Celia Berk remembers that moment vividly. The moment when she knew exactly what she wanted to do the rest of her life – sing… but not just sing … sing on stage, and sing on a New York stage. Her moment is now here, just a few years later than she originally thought.
She was in sixth grade and her mother took her to see the great Ethel Merman in what was one of her final performances. Merman was doing a revival of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun at Lincoln Center, and Berk was blown away. “She was absolutely amazing. I bought a souvenir program and when I got home, I crossed out Ethel Merman’s name and put my name in her place.”
Sort of like the business owners who write themselves a check for a million dollars before they’ve made any money, knowing that one day, they’ll be able to cash that inspirational check, Berk would look to the program occasionally as inspiration.
And every day after school, Berk would run down to the family’s finished basement, put on her cast albums and sing and dance the afternoons away. Ethel Merman was a favorite. “When I would play her, the vibration from her voice was so strong that I would have to rescue the little fish that were thrown out of our fish tank.”
In high school her peers were stressed out about grades and getting into college, but not Berk. “I would say, ‘I’m not going to college. I’m going to be the First Lady of the American Stage.’”
If that approach to higher education gave Berk’s parents pause, they tried their best to be supportive. She auditioned twice for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and, when that failed, she applied to another arts program in Toronto. But it was not meant to be.
Still confident that she would find her way to the stage, Berk agreed to go to college locally. She decided on Hofstra University, which was a quick train ride from Manhattan. She could continue taking the voice lessons she had started in high school, and go to auditions whenever possible.
SAG card and BFA degree in hand, Berk then moved into the city and dove into a life to which every aspiring artist can relate – she au paired and did a myriad of part-time jobs. “I was going to auditions like crazy and doing every odd job under the sun to make money, and … I was miserable.”
Although she secured a spot playing the flute in a national commercial for GE, which was a huge “get” for someone just starting out, she was beginning to think she was not suited for the lifestyle. “I looked down the road and saw a life of constantly searching for jobs, or getting a job for a month and having to look for another, or not getting jobs based on how I looked or didn’t look, and I realized that the instability of that life would really bother me.”
So she decided to take a break to think about it. It was supposed to be just a year – a year of regular salary and predictability that would eventually lead back to the stage. But for Berk, her first “real” job led to an interesting discovery. When she walked into the offices of The Commonwealth Fund, a mansion on Fifth Avenue, Berk thought, “Actually, this may be where I belong.”
Within a year, she had worked her way up from secretary to administrator of their fellowship program, guiding international graduate students during a two-year tenure in the US. When she was ready to move on to a new challenge three years later, Berk’s reputation paved the way. “I reached out to the head of the UK selection committee for advice and discovered that he had heard all about me from the Fellows – how I had counseled and helped them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had started down the path to a career in Human Resources. He helped me secure my first corporate job, at Reuters, and I was on my way. I’m not sure I made a conscious decision, but that was the point when I really walked away from a life in the theatre.”
It broke her heart a little to think she had abandoned her dream forever, but she loved the challenges of her new career … and the stability and financial security.
Berk spent the next ten years in roles of increasing responsibility at Reuters, rising to the level of a Senior Vice President. She then spent over a decade as the global head of HR for PR firm Burson-Marsteller and from there moved to the parent company as Chief Talent Officer of Young & Rubicam Group. She always considered her career in HR to be in the creative realm, helping people develop their talents and helping companies build the high performing teams they need to succeed.
She continued weekly voice lessons but now it was just for her personal satisfaction. She was the only student her voice teacher ever allowed to come after 6 p.m. “Every couple of years my voice teacher would say, ‘Are you ever going to do something with this?’ And I would say, NO! … I’d just shut down the conversation.”
But in her mid-40s, Berk’s younger brother died suddenly. “It was like a nuclear bomb went off in our family. I remember surveying the damage and saying, “This either leaves a hole or a space. I choose a space and I’m going to fill it with music.”
She went to her voice teacher and declared she was finally ready. “The most interesting smile crossed her face. I don’t know whether it was relief or happiness. But she was definitely pleased.”
After more than two decades away from performing, Berk had never actually sung with a microphone. When the day came, it was like magic. She was working with a vocal coach and, when she finished the first song and stepped away from the mic, they just looked at each other. “I rarely feel like I totally get something right away, but I looked at him and said, ‘Huh. I get this.’”
The microphone loved Berk, and Berk loved the microphone. From that point on, everything accelerated. She found an arranger, Alex Rybeck, and after working together for a while they decided to go into the studio with several other musicians and record a jam session. As they were working, the owner of the studio came out to see who was singing and said, “Who are you?” When Berk replied that she was “just playing around,” he said, “I expect to hear more from you.”
Rybeck, who is widely admired as an arranger, composer, and musical director, asked, “Do you know you’re good? Because you’re better than most, and you’re as good as some of the best.” That gave Berk the confidence to keep going.
Everything started falling into place. “Twenty years ago, I was miserable, worried, not comfortable in my own skin. Now it was all moving forward.”
Berk’s first album (when you listen to it, you just know there will be more) is now out. You Can’t Rush Spring is arranged and conducted by Rybeck, co-produced by Tony Award-winning sound designer Scott Lehrer, and released by Gramercy Nightingale Music Co. It’s available on iTunes, Amazon, and CDBaby.com, and is being played on radio stations around the world as well as internet radio.
Berk’s vocals are impressive enough to have attracted attention even before the album’s release. Jonathan Schwartz added a selection to the song list of his iconic radio program. Rex Reed provided a quote, as did other prominent proponents of the music Berk would rush home to sing in her basement all those years ago. But it was one message in particular that made Berk think she had died and gone to heaven. An advance copy of the album had reached Michael Feinstein and he had spent an hour listening to it. His message to Berk became the quote featured on the cover of the CD: “I so enjoy Celia’s beautiful vocal sound and style, and her taste in song choices.”
Berk continues her corporate job by day and still loves it. But every second of free time – evenings, weekends and vacations – is filled with singing and recording. Somewhere, Ethel Merman is smiling down on her.
Here is a sizzle reel of Berk at New York’s Metropolitan Room where she made her solo cabaret debut .