One of four co-hosts of NPR’s flagship daily newscast “All Things Considered,” Ari Shapiro has one of the most familiar voices on radio (remember radio?). A veteran, at 38, of war zones far and farther (Iraq, Ukraine, Israel) and peace zones at least as disparate, he’s gathered songs and stories from around the globe while cultivating an unexpected side gig, moonlighting with Pink Martini, the shape-shifting pop orchestra that with some regularity makes a joyful noise at venues like the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall.
This weekend, Shapiro’s off-the-air tourism brings him to Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater, where he’ll present Homeward, his first venture into cabaret and yet another departure from his day job. Perhaps expansion on his day job is the better way of putting it.
He began with NPR as a political correspondent before heading off to London and then landing the co-host slot two years ago. “I started thinking about whether there was anything I wanted to say, anything I had to offer,” he said during a telephone conversation this week from his Washington office. “And I realized I did.” Shapiro had just returned from a Pink Martini concert in Beirut (and will be back with them August 27 at the Bowl).
“I have had the good fortune to go to places as far away and different from the lives most of us live, and found a lot more commonality than we realize,” Shapiro said, adding that music typically provided the connective tissue. “I realized that in all of the places there has always been a soundtrack, whether it was the people of Kiev or Syrian refugees. I asked them what was in their ear buds. And it would be everything from 19th-century folk songs to contemporary pop – a wide array of music.”
His appearances with Pink Martini, whose art and ethos are decidedly multi-cultural and pluralist, was an inevitable starting point. “I’ve gone a step further and developed my own solo cabaret-style show,” he said. “It combines stories from war zones and revolutions that I’ve covered as a reporter with songs in a bunch of languages – Kurdish, Ukrainian, Arabic, Scots, Gaelic.
“I started creating this show almost just to see if I could pull it off,” he added. “I didn’t know what it was or would be. So much is about things seared into my brain forever. Audiences seemed to respond strongly, and to see it have an effect on people is reassuring.”
Shapiro grew up in Portland OR, and his assignments allowed him not only to engage with people from every walk of life but also to immerse himself, an avid singer, in cabaret, which like journalism itself works best when serving as an empathic connection between subject and audience. It’s as up close and personal as you can get without exchanging any bodily fluids other than sweat.
“When we think about people enduring these tragic stories, it’s easy for us to categorize them as ‘war people’ in ‘war places’, places different from ourselves,” he said. “Music can cut through that sense of distance. I’m hoping to tease out larger themes about how people get through the things we do in life.”
Shapiro said his models are such contemporary artists as Taylor Mac, Justin Vivian Bond and Joey Arias – and Melanie, she of “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma.” The connection? Performances that can be heart-tremblingly intimate and personal, that all but demand emotional feedback from the audience.
I asked whether creating the show and performing it presented a challenge to his traditionally neutral role as a journalist. “I thought a lot about that,” Shapiro replied. “I approach the news in my journalism as a documentarian, not as someone offering opinion or analysis.
“I tried to strike a balance in the show by focusing on individual human stories rather than geopolitical struggles,” he said. “Even if I describe an event in the coldest, most clinical terms, singing a song cuts through to a place of emotion. The goal is for people to feel something.”
(See publictheater.org/Joes-Pub-at-The-Public for information about the two shows on August 13.)