Cabaret singing, as a general rule, happens in little rooms. On the slightly elevated stage of a cozy nightclub, a vocalist stands in front of a microphone, often backed only by the tinkling of a piano; and for the next hour or so, the performer offers the audience a bouquet of evocative songs. In an age of globalism, cabaret is a fundamentally local art: a private party in a box—or, in old-school nightclub parlance, a boîte.
On Monday 17, aficionados of the genre will converge at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, at Time Warner Center, for the 16th Annual Cabaret Convention, a weeklong festival of concerts showcasing the best the business has to offer. Each night provides a variety pack of performers: established stars alongside local favorites and up-and-comers, each singing two songs apiece. It may seem odd that a convention celebrating so intimate a genre—it is organized by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which aims to stimulate public interest in what it calls "the fragile and endangered world of cabaret"—should be held in a 1,200-seat concert hall. But cabaret's low public profile is forcing those who care about its future to think outside the boîte. "I'm looking for visibility," says promoter Donald Smith, the foundation's executive director. "I used to have performers on the Today show and Good Morning America. Can't get it now. Can't get one of those talent coordinators to come to hear somebody."
Despite such media indifference, however, the city's smaller venues are filled with younger performers, hoping—like Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler before them—to hone their skills there. "When people first come to New York, cabaret is a door that is open to them," says Sidney Myer, manager of Don't Tell Mama, a popular spot for beginners. "Nellie McKay was our break pianist just a few years ago—she was on staff here! You wouldn't believe the people, whether they admit it or not, who have cabaret in their roots."
The influx of performers is gradually redefining the parameters of cabaret, which has traditionally focused on classic American pop songs by the likes of Cole Porter and the Gershwins—an oeuvre known as the Great American Songbook. "These songs have something to say to each generation," Smith maintains. "They're in our emotional bloodstream." But while some younger performers (whether in full-time cabaret venues or in one-off spaces like Joe's Pub and Ars Nova) are intent on introducing these songs to a new audience, others are determined to add chapters to the Songbook, bringing cabaret's stripped-down focus—with its emphasis on the lyric of the song and the personality of the performer—to the work of songwriters from Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman to Rufus Wainwright and Radiohead.
With most of the city's venues operating at full steam, the cabaret scene is hardly looking fragile. Perhaps no other genre offers quite so diverse an array of performers. Hip jazz types, grand old broads, bright young musical-theater belters, semiclassical recitalists, female impersonators, neo-lounge singers and more all share the same crowded rooms. Cabaret today is a confluence of opposites: the heights of polish and the depths of amateurism; the convention and the unconventional; intense honesty and airy pretense; earnestness and camp; wine and cheese.
Manhattan's three fanciest cabarets—Café Carlyle, Feinstein's at the Regency and the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel—are throwbacks to a more elegant, Fred-and-Ginger era of New York nightlife. The men wear jackets; the women are often tastefully bejeweled. This is the New York of Woody Allen movies, where well-heeled daters can take in dinner and a show in one swank package. (Allen himself plays clarinet in a jazz band at the Carlyle on Monday nights.) "What it offers is a sophisticated night on New York," says the erudite singer-pianist Steve Ross, who will perform at the convention's gala opening on Monday 17. "The highest compliment is if I see a couple holding hands at a table."
At its loftiest levels, cabaret gravitates not only toward time-tested music but toward mature performers as well—often very mature. On Tuesday 18, the convention will present its first-ever Mabel award to Barbara Carroll, the superb singer-pianist whose Sunday brunch shows at the Oak Room are the epitome of retro Manhattan chic. Carroll is 80 years old; in almost any other genre, this would make her an anomaly. But this year alone, the major cabaret rooms have also featured sets by Barbara Cook (77), Eartha Kitt (78), Elaine Stritch (80), Carol Channing (84) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (95). "Cabaret singing is a great profession to get older in," says Mary Cleere Haran, 53, who will open at Feinstein's on October 25. "Older performers are more interesting. Their individuality is more pronounced."
This great generation of performers, however, is inevitably passing into history—a phenomenon brought home in March by the death of 80-year-old nightclub icon Bobby Short, who had anchored the Café Carlyle for 35 years. The generation after them includes a handful of top performers whose primary focus has always been supper club cabaret. But the major rooms have been seeking less-traditional blood, too. The ferocious German chanteuse Ute Lemper has carved out a home at the genteel Carlyle lately; Feinstein's has become the place to see stars of the Broadway stage (Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell) and the screen (Tony Danza!).
Of the three major venues, the Oak Room has been by far the most aggressive in programming younger artists—especially those with a jazzier bent. In the past 20 years, the Oak Room has been instrumental in launching the careers of Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall and Jamie Cullum. "Our main devotion is to the Great American Songbook, and then I look for different ways of presenting it," says Barbara McGurn, the room's booker. "I don't like to introduce young artists who I think will make a career only in cabaret."
The aim, McGurn says, is to broaden the appeal of high-level cabaret for younger audiences. But such efforts are limited by the expense of the major rooms. Weekend shows at the Oak Room and Feinstein's cost a minimum of $100 per person, including food and/or drinks; at the Carlyle, patrons for Elaine Stritch's solo show must pay an unprecedented cover charge of $125, plus a mandatory dinner (at least $70). "It's become something rarefied, which I hate," says standard-bearer Michael Feinstein, who plays every December at the Regency room that bears his name. "If it had been rarefied when I was growing up, I wouldn't have been exposed to it."
But the price is worth it, Ross maintains, for the chance to drink at the well of New York finesse: "It is heightened entertainment," he says. "You have to get dressed up and go with that experience." And that knowingly retro aspect can be part of the fun. "Cabaret is one of the last bastions for glamour," Haran says. "A lot of people find it phony, and sometimes it is. But if you get into the absurdity of it, it can be deeply enjoyable."
For performers in the city's five smaller full-time cabaret venues, glamour is in short supply, but absurdity is everywhere. All but a few singers must cover their own expenses, which can add up rapidly: a "room fee" to the venue, usually between $70 and $100 per performance, for lights, sound and other club services; fees for hiring and rehearsing with backup musicians (and sometimes a director); the cost of creating postcards, and the postage to mail them—and so forth. In return, the artist gets to keep "the door": the money raised from the show's cover charge, usually $10 to $25 a head.
In other words: Life may be a cabaret, but cabaret isn't much of a life. And in the past two decades, longtime cabaret watchers say the economics of the industry—which favor the proliferation of vanity acts—have affected the quality of the entertainment and the size of its audience. Often, half the crowd at a given show consists of the singer's family and friends, and the other half is other singers. "Those people are performing in a vacuum," Smith says. "The daisy chain of self-congratulation is appalling." Self-indulgence, too, can run high. "Cabaret should not be confessional," McGurn opines. "This is not a psychiatrist's couch." And when the cabaret community is not busy hugging itself, it is often the scene of rancorous internal divisions—such as this year's shrill war of attrition, fought on Internet chat boards, about rule changes to the awards given out yearly by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs.
As some bicker over a shrinking pie, however, a new crop of enthusiasts is attempting to expand the market. Many of the smaller rooms are now run by younger people—such as Colm Reilly, 32, and Shane Mathews, 34, who own and operate the Hideaway Room @ Helen's—who hope to learn from the mistakes of their elders. Reilly manages the club, and Matthews runs the lights and sound; boyfriends of nine years, they also live upstairs, and their presence gives the place a welcoming mom-and-pop friendliness. (Well, pop-and-pop.) Aiming for affordable elegance, Helen's offers a mix of performers that includes a healthy dose of fresh talent (such as Courtney Glass, the 22-year-old winner of the venue's first cabaret competition). "One of the important things is booking people in the age category that you want to have in your room as patrons," Reilly says. "Everything old is new again in our generation," Mathews adds. "It's about being ahead of the curve."
Meanwhile, Phil Geoffrey Bond, 30, has been shaking things up at the Duplex, with series highlighting rising songwriters and theatrical talents. "Seeing a Broadway performer in such an intimate setting lets audiences feel like insiders," Bond says. "And from a business standpoint, it brings in a different crowd, who then often take an interest in cabaret." At the Encore, which opened in March, manager Lennie Watts, 43, has also been reaching out to new customers. "I don't even use the word cabaret—we call it a showroom," he asserts. "Most people think of cabaret in two ways—either as a strip club or as a stodgy, pretentious art form with a woman in a long dress singing Cole Porter. There's so much more out there."
While the Encore has its share of traditional acts, Watts has consistently made room for more pop-oriented shows; recent offerings include evenings devoted to the music of Madonna and Mama Cass. "Some people are snobs: They don't want to hear anything that was written after 1970," he says. "But more-current music brings people in."
Among the club's mainstays are Michael Holland and Karen Mack, the duo known as Gashole, who perform there regularly on Saturday nights. Gashole's most recent show, Number 2s, is devoted to pop songs that didn't quite hit the top of the charts—40 of them in all, arranged into offbeat medleys. ("Bohemian Rhapsody," for instance, is forcibly merged with "MacArthur Park.") "It's like a K-Tel commercial," Holland explains. "But the medleys are also musically sophisticated, and the more tradi-tional cabaret followers who come to see us get off on that." The act is billed, tongue partly in cheek, as an anticabaret. "When we started out, a lot of what you saw was the same old thing: People doing 'What I Did For Love' for an hour," Mack recalls. "Nobody was doing things that were just meant to be entertaining, without a through line that was linked to some life lesson you're supposed to get at the end."
And as the scene continues to evolve, cabaret stars continue, against all odds, to be born. The most recent example is the enchanting Maude Maggart (see page 14), who specializes in ethereal renditions of songs from the 1920s and 1930s. "Maude is one of those artists you really want to preserve, because they are against the grain," says the Oak Room's McGurn. "She's chosen to go in a countercultural direction."
Countercultural may seem like a strange word for an artist whose approach is essentially traditional, but somehow it fits. Rock and hip-hop stars, no matter what their posturing, are not countercultural; their rebellion inevitably becomes part of their marketing. But cabaret singers—practicing a backward-looking, inherently personal art form in a world obsessed with novelty and mass distribution—are genuinely outside the loop. Cabaret is not what they do for money; it is what they do for love. And they want it to survive. "Until my last breath, I'll be out there plugging cabaret," Smith says. "Rock, heavy metal, Nine Inch Nails—it's all out there. But leave us a little room."
The Cabaret Convention is at the Lincoln Center's Rose Theater Monday 17--October 23. See Music listings.