It’s an undeniable feat of strength to see Jason Danieley onstage at Feinstein’s/54 Below only a year after the passing of his wife, Marin Mazzie. I can attest that Mazzie’s battle with ovarian cancer was heartbreaking for her fans – we who sat in the dark and encountered her once-in-a-lifetime voice, her welcoming humanity, and her razor sharp sense of humor. I can only imagine how it must have been for those who knew her intimately – Danieley, in particular, her husband of twenty-two years. A Broadway stalwart in his own right, Danieley’s Irish tenor and sparkling eyes are on full display in this new cabaret show about how his life has been affected since Mazzie’s passing. The voice is as strong as ever, but emotion cracks in when a lyric hits an open nerve and the eyes have a wetness around their twinkle, a naked truthfulness behind the showmanship that he can’t help but expose. The razzle dazzle has given way to a man laid bare.
In the spring of 2018, Danieley and Mazzie were scheduled to perform a new show at Feinstein’s/54 Below called, “Heart to Heart.” Mazzie’s health did not permit them to take the stage, but Danieley has taken that title, as well as some of the song choices, for his new evening. He takes the stage in the dark, without any announcement that the show has begun and the lights slowly creep up a few lines into James Taylor’s “There We Are.” The song is a paean to lost love that features the lyric, “I found out something about you, / Baby, without you / I’m a lonely man.” Danieley places a scarf on an empty mic stand to his right (Mazzie’s side) and her spectral presence hovers there, very much urging him through the difficult parts, backing him up and corroborating his stories. At a particularly moving moment, Danieley found himself telling a story in the present tense before stopping himself and saying, “I’m sorry, it’s always in the present tense! It’s only been a year.”
The rawness of his singing and storytelling announces itself in these early moments; this is not about entertainment alone, it’s about using his artistry to talk about something very real. He spends significant portions of the evening speaking directly to us, urging the audience to make a donation to Cancer Support Community, an organization very important to Mazzie in the last years of her life, and informing us about the realities of ovarian cancer. Mazzie was in peak physical health her entire life, saw doctors regularly, ate properly, had Mammograms on schedule. But there is no early detection test for ovarian cancer and Mazzie was in Stage 4 when diagnosed, a reality that clearly still hits Danieley – and the audience – like a slap in the face. He is using this opportunity to spread awareness, as he should, and the juxtaposition of his directness with the people eating dinner in front of him is not as jarring as one would believe. He easily, and quickly, establishes the tone for the evening and gets everyone on board with him. We are there to communally grieve and celebrate.
Danieley’s song choices are all exacting in their relation to his life. Music director Joseph Thalken has created an arrangement of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The Song is You” that weaves in instrumental pieces of songs Mazzie was known for: “Back to Before” from Ragtime, Kander and Ebb’s “Ring Them Bells”, and Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By”, among others. After finishing, Danieley took a moment and said, “That just about wrecked me.” When he’s singing, Danieley seems to be able to connect with Mazzie’s spirit, the two voices that were so often joined are able to reconnect in the ether. He is defined by their love, before and after – still.
The most moving choice of music was actually selected by Mazzie for their canceled concert in 2018. It’s a Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song called “As Long as I Live” that opens with the lyric, “Maybe I can’t live to love you / As long as I want to.” Danieley says that he doesn’t know if it’s harder for him to sing it now or if it would have been more of a struggle to stand next to Mazzie and have her sing it to him. Either way, it’s deeply affecting for everyone. It’s a song that feels incredibly specific to their situation, with Koehler’s lyrics reaching 2019 from 1934.
Danieley calls himself a romantic fatalist, saying it’s in his Irish blood. For those of us in the audience, though, there’s nothing fatalistic about his love for Marin Mazzie. It’s palpably alive, exuding from every note he sings, every smile that passes his face, every tear he wipes away. “Heart to Heart” is a stunning achievement in terms of performance, yes – Danieley is a phenomenal singer and he fills the room with his presence – but the real achievement is one that’s more human. This man is able to stand before us and talk openly about what losing his spouse feels like, what it has done to him, and how he is coping with it. He says he tried to get out of these dates because it felt too soon, but the club talked him into it. I’m grateful for that. Mazzie called chemotherapy “healing therapy” to put a positive spin on a terrible thing. Danieley’s version of healing therapy is this show, and we all feel the effects.