Like many of us, Travis Moser loves attention and musical theatre. During COVID, this cabaret, concert, and recording artist has been without a stage, with only a shower to serve as his concert hall and his neighbors unwittingly serving as his audience. Without the lights, the thrill of an audience, and the vamping piano, Travis has rediscovered his relationship with show tunes, more specifically with the music of Stephen Sondheim. No stranger to iconic venues around NYC and beyond (he has played Feinstein’s/54 Below at least three times), he has released a reflective short album titled So Many People: The Sondheim Sessions that represents Moser’s feelings and emotions over the past 6 months—family, friends, politics, self-identity, and love—all through the lens of Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. Adding to a prolific library of Travis’ online music, So Many People is noticeably different – a quieter, stripped-down, and more intimate celebration of Broadway.
The EP was rehearsed and recorded completely during quarantine by an entirely queer team and features some of Sondheim’s lesser known works such as the title song “So Many People” from Saturday Night to “What Can You Lose?” from the film Dick Tracy. Travis’ only accompaniment comes from musical director and pianist Drew Wutke from Broadway’s Kinky Boots, Amazing Grace, and Live from Lincoln Center fame.
Tackling Sondheim can be a difficult task, but Travis is no stranger to immersing himself in someone else’s music, paying homage to the original while making the music his own. He has previously celebrated Linda Ronstadt and the music of Rodgers and Hart to packed houses. So Many People is a perfect representation of our struggle with COVID – when left with no outside distractions, everything in our lives is up for scrutiny and rediscovery. No one is there to look at our jazz hands, but our voices still have power.
You have a self-stated unquenchable need for attention (don’t we all!) Were you like that as a kid? Were you precocious growing up? We chatted with Travis in between replays of his album to chat about Sondheim, gay characters in musicals, and the future of cabaret:
I have, sadly, always been like this, unfortunately…lol. I have been performing, in various forms, since I was about 4 years old. Ever since being crowned the first runner up (thank you very much) in the “Little Mr. New Castle Pageant,” I could not be stopped. In third grade, I wrote an adaptation of the 1938 Barbara Stanwyck film, “The Mad Miss Manton” because I was obsessed with all the classic films I’d seen on TV. I held auditions at recess, assigned stage crew duties, and, to her credit, the teacher stopped the class and let us perform the entire show! Can you imagine!?
What was your first introduction to musical theatre?
When I turned 5 years old, my mom took me to the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera at the Benedum Center (shout-out!) to see Jo Ann Worley in Annie. I had been watching re-runs of the classic TV show Laugh-In (believe it or not), so to me, it felt like I was seeing the biggest star in the world LIVE! I was already into classic films and TV, but seeing Annie live got me hooked on live theater. After that, my parents, Jim, and Nancy Moser, took me to every Broadway series and CLO production we could get to and then started taking me to NYC, which REALLY solidified everything!
What was your first introduction to a Sondheim song?
My first introduction to Sondheim, like so many gays of my generation, was the live PBS taping of Into the Woods. I think we watched it in choir during school. From that moment on I was obsessed and addicted. I started collecting every cast album, solo album, DVD, etc. that had anything to do with Stephen Sondheim. Without really knowing it, I think I was drawn to the raw honesty of his lyrics and the witty style.
What made you choose Sondheim for your latest album?
So many reasons! Sondheim holds a very special place in my heart. The first musical in which I was ever cast was Into the Woods, playing Jack. Also, one of the 1st albums I ever purchased was Julie Wilson Sings the Sondheim Songbook. Julie Wilson is a huge inspiration to me and many of my recordings pay homage to her stripped-down recording style. It all started with her tribute to Sondheim! However, I think the biggest reason was that his songs were saying what I wanted to say about where I am in my life.
Your musical choices are interesting and feature some of Sondheim’s lesser-known songs, why didn’t you do the safe thing and cover some of his more well-known songs?
Even though there have been so many recordings of all his songs, I didn’t make a conscious decision to choose lesser-known songs. At this point in my life, these are honestly the Sondheim songs that speak to me the most and express my feelings over this past year better than I ever could. I wanted the EP to be a song cycle of my emotions, so the running order was very important. The EP starts before the shutdown with “Broadway Baby” and ends with “I’m Still Here.” It was also important for me to include “Good Thing Going,” because it speaks to the friendships and romantic relationships that have fallen away over the course of this year. Also, there are not many recordings of men singing many of these songs and I made a point to not change one lyric.
What are the biggest challenges for you in singing Sondheim?
Honoring the raw honestly of the lyrics and focusing on the phrasing was very important to me. Many recent Sondheim recordings over the past several years have been about performing his songs in completely different ways, which is great, but I wanted to strip the songs down to their barest form. I was able to do that with my pianist and musical director, Drew Wutke. As I mentioned previously, I was inspired by the album’s cabaret great Julie Wilson did with her pianist William Roy. I love the intimacy of just the singer and the pianist.
If you were to be able to ask Sondheim one thing, what would it be?
I would want to ask him which production of all his shows and which performance was his favorite and why. Not the politically correct answer…spilling all the tea! Because there have been SO many interpretations of his work all over the world, I would like to know which one best captured his intention and which he enjoyed most. Also, even though I would be terrified to know the answer, I would want to know what he thought of my EP!
Pre-COVID, we were seeing a boom in modern-day musicals, more pop-sounding with contemporary styles. Do you think Sondheim musicals will become antiquated?
Vocal styles on Broadway have changed and evolved over the years. Right now, we are in a very “The Voice” style of singing era. However, I do not think the musicals of Stephen Sondheim will ever become antiquated. They were so ahead of their time when they were written and the lyrics contain such raw honesty that cuts to the bone, that they will always be relevant. Sondheim is like Shakespeare in that it is interesting to see different interpretations and performers performing these pieces time and time again. It never gets old to see a new interpretation because the material is THAT GOOD!
What do you wish younger generations of theatregoers would understand the most about Sondheim’s music?
That it is more about conveying emotions and getting across an idea than screaming the highest note you can sing. Don’t get me wrong, I love belting. I am YouTubing ALL the bootlegs, honey! There is just more to singing than trying to impress with riffs and pop belting. Barbara Cook is one of the best singers of all time because she, of course, had an amazing SOUNDING voice, but it is what she did later in her career with song interpretation that made her a legend.
What Sondheim cast recording do you have on repeat?
Hands down, every recording of Follies. There are things I like about every version. While truncated, the original cast recording is perfection. Kritzerland Records released a limited edition remixed and remastered version that is GORGEOUS and definitive. I also love Dolores Gray’s version of “I’m Still Here” on the original London cast recording. I saw the 2011 revival once in DC and 5 times on Broadway, so the cast recording of that production holds a special place in my heart. I could go on and on!
You have focused on other big names in the music world with shows covering Linda Ronstadt and Rodgers & Hart…what is your creative approach in performing these songs with your personal spin and artistry while still maintaining the integrity of their music?
When I create a new show or record a new album, it’s because I feel like I MUST. When something speaks to me emotionally, I feel the need to share the songs and the stories to let people know why I am so passionate about it and hopefully get them on board as well. For example, one of my biggest inspirations is Bobby Short and the first album I ever purchased was “Bobby Short Celebrates Rodgers and Hart.” Like Sondheim, there is a raw honesty to the music of Rodgers and Hart that really speaks to me. Because of that, I needed to create a solo show and record an album to share those songs and stories. On the other hand, Linda Ronstadt tackled so many different styles of music and did it in HER way, in HER voice. That is what I try to do with all my shows and recordings. What makes something new and different is that YOU’RE doing it. Like Sondheim says in Sunday in the Park with George, “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new.”
Your other albums have all been recorded live, this last one was not. Did you feel pressure from it not being live? What did you like about this not being live?
I prefer recording live. I am addicted to the excitement and energy of live recordings and I feel like I am at my best performing live. Besides the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Album, one of my favorite live recordings is “Betty Buckley: An Evening at Carnegie Hall.” That album is a great example of what a live album should sound and feel like. I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. The same goes for my BIGGEST idol Elaine Stritch’s album, “Elaine Stritch At Liberty.” I approach my studio recordings as if I am performing a private live show. I will do several takes of each song all the way through and try to pick the best. Sometimes we must employ a little studio magic to get the best version of the song, but for the most part, the songs are recorded all the way through without stopping.
What did recording So Many People teach you the most about yourself?
It taught me how important it is to me to be creative and to express myself at all time, but especially during this isolating year. Not being able to perform in front of live audiences has been hard but expressing myself through this album has been incredibly healing. It allowed me to create something in a totally different way than I usually do and connect with people during a time that we are all so disconnected.
What did recording So Many People teach you the most about your singing?
Instead of trying to show off my vocals, this recording was all about trying to get to the heart of the lyric and doing whatever serves the lyric best, as opposed to what serves my voice best. I, of course, wanted to sound good on the recording, but I was trying SO HARD to honor Sondheim’s intention and meaning of each song. Once the EP was fully recorded, mixed, and mastered, I noticed I had sung one word incorrectly and my phrasing was slightly off in one of the songs, so back to the studio I went to start the process over again until it was correct!
Sondheim doesn’t really have any main gay characters in his musicals, as a gay man, what messages/inspiration do you get from his work in terms of your individuality and confidence as a gay man?
Even though there are not many gay characters in his musicals, as I gay man himself, he is always writing from that vantage point. For me, the message of resilience is the biggest inspiration. Many of the characters in his musicals are survivors. From Madame Rose in Gypsy to Carlotta in Follies to Joanne in Company, through good times and bum times, these characters are authentic, vulnerable, and will survive come hell or high water, some more successful than others. They push through whatever barriers are in front of them and that is what many in the LGBTQIA+ community has done since the beginning of time.
What Sondheim character would you love to date?
Oh God, that is a tough one because so many of them are in such dysfunctional relationships! I am going to go with Ben Stone from Follies because while he and Phyllis got off track, there is hope at the end. Plus, he understands and appreciates the demands of living with a performer, does not perform himself and has his own life a career. Plus, he lives in NYC which is a plus.
Is someone not knowing a Sondheim musical a good enough excuse to dump them? LOL
I am going to say no because my boyfriend, Michael DeiCas, was not the BIGGEST Sondheim fan when we first started dating, which gave me the opportunity to force…I mean…SHARE all the material with him and expose him to Sondheim shows he had not seen. Let’s just say he is basically an expert at this point…lol! My advice to someone dating someone who is not familiar with Sondheim is to gift them with my EP, “So Many People: The Sondheim Sessions!”
You have performed at many different iconic venues in New York…what kind of spaces do you like performing in the most?
I have basically performed at every cabaret venue in New York City, except the Café Carlyle, which is a huge post-pandemic goal of mine. I am getting to the age during which legendary venues at which I’ve performed, like the Highline Ballroom, have closed! There is a thrill to performing in front of a very large crowd, but to me, there is NOTHING like an intimate cabaret venue. It makes me feel like I am performing in the great New York supper clubs of the ’40s and ’50s. I love speaking to the audience like I am hosting a party, during which I’m forcing everyone to listen to me sing and tell stories.
Do you have a favorite moment onstage memory?
My idol is Elaine Stritch, so performing at the tribute show, “Remembering Elaine Stritch” at the Metropolitan Room alongside Annaleigh Ashford, Lisa Brescia, Natalie Douglas, K.T. Sullivan, Baby Jane Dexter, Tony Danza, and camp icon, Pia Zadora was a highlight. I sang Elaine’s version of “Fifty Percent,” which I saw her sing live at her first-ever solo cabaret show, “Elaine Stritch: At Home at The Carlyle.” It was great to sing that song with a full band and pay tribute to her in that way. I also recorded that song in the studio, and it is one of my favorite recordings.
Do you have a worst moment onstage memory?
I really cannot say that I have a WORST onstage memory because even when something goes wrong, which happens, I use it and those imperfections are usually the moments audiences love best! When I was younger, I would be terrified about making a mistake and trying to make sure the audience did not know, but that takes all the fun out of it.
What artist would you like to cover next?
Along with Stephen Sondheim, Bruce Springsteen has single-handedly gotten me through the pandemic. Everything about him, his music, his lyrics, his performances, etc. is so theatrical and emotional. He has recently been releasing remastered versions of live performances from nearly every tour he has done, and I have been DEVOURING those! The recordings from his 1978 “Darkness on the Edge of Town” are legendary and they basically sound like live cast recordings of musicals. Springsteen has already been to Broadway, but I cannot wait to bring him to cabaret!
You can check the album out at: https://travismoser.hearnow.com/
Follow Travis on IG: @TravJames
Last modified: February 21, 2021