Elaine May has had a singularly inspiring career as an actor, writer, and director, besides being at the center of the invention of improvisatory comedy. She and Mike Nichols took their act to New York City in the late 1950s and rapidly became the toast of the town, performing in nightclubs, appearing on TV shows, recording albums, and starring in their own Broadway show.
But May quit the act because she wanted to commit to performance risks that Nichols was unwilling to take. For May, the vitality of the act and its truth were grounded in improvisation. Always unyielding, she has persisted to create work on her own terms, taking on the challenges that a strong-minded woman faces engaging with an entertainment industry controlled at the highest levels by men who didn’t share her bottom line.
“Dangerous Business” by Paul Williams is from her movie Ishtar, which begins with two deservedly hapless songwriters who’ve got a hold on a first line — “Telling the truth is a dangerous business” — but don’t know what comes next … which epitomizes the challenge of May’s career. In another scene from the movie, one of the songwriters talks the other off a ledge by telling him how much he admires him, because he’d “rather have nothing than settle for less.” Again, true for May, for whom “less” would have been a successful Broadway show, rather than an uncertain future based on her ideals.
Other lines from the song seem May-informed: “Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand” and “but being human, we can live with the pain.”
The song concludes with a Beckettian “I’ll go on” spirit on the chorus: “We can sing our hearts out. We can sing.” As May said in another context, “From any small thing, you can make a million truths.”
Late last year, more than a dozen artists from StorySound Records’ roster entered Restoration Sound and the Power Station at BerkleeNYC to record a new version of the song.
According to StorySound owner Dick Connette, “When I decided to record the song, I instinctually wanted to include as many of the artists from my label (StorySound Records) as I could. Rachelle Garniez and Chaim Tannenbaum take the lead, and are supported by a chorus that includes Loudon Wainwright III, Suzzy Roche, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Ana Egge, Amanda Homi, Terry Radigan, Lorenzo Wolff and Daisy Press. It turned out my gut was right. Featured singer Rachelle Garniez told me she would have been really mad at me if I hadn’t asked her in on the session. It turned out that many of those involved were May-fans and, for a few of them, Ishtar was something of a touchstone. In retrospect, it makes sense, as the no-compromise ethos of the label and of the artists themselves is distinctly of the “rather have nothing, than settle for less” variety. The artists recognize that in each other and celebrate it in the joyous song (and dance) of that ‘Dangerous Business’ that is our life’s work.”
Produced by Lorenzo Wolff
Recorded at Restoration Sound and Power Station at BerkleeNYC
Engineered by Lorenzo Wolff, and Stewart Lerman, assisted by Matthew “Sully” Sullivan
Mixed by Stewart Lerman