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Seth MacFarlane's (Nearly) Secret Singing Talent

The famed comic director and actor is crazy about the classics

Seth MacFarlane and Willie Geist on June 25, 2019
Actor and singer Seth MacFarlane performs at New York City's Café Carlyle jazz club in 2019.
Mike Smith/NBCU/via Getty Images

You may know Seth MacFarlane as the irrepressible and irreverent mind behind TV's Family Guy and a pair of Ted movies about an offensive teddy bear. But what you may not know is that the 47-year-old is also a serious crooner with a deep affection for the American songbook. On his sixth (yes, sixth) album, Great Songs from Stage & Screen, MacFarlane covers tunes by such legends as Cole Porter, Henry Mancini, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe. His longtime collaborator, conductor Bruce Broughton, has arranged lush orchestration for vintage songs from the cheerful “Let's Not Be Sensible” and upbeat “Once Upon a Dream” to the gorgeously romantic “I Loved You Once in Silence” and swinging “Ten Minutes Ago."

The 13-track homage to Hollywood's Golden Age is no vanity project. Graced with an impressive baritone, MacFarlane brings a scholarly knowledge, fierce discipline and impressive track record to the project: five Grammy nominations and a best original song Oscar nod for cowriting “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from 2012's Ted. He has also infused his comedy works with lavish orchestration. MacFarlane lifted the needle briefly to talk to AARP about why he loves these songs, how hard it was to keep up with Barbra Streisand, and whether a movie musical is in his future.

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There's no “My Funny Valentine” here. You found some hidden gems and have gone for diversity, it seems.

Historically, that's what the vocal greats of the past did, Frank Sinatra being the best example. He chose so many forgotten songs of the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s that he reinvented and modernized. That's what we tried to do. Artistically it's more exciting and rewarding than doing “Fly Me to the Moon.”

This is the fifth consecutive album you've recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. What's the appeal?

Abbey Road is less about the studio and more about the players. I've worked with the (London-based) John Wilson Orchestra over a number of years, and they really specialize in that genre of music. They have cultivated just the right level of vibrato in their brass and woodwinds and strings. They play old MGM charts from the ‘50s, which are very complex. It was a perfect fit.

You grew up singing in church and musical theater as a kid, but got serious about vocal training as an adult in 1999. How important was that work?

I trained with a couple, Lee and Sally Sweetland, who were both in their mid-to-late 90s when I started with them. In their younger years, she sang for Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini. He was an opera singer who had a radio program in the ‘40s. They were indispensible in bringing my voice to its fullest potential. They taught me how to utilize the instrument and maintain it. They worked in an era when there were no electronic tricks. You could either sing or you couldn't. To this day, their musical handbook is something I reference internally as I'm singing.

How has your voice evolved since you started?

In some ways I'm a little more relaxed. As you grow older, your voice changes. The vibrato starts to widen. You can't drink the night before and wake up and have a full voice like you used to. [But] if you learn how to manage your voice, you can sing the rest of your life.

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Who are the best singers you've come across?

That's a long list. Let's put Sinatra aside because he occupies a space all his own. Nancy Wilson is always in my top 5. Vic Damone. Bing Crosby wasn't really a heavy hitter as far as power, but he knew how to use his instrument. Gordon MacRae is up there. That's a voice that's very underrated and largely ignored in this day and age. He's a singer whose voice always seemed to be at its peak. It's an astonishing instrument. At the end of “I Loved You Once in Silence” I hit a falsetto note that's influenced by MacRae. He used to surprise you at the end of his recordings with an uptick that seemed impossible.

Barbra Streisand invited you to sing “Pure Imagination” with her on her 2016 album Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Was that intimidating?

I didn't know her prior to that. There was nothing about her that was imposing. She was warm and supportive. She's roughly 30 years older than I am, and it took every ounce of breath I have to keep up with her. She has pipes that are still unrivaled. I had to really be on my game. She's keeping a lot of this music alive.

Because of your commercial success in comedy, it has eclipsed your music side in the public eye. Is it a parallel career? A labor of love?

It is a labor of love. It's not something I do with any amount of hand-wringing as far as, will it be successful? The Christmas album (Holiday For Swing!did shockingly well. I find with any project, the ones that generate that kind of feedback are the ones you set out to do because you love it, not because it's a business decision.

Swing and vocal jazz have little standing in the charts anymore. Do you worry that those styles are fading away?

I don't. By those metrics, they're not as present as the flavor of the week, but they are always there. “Ten Minutes Ago” is close to 70 years old. I sang it with Ariana Grande on Carpool Karaoke and she knew it. They stick around in a way their successors don't always do. A lot of this music is genre-free. A song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is not really jazz, swing or pop. It's pure melody. It's not bound by the trappings of a specific sound or a specific era that makes it feel dated. It's always going to be with us.

What about film scores?

Scores were such an integral component of films in the past. Now they seem like an afterthought. Music in film hasn't kept its footing. It has deteriorated rather than evolved. Other parts of popular culture have found ways to reinvent themselves. I don't know who that next great crop of composers will be. John Williams is close to 90, and there's nobody in Hollywood who can touch him compositionally.

How can you help younger people discover the riches of the American songbook?

That's always in the back of my mind. I don't know if there's one easy answer. I think Family Guy does it with comedy. The albums do it in a more sincere way. Even in [MacFarlane's sci-fi series] The Orville we've used songs. Every time they're in the mess hall in the ship, there's some standard playing in the background. It's an interesting thing about science fiction. The show takes place 500 years in the future. If you put a Phil Collins song in the background, it feels weird and contemporary. But use a Rodgers and Hart song, and people buy it. It's a visceral thing. You believe it will stick around more than something current. The Orville is scored like a feature every week. There's usually an 80- or 90-piece orchestra. We do it the old-fashioned way.

Have you considered making the leap to your own Broadway musical?

I'm playing around with a film musical. I love Broadway. I've always been drawn to the film adaptations, just because the orchestras give you the larger string sections. Take shows like Music ManCarousel or Oklahoma! The orchestration just explodes in the movie versions. I've had my eye on a musical as a future career move. I'm not going to let too much time pass before I take my shot.