Alchemy on Tour: Pink Martini Hits Boston

It’s like “‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ meets the United Nations from 1962."

“This is not my favorite tour,” Thomas M. Lauderdale ’92 says, exhaling a lungful of smoke and bringing his cigarette to his mouth for another drag.

Pink Martini has been on the road for about a week, though Lauderdale says it feels like a month. His mood is a little surprising. Lauderdale’s name has been synonymous with eccentric energy for practically his whole life. A Crimson profile written by Michael R. Grunwald ’92 in Lauderdale’s senior year describes him “working the mid-afternoon crowd” on Mt. Auburn Street “like a town mayor on acid.” Today, though, the mayor looks beat.

Lauderdale’s band, Pink Martini, defies succinct definition. Lauderdale describes its genre with characteristically high amounts of whimsy and frustratingly low amounts of actual information. It’s like “‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ meets the United Nations from 1962,” he says.

The band’s lead singer, China Forbes ’92, also gives it a shot (“old-fashioned pop,” or maybe “sky’s-the-limit orchestral pop”) but ultimately gives up. “There really is no way to describe it in a few words.”

A quick glance at Pink Martini’s discography tells you why the self-styled “little orchestra” is so hard to pin down. Their 2007 album, “Hey Eugene!,” for instance, features songs in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, and English. The titular track is a song about an intoxicated nightclub encounter with a man named Eugene who doesn’t call the singer afterwards.

Whatever you want to call them, though, Pink Martini has staying power. The duo met as undergrads in Adams House, when Lauderdale used to provide piano accompaniment for Forbes as she sang late-night Puccini and Verdi in the Adams Lower Common Room. A few years after their graduation, Lauderdale invited Forbes to start singing with his new group, Pink Martini. Nine albums and more than two decades later, they’re still performing together.

Forbes was a powerhouse in the arts community, winning the Jonathan Levy award her senior year and once convincing an undecided prefrosh to choose Harvard over Yale through the sheer allure of her voice. (“I had such a huge crush on her that I wanted to come,” said the prefrosh in question, Alexis Toomer ’93, the year she graduated.)

Lauderdale was a party boy. As Adams House’s HoCo co-chair, he threw his fair share of “mad dance parties,” and says he almost got expelled for hosting a “Truth or Dare” party (held in honor of Madonna’s album of the same name) in which he served alcohol to minors in the Adams Upper Common Room. He is also allegedly responsible for the closing of the Adams House Pool (now the Pool House Theater) after his raucous party, “Bungle in the Jungle,” became a clothing-optional bathhouse bacchanale. Forbes, though an Adams House resident, never actually went to the pool, saying she “just wasn’t into orgies.” In his profile, Grunwald called Lauderdale “the official cruise director for the class of ’92.”

Forbes sings a vocal warm-up that seems to consist of repeating the word “Ohio” with varying amounts of volume and vibrato. Then, there’s some tense confusion between Forbes and the crew over the levels of someone’s microphone that went way over my head. Finally, she makes her way down to my photographer Rebecca and me.

Charming and eloquent, Forbes approaches the interview with the polish of someone who’s done this before. She tells me the secret to singing in so many languages (“[I] pretend I’m a little bit tipsy and then I just blur everything together”), the feel of Portland in the mid-’90s when she joined Pink Martini (“summer camp,”) and some of her musical inspirations (Ella Fitzgerald, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, etc.). She compares Pink Martini’s evolving sound to a recipe: “I don’t know what kind of cookie we’re baking, but it’s got way too many ingredients.”

Lauderdale, by contrast, seems to have completely forgotten what an interview is. Clearly exhausted, he answers a question about his life post-Harvard with a meandering discussion of Andy Warhol’s magazine “Interview,” and how writing changes when you use a computer rather than a pad of paper, like the one he used for his senior thesis.

He quickly puts out his cigarette as we walk into the lobby of the Boston Sheraton. These days, Lauderdale says, he’s particularly worried by the negativity and movement away from honest communication brought on by technology and reality television. On a TV behind him, CNN is running a segment on GOP opposition to Trump’s presidential bid. At various points, he asks me and Rebecca how we conduct our arguments and what our assessment of our generation is.

It’s not too surprising that politics is on his mind. He worked in city hall throughout high school and college, and his goal on graduation was to become the Mayor of Portland—though the closest he’s come so far is a 1986 stint as Junior Mayor. He’s stayed active in progressive politics and was invited by Congressman Earl Blumenauer to the State of the Union Address in 2013, where he was seated next to conservative rockstar Ted Nugent. There are also politics within the band, according to Lauderdale. Recently, Lauderdale hired an independent mediator to meet with every musician and staff member of Pink Martini in an attempt to address any concerns people don’t want to bring up with him.

After learning that Rebecca is a fan, Lauderdale perks up a bit, drawing her into a selfie that he insists they retake (“I look like hell”), getting us backstage passes so that she can photograph him and Forbes before the show, and even suggesting she sit next to him at the piano to take pictures. Finally, he asks us what time the show is, looks at his watch, and excuses himself to get dressed.

Getting the photo of Forbes and Lauderdale together before the show starts proves stressful. Forbes seems to be in the midst of pre-show preparations when Lauderdale brings her out, and it’s only when you see them standing next to each other that you realize what an odd couple they are. Forbes, tall, elegant, strikingly beautiful; and Lauderdale, short, platinum-haired and somewhat impish. Lauderdale wants one of them walking up the stairs to the stage. Forbes seems to want the whole business done with as quickly as possible.

Rebecca and I make our way out the stage door and to the front to find our seats, nosebleeds a mile away from the stage. Even from that far back, though, the effect is magical. During the opening number, Lauderdale’s hands grasshopper jauntily across the piano and Forbes’s voice is pure velvet as she moves her shoulders in a way that is both classic and utterly beguiling. The magic isn’t that they’re good. Pick any Pink Martini review you can find, and chances are it’s gushingly positive. The magic is the transformation. In front of a crowd, the angst and grind of the tour and soundcheck are replaced with a smooth, crowd-pleasing performance. It’s alchemy, turning lead into gold.

Lauderdale’s patter is near-flawless, describing one song as “I Will Survive” meets “Hit the Road Jack” meets Franz Schubert, all in 1950s Havana. At the end of the night, the crowd calls the band back for an encore and dances in the aisles as they strike up again.

After assuring the audience that the love is mutual, Pink Martini exits backstage. Four hours later, at 2a.m., they’ll meet in front of the hotel, board the bus, and head to the next tour stop.