BWW Feature: BWW Cabaret Critics' 2019 Year-End Round Table
It was a great year. It was a fast year, that's for sure. Still, here we are, just 21 days away from 2020 and in the upcoming days, many will be looking at life in both directions. What will the new year bring, what was memorable about the last year, how did we spend it, how will we change it, what is this thing called life? Are we on the right path? All the rest of it.
Speaking personally, things couldn't be more enjoyable than they are at this moment. Joining the team at Broadwayworld has been a happy and exciting change for me and, I hope, for the writers working alongside me to cover the world of cabaret in New York City. From the very beginning, I declared that my goal was to elevate the dialogue between the cabaret community and the public, to raise awareness of the art form and the artists, and to offer support. Though it has been a mere five months, I feel we have made a solid start and the next part is where it gets really exciting; and as we look ahead at what's coming, I asked the journalists if they would mind having a little on the record conversation with me about our work and the work that we cover and, in the process, let the readers and the community know a little more about our mission statement. I even offered these artists working alongside me an opportunity to ask me a few things, to illustrate that I will never ask them to do something that I won't do with them.
So, dear readers, from the Broadwayworld Cabaret team, our wishes for a Happy Holiday Season (even if the only holiday you celebrate is a day off to stay in bed and sleep) and safe travels, a festive New Year's Eve, and a fantastic 2020.
We will see you in the clubs.
Rebecca, how did you become interested in cabaret?
I've always been a fan of Broadway and jazz, so I love hearing singers and musicians get a chance to do whatever they want, have fun, and give some context about their own lives or what connects them to the songs they decided to do.
Before you became a cabaret writer, who were the artists you particularly followed?
What shows from 2019 would you like to see get a reprisal in 2020?
Amy, what makes you feel passionate about cabaret?
Telling stories through simply honoring the words and music of a song. It's an opportunity to take a piece out of context and mold it into something truly our own. It's also a great way to hear songs in ways we've never considered them before. I love the shows that really force you to hear a song in a new way, or bring something to light that might have gone unnoticed in its original form.
What does the world of cabaret need more of?
The cabaret genre needs more musicians, instruments, and orchestrations. I also want new tributes to the golden age of cabaret. Less concern about getting a message or issue across, and more tributes to the words, music, and heart of a song.
What did you see in 2019 that really excited you?
I love the female lyricists, composers, and songwriters that are being brought to the forefront.
At this year's cabaret convention there were some great tributes to Betty Comden, Blossom Dearie, Marilyn Bergman, and Joni Mitchell. I was excited that we're honoring strong women in our field and I hope to see more to come.
Bobby, how are you enjoying getting to know the cabaret community of New York?
OMG! I feel like I found a new home. I'm a total night owl by nature so late nights in dark places appeal to me especially when you add a generous amount of talent and music.
What artists were you introduced to this year that you are happy you know about now?
Well, the wonderful HELL'S KITCHENETTES really knocked my rainbow socks off this year. I also loved getting to see my very first SKIVVIES show, and then, of course, the adorables: Spencer Day and Ari Axelrod.
Ari Axelrod, photo by Stephen Mosher
What shows will you remember from 2019?
Well For comedy, Leola's Ladyland is a great land to visit at The Green Room 42. For Boy Singers, Roberto Araujo ROCKED at The Greenroom 42! And for drag, it's a tie between WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE HELLS KITCHENETTES at the Laurie Beechman and The Hocus Pocus drag tribute of WITCH PERFECT at Club Cumming.
Chloe, welcome to Broadwayworld Cabaret! What excites you about joining the group of scallywags that covers the cabaret scene for BWW?
I am so excited about joining this wonderful group of scallywags! There are so many incredible performers in this space, and I can't wait to have the chance to highlight their work and experience their output of energy and creativity.
How did the art form of cabaret first come to interest you?
The first time I came across the art form of cabaret was actually on YouTube, and it was a video of The Skivvies! I immediately fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and watched just about every video they had on their channel. With cabaret, there is a level of openness, creativity, and personal connection to the audience that really allows you to get to know a performer and see how they're choosing to express themselves in that moment. The smaller performance space with cabaret also allows for a degree of intimacy between a performer and their audience that you don't always get in other mediums. I think there's something so special about it.
The Skivvies, photo by Bobby Patrick
As you jump in, are there artists you are looking forward to bringing to the public's attention?
What I love about cabaret is that you can go and see someone perform that you're a big fan of already, but there are so many amazing performers out there who may not be household names to Broadway fans yet, maybe they're an established performer with a big following in the cabaret space or are just getting started in the industry. I think what I'm most excited about is highlighting those performers who are really doing something different and special that you wouldn't be able to see anywhere other than in the cabaret space.
Karis, what is it about cabaret that makes you want to cover the art form as a journalist?
Over the course of my time reviewing cabaret and interviewing performers for BroadwayWorld, I've come to such a deep appreciation for this art form. It's not one I was too familiar with, even four or five years ago, and if I had to make a guess, I'd say many of my peers on the young end of the millennial generation are also unfamiliar with it. Most of my friends don't know what it is when I tell them what I'm doing, nor do they recognize the names; the second they see a show or even a YouTube clip, they're amazed. There's so much unfathomable talent among cabaret performers; it's such an intimate type of performance you really feel like you're being personally serenaded, and the whole wine and dine aspect of it? Brilliant. I feel like I'm falling back through the decades into a richly woven history, and one thing I love about covering it for BroadwayWorld is that I hope to introduce my own followers and friends to this art form and see them go to shows on their own, find favorite performers (like I have!) and really engage with cabaret. Years from now, I'd love to still be going to shows and sit in a room full of people I recognize from years of being in the audience.
Do you remember the first cabaret show you ever saw?
I do! It was about three years ago, I went to see John Epperson (also known as Lypskinka, though he didn't perform in character that night). I had no idea what I was getting myself into and within seconds of the first notes striking I was completely enraptured.
What artists are you glad you got to see this year?
I've only gotten to see a few artists this year, so I'll keep my list short. I was able to see Carole J. Bufford at Feinstein's / 54 Below, and she took my breath away. Talk about a natural performer who completely woos the audience! I loved Julie Reyburn at Don't Tell Mama, and I saw Natalie Douglas perform one Nat King Cole song at The Birdland Theater. All three of these women are absolute powerhouses, as musically gifted as they are fun, brilliant, and moving speakers and entertainers.
Carole J. Bufford, photo by Stephen Mosher
Brady, what is the role of a cabaret journalist?
Of course, I can only speak for my own approach, but I think a cabaret journalist's principal job is to support and foster the continued legacy of the art form. And hopefully, we do that by covering the scene in such a way that reminds readers that (a) cabaret in New York City is very much alive and well, and (b) a unique and intimate experience unlike any other. There are so many terrific performers out there, and what's fabulous is that cabaret is really an umbrella term for a huge variety of acts. The common denominator is the relationship between the artist and the audience. As a critic, I am always interested in what that a show feels like - what the energy is in the room. I think our job is to try to capture that for our readers so that they are interested in going to experience cabaret for themselves.
What were the shows that really moved you this year?
Being moved for me is usually the experience of seeing an artist at the peak of their abilities deeply connecting with both the material they are performing and the audience they are performing to. Often that comes in the package of somebody who is, though perhaps well established, an artist completely new to me. This year, for me that was probably best captured in Amy Beth Williams and Julian Velard, two very different artists who both exude superb musicality, craft and the ability to make their very personal stories seem universal in their humanity. I was so thrilled to be introduced to their work. I was also blown away by Vivian Reed and Frances Ruffelle in their performances at The Green Room 42. Both, of course, are theatre stars with long and impressive resumes, but I was unprepared for the enormous range and scope of their abilities.
Frances Ruffelle, photo by Stephen Mosher
Who would you love to see create a club act?
Cabaret, in a way, is really storytelling. And everyone has a story. One of the most exciting things to discover is a story from someone you've never met. And in truth, there are few things more exciting than making that connection with a new discovery. I'm always looking for that. But that said, a few luminaries I would love to see perform in the intimate auspices of cabaret: Stephanie Mills, Antonio Banderas, Diane Keaton, Ellen Greene, Mary Stuart Masterson, Sandy Duncan, Joel Grey..
SM: In response, I told Brady my list -- Ashley Brown, Randy Graff, Cheryl Ladd, Angela Lansbury, Donna Murphy, Annette O'Toole, Stefanie Powers, Ben Feldman, Josh Henderson, Jose Llana, and Stephen Pasquale. And even though I've seen her in concert several times, I'd like to see Deborah Cox in an intimate setting singing some standards, jazz, and Broadway. I know it's too much to hope for but I wish Pat Suzuki was still singing live.
Chris, what is your goal as a cabaret journalist?
I started reviewing plays mainly, and fairly quickly focused on the cabaret niche for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I met singers that I wanted to support, and secondly, it's a lot of fun to hear them and new people sing. Neither of those things factored into "my goals" or "the why of it" when I first started, but they are important now. Often cabaret cheers me up after a long day in a city that doesn't have a reputation for positivity, and I get to meet a lot of exciting, gifted people who show off their skills on stage. The current goal is to continue to be a supportive part of this wonderful Broadway off-shoot.
Why should people see more cabaret?
I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about what cabaret is, and like Broadway musicals, there are some performances that could be better. However, at least seventy percent of the time, I'm happy I left my apartment, and in many of those cases, I'm enormously impressed by the talented people on stage whose voices deserve to be heard. The people who perform in cabaret are a diverse, unique bunch that come from all walks of life. They have complicated stories filled with a bit of luck and a lot of courage, and in cabaret, you get to hear how they got to the big stage in some of the most intimate and classy venues that NYC has to offer.
What shows did you see in 2019 that you would have seen twice?
Almost every show I review, I would see again. There are rare exceptions and in some cases, like the Drinkwater Brothers and a few others... I've, in fact, seen a handful perform twice this year. However, including the Drinkwater Brothers, there are some shows and performers that I would rank above the rest. It's still a super long list and in no particular order, but I would say those that stood out the most over the last year were: Kurt Elling, Stacey Kent, Shoshana Bean, Betsy Wolfe, Adam Pascal, Alexa Ray Joel, Amanda Jane Cooper, Paula West, Jackie Evancho, Nick Cordero, Alyson Cambridge, Reeve Carney, Anna Bergman, Jeremy Jordan (and concurrently Seth Rudetsky and his series at the Town Hall), Charlie Romo, Sarah Naughton and Jake Weinstein, Carmen Cusack, Freddy Cole, Nicole Zuraitis, pretty much anything that Ben Rauhala musically directed such as Ariana DeBose, and additionally, Laura Osnes, Dan Finnerty, and finally, Renee Marino. The Rescignos' holiday show at the end of last year was super fun, and I'll be going to see them again. This list is incredibly long and still leaves off a few performers that I enjoy seeing, or believe have something special cooking for the new year, such as Richard Baskin Jr or Eloise Ghislaine, however, describing an awesome show sometimes becomes "what have I seen lately." There are great things I could say about any of these performers; not to mention all of the talented musical directors and musicians who make magic with their fingers. In summary, if any of these performers had a show tonight, I'd highly suggest going!
The Drinkwater Brothers, photo by Stephen Mosher
(These questions are in the order which I was asked them.)
Brady to Ste: Stephen, what do you think is the single most important ingredient in creating a successful cabaret show?
Authenticity. What the theme or nature of your show is won't matter if it is authentic to you. You might be doing a musical comedy show where you are playing a character, a music show in which you are singing a setlist, or a spoken word show of storytelling or comedy, but as long as your show and your presence therein is authentic to who you are, the audience will go with you. This year I heard Jeff Harnar and Aaron Blake sing love songs for men because we've reached an era when they can. I heard Farah Alvin, Katie Boeck, Mare Winningham, and other women apply their music to their motherhood because both music and motherhood are a part of their identity. I heard Sean Patrick Murtagh make a joke about his obsession with twinks, and I've heard several women remark on their status in the business as a woman of a certain age. Your story is your product but you are your commodity - share yourself with your audience first and they will be more apt to buy your product.
Someone once told me a story about being at The Cafe Carlyle to see one of the all-time great cabaret artists perform. She was up in years but she could still put on a great show; and, always, in every show, there came a moment when she would sit on the piano to sing. When it came time for that moment, she stepped up on a little footstool under the piano and hoisted herself up onto the piano, and in doing so she broke wind in the biggest, loudest way imaginable. The very moment she was seated, she raised the mic to her lips and said "I can't eat coleslaw" and the audience lost it. She was absolutely in the moment, completely authentic, and every inch herself. That audience will always remember that night.
So, long story longer: be yourself and share yourself with the crowd. Everyone wins.
Bobby to Ste: Stephen darling! If life is a cabaret, what do you look for in your cabaret life that makes a first-rate cabaret show? One essential element that most cabarets must have to put them over for a Nightclub of nightcrawlers.
Focus. Know the story you want to tell and tell it. Don't be trapped by extemporaneous prattle. Write a script, learn the script, then throw out the script. If you know that script you won't get thrown off when someone in the front row speaks back to you, but if you throw out the script, you aren't bound to it so much that you can't let a little spontaneity in and that way your audience gets to know you. That focus keeps your story moving and your audience with you. Never give them a reason to look at their watch.
Karis to Ste: How did you first "Discover" cabaret in your own life, and what about it brings you joy?
Growing up I wanted to go on the stage and I watched every movie I could find about show business. When I was 13 I saw the film Cabaret but I didn't really understand what the word meant because, to me, it was all theater. In the films I watched, it could take place in a theater, a nightclub, the opera, the ballet, the circus - it was all show business, they were all actors, and everything they produced was a play. So when I was in Dallas and my friend Artie Olaisen told me Jim Bailey was at The West End Cabaret, I had to go see him. I was a die-hard Judy Garland fan and watching him do his show wasn't just like seeing Judy Garland, it was like seeing her today because she sang songs Judy Garland did not live to sing. In one night I saw Jim Bailey AND I saw Judy Garland. I watched Judy sing "I'm Still Here" and I watched the heel of Judy's pump get stuck in a crack in the stage and I saw how she dealt with it. I was transfixed. A year later I saw Julie Wilson in the same club and when she sang "The Saga of Jenny" and she would get the verses mixed up. She and Bill Roy had a perfect onstage connection so that she would sing "Jenny made her mind up" but she would thump the piano with the heel of her hand and he would start over. "Jenny made her mind up" THUMP, "Jenny made her mind up" THUMP, "Jenny made her mind up" THUMP, "Jenny made her mind up at thirty-nine, she would take a trip to the Argentine." It was, clearly, unforgettable. As for the joy of cabaret, it's the relationship between the artist and the audience. The intimacy cannot be recreated in any other area of show business. There is an artist performing in a space equal to a person's living room; sometimes it's a bigger living room than my own, but it's basically a living room. The artist can make a one on one connection to just about anyone in that room if they are willing to look them in the eye and talk to them. We live in a world separated by technology, we don't see our best friends, we don't talk on the phone, we don't look into each others' eyes. But in a nightclub, the actor and the audience have a human exchange of energy and, to me, that's beautiful.
Amy to Ste: Has there been any moment in a cabaret act you've seen this year that really surprised you or struck you was out of the ordinary? What would you like to see repeated in 2020?
I've been really lucky in 2019. The majority of what I've seen this year has ranged from good to spectacular, and I had a chance to be introduced to many new talents, artists that I will continue to follow. The act that really stands out as a complete and utter surprise to me was Isabelle Georges. I saw her promo photo for her show Oh La La! At Feinstein's/54 Below and I read the show synopsis and decided I should check her out and it changed my life. I've never seen anything like it, and I hope she will play NYC over and over and I encourage everyone to go see her. I saw Matt DeAngelis sing "Little Black Dress" in a group show at The Green Room 42 and my wish for 2020 is that he does his own act. Just last night I heard a man named Ben Moss sing some songs in a group show and I am ready for his solo act. As far as the one moment that really struck me as out of the ordinary, I didn't have to think twice about it. On the third night of the Cabaret Convention, Stephanie Blythe sang two Judy Garland songs and I don't think I will ever get over it. The experience was transformative.
Ben Moss, photo by Stephen Mosher
Chris to Ste: What is your favorite cabaret "story" (or moment)? It could be from 2019, but basically, what is the story about cabaret you would share if talking at a party?
My first assignment with Broadwayworld was to review Lillias White's show Make Someone Happy. I was terribly nervous and wanted to do a good job, and 54 Below gave me the most amazing seat in the second row of tables, almost center stage. And the show was so good, it was beyond your dreams of how good a show could be. At one point, she was to sing "The Way He Makes Me Feel" and the arrangement was super sexy and sultry and, lost in the moment, she forgot the words before she even started. And she told us she forgot the words, did anyone know the words to the song. To make my husband laugh, I raised my hand, only slightly so that he could see it - it wasn't even as high as my shoulder. But it was enough for Lillias White to see and she said "You know it? Come up and tell me" and I said, "I can't." That's when she saw my notebook and said "You're taking notes. Are you a reviewer?" and I said yes. She didn't miss a beat. She said "Too bad!" and everyone laughed. I rose halfway out of my seat and said "I would KILL to sing with you!" and it's true. I know every Barbra Streisand song and I'm not a bad singer - I'm especially good with harmony - and it would have been the thrill of a lifetime to sing with Lillias White. But as a journalist, I had to stay on the other side of the stage. Still, it was a real moment, it was a strong and joyful exchange of energy between two people. That's why I always hope a singer will look out into the audience instead of at the back wall and into the darkness -- there are stories happening right before the performer's eyes if they just take the time to look out there. There are humanity and life in the audience, and all it can do is enhance the show and the experience for everyone - but if the performer isn't going to look out at the people, everyone is going to miss out on the stories, the humanity and the life that's on the other side of the stage.
Rebecca to Ste: What up and coming cabaret artists do you think more people should know about?
Ari Axelrod and Jack Bartholet have a few shows under their belts but they have yet to hit it really big and trust me when I tell you that they are going to hit it big. Each of them has a special gift that needs to be seen and needs to be shared. The Showbroads aren't up and coming because Leanne Borghesi and Marta Sanders are well-known artists - but they are a new team and Show Broads is one of the most enjoyable shows out there. They should become as famous as any cabaret act because the act is THAT good. As far as fresh out of the gate goes, there were debuts this year by Jennifer Barnhart and The Drinkwater Brothers that were off the charts great shows. Jennifer Barnhart is a well-known actor so it seems funny to think of her as an up and coming artist, but a debut is a debut, and hers was remarkable. As for The Drinkwater's, to be able to sing and play instruments and be charismatic and charming all at the same time is a real find - their show was really entertaining. This is their moment. Keep an eye on them.
The truth is that the cabaret community is riddled with talented artists that people should know about, even some who have been around for a really long time and who are still seeking an audience. I think the cabaret-going public should investigate all of them because each one is special in their own way.
Chloe to Ste: What is the first cabaret show you ever covered?
I was working for the great entertainment website HOTCHKA, doing some Broadway, some film, some TV and every now and then I got to do some off-Broadway and nightclub work. For HOTCHKA I got to review Sally Mayes, Leanne Borghesi, Liz Callaway, a group show called Colin Cunliffe Presents It's a Gay Gay World and my very first cabaret review was for Leola, whose LADY LAND! Series has been in residence at The Green Room 42 for 2019 and will continue for 2020. I've watched Leola from her very first show to the shows she does today and it has been a thrill to see her grow as an artist, to see her shows really flourish under the voice that she has developed and to see the community and public embrace her. She and her director, Will Nolan, have something really unique and special and it's a wonderful thing that Daniel Dunlow and The Green Room 42 saw that and offered her this artistic home - but they tend to seek out artists to nurture and house, which is a beautiful mission statement. There came a point when I had to stop covering Leola, though, and let other writers have a shot at it - I didn't want them to think I was hogging her, but it was important for other journalists' points of view and feedback to reach Leola's ears. So now when I attend a Leola LADY LAND! Show it is as an audience member, though I always take my camera.
Bonus Question -- When Brady heard that Bobby had asked me almost the exact same interview question, he sent me an alternate. Never one to turn away a good interview question, I decided to throw it into the story.
Brady to Ste # 2: Being an artist yourself (a photographer, a published author, etc.) do you think that influences the way you experience cabaret as a critic, and if so, how?
Having been an artist since my youth has influenced the way I experience everything. As a cabaret journalist, I walk in the door of the club looking for something to love. I look for the person inside of the performer, for the story inside of the show, for that inimitable spark that makes an entertainer unique, that which will stay with me in the days to come, things that go beyond just their ability with a song or a joke. Natalie Douglas' laugh. Dorian Woodruff's elegance. Shani Hadjian's courage. Joshua Bennett's heart. Anita Gillette's cheekiness. THOSE GIRLS' gumption. While watching everyone's show, I am there to be their champion, I walk in the door wanting them to succeed, wishing it for them, sometimes willing it on them. It hurts to have to ding someone, and I never walk in the door looking for something to ding. Sometimes you have to. On some occasions, I've discreetly chosen to not turn in a story because it would hurt someone too much for me to put my honest opinion out there, and I can't lie. And what a lot of people don't know is that I did this! I tried my hand at cabaret, and I had a really good time, and audiences responded to my show in a big, positive way. But being up there was too exhausting for me, so I do this instead. So I know what they're doing, know what they're going through, and want them to do well. There was a debut show I saw where the singer was so nervous they bordered on terrified. They couldn't look at anything but the darkness and they were struggling so much - and I just wanted to get out of my seat, go sit right at the foot of the stage and say "Sing to me. I'm right here for you. I'm your ally." But I couldn't. That's not my role. My role is to go and watch with an open and loving heart and report what I see - all of it, honestly. That's what I do.
To the BWW Cabaret team, to Robert Diamond, Alan Henry and the good folks at BWW, thank you for a great 2019; and to the readers, the public and the cabaret & nightclub community, thank you for welcoming us into your clubs.
Stephanie Blythe, photo by Stephen Mosher
Photos of The Show Broads by Stephen Mosher