show promises to be a "musical meditation on our values," something we could use in these dark and gaslit times. Even better, the show "features an eclectic mix of songs by Michel Legrand, Stephen Sondheim, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Burt Bacharach, Duke Ellington, and many more."

EDGE had a chance to catch up with Ricca and find out more about what he's got in store.

EDGE: Boston theatergoers might know you as a co-founder of Titanic Theatre Company, but you also have been performing cabaret for years — not just here in Boston, but in New York and Chicago as well. What, to you, really differentiates cabaret from theater — or, on the other hand, associates them?

Michael Ricca: My background is theater — I am a graduate of Emerson College here in Boston, and then I went to New York and studied acting and singing and was there for many years. I came back here and, actually, prior to founding Titanic I co-founded another theater company called Boston Theatre Works, which is no longer in existence. So, theater has been a big part of my life, and music as well. I sort of made this segue about 15 years ago to mostly performing music in cabaret style, partially because it's something I can do on my schedule.

The correlation for me is that you're talking about the same principles in general. You're still telling a story; you're still dealing with principles of creating an arc. You're still dealing with words and the things that have meaning and the things that have impact, but you're doing it all through song. Our shows — that I do with Ron Roy, my accompanist or a long time — really do have a theme and an arc. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end. We look to take audiences on a journey.

I've played a lot for clubs, which I love, but doing it in the theater gives you a little more theatrical license. And also, there's a little more intimacy in some ways.

EDGE: And now you'll be performing cabaret at Central Square Theater. Is this going to be the first time you've performed a cabaret show in a theater setting as opposed to, say, a club, like Scullers, where you have performed many times in the past?

Michael Ricca: Actually, I have done several shows there. I took one show that I had done at Sculler's and in New York and other places, called "Still That Boy," and I performed a run there. Then, a couple of years ago, I did a run of another show, called "Moving On," and I sort of was a co-tenant of that space with another performer. We sort of switched off by night doing our shows. I have done that a few times, and because Titanic has performed at Central Square in the past I kind of had a relationship with the folks there. I knew who to reach out to, and I knew the space. And I like the intimacy of it, and the resources that come from renting from a space that has a box office and a house management team — that makes it all a lot easier.

EDGE: A cabaret show, to me, seems like it's something a little more fun and comforting — we need dramatic stage work, we need shows that illustrate social issues, but sometimes you just need to go spend a couple of hours in a friendly space where you're going to hear some songs. This seems like a good time for an evening of song.

Michael Ricca: Absolutely! I think music is very comforting to folks. Memory is attached to music. When we hear a song that we know — and hopefully people will know many of the songs we'll be doing — people have an attachment to it, and it brings back memories.

It's not as if we completely shy away from or ignore what's happening in the world; we don't address it directly, but sometimes when we get caught up in what's going on politically, particularly right now, we forget about our internal lives — where we are in our own lives. We still have to maintain that. It still matters a lot to us. What's happening out there [is important], but so is what's happening inside us, and we still have to deal with our priorities. I think that music is comforting, but it's a way that allows us to go into ourselves and get away a little bit from the craziness out there, and touch base with what we really think and what we really feel, and the things that matter a lot for us. It's an intimate experience between me and the audience, and we hope they leave feeling uplifted and have had a happy evening. We have songs that are poignant and moving, but the idea is that people leave feeling better than when they came in.

EDGE: And in fact, the theme and title of your new cabaret is "What Matters Most," as in, what is important in life. For most people that's probably love, romance, hope — that sort of thing. And of course, those are the themes of many great songs. How did you go about deciding which songs would be part of the show?

Michael Ricca: It's very hard to pare things down. You have to start to think about what is essential., One of the things I did was think about it for myself, and being at a certain time in life, and seeing parents age, and seeing things from a different vantage point [than when you were younger] you start to realize that we don't have unlimited time. So, as we looked at the catalog of arrangements for songs we've done, some of the songs we include are songs we've done in other shows. And then we added to that.

Some of the songs just sort of came to me and some of it came out of discussions and making lists of my priorities. And you're right — we do touch, obviously, on all kinds of love: Love for children, love for a partner, love for humanity. We get whimsical and talk about things that you might not expect, but they do matter. And we also think about — not just tangible things that matter, but things that we do that matter, like making choices about our priorities or, looking back, how we look back on an experience from the past and take that with us moving forward? Or — what are the ways we can have fun?

It's a vast amount of things, and it's a matter of whittling them down. Then we get them all together, and when we start to run [rehearsals of the show] we see what's essential and what's not. Songs will fall away, so that we sort of get it down to... what really matters, essentially!


EDGE: But in that process of whittling, you also preserve a broad range — in the press notes you call the new show an "eclectic mix." And it really is: You've got songs by Elton John, and Stephen Sondheim, and Duke Ellington, and Burt Bacharach. Are you a fan of all these musicians, so that you have their catalogs in your mind to sort of draw on and mix and match?

Michael Ricca: For the people you describe, yes. We like to do an eclectic mix of songs because variety holds an audience's interest. When you vary the tempo, when you vary what you're presenting when you add in things audiences don't expect, it's more fun. And it's more fun for us because Ron and I love all kinds of music. I certainly enjoy singing pop and jazz as much as I like singing something from the standards. We really do like to cast as broad a net as we can so there's something for everyone — there's something that everyone can relate to and will know. And there are also some surprises, songs that people might not have heard of, and yet they are such strong songs that make such strong statements that we wanted to include those as well.

EDGE You mentioned your accompanist, Ron Roy; you've worked with him for years and years. What's the special ingredient to a long-lasting musical partnership like yours?

Michael Ricca: There are a number of things. I think the great friendship that we have, mutual respect, a real sense of listening, an ability to collaborate, and I think also we are much on the same page aesthetically. We have the same sensibilities. When I talk about something, Ron gets it, and vice versa. And Ron is a very special individual and musician. He is so keyed into not just musical elements, but also the theatrical elements; it's amazing how he can create a whole musical environment based on what he does at the piano. It's really about that respect, listening, and having a mutual artistic sense of what we're after.

EDGE: Does Ron play a role in selecting the songs or helping shape your approach to the material?

Michael Ricca: Certainly. I might often lead with some of the songs, but he will make suggestions. He will certainly voice his opinion. But absolutely he influences what I do because sometimes we might start to work on a song we have never worked on before, and he will start playing something and completely change my thinking about it, my approach to it... or, we may be working on something and maybe there's a bit of it that we're not quite getting, and he might do something musically that makes the whole thing come together in a special way. So, absolutely what he does really does influence me all the time.

EDGE: You mentioned that it's easier when doing cabaret to get it to fit into your schedule, as opposed to doing a play, but do you have plans to do anything soon with Titanic?

Michael Ricca: Well, you know, I am no longer a full company member of Titanic — mostly because I don't have the time to do it. I still work with them helping out as a publicist, but I'm not involved in making those choices or selections. I know that they have an event coming up where they're reading a play and I think they've been doing a series of these things, to get an audience reaction to these things. I think that's part of their process of making a selection. But I am not actively involved in the work of the theater, currently.

EDGE: What else do you have coming up?

Michael Ricca: Ron and I are going to be working with a local poet. He and I are collaborating with a good friend of mine who runs a theater organization called On With Living and Learning, which is devoted to theater as a vehicle for social change. They have a residency doing a program at the Envoy Hotel in the gallery space there on Friday nights, with programming focusing on underrepresented audiences. We're at the beginning of a discussion about partnering with this local poet to do an evening of some of his poetry and maybe some stories, and then Ron and I will do some songs. It's a one night only kind of thing. We've only met once, this gentleman and I, and the process was such that he would read some poetry and a song would come to mind and I'd start to sing it. It was sort of a symbiotic. We're going to explore that more.

Michael Ricca performs "What Matters Most" with Ron Roy on piano, March 6 - 8. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/events/what-matters-most/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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