Jason Danieley’s “Without a Song”

August 29, 2023

In 1972, director Bernardo Bertolucci released his controversial erotic drama, Last Tango in Paris which received an X rating for its explicit sex scenes between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. Rumors ran rampant that the sex scenes, although not pornographic, were ultra-realistic because the two stars were actually engaged in intercourse during the filming. It was a cause célèbre that made the movie one of the hits of that year.

There were two camps; one thought that the scenes were too raw, while others thought there should have been actual sex shown on the screen. The brouhaha inspired famed film critic Pauline Kael to write an essay about the situation. In it, she observed that in the film, Brando and Schneider were playing characters and the adult nature of the film captured the reality of a sexual relationship in strong and uncompromising terms, both narratively and visually. But, she added, had audiences actually seen Brando’s erection, then it would have indeed been Brando’s erection; any thought of character would have been obliterated by the shock and reality of the mega-star in his naked, pornographic glory. That observation has stayed with me in circumstances far beyond film and sexuality. 

When dealing with “confessional” cabaret—which for better or for worse, shows no sign of retiring from the current scene—there can come a point in the show when the performer reveals too much and utilizes such specificity that the audience is led to view the emotion and pain in a performance in clinical rather than artistic terms. If the revelations are too raw, if the tears seem too real, if the story is too private, then the “artistic” disappears into the human, like when a man falling down stairs is funny but the laughs stop with the realization that he actually broke his leg and is in pain. 

A great singer will enable the audience to substitute their own circumstance; they can plug their own experience, their own backstory into the story being sung.  If the set-up of the show or the song shuts out everyone but the singer in an effort to be intimate and honest, it blocks anyone else from sharing in the experience and the catharsis. There is little that is transformative or entertaining in “car crash watching.”  

Jason Danieley (Photo: Courtesy of Mr. Danieley’s website)

In his new show, Without a Song, at 54 Below, singer/actor Jason Danieley let us in too much in his patter and did not let us in enough in his singing. It’s an odd dichotomy from which the show never recovered. To anyone who has seen Danieley in theatre, there is no question that he is a talented performer. But in this show he too often seemed incapable of letting go of the “legit” sound and delivery and simply communicating the lyrics in a natural, conversational way.

The phrasing remained big, declamatory, and square exacerbated by an arch physicality that led him to “conduct” the arrangements with his free hand(s) and to tag most songs with an uncalled-for physical flourish. The arrangements themselves, while solid and well-played by Joseph Thalken, made little concession for the cabaret setting and the personal story, remaining firmly tied to their theatrical origins. They became character songs in search of characters to define them. Throughout, the singer used the confessional patter to set up what the audience was supposed to feel (and should have felt) during the song but then never delivered it. 

Danieley has had an acclaimed career in musical theatre with starring roles in Candide, Floyd Collins, The Full Monty, and Curtains among others. In 1996, he met his wife, Marin Mazzie, in an Off-Broadway show called Trojan Women: A Love Story; they fell in love, married, and remained together until her sad passing from cancer in 2018. During COVID he began to reflect on the loss as he looked for what he calls “the answers to unanswerable questions,” traveling the world and exploring cultures, religions, and philosophies along the way. Those reflections grew into Without a Song. The problem with “unanswerable questions” is that when the answers are found, they tend to be platitudinous rather than revelatory, and songs reflecting the platitudes can become obvious and cliché-ridden, or stretched to fit a situation that has precious little to do with the lyrical subject at hand. 

The show opened with “Without a Song” (Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose) which was given a lounge-y feel at odds with the emotions the evening was meant to transmit. There were stops along the way at Stephen Sondheim, Gershwin, Kern, Hammerstein and more of the usual suspects with particular attention paid to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose forthcoming musical, Knoxville, (based on James Agee’s A Death in the Family) will star Danieley. The three songs he chose sounded promising, and when done in character and costume (and directed), he will no doubt make them soar. Yet, in this show his phrasing was on a “demo recording” level, hitting all the right notes, cleanly delivering the lyrics, and never revealing much of himself while doing it. 

To him, “Losing My Mind” (Sondheim, from Follies) revealed how overwhelmed he was at the tragedy but, in reality, the song was so removed from the situation he must have experienced that the actual lyric never made sense. The title phrase seemed to be enough of a connection for him, but it was not for me.  Directly addressing Marin by name in lyrics was meant, I suppose, to be a loving touch, but instead struck a crude and uncomfortably opportunistic note, and that discomfort shaded his introduction of his new wife by name from the stage near the end of the show, crystallizing the happy answer he had sought and found. 

In the latter part of the show, when he got to “I’ve Gotta Be Me” (Walter Marks, from Golden Rainbow), it was a pleasure to see and hear him relax into the lyric and take it down from its usual anthemic perch and give us a life-size moment in his journey.  That welcome intimacy reappeared in “You Walk with Me” (David Yazbeck, from The Full Monty), but it was too little too late. In Without a Song, Jason Danieley did make me feel bad for him but, sadly, that was not the response either of us wanted from his cabaret show. 


Presented by Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., NYC, August 18 & 19, 2023.


About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”