Anne Towbes hosts an unforgettable birthday cabaret

Anne’s son Michael Smith and daughter Jennifer Hale join Anne as she blows out the candle on her New York cheesecake birthday cake. (Images courtesy of photographer Baron Spafford.)

My sister adores Broadway. 3 years ago, on a dark and stormy New York night, we had tickets to “Motown the Musical.” Because of that storm, an angel shared his cab. Because of that angel, we not only arrived in time, but the Diana Ross character invited Anne on stage to help sing “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.” Returning to her seat, Anne whispered, “Imagine: my Broadway debut at 66.” (Read the whole story: Motown Fan Makes Her Broadway Debut)

For her recent 70th, Anne planned a Broadway-themed luncheon at Santa Barbara’s Granada theater. She booked pros to sing her favorite songs. I decided to surprise her with a parody of “Reach Out and Touch.” I asked Carol Burnett to sing it. She’s friendly with Anne and lives part time in Santa Barbara where Anne lives. No luck. Carol would be out of town.

Plan B: I’d sing it myself. Problem: Anne got the singing gene. Yours truly has a vocal range of 4 notes before I quaver like Florence Foster Jenkins. I pulled up the Diana Ross version on my iPad. Diana’s range was amazing. The body of the song covered more than an octave.

What to do? Would the pros sing my revised lyrics? I’d join for the chorus—conveniently just 4 notes. Better yet, what about including some of Anne’s friends? She belongs to the Angels, an informal support group of game, loving gals. I emailed Angel Judi Weisbart. She brought the group on board and recruited Angel Sue Tarlow, Anne’s tennis pal, to help organize.

Anne’s pianist grandson Zachary Lewis-Towbes decided to surprise Anne with original music. He collaborated with his and Anne’s piano teacher and friend, composer Scott Hiltzik. They emailed me the tune and asked me to write lyrics, providing a first line: “She’s just a girl who loves the theater.”

Parodying Motown lyrics wasn’t too tough. Writing lyrics to unfamiliar music proved much harder. I made several attempts, stopping and starting the music, over and over. Nothing worked.

A few weeks before Anne’s big event, Burton and I saw “Kinky Boots.” I’d seen and loved it before. This time I concentrated on the upbeat lyrics and rhyming patterns. The next day, a Sunday, I told myself: You are not getting out of bed until you write this song. I propped up a pillow and perched my laptop on my legs. 2 hours later, I had something that wasn’t Cole Porter, but it was cute. Hopefully it would sound clever when sung professionally. Sitting in bed freed a part of my brain that was AWOL at my desk.

A new wrinkle. Anne decided to sing “Reach Out and Touch” at the party.

“Great,” I said to her.

“Oh no!” I said to myself. Regardless, I sent my revised lyrics to uber-capable musical director Karyl Lynn Burns.

I wanted the Angels to wear big hair wigs. Judi and Sue revolted. Wrong vibe, they said. They preferred feather boas—glamorous but not ridiculous.

The Afternoon arrived. Singers killed it. The program was based on Anne’s favorite songs from plays in which she’d performed as a camper, taught as a drama teacher, or loved as a theater goer. Jason Graae brought down the house with “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man. Randal Keith did me in with “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis. Karyl Lynn inserted a song neither Anne nor I had heard, “In Whatever Time We Have.” Incredibly meaningful as Anne lost her beloved husband Michael several weeks before, after just 11 and 1/2 years.

“She’s just a girl who Loves the Theater” followed. It sounded great. What a difference staging, acoustics and real singers make.

Anne and the pros shone at “Reach Out and Touch.” Midway, the Angels, plus Michiganders Ginny Beauregard and I, joined on stage for the chorus. The pros sang my verse about the multiple ways my generous sister reaches out and touches so many lives.

I learned a lesson for the umpteenth time, from the miraculous way in which Anne made her Broadway debut 3+ years ago to my recent costume concession: Things often don’t work out as we planned. The unexpected can be even better. So go with the flow.

It was a birthday to remember. Thank you for a stellar afternoon, sweet sister. Happy, HEALTHY Birthday. I pray we’re around to celebrate many more.

Anne’s Angels join professional singers plus Anne in the finale, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.” (And, yes, that’s me in the center with the dark-blue boa.)

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5 thoughts on “Anne Towbes hosts an unforgettable birthday cabaret

  1. Kay Melet

    You gals are so fortunate to have each other. I too hope that you celebrate so many more wonderfully happy times together. Wishing you both much fun, happiness and of course the best of HEALTH for years to come. With my love, Kay

  2. Beverlye Hyman Fead

    Hi Suzy,
    what a great article. Because I was in Europe for Anne’s birthday, i was able to relive it through your blog!
    Hope u had a great time in Capri!!

  3. Ginny

    Thanks you for posting and for making Anne’s birthday celebration extra special. I was so happy
    to be there to share this wonderful day for a wonderful person. It was filled with love!

  4. Ellen Kahn

    Loved the content on this marvelous celebration for Anne’s 70’s
    What a bitter sweet birthday but you certainly pulled it of
    your wonderful sisterly relationship is over the top

  5. Judi Weisbart

    What a magical and joyful day it was! Thank you Suzy for your love and passion for life and your sister. The blessings and god signs surround us all and when we go with the flow we end in the right place at the right time. May we all learn from this celebration that family, friends and music make the for beautiful and memorable life experiences.

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