To see all the photos, go to: https://www.broadwayworld.com/cabaret/article/BWW-Feature-A-Tapestry-Of-Cabaret-20210114
A Tapestry Of Cabaret
Here’s what happens when you start thinking about three decades of cabaret-going in New York City.
BroadwayWorld.com Jan. 14, 2021
I went for a walk, early in the morning, and only around my neighborhood because I continue to avoid crowds for the moment. Strolling through the misty light of Hell’s Kitchen, there was no avoiding bittersweet memories as I passed by the clubs of Midtown Manhattan, all empty. There are nightclubs, cabaret rooms, comedy joints, jazz spots, piano bars… rooms that New Yorkers and visitors to our fair burg have frequented for years, in order to enjoy the live entertainers that are the backbone of New York City nightlife. Although I was seeing Midtown edifices behind which live the generous recollections of nearly three decades of club-going, the experience of that walk inspired within me a need to look back in my mind at the performances that have made each club, every room, all the cabarets a happy place for me. Thirty-seven years ago, I entered my first Manhattan nightclub, the Algonquin Oak Room; on March 12th I saw my last show of 2020, at Feinstein’s/54 Below – that’s a lot of clubs and a real lot of shows for one lifetime. There have been club acts by famous movie stars and cabaret debuts by novices, and everything that lands somewhere in between; some are long forgotten, while others live in my consciousness, as fresh as though they were last Friday night.
With each club I have entered these last few decades, clubs and decades brimming with exceptional performances, certain moments stand out as the brightest threads in a gorgeous tapestry that has been my life as a New York City clubgoer.
Algonquin Oak Room – Montgomery Plant and Stritch
The year was 1987 and my husband, Pat Dwyer, and I left behind our life as struggling artists for one week to travel to New York, in order to see my friend, Steve Barton, in the play The Phantom of The Opera, just before the Tony Awards. At the Friday night performance, we sat in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s house seats (courtesy of Steve) for the performance, after which we visited in Steve’s dressing room, there to be asked if we wanted to go with some of the cast to The Algonquin to see Montgomery, Plant, and Stritch. The club pushed tables together down the middle of the room, and our group of 15, maybe 18, definitely not 20, reveled in the sophisticated and fun performance. On my right, Steve spent most of the performance with his head back, howling with laughter, and snapping his fingers (on this night I was taught the phrase “snap queen”), while, to my left, Judy Kaye radiated joy, just days before she would win the Tony Award. Everyone had so much fun with Montgomery, Plant, and Stritch – after all, they were this ball of fire filling the room with their youthful exuberance and gigantic talent. It was cool to see such young upstarts having this kind of success – I don’t think I had ever heard such tight harmonies live before, and the playful camaraderie between the three was an example of the kind of work friendship for which everyone wishes. I was introduced to the affable and remarkable Mr. Stritch after the show, starstruck by his genius and unaware that three decades later I would still be starstruck. This really set the tone (and the bar) for the level of quality I would come to seek out in the clubs.
Alice Tully Hall – Andrea Marcovicci
Alice Tully Hall is a concert venue, not a cabaret room – cabaret clubs are designed to be intimate and personal, they allow the audience to be close to the artist and to get to know them a little. If anyone had the ability to make a giant room like Alice Tully Hall intimate, it was Andrea Marcovicci, who I saw on a cold winter night with my friend Lisa Dawn Popa. There were many empty seats in the hall, courtesy of a rather intimidating snowstorm, but Andrea Marcovicci didn’t let that get in her way of putting on a superb show, one worthy of the aesthete that she is. Starting with “The Picture Down the Hall” and continuing for well over an hour, Andrea addressed that big crowd as though they were a gathering of friends on her living room sofa. Erudite and intelligent, she lacked nothing in her performance, one that showed me why people had always told me that seeing Andrea Marcovicci live was magical. I must have been under her spell that night because at one point, unable to stop myself, believing I was at a rock concert, I yelled out, “We love you, Andrea!” From my box seat, one level up, Andrea Marcovicci could be seen to blush, and heard to giggle, as she gushed into the microphone, “I’ve always wanted someone to do that.”
BB Kings – Helen Reddy
This was not the first time I saw Helen Reddy live – it was the last. Helen had taken a few years off from performing to pursue some other interests but after about a decade, the legend decided to go back to work; fortunately for all, she was booked into the famous club on 42nd Street for this round of tours. She was different on this night than she had been when I had seen her in the past – she was more relaxed, more easy-going, even a bit devil-may-care. Maybe it was the time she had taken off or maybe it was her age, but she just seemed unfathomably happy and grounded. From where we sat, it looked like Helen was really having fun, like she didn’t have a worry in the world. She was rather chatty with the audience, and she was singing all her hits in the same keys she had sung them in decades earlier – except for one. In a moment of audacious alacrity, Helen Reddy wowed the crowd by performing her iconic self-penned “I Am Woman” as a piece of poetry. The effect on the audience was electrifying. It was a most memorable night for everyone in attendance, most of them die-hard fans already, but one suspects that a person brought to the concert who didn’t know Helen when they walked in the door would leave a new fan. Helen Reddy was, indeed, a rock star. Even at seventy.
Beach Cafe – Ari Axelrod, A Celebration of Jewish Broadway
I had seen Ari’s show in The Birdland Theater and fallen in love with it. It is impossible to not fall in love with something so personal. I believe in every artist pursuing the performance that calls to them, be it standing still and singing standards, or diving deep and getting personal. When a Jewish Broadway nerd spends over an hour breaking down the Jewish influence over his preferred art form, it’s hard to not be drawn in by the passion, the intelligence, and the humor, all of which Ari’s show has, in the extreme. The Birdland Theater is modern, chic, geometrical, technological; the Beach Cafe is cozy and accessible, filled with the ambiance of the living room – it is fascinating how different rooms can inform a performance. When Ari performed on that little Beach Cafe stage, with his first two rows of faces gazing up at him like elementary school students, mere feet away from him, there was an invisible arm of goodwill reaching out to take them to his breast with love. At the end of the show that arm was no longer invisible, as the troubadour stepped off the stage and wandered through the audience, sans mic, taking hands, holding faces, singing directly at every person while gazing, lovingly, in their eyes. This is where art lives – at its most personal, passionate, and vulnerable place.
Birdland Mainstage – Anita Gillette, After All … and furthermore
It is extremely important to see the greats while you can. There are artists who have laid the groundwork in the history of the business, and when they play the clubs it is your chance to see that history. Anita Gillette‘s shows are almost always about her path in the business, so when you see Anita in person you’re not just getting a great entertainer, you’re getting the stories about her life and the lives of the people with whom she made art. David Merrick, Irving Berlin, Vinnie Gardenia (she calls him Vinnie). You get to hear one of the great voices and see one of the great actresses (comic or otherwise). Watching Anita Gillette work is a master class in what it is to act, and what it is to love. I see all of Anita’s shows but it was her 2014 show that left the biggest impression on me because, sitting in my front row seat, I felt hot tears running down my face while she sang “Mira” in a way I had never heard it sung before. I won’t lie – you’re not supposed to do this, but I did it… I used my phone to record the song and I listen to it all the time, trying to get that moment back. I don’t have to, though, because the moment is burned in my heart. And, thanks to Anita Gillette, on a regular basis someone in my home can be heard to utter (in the voice of a woman called Virginia) “Don’t postpone joy.”
Birdland Theater – Hannah Jane, The Leading Ladies of Broadway
What is more exciting than something new? I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hannah Jane‘s show, but I had heard so much about the prodigy that I knew full well not to miss her act. The show was to play only one performance, so I assumed it was a trial run for a new act, and if it went well, more dates would be booked. Then the lockdown hit New York and who knows what will happen with HJ’s show? This writer wishes, most ardently, that Hannah Jane will film it and release it as a DVD or a streaming show because it is one of the most simple and complex, inventive, imaginative, and satisfying club acts I’ve ever seen. Hannah Jane spent an hour working her way through the book A IS FOR AUDRA, performing tributes to each and every Broadway diva listed therein. She gave that full house Bernadette, Patti, Liza… even Elaine Stritch, and she did it in the most creative, theatrical (and vocally impressive) ways possible. My companion and I were so visibly astonished by the performance that a stranger approached us afterward to ask us if we were astonished happy or astonished appalled. Um… Happy. So. So. Happy. A Star is Born.
Broadway Comedy Club – Shakina Nayfack, One Woman Show
After seeing Shakina emcee a 2014 benefit, I found myself intrigued by her aesthetic and her artistic message, so I took advantage of the fact that she was performing near me and caught her next show, a self-penned rock musical about her quest for her Gender Confirmation Surgery, covering everything from the story of the person she is to the body into which she was born, the life that came before and the life that was to follow. In the tiny room of the Broadway Comedy Club, Shakina gifted a sold-out house to what can only be described as equal parts Broadway musical, rock concert, performance art, stand-up comedy, Moth storytelling, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, and Ethel Merman shows. She was unapologetically honest, lovingly blunt, and brazenly entertaining. She held nothing back in her crusade for the truth and the audience loved her. Because of the time (about an hour) and the location (a small venue comedy club), the show was billed as and accepted as, a cabaret show but the truth is that it was a musical play; and as such, it became the launchpad for Shakina’s Musical Theatre Factory, where she has been revolutionizing theater ever since.
Cafe Carlyle – Maria Friedman, Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim
Brady Schwind called me and said, “They are offering discount tickets to see Maria Friedman‘s Sondheim show at The Carlyle and I really think we should go, don’t you?” I often trust Brady’s judgment more than my own, so we ordered three tickets, for the two of us and my husband. The Cafe Carlyle was a really expensive night out and, at the time, the three of us were riding the poverty train. Nevertheless, we all put on our best outfits (none of which were chic enough for the Carlyle) and went Uptown East where we were sat at (really) a most pitiful, tiny table with a semi-restricted view of the stage, and before the show started we consoled ourselves with repeated reminders that at least we were there. During the show, and for a long time after, we were acutely aware that we would have been happy watching through the door, from outside in the hall. Maria Friedman brings a unique, electric charge to every moment that she spends with her audience. This could have been a performance on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, so epic was the musical storytelling, but we were all lucky enough to be in an intimate setting where we could see every nuance, hear every sigh, feel every emotion that Friedman was conveying. To this day, nearly fifteen years later, we still remember the night with awe and a little disbelief that we were actually there.
Club Cumming – Jack Bartholet, Lady with a Song
How many times have you sat in a club to watch a pretty boy use his pretty voice to sing pretty songs? It happens, and it’s pleasant, and bully for those boys for doing that particular show. When, however, the pretty boy with the pretty voice wants more, it can become something otherworldly, something completely new – it becomes the next big thing. That pretty boy wants more for himself, more for his audience, and more for his artistry, and that is the place where Jack Bartholet lives, which is why most of my time at this show was spent with my mouth and eyes equally wide open – stunned, shocked, amazed. This show was, ostensibly, about being true to one’s own self, but Bartholet’s wish for everyone to be true to their own self was so big that all of his intentions, musical and prosaic, acted as a tidal wave of altruism and provocative teachable moments. Filled with bold, outrageous, defiant humanity and humor, the jewel in Jack’s show business crown is one of the most innovative and original acts this writer has ever seen.
Don’t Tell Mama The Original Room – James Beaman, Black Market Marlene
James Beaman, one of the industry’s incomparable talents, spent years performing as Marlene Dietrich or as Lauren Bacall. One day he tired of performing as a woman and got rid of his wigs, and he has been a non-stop in trousers working actor ever since. Those who saw him play the clubs in his Marlene Dietrich shows, though, will be forever grateful that they did. His mastery at illusion was beyond reproach, both in his physical appearance and his vocal performance. His Black Market Marlene show should have been required viewing by anyone with an interest in Cabaret; it was structural perfection and, from start to finish, an intellectually stimulating, musically arousing, elegantly sexy, sophisticated, and funny piece of theater. Staying within the parameters of the tuxedo-clad version of Dietrich made famous in the film Morocco, Beaman’s Marlene remained aloof yet lovable, intense yet appealing, and always delectably, playfully in your face. Created before the world at large tapped into the Weimar Kabaret fascination, this show was a meticulous match for the dim, slightly seedy, reminiscent refinement, backroom feel of the Hell’s Kitchen haunt Don’t Tell Mama. I always wanted Mr. Beaman to have a MAC Award for this show, but I didn’t get my wish – it was just so spectacular.
Don’t Tell Mama The Brick Room – Rian Keating, In This Traveling Heart
This 2019 show is one made for the cabaret of today. Once upon a time, cabaret consisted of people standing at a mic doin’ their thing with a piano and bass behind them, or exquisite musicians plying their craft for appreciative audiences. With the evolution of the art form, new acts of varying natures have been given a chance – they have been given a place to have life breathed into them. As a result, those acts have breathed new life into the rooms and the industry. Mr. Keating’s show is just such an offering. Clinically deaf, with enough residual hearing to make it possible for him to enjoy the Broadway music he so enjoys, Rian Keating is unable to sing the way most nightclub performers do. It didn’t stop him from putting on this act that is more of a spoken-word show, a storytelling hour in which he relives the life experiences that have brought him to this moment in time. A member of the community who attends every single club act, Keating has a huge following of fans and supporters that was so moved by this extremely personal show that word of mouth necessitated the repeated extension of his booking. It’s a good thing, too, because the storytelling was worthy of praise, worthy of show extension, and worthy of entry into the storytelling community, which one hopes is next for the enthusiastic artist.
Don’t Tell Mama The Front Room – Tommy Foster, The METHod to My Madness
In one of the first examples I can remember of a cabaret artist taking their broken heart and turning it into art, Mr. Foster took his most personal story – that of his struggles with drug addiction – and molded it into a club act not only entertaining and enlightening but vastly important. Using his own writing to tell the stories, and the songs of other artists to complement those stories, Foster held a willingly captive audience in the palm of his hand from curtain up to curtain down. A singer well known for his unparalleled singing voice, Foster surprised many when he made the daring and scary choice to use such personal experiences as fodder for a cabaret show – some people found it shocking. That ability to be personal and courageous is what made the show a successful one that resonated with the audience, especially this guy, who has never forgotten Foster’s final number “In Whatever Time We Have” – one of the truly intimate moments ever seen on a cabaret stage; whenever I hear the song, I think of Tommy Foster‘s tender rendition of the tune, as he looked into the eyes of every single member of the audience before waving goodbye and walking off the stage without a bow. Heroism in a cabaret room.
The Duplex – Jake Speck, I’ll Take You Dreaming
There are famous performers of the past that many people do not even remember anymore – even though they have been considered iconic, even legendary, they are, today, mostly forgotten. So when a young person is seen to be doing a tribute show to Danny Kaye, someone like me is going to have to check it out. Watching Jake Speck perform this show, it was less about Danny Kaye and more about how his idol had affected Speck’s own life. While watching Jake perform as himself, as Kaye, and even as Louis Armstrong, it occurred to me that this might be the most talented young man I had ever seen in action. I was mesmerized by the Speck magic, indeed the entire sold-out house seemed to be equally under his spell. It was a little unbelievable that a person this young could possess the ability to go to the places Speck went, as actor, singer and mimic, and this is when I began to reexamine my personal prejudices toward the youth of the industry: clearly the young people of Jake’s generation were being taught something we weren’t taught when I was a kid… or maybe it was in the water. But this kind of work from someone Jake’s age wasn’t the norm when I was trying to make it as an actor in my twenties. To this day this remains one of the best club acts, tribute shows, and performances I have ever seen, a fact that is unlikely to change. Shortly after debuting this show, Speck was picked up to be a JERSEY BOY, and no further productions of his act were ever mounted, rendering it like a rare painting, unseen by the general public, with only a lucky handful of people to talk about that one special night.
Eighty Eights – Carol Hall
Carol Hall could be heard, from time to time and in closed circles, to downplay her skills as a vocalist. Declaring herself to be a songwriter first and a singer second, Ms. Hall was sometimes shy about singing, preferring to have others perform her songs in her stead. In the early to mid-nineties, though, she played the Greenwich Village club Eighty Eights in her own solo acts (with guest artists, natch) and these Carol Hall shows served as an example of how personal, how intimate, how endearing a club act could be. Any time you went to a Carol Hall show, it felt less like a trip to a nightclub and more like a trip to your friend’s house, to stand around the piano and hear her sing her own compositions while telling the stories about what led to their creation. Carol was always honest about herself, her thoughts, her intentions, her feelings, sometimes sharing of herself in ways that might make others uncomfortable. Not Carol. Carol loved what she did, she loved being authentic, and she really loved the audience; she spoke to them with a comfortable demeanor that was disarming and charming and that made you love her, even if you never met her. That’s fine because when you went home from a Carol Hall show, you felt like you and she were the best of very old friends.
Feinstein’s at the Regency – Marilyn Maye
For years I had heard of Marilyn Maye – she was a bit of a legend to me, even before I landed in New York City. When she started playing the clubs of New York, everyone rushed to see her, but I was living the life of a struggling artist, so that wasn’t quite in my realm. Then my friend, Mark Sendroff, began taking me with him to her shows, where I learned, first hand, about what it is to be the best. One day I had a message from Mark that he had arranged tickets for me and my husband to see her at Feinstein’s with Billy Stritch. We were seated ringside in a club so fancy that it made me uncomfortable, and Marilyn Maye came out and opened her show with “It’s Today” and you know what she did, don’t you? Everyone who has seen a Marilyn Maye show knows what she does during that number. She did a high kick, no wait, she did a few high kicks. The high kicks were impressive, but they weren’t all. Have you ever seen something perfect? Maybe a work of art, or a sunset, maybe a natural wonder of the world or a beautiful baby… well, that’s Marilyn Maye. If the vocal instrument isn’t enough to blow your mind, what she does when she takes that instrument and applies it to the story she is telling, will. She’s packing a Stradivarius in there, but her focus is on the lyrics, and no mistake. Watch her and you’ll see: it is all about the lyrics and the story. I’ll tell you something, between the sheer force of her talent, her personality, and those high kicks, I promptly took every other singer off of my list of favorites and put Marilyn Maye at the top of the list, where she remains to this day. Since that night at Feinstein’s at the Regency, I have not missed one Marilyn Maye show. Because Marilyn Maye. PS. She still does that high kick.
Feinstein’s/54 Below – Joanna Gleason, Out of the Eclipse / Jeremy Jordan, Carry On
In one calendar year, in the same club, I saw two cabaret shows that I value as two of the best ever created. They must be mentioned together because they represent the two inexorable bookends of life and death, and they do so in ways most imaginative and captivating. Ms. Gleason’s show is a personal experience of what she went through when both of her parents died within weeks of one another. It uses songs written by other artists and rhetoric penned by her good self to describe the darkness that followed those deaths, and the painful but cathartic journey she took back into the light. With candor, humor, and pathos, Joanna effectively reached into the hearts of her audience and flicked the ‘on’ switch. Mr. Jordan’s show used a simple but clever conceit to take the audience on a roller coaster ride through his head (and his heart) as he illustrated the joyful terror of being father to a newborn. With the assistance of one prop, his own abandon, and his musical director Benjamin Rauhala, Jeremy opened himself up in ways vulnerable and courageous. Innovative, personal, fascinating, and overflowing with humble honesty, these two celebrated artists used a cabaret room to create two one-act musical plays. It just doesn’t get better than that.
The Green Room 42 – Vivian Reed, Little Bit of Soul, Little Bit of Pop
In 2019 I was writing for a site called HOTCHKA – it was the work I did there that caught the attention of Rob Diamond and brought me to Broadway World. For HOTCHKA I covered Broadway, Off-Broadway, film, and television. Now and then, I was allowed to stray into the nightclub arena for my writing, but it was the exception, not the rule. When Brady Schwind told me that Vivian Reed was going to play The Green Room 42, we both knew we had to go. Previous trips into clubs to see Tammy Grimes, Melba Moore, and Maria Friedman had proven to be life-altering theater, and we were certain that this one show would end up on that list. Boy, were we right about that, and then some. Never before had Brady or I or my husband, Pat, seen a performer so sure on their feet, whose show was so unquestionably informed by who they were at their core. This icon of the Broadway stage and recording industry appeared on the stage to be a torch, a wild, dancing flame of talent, inciting frenzy for the full house of fans so happy to be there that the mood was like a party, be it Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve or just a Tuesday – every musical number was more riveting than the one that preceded it, and it didn’t take much for our table to be feeling (and acting) like we were VIPS at the party. When it was all over, Brady asked me if I would be reviewing the show for HOTCHKA and I replied, “No. This is private. It’s special. It belongs only to us.” The really special nights sometimes need to remain private.
Jazz at Lincoln Center – Brandon Victor Dixon
I never get to attend shows in this gorgeous venue because, as the BWW Cabaret Editor, I don’t want to be greedy and take all the big shows for myself – I deliberately offer the concerts in this space to the writers with whom I work. I want them to cover this room and Carnegie Hall, not me. But I do have my priorities, and when it came time to assign a writer to the Brandon Victor Dixon concert, I assigned myself. A fan for a while now, I was unapologetically determined to see Mr. Dixon live. There’s nothing quite like a Broadway leading man and, with apologies to all the Divos of Broadway, Brandon Victor Dixon is high up on my list. This is sheer power – power in presence, power in performance, power in personality. Sitting in the audience at his club act, I felt like I was a teenager at a rock concert, which is exactly the vibe I got from the other people in the house. All you had to do was take your eyes off of Dixon long enough to skull the crowd and you could see that everyone else was having the same reaction to that power – but why would you take your eyes off of Brandon Victor Dixon?
I don’t remember what year it was, or even what the show was — I remember that it was in the days when the entrance to Joe’s Pub was through a gate and then some sort of concrete carport-looking area, up a small flight of steel steps and inside an entry that looked like it was a stage door once (I bet it was) or, at the very least, a back entrance into the kitchen of a catering hall. Once in the building, the entry into Joe’s Pub was where a wall now stands. Try as I may, I cannot recall what the group show was that I was there to see. The truth is I was in a bad mood that year and determined to hate the show because, that year, I hated everything. Just because. I was doing pretty well at hating the show, too – that is, until the finale. Billy Porter took to the stage, along with a choir that might have been Broadway singers, it might have been a church choir, it might have been a church choir made up of Broadway singers, I don’t remember – it’s easy to forget things when all of your thoughts are about anger and hate and being in a bad mood. Well, Billy and that choir sang the song “Sunday” from The End of The First Act in Sunday in the Park With George. An artist from an early age, I have always named Sunday in the Park With George as my favorite musical. I understand it, I relate to it, I get it, and this song has always held a special place in my heart. At no time has it ever been more important to me than it was on this day. Thanks to the sheer emotional and artistic genius of the arrangement, that choir of voices, and Billy Porter, Billy Porter, Billy Porter, I left that theater with a heart filled with hope – for the first time in a long time. That is the power of an authentic, connected, and passionate performance on a concert stage. That is the power of theater.
Judy’s Chelsea – Julie Johnson
You know those singers who have that little something extra? That thing you can’t quite put your finger on, but you can hear it whenever they perform? That’s Julie Johnson. I don’t know if it’s something about the placement of her voice, or the heart she puts into everything she sings, or maybe it’s something about being from Texas, but when she stood up in front of the audience at Judy’s (I really loved that room) it was like the Pied Piper had come to town – in the palm of her hand, they were. I can actually still see, in surprising detail, what the room looked like, the colors of Michael Barbieri‘s lights on the waterfall wall behind Julie Johnson standing at the piano – it’s an image of beauty captured by the camera in my mind forever. It didn’t hurt that her chemistry with musical director Steve Barcus was so palpable, chemistry that really showed in their duet about Levi’s jeans. The heartfelt highlight, though, was when Julie sang “The Bus From Amarillo” — I’ve been waiting for the Julie Johnson-helmed Whorehouse revival on Broadway ever since. She may live in Texas, but we could really use some Julie Johnson back in NYC, any time she’s ready.
The Laurie Beechman Theatre – Shani Hadjiaan, FEAR.LESS
Compelled by the description on the Laurie Beechman website, I went to a one-off show by an unknown artist and it turned out to be one of the most exceptional shows I have seen in a club, like, ever. Hadjiaan created the night as a show for friends and family, as a bucket-list way to take back her joy and strength from things in life that had intimidated, scared, or otherwise controlled her. What is, possibly, as cool as absolute honesty? Well, Shani is a Mistress of Honesty and of storytelling, and as hard as it is to share your vulnerability with a room full of people, Ms. Hadjiaan triumphed in a show that was one surprise turn in the journey after another. By the time she had finished her act, the entire club was like an audience at a motivational speech on Broadway, starring a TED-talker with a belt. FEAR.LESS is the kind of show that the young people of today’s industry are looking to create and, frankly, it’s the kind of show that I am looking to see.
The Metropolitan Room – Melba Moore
Like many of my great theater-going experiences, this one happened when I called Brady Schwind and said “Melba Moore is in town, will you go with me?” Just as always, Brady and Pat and I went to the club ready to fall in love, ready to see something miraculous, and that’s just what we got. It’s no secret that, at this point, a few years had passed since Ms. Moore took home her Tony Award for Purlie, but that legendary voice has remained untouched by the passage of time. Indeed, it has been made superior, richer, awash with life experiences that show in Melba’s storytelling nuance and audacity. Whether wailing on the money notes or sighing for the soft emotions, Melba Moore used her inimitable gifts to turn that room into something spiritual, something that lives at an intersection where Broadway, rock & roll, and gospel live. There’s a light that travels to the plane where Melba Moore exists, a plane the rest of us can try to reach but are better off just watching as she blazes. There wasn’t a moment when the three of us weren’t compelled to grab onto one another from the excitement but, truth be told, when she started singing “I Got Love” I think we all three simultaneously burst into tears.
New York Comedy Club – Jen Houston
When the singing actress Jennifer Houston needed a break from playing clubs with her original music, she thought it might be fun to test the stand-up comedy waters, because what could be harder to get people to come see than your original music? Comedy. Well, it turned out that Houston was good at it. Did you know that when you go to the comedy clubs, the person at the door asks which comic you are there to see so that they can determine the length of each comic’s set? On this night, Jen Houston had a ten-minute set, which is unheard of for a new comic – and she killed it. Using material pulled from her own life, Houston talked politics, show business, small business, and family, even going so far as to talk bisexuality and married first cousins. Unafraid of turning her truth into raucous, raunchy comedy, Houston had the small venue comedy club screaming with laughter; nevertheless, the budding comic with a following decided, after only a few months, that her own music had to come first and she stopped with the jokes. Houston spent the next few years writing and performing Trump lampooning viral music videos for NOW THIS, effectively combining her music and her comedy into something the world really needed for a while. Can’t wait to see what she lampoons next.
Pangea – Sidney Myer, Sidney Myer Live
My trip to see Sidney Myer Live at Pangea is not as memorable for what Sidney did, as it is for who he did it to. My beloved of over three decades admitted he had never seen Sidney Myer perform, so I went online to find out the where and the when and promptly made plans to remedy the situation. Sidney has, long, been one of my favorite actors – a man who can bring tears from your eyes with a comedy number or with a ballad, and then captivate you with a story or three of such eloquence and verbosity that you don’t notice that his club act has run nearly ninety minutes long. When I took Pat to the sold-out Pangea performance of Sidney’s residency in the downtown club, I almost didn’t look at Sidney at all: I was too busy watching Pat watch Sidney, and that was all the reward I needed. Seeing someone be swept up with glee by a performer that you consider to be the hallmark of the industry is one of the most satisfying feelings, and this night was one of the premiere examples of that feeling I’ve ever had. I did, though, take my eyes off of Pat to watch Sidney sing “It’s So Nice to Have a Man Around The House” because that just never gets old.
Rainbow and Stars – Lesley Gore
I was new to New York and seeking celebrity models for The Sweater Book and a lot of the artists I sought to photograph were members of the club and concert community. I had secured a shoot with Lesley Gore and I wanted to see her show because I thought it was only polite to see what someone does before working with them yourself. I got the cheapest ticket I could to see her at the club at the top of 30 Rock, and, there, I got one of the nicest surprises of my life. My frame of reference for Lesley Gore was her pop/rock music from earlier in her career, but by the time I worked with Lesley, she was singing more jazz and standards. There, with the lights of the city glowing in the windows behind her, chicly dressed in a slim-fit white pantsuit, the classic beauty introduced me to what would become one of my favorite songs of all time. I had never heard it before, and whenever I hear it now, I wish I were hearing Lesley Gore sing it. Before the format of The Sweater Book was changed to remove ninety percent of the written text, Lesley’s copy simply read “Lesley Gore is Something Cool.” And to me, she always will be.
Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1 – Dan Tracy
It’s a stimulating experience, getting to see an artist debut their own work for the first time. This man is, undeniably, my favorite male singer-songwriter and the Rockwood Music Hall was jam-packed with friends and fans, ready and waiting to hear an hour of his original songs. Now, this can be exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Listening to an hour of songs you never heard before, not having the comfort to relax into a song you already know and don’t have to REALLY listen to can be tough. Not on this day. Every one of Dan Tracy‘s songs was a piece of poetry set to magnificent music, music that was wonderfully intricate, filled with unexpected changes, time signatures, and melodic lines. I have an unusual knack for singing along with a song I am hearing for the first time, simply because I have an innate instinct of where the composer is heading; not with Dan Tracy‘s songs. He’s an original, and his songs stand on their own, absolutely – and speaking of standing on their own, this venue has a few tables but it is a mostly standing joint. Nobody minded standing for an hour with their beers in their hands to watch the folk-rock minstrel do his thing – everyone left the club feeling sated and glad they came.
Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3 – Alicia Witt
My first trip to the Rockwood venue was to see an actress whose work I had, long, admired on the screens large and small. I did not, in fact, know that she was a singer, though I had heard she was a pianist. I happened to catch wind of the concert on some Facebook page and decided to check her out (after watching some of her YouTube videos). I couldn’t believe what I got for my investment. Rockwood Stage 3 is about the size of my kitchen. Alicia Witt was right there, within touching distance, just at the piano all by herself. She walked in through the house and set her purse on the floor, then she excused use while she propped up her phone for a Facebook Live event, and then she talked to us and she sang to us, right to us. She writes these songs that just want to make you cry with pathos, or laugh with wicked delight, and she talks about her dog Earnest (oh, yeah, I follow him on Instagram) and when you leave, it was like hanging out with your sister or your bestie or the movie star that you wish could be your bestie. The greatest part of the show? It was July and she still sang “I’m Not Ready For Christmas” – the most fantastic modern Christmas song ever written. From that day forward I had this rule: if Alicia Witt is in town, I’m in the audience.
Rose Hall – The 20018 Cabaret Convention
My friend asked me to go with her to The Cabaret Convention to see her friend Leanne Borghesi perform – although my gal pal is more rock and roll than cabaret, she is a very supportive friend and was not prepared to miss Leanne’s Convention debut. There are times when you can watch a group show and be perfectly happy with it… until one person walks out on the stage and makes you lean forward in your seat. That’s what happened that night. One after the other, lovely and talented artists came to the stage and gave lovely and talented performances. Then, near the close of Act One, Leanne Borghesi entered from stage right, as tall as a Manhattan skyscraper, with a bold, self-assured walk, shoulders back, head high, confident but not defiant, happy but not giddy, and when Leanne Borghesi hit her mark at downstage center, she stood stock-still and she sang… and every person in that theater sat forward a little… or a lot. It was an auspicious introduction for the West Coaster to the audiences of the East Coast. Well, my girlfriend and I went to intermission believing we had seen what we came to see. We would discover that we were wrong, for, at the end of Act Two, a woman was introduced that we had, neither of us, ever heard of. From where we sat, we saw the white hair and the dark gown, as she strode calmly to the microphone, a mass of dignified experience as a performer. She opened her mouth to sing and my friend, almost immediately, said “WOW.” She didn’t whisper it, she just said it, and the people sitting near us nodded their heads in agreement, some even said “Yeah.” Clearly, when arranging the lineup for the night, this was planned. A year later both women would appear in their first duo show together and the SHOW BROADS were born. Leanne Borghesi and Marta Sanders had no idea that something bigger and better than an appearance at The Cabaret Convention would happen for them on that night.
Sardi’s – David Campbell and Mark Nadler
I haven’t been in Sardi’s in forever, so I don’t know if this is still a thing, but back in the nineties, I found myself upstairs at the famed restaurant on a couple of occasions to see cabaret performers do their thing. I had seen David Campbell a few times because, well, I was his photographer. I learned a lot from David about cabaret and what happens behind the scenes to make the magic the audience sees; how much of a show is rehearsed and how rehearsed spontaneity can be. Well, every bit of Campbell and Nadler was spontaneous. Oh, they worked out the songs alright, but when these two forces of nature were let loose on an unsuspecting audience, it became like a white water rafting excursion set to a soundtrack of some of the best music ever made. In truth, they were a bit of an odd couple, and that’s probably what made them work together. While Nadler got his trademark manic on, Campbell let out his inner rock & roller, and the two of them shook the walls of Sardi’s (and the crowd) in ways they had probably not been shook before… and maybe haven’t been shook since.
Tavern on the Green – Nancy LaMott
People believe that Nancy LaMott could do no wrong. Except that she could. Her legendary status has led people to believe she was something she wasn’t – some kind of deity. Nancy was just a girl who loved to sing, and sometimes she would hit the wrong notes, sometimes she stumbled over her patter, sometimes she was clumsy… and that’s what made you love her more. Nancy once told me that if she went for a big note and missed it, she didn’t care, as long as the emotion was real. Well, that’s where she had it all over everyone else: Nancy didn’t know how to be false. And on the night that I saw her at Tavern on the Green – or, as she called it, “Edward Scissorhands land” – I took my Father. My Pap has always loved meeting my girlfriends, and the cuter they were, the better. And he just loved Nancy. My dad isn’t an artistic guy, but he adores entertainers and being entertained, and watching him get swept up in that LaMott magic was a genuinely happy experience for me. My Pap was a Marine and a businessman – he didn’t know show business or show people, and so he was always a little starry-eyed when exposed to my life and the racy show folk in that life. But there was nothing racy about Nancy. She was just this tiny lady with fluffy hair and a sweet voice, and watching him discover her made me feel like I had done something right. He bought all her (available) CDs that night. Now, how do you not love that?
Therapy – Marty Thomas, Cattle Call
I was neither a Star Search watcher nor a club kid, so I didn’t know who Marty Thomas was. My friend who was big into NYC nightlife took me to Therapy one night where it turned out they had a small stage (really, it was like a fireplace hearth) where Scott Nevins did a chat show and Marty Thomas did an open mic show. Tom just wanted to go for drinks, he wasn’t there to see the show, but when the open mic started, we settled down to see what kind of talent there was, and that’s when this man came out on the stage singing the latest Celine Dion single “I Drove All Night.” Well, he was singing it in Celine Dion‘s key! In fact, he was out singing Celine! It was the kind of jolt that shoots adrenaline all throughout your body. I turned to Tom, “WHO is THAT?” He looked at me like I was stupid. “That’s Marty Thomas.” From that moment on, Marty Thomas has been one of my top five favorite boy singers.
The Triad – The Season
Coming off the 1996 Tony Awards season, when Julie Andrews declined her nomination in order to stand with the “egregiously overlooked” company members of Victor/Victoria, Kate Jetmore, Brady Schwind, and regular guest artist Happy McPartlin revisited every single season of the Tony Awards past, examining each show with musical numbers, factoids, trivia, and an overwhelming originality in production values and performances. With a different installment of THE SEASON every week, the trio was performing at warp speed, and the quality of the episodes never diminished from week to week. The series developed an almost cult-like following, as the houses grew more replete from performance to performance, and eventually the series run stretched out over years. My favorite memories of the ingenious series were any time McPartlin did her Patti LuPone impression, Jetmore performing The Yodel Blues, and Schwind’s Lazy Afternoon, but the greatest highlight of the entire series was the plushie performance of The Little Cabin of Uncle Thomas. It was brilliance in a bag. I miss The Season terribly, and if it were playing today, I would be at every installment.
Cap 21 – Karen Mason, Unfinished Business
There is a saying to which I refer a lot. The first person I ever heard say it was Carrie Fisher and it says “Take your broken heart and make it into art.” Karen Mason did that when she wrote her one-woman show about her life with Brian Lasser, who was her colleague and her friend. She was his muse, he was her ballast. Theirs was the kind of relationship every artist dreams of finding, sometimes in vain. Taken from her in the AIDS Crisis, Karen waited decades to turn heart into art, and though it didn’t play a cabaret room (because it is a bona fide play with music), I am calling it out in this article as a kind of honorable mention. An actress in every way that a woman can be an actress, Karen is a true blue legend in the club and concert industry, and Unfinished Business was an achievement of monumental importance, and of all the Karen Mason performances I’ve seen (and that is a LOT of performances) this is the one that I always think of when people ask me what I’ve seen that really got to me. My wish for the future is that the show will be given additional life so that more people can say the same thing.
And so ends, like a walk around town, a stroll through the hallways of my mind, revisiting the clubs and the moments of happiness I have found there – and that’s without even thinking about shows seen in other places. Were I to broaden the scope of this look back in time, I should find myself reminiscing about seeing the incomparable Jim Bailey in Dallas, the hurricane Varla Jean Merman in San Francisco, and the extraordinary first time I ever saw exquisite Linda Purl, in Los Angeles. There were clubs in London, Paris, and Berne, too, but New York City is my home, and inside the walls of these clubs is where this crazy quilt, this mosaic, this tapestry of cabaret inside of my mind was created, and it’s a creation for which I feel pride and fulfillment. After all, it’s an archive of the work of a community of artists who want little more than to put some bumms in seats, Luv, and to tell their stories – for pay because artists should be paid for their art – and a little bit of applause because, let’s face it, the virtual shows are fine for now… but actors need their applause. So, hopefully soon the doors will be open and the rooms will be abuzz with activity, society, laughter, and music once more.
And applause. Naturally, applause.
Montgomery, Plant, and Stritch photo courtesy of Billy Stritch
I’ll Take You Dreaming artwork courtesy of Jake Speck
Out of the Eclipse Artwork courtesy of Joanna Gleason
Jeremy Jordan photo by Kristin Pulido
Little Bit of Soul, Little Bit of Pop artwork courtesy of Vivian Reed
Brandon Victor Dixon Photo by Dario Calmese
Jen Houston photo courtesy of Jen Houston
Sidney Myer photo by Albie Mitchell
Karen Mason photo courtesy of Karen Mason
All other photos by Stephen Mosher
Performers/shows not photographically represented in this article are included without artwork because none was available to Broadway World Cabaret at the time this article was published.Career News