The teen queen who used to be pretty in pink is all grown up and bewitching in black. One-time teen movie star who made her name portraying pouty lipped princesses or cocky outsiders, Molly Ringwald, has reinvented herself as a jazz chanteuse – and, yes, she even did a number, “J’attendrai” (“I Will Wait for You”) in French last week at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.
On Thursday, Nov. 6, Ringwald took Amtrak down from New York to open the JCCGW’s Lessans Family Annual Book Festival, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Rockville community center. She offered up a not-quite-sold-out concert that meandered through the great American songbook, touching on 20th-century greats like Oscar Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields and, of course, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. While Ringwald didn’t note it, the great majority of these composers were (and in Sondheim’s case, still are) Jewish.
Ringwald, sporting a cropped blond Edie Sedgewick haircut – yes, those red locks of yesteryear are gone – is not Jewish, but in interviews she has spoken about growing up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, in the poor Protestant section, while her friends lived in what she called “Hebrew Heights.” One summer on a break from filming her iconic 1980s teen dramas, she joined a Jewish girlfriend at a summer camp in France. It turned out that the camp was not merely Jewish, but Orthodox, and she had no idea what the kids were saying before and after meals and during wake-up and bedtime – because it was all Hebrew prayers.
Opening with the sultry Sondheim number, “Sooner or Later,” Ringwald, poured into a black skin-tight lycra dress, captured the bluesy tone of the song that another dyed blonde, Madonna, originated for the Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy. Then she said, “Hello, Maryland?” with a question in her voice, recalling some of the hesitant teens she played, most vividly under the direction of the late John Hughes. She was ready to baldly hawk her 2013 album of jazz standards, Except Sometimes, a collaboration with the evening’s pianist Peter Smith. She even proposed a drinking game, but, alas, the audience was stuck in theater seats, rather than a dingy, smoke-filled nightclub, where her and Smith’s jazz riffs would have felt more at home.
Then the singer noted that Except Sometimes wasn’t actually her first jazz album, just her first since becoming an adult. As a 6-year-old, she recorded an album with her dad, Bob Ringwald, a jazz pianist; it was called I Want To Be Loved By You: Molly Sings. That was before her first TV appearance on the girls’ school sitcom Facts of Life, of course.
For the most part, Ringwald, now 46, avoided the 1980s – the decade that she gained fame and notoriety as much for her movie roles as for her association with a raucous group of her acting peers, the Brat Pack. Her slower, sultrier numbers were more engaging, demonstrating her depth and range in, say, Hoagie Carmichael’s 1939 composition, “I Get Along with You Very Well (Except Sometimes).” On some of the brighter numbers, she sounded brassy. Her rendering of the Depression-era “Brother, Can You Spare of Dime?” eschewed the usual melancholy in favor of a harder, edgier take.
In song Ringwald projected the sophisticated languor of an experienced nightclub singer, and she generously credited her trio – Peter Smith on piano, Gary Wong on bass and Charles Ruggiero on drums – often. This was an evening of masterful reinvention: from child star to adult jazz songstress, it was hard to discern the teen Ringwald when the 2014 version, all grown up, was singing hot, smooth choice mid-century American standards. It was between songs, when Ringwald spoke and chatted, even sharing anecdotes about her 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old twins, that the 46-year-old sounded, still, like the hesitant teen that she once played so effortlessly. Her smile both shy and sly, her plainspoken banter and her forgetfulness about the composers’ and lyricists’ names, made it seem as if she never really outgrew those awkward teen years that made her famous. And, isn’t that what we really want from a teen movie queen like Ringwald – to never grow up or old so that her biggest problems will always be about prom dates and unfair principals.
She ended the night in tribute to director Hughes with her own version of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the 1985 hit by the band Simple Minds that iconically opened and closed The Breakfast Club. And, no, Molly, how could we ever forget you with your pretty pink thrift store outfits, brilliant auburn locks, awkward dates and 16th-birthday cakes? For a generation raised on the Brat Pack, she’ll remain memorable, whether or not she’s singing jazz-infused standards.