Since I’m only just finding my way again in terms of self-publishing, and realizing that while it’s not necessarily important to keep to a stringent schedule at the beginning as opposed to simply grinding out as much content as I can that’s important to my sense of personal expression, the thought grabbed me to start doing a feature called Drew’s Friendship Folio. This will not be on a strict timeline; I’d rather just do it when the mood takes me, and in which I write a short profile of a dear friend. And not all of these will be about people in the arts because, to be honest, I probably know more people in more walks of life than I ever thought possible. But it’s important to me to do this when the mood strikes. I also don’t want to give anybody any indication of when their turn might be next; I’d rather just let my guts guide me on this and have them be surprised. And as such, I’d like to do the first one about my very, very dear longtime pal Annie Hughes.
Annie and I first met in November of 1989. For the previous year, she had taken cabaret by storm when one night she happened upon the now-defunct Broadway Baby on Amsterdam Avenue, where she sang “Glitter and Be Gay” and was the talk of cabaret by the next morning. I was not there that night, nor at any of the shows she subsequently performed over the next ten months, so even though I knew of her as an established entity, I hadn’t laid eyes or ears upon her glorious person. To be honest, having not seen a photo of her, my immediate mental image (which I almost always get wrong anyway, because it’s one of my shortcomings) was of a short overweight dark-Irish brunette with long hair, only because that’s what my mind paired off with someone named something like Annie Hughes. It was my extreme surprise when, upon walking into the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center Library for one of the very first ASCAP/MAC Showcases (they were still held there then, under the auspices of Jamie deRoy and Michael Kerker) she was announced, and a tall, lithe, blonde creature with one of the most incredible voices I’d ever heard strolled onto the stage to sing a song by her then-husband, composer Wayne Abravanel. I wasn’t even a journalist yet; I had a day job in the area, but I’d been on the cabaret scene since 1986 and figured my attendance would be worthwhile. I went up and introduced myself after the concert, and said that now I understood why she’d become such a topic of conversation so quickly in cabaret circles. She was perfectly charming, saying how much she appreciated what I had to say and that she hoped I’d attend one of her shows sometime soon. We pecked on the cheek as a goodbye, and that might very well have been the end of it. Except…
In February of ’90, my now-late friend Jeff Matson informed me that he had it on good authority that That New Magazine, Inc., the wonderful folks who brought us the New York Native newspaper and TheaterWeek among others, would officially be starting a companion publication called CabaretWeek and that they were looking for writers. Clearly I needed no bidding, because I REALLY thought that my writing about cabaret was a natural fit, and even though I hadn’t (and still haven’t) given up my own dreams of being a performer, I could probably do very well as a cabaret reviewer. So I dashed off a few samples, including one about the ASCAP/MAC Showcase, and FAXed them over to John Hammond, who was the Managing Editor at That New Magazine. He read them and seemed to enjoy them, because the next thing I knew, he took me out for coffee at Tiffany’s Diner in the West Village when I got off work one day, and informed me that there was no CabaretWeek planned but there was a magazine called Night & Day that was just starting, rarely had he seen a style like mine in someone so young, and that they didn’t pay much, and that they had certain editorial guidelines, but if I was OK with all of that, he’d love for me to review Peggy Lee at the Ballroom for my first assignment. Which I accepted happily. For the next three weeks, I quickly settled in to reviewing and also writing feature articles and interviews, hardly believing that I was in a position at my tender age where I would be walked into a club, shown to the best seat in the house and invited to bring a friend, encouraged to eat and drink anything I liked, then sit through a concert and write about it and get PAID for it. And then came my opportunity to review Annie’s show at Eighty Eight’s, which had been running there for months.
Well, among other things, one of the things I said about her show in print was, “People are talking about Annie Hughes. And why? Her high notes are gloriously stratospheric, and her low notes are as delectably rich as creme brulee.” To be honest, I didn’t think much of it; it was just another review I’d written. The surprise came when I stopped at a newsstand on the way to work that Monday to buy a copy (they always gave me a free copy, but I also liked to buy one just so I could read it before I trekked downtown on my lunch hour to pick up my free copy and my paycheck at the magazine office) and alongside a big cover story they’d done about someone, was a huge caption on the left side of the cover with the words, “Annie Hughes: Why Everybody’s Talking About Her.” I looked at this and said, “What???” Sure enough, I flipped through the magazine to my reviews and there wasn’t just my review, but a full-page photo of Annie I’d submitted, with no idea it would go to a full page. After work that day, I took the subway downtown to the Village, walked into Eighty Eight’s and asked, “Does Annie Hughes happen to be around?” They said no, but she’d be in after nine o’clock. So I killed some time, then went back there at about 9:30, only to walk in the door and be immediately greeted by Annie throwing her arms around me and saying, “I love you I love you I LOVE YOU!!!!!”
Such an auspicious greeting could only turn into not merely friendship but unrequited love. In time, as we became better and better friends, we told each other of our pasts (hers in Southern New Jersey, mine in Central Queens), our various hangups, relationships gone bad and relationships gone good that crashed and burned, and professional frustrations on every level. I saw her through understudying such musicals as Closer Than Ever and A My Name is Still Alice. She saw me through both the launch and the demise of CaB Magazine. She directed the CaB Magazine Awards two years in a row, and brilliantly. And somehow, even with the occasional nasty argument that hallmarks a deep relationship between two people not romantically involved, we continued to endure. There was something else, too, in a conversation she and I once had in her apartment, after an evening of a lot of laughs and good times; as most people know, I can sing and carry a show and I’ve even won awards for it, but I’ll never make the history books as a singer the way she has. In one of the most meaningful conversations I ever had with anyone, I turned to her and said, “I once asked Barbara Cook this and she didn’t know how to respond, so maybe you can make it more clear. What goes through your head when you open your mouth and this spectacular voice comes out of your throat?” She thought for a second and said, “It doesn’t enter my head, it enters my soul. It’s a feeling. I can’t think anything about it, because there’s nothing to think. It’s just what is. All I can tell you is that it makes me feel wonderful, and I like to see that it makes the people listening feel almost as wonderful as I do. Don’t you feel the same way when you write something and you know you’ve nailed it?” Which put it into amazing perspective for me, and I think that was the night a piece of me fell in love with her. And then…
We lost contact. And it was killing me. I did manage to see her once at Judys* Chelsea when she was doing a show there in ’99 (which was brilliant, and she and I and her publicist hung out all night tossing back a couple and having a lot of laughs), but a couple of years after that I’d left her a few messages which were never returned (this was during my marriage, and I so wanted my now-ex to meet her). But in 2002, when I was writing for New England Entertainment Digest as their NYC cabaret correspondent-at-large, I had a reason to review Blossom Dearie at Danny’s Skylight Room and ran into a colleague, who asked me, “Isn’t it great about what happened to Annie?” I asked if he meant Annie Hughes. He said, “Of course. She moved to Wisconsin. She’s got a huge house by herself and she’s breeding dogs when she’s not singing. Haven’t you seen her website?” I confessed that I hadn’t, and he gave me the URL, which I promptly looked up and got her phone number. Called her, left a message, she returned the call immediately, and we’ve been fast friends again ever since. In fact, for New Year’s Day ’09, she happened to be in New York housesitting for a friend, so she invited me over for an evening with our old gang, including Tammy Quinn, Arthur Bicknell, Rachel Hockett, Siobhan Weiss, Sally Flynn, Ray Marsilio and so many others, for a couple of rounds of Celebrity (great game, and Rachel and I won the first round as a team) and some incredible pizza.
Annie, to me, is proof positive that some people were simply meant to not only be friends but to always belong to a mutual admiration society. I’m the charter president of her fan club, she’s the charter president of my fan club, and with a little bit of luck, so it shall always be. And I couldn’t be happier.