In between songs about love, the passage of time, more love, marriage and dreams, Beth Selter narrates the story of her own life in her cabaret performance, “The Chance to Sing,” at the Metropolitan Room on Sunday, September 18th. She’ll sing Sondheim, the Beatles, the Gershwins, telling of her Long Island childhood, her steadfast modern orthodoxy, her family and her passionate desire to sing.
“So much of my life has been about my family, raising my children, leading a double life – – having passion about Judaism and trying to balance that with my passion for the theater,” she told The Jewish Week in an interview. “The two aren’t easily combined, especially if you are trying to raise a family.”
“This show is really about finding that balance between my love of tradition and my need to fly,” she says. “Tradition is very grounding and yet I’m always striving to strike that balance in life, the art of performance and the art of keeping my feet on the ground. It’s a struggle sometimes, especially within the framework of orthodox Judaism.”
The mother of five, who is classically trained, cites Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell and Nancy LaMott as influences, along with pop and contemporary Broadway singers. She’s a soprano, with much richness and depth to her voice, and a palpable love of the art.
“Ultimately what moves me is the story within the song,” she says.
She explains that she performs in front of mixed male/female audiences, and that while some traditionalists might not agree, there is halachic support. “In general,” she says, “we all have to find our way to come to terms with the type of Judaism that works for us.”
In conversation with Selter, it’s not easy to see the “dreadfully shy” child, as she describes her younger self, in the poised, vibrant adult who loves being on stage, loves singing to an audience.
“I think what appealed to me about being on stage and taking on external characters was that you get to create a whole new persona. This was my way of allowing myself to come out of my shell.”
“I never had the words to say,” she continues, “When I was in a play I was given the words, which was a very comforting experience. Theater taught me how to communicate.”
She sang and spun records in the basement of her family’s home and then played in school productions throughout her years at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), sang in the school’s coed choirs and took voice lessons beginning when she was 16. After high school, she spent a year in Israel and performed all year in an English-language musical in Jerusalem. Returning home, she went on to study theater at Queens College and then interned at the Williamstown Theater Festival, joined a traveling troupe and later worked with an environmental theatre group, all the while maintaining her commitment to Jewish life and practice.
During the years she was growing up in Elmont, Long Island, she would help out in her parents’ coffee shop in lower Manhattan, which she describes as “a theater of its own – the orders, the people who’d come in day after day, the personalities behind the counter.”
As she narrates during the show, in her dating days, her father, worried that she wasn’t married in her early 20s, placed a personal ad on her behalf in The Jewish Week. She remembers being horrified, while struck by her unassuming father’s poetic lines. Ultimately she met only one of her respondents (“nice, but not for me”), but she still has all the letters she received.
She jokes that her mother, who loved the coffee shop business and especially schmoozing with the customers, hoped that Beth would marry a griddle man and take over the business. Instead, she married a doctor, Dr. Joel Selter, an allergist who also loves to sing and is trained as a cantor. Over the holidays, he’ll serve as cantor of their Monsey synagogue.
When her kids are all at home and they sing around the Shabbat table, it’s like heaven on earth, she says.
Over the years, she has worked as a musical director in camp and school settings, and also a private vocal coach, while performing in community theater productions. Now that her children are grown, she hopes to do more performing.
Her music director, Alex Rybeck, is a composer, arranger and pianist, who has worked with Broadway and cabaret stars including Hal Prince, Tommy Tune, Faith Prince.
Drawing upon the American Songbook, pop music and Broadway tunes, she’ll perform songs including George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” Jonny Mercer’s “Out of this World,” a medley from Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” “Michelle” by the Beatles and David Friedman’s “We Live on Borrowed Time.”
The music propels her story. Even as she shares personal details of her life, she sees the themes as universal.
“I really want to give of myself and share the gift of music and help others connect with something in themselves that they are hearing through the music.”
Beth Selter presents “The Chance to Sing” on Sunday, September 18th at the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, Manhattan.