Cabaret is dead! Long live cabaret! And while we’re on the subject, please remind me: What exactly is cabaret, again?
This last question has always been tricky. Cabaret is defined by where it takes place: in small rooms that permit a sense of intimate exchange. It is less a genre than, literally, an approach—a risky closeness to the material and the audience. In its early European years, cabaret was tied to what we now call burlesque; in New York, it reached its apex in the swinging nightclubs of the 1950s. Now, after a period of sleepy gentility, it is roaring back to its old life in multiple places and forms.
For every phoenix, however, there must be ashes, and 2012 has been a crematorium. In January, the Oak Room announced that it was closing for good after 32 years; in July, another of the city’s three ritziest cabaret venues, Feinstein’s, revealed that it would shutter forever in December. (Only the venerable Café Carlyle will remain, cloistered in the Upper East Side and priced beyond most people’s means.) In May, the death of Donald Smith—beloved defender of the Great American Songbook and founder of the annual New York Cabaret Convention—seemed to mark the end of an era.
But in some ways, that era had already ended. Smith liked to describe cabaret as a “fragile and endangered” art: a portal back to a classier, more sophisticated time. The preservationist attitude that dominated the industry for decades had a taxidermic air—a whiff not just of formality but of formaldehyde. Tethered to the music of an increasingly distant past and supported by an aging audience, cabaret lost the lifeblood that distinguished it as an art form in the first place.
Now that blood is starting to course again, and its most prominent artery is 54 Below. Located in the Theater District beneath the former Studio 54, this gorgeous new venue draws on New York nightclub history—but the style it evokes is that of the deluxe anything-goes speakeasy, not the ritzy jacket-and-tie supper club. 54 Below’s sound, lighting and sight lines are first-rate, but what marks it as New York’s prime destination for cabaret is the remarkable diversity of its programming. 54 Below has a distinct theatrical bent; it opened in June with a smashing set by überdiva Patti LuPone, and its schedule is anchored by major musical-theater stars. (Sherie Rene Scott is the headliner through October 27.) But in addition to such marquee names, 54 Below also offers shows, at lower prices, by outstanding performers from the emerging alt-cabaret scene: Bridget Everett, Justin Vivian Bond, Cole Escola and more.
This is significant because it is in that downtown scene that the real revolution in cabaret, untelevised and largely untelevisable, has been taking place. As exemplified by the monthly Joe’s Pub series Our Hit Parade—hosted by Everett, Neal Medlyn and Kenny Mellman—the neocabaret movement blurs the lines between music, comedy and performance art into a fabulous mess. This cabaret is anything but fragile; it is not just up close and personal, but downright in your face. (Men in Everett’s path are likely to have her Amazonian greatness thrust upon them.)
Alt-cabaret thrives on sex, danger, originality and impolite laughter, and feels thrillingly present-tense. This is not merely because it often draws on modern material (Our Hit Parade gives outrageous twists to contemporary pop songs), but because it does so with a modern attitude. The top artists—including those who work with older songs, such as Taylor Mac and Meow Meow—understand the importance of having a strong persona onstage: that the personal, paradoxically, can be revealed powerfully for today’s audiences through screens of irony, artifice and theatricality.
This shift, which places cabaret in a cultural conversation with other arts, has dovetailed with a decentralization of the cabaret scene. 54 Below’s one-stop-shopping quality is an exception that proves the rule. Elsewhere, cabaret of all kinds is mushrooming in clubs that are not explicitly set aside for it: places like Joe’s Pub, Birdland, Ars Nova, Le Poisson Rouge, Therapy, XL, Flûte and the brand-new Cutting Room. Meanwhile, the city’s traditional cabaret venues—the Beechman, the Met Room, the Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, the Triad—are increasingly welcoming other genres (comedy, theater, jazz) onto their stages.
Cabaret, in other words, is not dying; it is evolving. The Cabaret Convention, which is at the Rose Theater this week, still provides a forum for performers in the retro mold, and great artists can make the neoclassical cabaret style sing to modern listeners. But more than at any time in recent memory, cabaret now offers something for everyone. The Great American Songbook shares a widening shelf in an art form that remains, at its core and at its best, a small world after all.
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam