Ann Hampton Callaway: A clear voice against cancer

Three good reasons Ann Hampton Callaway will headline “Sing for the Cure,” a gala concert to raise money and awareness for cancer research:

1) She’s a master interpreter of the Great American Songbook, which she’ll plumb in the first half of the show at Halton Theatre Saturday.

2) She’s a veteran actress who can convey the moods of the cancer-kicking cantata in the second half of the show.

3) She’s still alive.

She might not have been, had her own cancer not been detected in time. But the singer-composer-lyricist can still use her pipes for good with a different understanding of the themes she sings about.

“I wondered whether having cancer would change my voice, and I asked a friend who’d been through it,” says Callaway. “ ‘No,’ she said. ‘It will change your singing.’ It was a wake-up call that made me want to communicate more deeply.

“Cancer presses those mortality buttons. It’s amazing to me how many people are afraid; they feel something’s wrong with their health, and they (get into) denial and wait too late.”

Denial isn’t one of the moods in “Sing for the Cure,” which is the title of both the concert and the piece sung after intermission. Anger, yes. Defiance, yes. Hope and stubbornness and hard-won optimism get their moments, too.

Callaway and others will share solos in that cantata, backed by a 100-voice chorus and a 17-piece professional orchestra. She’ll be singing for one man who can’t attend: Joe Miller Wright Jr., her publicist and friend for 26 years. The Myers Park High School grad died unexpectedly in July 2013. “Going to his hometown without him will be a bittersweet thing,” she says.

The first half of the chorus will reintroduce Charlotte to the versatile singer-songwriter, who came here in 1999 for a Charlotte Symphony Pops concert – just before winning the 2000 Featured Actress Tony for the Broadway musical “Swing” – and did a similar “Sing for the Cure” program here in 2002. (Don’t confuse her with the older classical composer, Ann Marie Callaway.) She’ll do beloved pop-jazz numbers and her own material, including a song – “I Love You More” – written to honor Tyler Clementi, who took his life after Internet bullying.

Our TV-mad nation may know her best for writing and singing the theme song to “The Nanny.” She’d probably rather have us recall songs she has written for or with Carole King, Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein and Barbra Streisand – including “At the Same Time” for Streisand’s “Higher Ground” album. (She also set lyrics to a Rolf Lovland melody for “I Dreamed of You,” which Streisand sang at her wedding to James Brolin.)

In fact, Callaway’s the only composer who has collaborated with Cole Porter – who died when she was 6. How’d that happen?

“I was living in my sixth-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village in 1986, when a biographer found two Cole Porter lyrics that had never been set to music, as far as I knew. I wrote music to “I Gaze in Your Eyes” and started performing it live. Robert Townsend (the head of Porter’s estate) heard a cassette I’d made and agreed to publish the song, and it became a track on my first solo CD. Porter and I are both Geminis, and the music just felt like it was coming out.”

Is it daunting to measure herself against the composers of pop masterpieces she sings?

“A little. But if you listen to the critic sitting on your shoulder, instead of writing from your heart, it doesn’t work. Those composers had deadlines to meet and wrote out of instinct and (put in) hard work. My audiences don’t lie. Sometimes, when I sing original songs, people respond most strongly to those.”

“The creative instinct is a spiritual one. At 16, I saw Leontyne Price and thought, ‘God is singing through her. She’s channeling the great energy, whatever you want to call it.’ When I’ve had my greatest moments of singing or songwriting or being alive, I usually have a sense of grace. Something bigger than myself is involved, and I’m the vessel for it.”