If the true nature of artistry resides in a generosity of spirit that seeks to elevate the matrix of human emotion & experience to higher ground, offering both inspiration and a sense of hope as fortuitous by-products, then Stewart Francke and Brian D'Arcy James share common ground, even though their artistic accomplishments may appear world's apart.
Both Saginaw born & bred musicians who have tasted the nectar of national acclaim will join forces on Friday, October 12th at the historic splendor of The Temple Theatre in Downtown Saginaw for a red-carpet Benefit for the Field Neurosciences Institute titled Safely Home.
With Francke gaining national acclaim as an author and Mid-western singer/Song-writer/rocker in the Springsteen & Mellencamp vein, and James a gifted Tony-award caliber force on Broadway, this seemingly odd-coupling of musical talent came together partially from the notion that despite the differing facets of the musical worlds each inhabit, both share a profound nostalgia, inspiration, and encouragement for the city where it all truly began.
For those unfamiliar with their resume, Brian d'Arcy James graduated from Nouvel Catholic Central in 1986, going to appear in numerous Broadway products as Titanic, Carousel, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He received a Tony Award nomination in 2002 for his portrayal of Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success.
Stewart Francke, on the other hand, graduated from Arthur Hill in 1975. His first album, Where the River Meets the Bay, contained the hit single Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was used as an episode theme for the popular TV show, Melrose Place. He's released 9 albums and one book, Between the Ground & God, and performed with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Stevie Winwood, Shawn Colvin and the inimitable Chuck Berry.
A Red Carpet welcome from the 100-voice Zion Missionary Baptist Church Choir will kick off the fete, which will also feature an extremely bountiful buffet from 5:30 - 7:30 PM, with the performance beginning at 8:00 PM.
Because it is a fund-raiser, two buffet & show tickets are available for $300.00, with one buffet & show ticket available at $125.00; however show only tickets are also available for this once-in-a-lifetime musical alliance beginning at a very reasonable $20.00.
In advance of the premier of their ambitious collaborative performance, both Brian & Stew sat down for a lengthy & meaty interview to discuss the convergence of their artistic styles, current impressions of their old 'hometown', and what the future holds for each of these Michigan exports: proudly carrying the label, 'Made in Saginaw'.
Review: How did the idea for this alliance between you and Brian originate?
Stew: It happened on several levels simultaneously it seems. I'd heard his work on a compilation of Stephen Sondheim's songs--something from "Into The Woods"--and loved it and his voice. And I had of course known that he'd gone to New York many years ago and done well on Broadway and had returned home a few times and done shows for the Fields Institute that were deeply appreciated events.
Our parents had been good friends, although I didn't know Brian growing up. Then I looked him up on a trip to New York a couple years ago, just as a friend, and we've become close and able to bounce artistic ideas and conundrums off each other--career questions, ideas, artists with kids, ya' know.
Once our friendship started to bloom, I thought we should work together - even though the things we do are quite different, we cover enough ground together and respect each other's work enough to do something that would really be interesting and relevant. And the natural place to do it is in our mutual hometown, Saginaw.
We presented the idea to the Fields Neurological Institute, with its fundraising apparatus being so efficient and so well established in this community, and they were enthusiastic about helping us present it. Dr. Fields himself has a vision of Saginaw and its future that is very optimistic, innovative and humane, and that appealed to me.
Brian: That pretty much sums it up. Stewart called me up out of the blue about three years ago. I knew his family name and my father and his father were friends in Saginaw. During our initial call, Stewart introduced himself and we talked a lot about our own interests in music and how we had taken that passion and turned it into our respective careers, Stewart as a singer songwriter and me as an actor and singer.
It was Stewart's idea initially to try and do something together and cross-pollinate, as it were. So I'm giving full credit to him for this actually taking place.
Review: As artists I understand that you both are always looking at new possibilities, yet to date most of your collaborations, Stewart, have involved artists from the R&B world. Similarly you Brian have been centered in to the world of Broadway. Does that present any particular challenges in terms of discerning common ground?
Stew: It's a gift, really. I love the American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley--the halcyon days of that kind of songwriting. I've studied a lot of the methodology behind Sondheim's writing and Rodgers & Hammerstein, Yip Harburgh, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, probably because I grew up hearing a lot of those songs in my home through Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson--all the great singers of that book. I'm naturally drawn to those songs--and they were primarily written for musicals, not for radio or albums or even films.
I wanted to learn more about songwriting, because it's my passion--inner rhyme, alliteration, more complex changes than rock offered, jazz-based songwriting. Why it endures. Why it seems so simple and sometimes pedestrian but is highly complex and thought out.
And I learned there's very little difference in intent and discipline between the great Tin Pan Alley writers and the great pop or R&B writers like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lennon & McCartney or Carole King & Gerry Goffin.
So I knew a little about the world Brian worked and prospered in - the amount of dedication and knowledge, the ability to come out, on Broadway no less, night after night, and knock an audience out. And get Tony nominations for your work. I mean this is a SERIOUS artist, a seriously dedicated man that I have as much respect for as is possible.
So in my mind there are far more possibilities on how to present this show than there are challenges.
We first decided on a theme, centered around my song "Safely Home," with its obvious overtones, then we talked about how much we could do together and how much we could do apart and just let the work and our own anecdotal stories speak for itself--present our work, what we both do and have done, and let the audience decide where it all meets and connects.
Brian: As an actor who works primarily in the theater I'm well rehearsed when it comes to the styles of the musical theater genre, as it's my job to know it.
Having said that, I grew up listening to pop, rock and R&B on the radio and it really is the music I gravitate to the most. Working with Stewart is great for a couple of reasons. First, he has a working knowledge and respect for the music of "my world" and can talk about it with an insight and an intellect you might not expect from someone from "his world"; so, right there, you know he's a true student of all music and that makes him all the more interesting and magnetic as someone with whom I'd like to collaborate.
Secondly, I love his music. I respond to it and enjoy it. Stewart is a poet and he wraps his beautiful language in the vernacular of rock and R&B, which give his songs an authenticity and depth that is extremely satisfying.
As to the challenges, it really has nothing to do with the idea of performing with someone from another genre, I relish that...the challenges lie mainly in trying to build an evening that can bridge our two worlds that is both satisfying to us as artists and finally, and most importantly, to the audience.
Review: In the context of the theme for this show that you briefly laid out, what are the key attributes about Saginaw that you find encouragement and sustenance from?
Stew: It's funny - in our initial meetings with the Fields people and members of Saginaw's community, and with the reality of me no longer living here and not being conversant with the details of just what Saginaw is and where it's going, we started with a summing up of the past.
And with Brian's family and my family, I was shocked to discover the lineage to a much older Saginaw - his grandfather was the governor of Michigan and his dad was a council member and well respected lawyer; my dad was the mayor at one point and my great grandfather on my mother's side also was the mayor, George Weadock. All this stuff suddenly deepened my connection and made me feel proud. But that's the past.
After talking to people about this show from all walks of life in Saginaw, I became deeply moved and impressed at how much people care about the city and its surroundings, where its going, why it's their community and what it means for their children and grandchildren.
With the theme being Home, first of all, and Safe at home, the impediments to that goal started to come up in conversation. And, again, as it is everywhere in America, the theme centered on race.
Where I live in southeastern Michigan is the most racially divided area in the country. Saginaw is far more integrated, but the problems of integration have become glaring and unattended to.
The most encouraging thing about Saginaw is that there IS a conversation--there is this deep, somewhat trustful, highly valued talk going on between the races. That's a HUGE sign of sustenance for me...and I listened to white leaders from the past that now understand that the white sensibility has to change as radically as the thinking among blacks & Hispanics.
The vestiges of white supremacy have got to go, and I actually heard that a little bit. That discussion is VERY tied to the music I love and play, which is soul music--at its best soul music summarizes the past and points to a new beginning in a single phrase. It can break your heart then heal it, right t on the spot.
And I heard people speak of determination in the face of the trouble with Delphi, and with the schools, and with the overall idea of living together. I hear and see far more determination and trust than I do doubt, resignation, envy and hate. Saginaw is a rare place, it really is.
Brian: Saginaw is where I was born, it's where I grew up, and it's where my sense of family is. In that regard, family is the most resonant theme that gives me encouragement and sustenance, not only as a performer but also in terms of my sense of self.
When I'm home doing a concert like this, I will inevitably see old friends who not only knew my father Tom (who passed away in 1990), but also his father, Dr. John James. My grandfather delivered many a Saginaw baby so I really feel a sense of my roots deeply in this city, especially when I'm lucky enough to meet individuals who actually tell me that they were delivered by my grandfather, or knew him well.
That idea of being linked to a larger, and still living community, gives me great sustenance. Encouragement has never been lacking from my hometown and for that I'm extremely grateful. And that comes in many ways, from allowing me the opportunity to get my feet wet at Pit and Balcony, to the many people from the area who I don't even know, who have followed my career, or to the many people who I call friends or remain friends with my family - that's invaluable encouragement.
Review: On the other side of the coin, Paul Simon wrote a hit back in the '70s called 'My Little Town', that featured the lyric 'nothing but the dead & dying back in my little town.' Saginaw has undergone a lot of challenges and difficulties over the past two decades. I have friends that return home after being gone for several years and are rather devastated by the visible manifestations of economic decline, which is nothing unusual for many Michigan cities; yet, as we both know, Saginaw is unique & different in its own right. Being a 'prodigal son', as it were, returning home - what are your views and impressions about the way Saginaw has changed from the way that you recall it in your youth?
Stew: I've addressed how it's changed and what it was in my youth in earlier songs, but that was somewhat mythical and abstract. We actually spoke quite directly about that very subject at the first meeting with the Fields Neurological committee people - why are people drawn back to Saginaw? Is it thriving? Barely surviving? Is it dying? What about it makes it special, other than it being your hometown?
For me it has to come down to a quality of spirit in the hearts of the people that live here. Getting something like this show together in Detroit would've been much harder, much more political, much more of an aggressive effort--much more about singular interests being serviced.
There's a natural empathy in people around here, or there certainly was when I was growing up. When we connect and share in a real community, and love, and participate in the institutions of the community - work, church, sports, school, nightlife, music, arts - we're part of something larger. I feel that spirit when Aretha and Al Green sing, and I felt that spirit when Brian and I sat in a cafe on Madison Avenue and spoke to each other about our lives.
I keep coming back to connection--Saginaw has had people and leaders that have been interested in connection and remaining a part of each other's lives. The Yoruba think of our individual souls as part of a community being; I think Walt Whitman would have agreed with that...so would Ted Roethke and Stevie Wonder.
I 'm writing a song called "Saginaw Days" for this new record I'm working on--random images of my youth and how we participated in each other's lives. All the things we AGREED on, from the beauty of the land and the river to the how much fun it was to see Crazy Jake at Hoyt Park. Seeing Clockwork Orange at the Court Street Theater and then having nothing to do but drive around. Weird stuff happened too, of course--Saginaw ain't Disneyland.
Brian: I agree, Saginaw is both unique and different in its own right. Why is that? I'm not exactly sure. The city has indeed changed over the last 20 years. My first real epiphany came about 10 years ago upon returning home and seeing the downtown area, as something, in dramatic terms, abandoned.
I know that it isn't, but I think it's true to say that it's not as thriving as it once was. I think the Temple Theatre and what the Shaheens, and many others have done to try and magnetize the downtown area is nothing less than heroic, and it really can't be overstated how important these efforts are.
I really don't know how the economics will ultimately change the face of this city, but from someone who returns every so often, I can sense that there is a desire to hold on, to hold together. I don't think, quite frankly, that is an easy thing to do. I think Saginaw is trying to redefine its sense of self, trying to redefine what it will be in what you call the "post industrial" phase of its evolution. That is and will remain the context of its identity.
But the content of Saginaw is, of course, its citizenry. Without that innate sense of holding on to the foundation of a good thing, there wouldn't be a Saginaw. Again, it comes down to the people, who have, and will hopefully continue to roll up their sleeves and get the work done to address the context in which they live and how it will shape their future.
Review: No matter how talented one is, there is an old adage that 'you can't become a hero in your own backyard'. Do you feel this is true and that you would never have achieved the success that you have in your lifetime had you stayed and remained in Saginaw?
Stew: Well, everyone's story is different. I knew I had to go and no, I wouldn't have achieved what I wanted to and been offered the opportunities I've earned had I stayed. That's not a knock on Saginaw - there's just no music business in Saginaw. There's very little musical theater or other aspects of "show business." It is what it is--a hard working, hard living town that has to change, adapt and really work to survive. So to that extent, I took Saginaw with me because that's how I am in this business and in life a bit - I've worked very hard to survive, adapt, grow, improve and remain connected to what's real and try to identify the things about us that are permanent and loving in a humanist sense.
But then again, the people who know, know. You and several others have really celebrated my work and career back in Saginaw and I have a lot of gratitude about that.
Brian: I don't believe that adage. It all depends on what your goals are. While it's true I probably wouldn't be cast in a Broadway show if I hadn't moved to New York, that doesn't mean the next guy growing up in Saginaw has the same aspirations. There are plenty of people who grew up and live in Saginaw now who are heroes.
I count my father as one. Why? Because he contributed to his community. He was involved. He pursued his passion, which was law, and found a way to thrive in the community that he grew up in. He raised his family here and taught his children quality values and ethics. It goes on every day with other families and community members. I think heroism is much quieter than it purports to be.
Review: What are your impressions of Saginaw today as it works to evolve into a post-industrial phase?
Stew: From a distance it seems there's so much hope in the innovative sciences, engineering and the extended medical industry. My God...is Saginaw the place to get sick or what? There's such medical expertise, so much broad, practical help available. And there's still a group of young people wanting to make it all grow and change and continue.
Even though the irony of capitalism is that it eats itself, there's still an entrepreneurial spirit in the air up there. Yet isn't your question the million dollar question for all of America? There's still so much displacement of families because of job loss; the unions have such waning influence; the separation between families that have and families that don't have gets wider every day; the race issue can be so depressing.
I have friends from high school say "Oh God Arthur Hill has gone to hell...it's 90% black now." Like those two thoughts belong together automatically. I'm afraid that that kind of racism is endemic to Saginaw or Detroit--all the towns making this post-industrial, post-integration movement. Because it's NOT integration any more, if it ever was; it's one group coming in and one group clearing out. I choose to have hope about things overall.
Review: Lets talk a bit about the upcoming show at The Temple. What can audiences and fans expect; and, in a similar vein, what have you been occupying your time on this year in terms of current and future projects?
Stew: We're very excited about this show. It's one of the highlights of my career, really. First of all, 90% of all the shows I play have a charitable component, usually with cancer of course. So there's that aspect with FNI. The show will open with a large gospel choir greeting everyone--fantastic idea from Mr. Furlo. Brian & I will do some things together, then he'll do his wonderful thing, probably with just his pianist and a string quartet, then I'll bring that big, ole' soul band out and do our thing with my songs for awhile.
As far as what I've been doing, I'm making my first new record since 2002--it will come out next spring. It's being produced by the legendary sax player David McMurray, who co-founded Was (Not Was) with Don Was. So it's funky and topical soul music with lyrical stories.
I'm also going to record a few things with my road band, The Regular Boys, cuz there's a special chemistry there too, and they're fantastic musicians.
And I've begun writing a book on my experience with leukemia and the bone marrow transplant and its aftermath. And my kids are at tender ages--gotta keep my eyes & ears open at ALL times. They're teenagers pretty much, ya know.
Brian: With this show, you have a unique combination of style. I'm going to try and find songs from my world, standards, Broadway composers, etc. that speak to me, but also have a reason with sharing the bill with Stewart's style which is more a rock, R&B sound. In an ideal world the two worlds would be seamless, with exquisite arrangements and such. I believe all music really is in the same category: music. The trick is finding the equal ground between style and presentation with selections you might not expect to coexist. It's tricky. But that 's the fun of it.
Review: As an artist matures new & different challenges often surface. Pollack, for instance, was accused of 'repeating himself' in his later years, whereas there is that old saying that one spends an entire life composing one's first novel or album of music, and then has a year or two for the follow-up. How do you address the challenge of keeping your work and performances fresh?
Stew: Yes, the Pollack thing is real...or any artist that ends up just being a parody of his or her glory years. Not a problem for me, as I haven't had my glory years yet! First of all, I'm a late bloomer. I started recording late in life and writing kind of late. Then I got sick and realized every day IS so different, curiosity is endless and we're bound only by our own energy and imaginations.
Keeping performances fresh is easy - being elated and honored to take the stage each night makes that happen.
Songwriters and musicians don't get gold watches; we work until we die. We don't retire or get into cattle futures...this is all I can do--sing, write and play. And I'm extremely blessed to have an audience and a career in this day & age, because the business model for the music industry is O-V-E-R.
Brian: It's really an ongoing conversation that every artist has with him/herself. I find that I'm constantly reevaluating my goals and how I want to achieve them and why.
For example, when you have children, your responsibilities and priorities shift wildly. That is tremendously useful in that it demands that you figure out why you're doing, in the career sense, what you are doing and why. I think ultimately, to remain open to the unknown, and to be fearless in your art, whether it is writing a song or acting or painting, fearlessness is the quality that allows the artist to truly keep things fresh and new...it's what breaks new ground.
That's hard to do, to be fearless, but we all have the capacity to harness that quality of diving into something and not giving a damn what the result is. That's when great art happens.
Review: What do you consider your greatest artistic accomplishment to date?
Stew: Just becoming and remaining one! Oh man that's a hard question...I feel my best stuff is still ahead of me. But I'd have to say that I've made ten records that have had enough guts and clarity in them to gain the attention of my colleagues--people I grew up idolizing-- and found enough of an audience to keep making more. Just surviving is an artistic accomplishment.
Brian and I are both very proud to be able to present the summation of our working lives to our hometown audience. The idea of Saginaw--or even the ideal of Saginaw--is in Brian's music and heart and head and I know it's in mine too.
Brian: I think I'm most proud of a one-man show I did called The Good Thief. It is a beautifully written piece by an Irish writer named Conor McPherson. It's an hour-long monologue, no singing, extremely demanding emotionally and technically, because of the accent. It was an accomplishment because it was a challenge.
It also was a great example of purity of intention. By that I mean I was interested only in getting it done and doing it well.
As it turned out, the show was received quite well critically and had an unexpected commercial run having been transferred from an Off Off Broadway theater, not to mention two subsequent productions in Ireland and Los Angeles. This was 7 years ago. We're going to do it again in another 2 to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Keen Theater Company that produced it originally.
If Pollack was accused of repeating himself in his older years, I guess you'd have to put me in the same boat. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!
Proceeds from Safely Home will provide scholarships for students pursuing advanced training in Neuroscience nursing. For more information, and ticket purchases, please call the Temple Theatre toll free at
877-754-SHOW or visit www.templetheatre.com.
16th November, 2023