Bette Midler: Patron Saint To Downtown Cabaret ~ But Is It A Dying Art Form?

The New York Times
Only the Songs Remain the Same
Published: September 28, 2012

WHEN the 23rd annual New York Cabaret Convention begins three nights of performances on Oct. 17 at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, it will start a new chapter both for the convention and the nostalgic genre it celebrates. The future of both depends on cabaret’s reinvention into something more contemporary than a museum for the American songbook.

After the death last March of the convention’s founder, Donald F. Smith, the singer K T Sullivan, a Smith protégé, took over the creative reins with the tricky mission of attracting younger artists and audiences while preserving Smith’s legacy. The convention, whose patron saints are Cole Porter, Noël Coward and Mabel Mercer, draws a loyal but diminishing and largely senior audience still in thrall to the golden age of New York night life before its decimation by television and rock ’n’ roll.

Smith’s death and the demise this year of two of Manhattan’s three major supper clubs – the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and the soon-to-close Feinstein’s at Loews Regency – have sent shock waves through the field. At the same time, a downtown alt-cabaret scene is drawing enthusiastic cult audiences to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. But can these raucous underground figures refresh the genre? Or are they too marginal or extreme to make an impact?

The patron saint of this downtown world, Bette Midler, rejuvenated cabaret during its darkest days in the late 1960s and early ’70s with her loudmouthed campy extravaganzas. Once Ms. Midler, who was then considered transgressive, achieved mainstream stardom, the genre she helped restart branched into two streams, each inspired by a different side of her personality.

The nostalgic chanteuse and songwriting connoisseur helped revive the polite, glamorous uptown supper-club world. The brash vaudevillian cutup and gay cult figure who told Sophie Tucker jokes was the forerunner of today’s mouthy downtown divas like Bridget Everett, a brassy, boozy storyteller with a big voice, and Meow Meow, an Australian singer with a sophisticated European approach.

The biggest stars of the uptown branch – Barbara Cook, John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Christine Ebersole, Judy Collins, Andrea Marcovicci and Mr. Feinstein – are all over 50, and make real money (up to $60,000 a week) from shows that are prohibitively expensive for most New Yorkers. Cabaret’s best hope for the future may lie in the middle ground between uptown and downtown, in clubs like the recently opened 54 Below in the basement of the legendary Studio 54; the smaller Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street; and the Laurie Beechman Theater, in the West Bank Cafe’s basement on 42nd Street.

With its deluxe speakeasy ambience, 54 Below opened in June with a show starring Patti LuPone, the Broadway diva beloved for her sassy, Midler-like disregard for convention. Ms. LuPone subsequently bonded onstage, both at 54 Below and Joe’s Pub, with Ms. Everett, whom some consider the most likely talent to break out of the downtown scene.

Attracting a younger, more exuberant crowd than those at Feinstein’s or the Café Carlyle, 54 Below is fulfilling its goal of becoming “Broadway’s clubhouse” and is “approaching profitability” in the words of Thomas Viertel and Richard Frankel, two of its managing and producing partners. If and when uptown and downtown sensibilities merge, this midpriced club could be the flash point.

Its creative consultant, Scott Wittman, the longtime director of Ms. LuPone’s and Christine Ebersole’s acts, has deep roots in the ’70s avant-garde. He recently brought the gender-blending provocateur Justin Vivian Bond to the club for a successful run of Monday evening performances of songs inspired by Joan Didion’s novel “Play It as It Lays.” Earlier this year, Mr. Wittman conceived and directed Bond’s La MaMa show, “Jukebox Jackie,” about the pioneering drag performer Jackie Curtis, in which Ms. Everett played one of Curtis’s alter egos.

The major reason cabaret flourishes in New York as in no other American city is its proximity to the theater world and that enormous talent pool. At 54 Below, Broadway stars like Brian d’Arcy James, Norbert Leo Butz and Marin Mazzie have been given a platform to unveil their pop and rock sides. Mr. Butz’s recent show, in particular, was a revelation. But the economics of cabaret are so shaky that a lucrative role on Broadway or a TV series will always pre-empt a nightclub engagement. That’s why cabaret is usually something done on the side between theatrical commitments – for love, not money.

Besides 54 Below, several New York clubs, including Feinstein’s, the jazz room Birdland (whose popular Monday night series, Jim Caruso’s Cast Party, is a freewheeling off-hours Broadway playground) have theatrical components. The producer Scott Siegel, who runs a weekly Broadway series at Feinstein’s, has turned Town Hall into a musical theater annex; he produces the New York Nightlife Awards, an annual contest show voted on by New York critics.

There is no lack of talent among the younger generation of mostly under-40 cabaret performers who occupy the middle ground behind cabaret’s haute and demimondes. High on the list of the most promising is Emily Bergl, a sexy Midler-Madonna hybrid with a tough-cookie chirp who deconstructs pop songs of every genre, and eschews sentimentality. Typical of her irreverence is her inside-out version of “It Had to Be You,” which she delivers as a sneer of disgust at finding herself stuck with a creep.

Lauren Fox, a second-generation “lady of the canyon” in thrall to ’70s Los Angeles singer-songwriters, delivered a knockout show earlier this year singing Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen songs with a startling depth and intensity. Her coming engagement, which begins Oct. 11 at the Metropolitan Room, explores Southern California pop in the late ’60s and ’70s. Both Ms. Bergl and Ms. Fox are protégés of Ms. Sullivan, who has put them on the Cabaret Convention’s opening-night roster.

The much-heralded singer Nellie McKay, with a vocal resemblance to Doris Day and a protean songwriting gift that encompasses 1950s torch ballads and hip-hop, is another prodigious talent whose politicized miniature musicals address feminism, animal rights and environmental issues. Her recent show at Feinstein’s was a zany musical biography of Rachel Carson.

Maude Maggart, whose groundbreaking show “Good Girl/Bad Girl” at the Oak Room several years ago dramatized her personal tug of war between enduring romantic love and free-spirited adventure, is another major talent. Like Ms. Bergl, Ms. Fox and Ms. McKay, she is a rebel with a streak of nostalgia for the traditional love song. In the age of the hookup, that love song, the foundation of popular music for decades, has been overtaken by sex and erotic combat as the default subject of popular music. Increasingly, the body matters more than the heart.

On the more conservative side of the middle ground are Nicole Henry, a glamorous, Florida-based pop-jazz-soul singer; Tony DeSare, the most promising in an unending stream of Frank Sinatra acolytes; Aaron Weinstein, a brilliant jazz violinist whose shows blend music with witty Woody Allen-like comedy; Jennifer Sheehan and Karen Oberlin, jazz-inflected traditional balladeers with modern attitudes; and T. Oliver Reid, a soulful crooner with resemblances to the young Bobby Short.

An obstacle they all face is a lack of media visibility in the youth-obsessed, post-“American Idol” era of instant stars and teenage vocal acrobats for whom pop singing is an Olympic sport. Cabaret has been wounded by the scorn of television tastemakers like Simon Cowell who have singled out the genre for contempt.

This lack of visibility contributes mightily to the neglect of an art form that, outside of hotels, gets little, if any, institutional and corporate support. Not even the New York Nightlife Awards have succeeded in finding a television platform.

What could penetrate the barrier between television and night clubs that was so porous in the golden age of TV variety? The cabaret equivalent of “Smash”? A reality series set in a club? Possibly.

The Lady Gaga phenomenon, with its ultra-theatrical trappings, isn’t that far removed stylistically from alt-cabaret. Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub, sees as a springboard to a possible nightclub renaissance. But are any of the downtown performers, which include Ms. Everett, Meow Meow, Bond, Lady Rizo, Taylor Mac and other extravagant avant-gardists for whom cabaret is inseparable from performance art, talented and determined enough to break through? Just as important: Do they even want to?

With its embrace of drag and transgendered performers, the downtown scene illustrates what might be called a crisis of masculinity throughout cabaret. Not long ago, American nightclubs from Las Vegas to New York cultivated a thriving, emphatically macho lounge tradition embodied by Frank Sinatra and his followers. One of its last apostles, Jack Jones, who recently performed at Feinstein’s, is still a powerful pop-jazz interpreter. But the strutting patriarchal attitudes his type embodies seem anachronistic, if not downright offensive to younger audiences. That tradition has exhausted itself.

Which isn’t to say that cabaret has no place for he-men. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Jason Danieley, magnetic Broadway leading men who occasionally dip into cabaret, belong to an enlightened breed of male entertainer whose virility is tempered by their sensitivity.

Yet as traditional gender stereotypes across the cultural map are increasingly challenged, cabaret’s avant-garde could eventually revolutionize mainstream nightclub entertainment. But it’s not going to happen overnight. Old ways of thinking die hard. In the meantime, cabaret in one form or another will struggle on. Its economic model may be broken. But the demand for intimate, personal shows by both performers and audiences will not let it die.

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