BWW Feature: With the Help of a Village, MAC and Bistro Winner Meg Flather Brings Her Career Full Circle With A CABARET SISTERHOOD
Over early-evening drinks at Don't Tell Mama, three-time MAC Award winner Meg Flather and I are deep into a two-hour conversation when she suddenly recalls watching TNT's tribute to Joni Mitchell several years ago, presented at the Hammerstein Ballroom and featuring performers such as Cyndi Lauper (who was playing over the radio in the restaurant during this story), k.d. lang, Wynonna Judd, James Taylor, Elton John, and many other major names. According to Flather, Mitchell was in the audience, beaming and grateful, everyone revelling in each other's work and individual styles.
We are there to discuss Meg Flather SONGS: A CABARET SISTERHOOD, so the story feels at home, just as Flather feels at Don't Tell Mama, and just as SISTERHOOD feels at home in this moment in time, especially. The Joni Mitchell tribute was not the impetus to SISTERHOOD, of course, but as I watch Flather beam and gush over the course of two hours talking about the list of women who will be performing her work across the next few months, it's impossible not to feel that joy with her.
SISTERHOOD is a sister show and an extension to TOGETHER, 2017's cabaret featuring all five MAC Female Vocalist nominees (Celia Berk, Sally Darling, Flather, Josephine Sanges, and Lisa Viggiano). "I think TOGETHER proved that you could be on the same award ballot and emerge as friends and admirers," Berk says when I ask her about these collaborations' importance. "A CABARET SISTERHOOD takes that to a whole new level."
Where TOGETHER united five women to sing songs from their own individual shows and with one another, SISTERHOOD unites 27 women to share in each other's talent and company as they celebrate Flather's work. The list of performers is impressive in its variety: Corinna Sowers-Adler, Amorika Amoroso, Berk, Helane Blumfield, Mary Sue Daniels, Darling, Natalie Douglas, Those Girls (Eve Eaton, Rachel Hanser, Karen Mack, Wendy Russell), Kathy Kaefer, Lucille Carr-Kaffashan, Becca Kidwell, Lina Koutrakos, Laurie Krauz, Rosemary Loar, Sue Matsuki, Tanya Moberly, Elizabeth Nucci, Karen Oberlin, Sanges, Deborah Stone, Viggiano, Heather Villaescusa, Lisa Yaeger, and Deborah Zecher.
The group of cabaret newcomers and veterans alike will join Flather on July 14 and September 14 at the beloved cabaret venue not only because of their shared love for cabaret but mainly because of their shared love of Flather. There are few performers as dedicated to the craft as Flather, and fewer still so dedicated to uplifting and celebrating those around her. A MAC and Bistro-winning and BWW Cabaret Award-nominated multihyphenate, she breeds an environment of inclusion and joy. She is career-oriented and the first to take feedback; criticism, she says, has changed her life.
Her history with cabaret goes deep--- gratifyingly so. She first fell in love with the artform at NYU Tisch School of the Arts back in the mid-1980s, when Christian Daizey, a fellow classmate, approached her and asked if she wanted to work on a cabaret act together. They formed a musical comedy duo act called Leather and Flather, covering everything from Rickie Lee Jones and The Roches to Gilda Radner, standards, and showtunes.
Leather and Flather won a Bistro Award, and the experience turned Flather onto her love of songwriters like Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell, and especially Carly Simon, pulling her away from a singing style she thought she was obligated to and into the one that fit.
"I had an epiphany and a real meltdown of, who do I want to be when I grow up because, all of a sudden, my voice was much happier singing folk rock than it ever was singing musical theatre," Flather recalls.
Daizey challenged her to write her own music, and her "humble" songs of the '90s and her first album, WAKE-UP CALL, played Don't Tell Mama's old theater where they didn't quite belong and which weren't quite yet where they should be.
"They were so trying-to-figure-out-who-the-hell-I-was songs. There are the songs that you write for the world, and then there are your journal entries that shouldn't really be songs (laughs). Nobody cares, but you have to start somewhere."
Flather, then, left the cabaret world for a while, playing The Bitter End, Baby Jupiter, and extensively---from 1992 to 2008---the SideWalk Cafe. But another friend told her she was beginning to sound like she missed cabaret and how those singer-songwriter shows at the SideWalk were delving back into that cabaret feel. Flather bridged the gap by playing The Metropolitan Room with her VIEWPOINT, bringing in both her own songs and covers.
Decidedly, that was where she belonged, in an art that breeds intimacy and connects people. "Nothing feels better than having an artist look you in the eye and sing a random lyric," she says, continuing with feedback she, Jeff Harnar, and Lennie Watts had been given throughout their careers: "You will fall on a face that's a stranger and it will be the exact lyric they need to hear and [that] you need to hear."
Since her return to cabaret, Flather has moved audiences and won several awards for PORTRAITS, BACK WHEN WE WERE BEAUTIFUL, and CARLY & ME. In March, she was ready for her new show, OUTBOUND PLANE, which she was scheduled to perform on the anniversary of her mother's death. Much of Flather's recent work has been tangled in the death of her parents, her heart laying bare for Don't Tell Mama's audiences.
But ahead of the first show of OUTBOUND PLANE, Flather lost her voice and ended up on vocal rest, having to cancel the show. Instead of performing, she gave herself a task: writing "Only See You," a love song for the people in the cabaret community who are seemingly unaware of their talents. "I wrote that song for all the conversations I've had in this bar with people saying that they're invisible, that they're not interesting, that they don't sound good, that their shows aren't potent."
When her voice had healed, she performed "Only See You" at Natasha Castillo's SPOTLIGHT ON YOU OPEN MIC at 53 Above, and walking home with friend and TOGETHER companion Darling, Flather confided in her a quiet dream of putting together an evening of cabaret women to sing her songs from their points of view.
"When Meg mentioned the idea of an evening of her songs, all she needed was a good push. I'd just heard her sing a song of hers, so I didn't hesitate!" Darling recalls.
Flather, intentional from the start, sent out one email to 30 different female performers in the cabaret community; twenty-seven said yes and three had scheduling conflicts but gave their blessings. Within 48 hours, she had the performers, the dates, the songs assigned, the creative team, and the posters designed.
"I have a whole new way at looking at bad luck now, that it's just the universe putting you right where you're supposed to be," Flather says.
May brought the first of the rehearsals for SISTERHOOD, taking place over two days--- one, fittingly, on her mother's birthday. Flather says she wept and basked over those first days (and many subsequent ones), hearing these personalized interpretations of songs she'd written over the past couple decades.
The way the show was arranged, 27 performers would perform her 15 songs over two different dates--- one in July and one in September. In the interim between first email and first rehearsal, performers worked on their own (or also with their own arrangers). Rehearsals would consist of a musical rehearsal with musical director and regular collaborator Tracy Stark.
"Being the music director for this type of project, gives me an interesting point of view, because I get to see how enthusiastic and focused each of the performers are, and how appreciative they are to be included," Stark says. "Barring none, they all came in prepared and had obviously put a lot of thought into their songs."
Following that would be a theatrical rehearsal with Watts, her creative consultant for the show, plus a day-of rehearsal. Flather would occasionally step in throughout the show to narrate, but mostly, it would be in the hands of the other women. The connecting thread of this mosaic or "Christmas tree of ornaments" were Flather's songs, and the only song she, personally, would sing would be the encore.
For Flather, it has been a trust exercise but one that has only brought benefits.
"They made my songs better. The songwriter in me was just like, this is why you write music. To hear them through these voices made them real [and] made them legitimate."
For Flather, like many, songwriting comes out of a desperate need to express herself. Her means of working has pretty much stayed the same over the years: the lyrics generally come first, and then the 3:00 A.M. wake-up to the melody in her head, the demo recording on her phone, and the playback.
"I say to myself, for one precious moment, 'I like it,' before the world has heard it. Before the well-meaning friends [and] family have heard it, I say, 'That's the song I heard in my head. That's the song I want to sing.'" And then, in self-actualization, "'I like it. I like it. I like it.'"
Some songs come all at once, like "Hold On Tight." Others are climbs that come from lists of words and metaphors. Those early days of writing at SideWalk Cafe were all about telling people what she wanted them to hear and not showing them; now, she's just showing people, just as she's doing in SISTERHOOD by letting everyone else take on her work.
And sometimes, new songs come from old parts. Flather doesn't so much kill her darlings as save them for later. She has a folder of half-written songs from over 20 years of work. Her new "Only See You" has a chorus that was written for a dear friend having a hard time... back in 1998. "Each [song] is a complicated child...so some songs come organically, some are labored, some are recycled from other songs I started, [and] songs I think I've stolen (laughs)."
In all forms, she's in no rush. At 55, Flather may be the only person to ever tell you she was Equity or SAG too soon. There is joy in slowing down and taking your time, she says. "It's so hard when I go back to my early songs and they start out really good, and then, I'm lazy and I finish them too soon," she sighs. "It was the insecurity [and] anxiety to finish; it was this need to check off a list."
For her, now, it's just multiple dimensions coinciding and colliding.
"The Meg writing in 1998 is the Meg writing in 2019. It's just the song wasn't here yet."
Out of her entire catalog, the songs she chose for SISTERHOOD are those that extend past the underbelly of those early-morning feelings. They touch on a variety of themes, some broad, some parochial: dementia, autism, observations of society, social media, politics, mothers and daughters, intimacy in secret, 9/11, and, of course, the last presidential election. There's a common theme in all her songs, she says: necessary loss and leaving one thing to go toward something bigger. Simply put, "Am I living my life?"
This contributed, of course, to her selection of performers, those who would most be comfortable taking risks and taking on certain subject matters (and, occasionally, making an ass out of themselves). And also, comfortable taking Flather's themes and applying them to something they could connect to.
Sowers-Adler and her student Nucci, for instance, will be performing "On The Second Floor," a song about Flather's mother's dementia and needing to have her move in with her to take care of her; Sowers-Adler and Nucci connected it to the first-time insecurity of teachers and students working together for the first time.
"When I sing it [with Sowers-Adler], I think about where my love for music and passion for singing began," Nucci says. "Meg has the ability to allow everyone to personally connect to her songs in a different way, and I'm excited to share my connections with her on stage."
Similarly, Zecher sings "He Shares Me With A Lot," a song about a husband sharing his wife who is preoccupied caring for someone with Alzheimer's. Zecher's interpretation tells it from her own point of view as a congregational rabbi of the past three decades who knew that her work meant her husband and children often felt like they had to share her with the congregation.
"I was smart enough to be general in the writing," Flather says. "That's the difference between 2012 and 1992, because in 1992, it was literally my journal vomitted to music, and so, hopefully, you related. You're throwing out a narrow net, going, 'I hope you get it.'"
Performers range from Nucci, a newcomer, to Darling, "the grande dame" and everyone in between. "What I wanted was a range of styles, a range of experience in the cabaret world. I wanted to create an afternoon where no matter who you were, you belonged on that stage and you were invited by me," Flather explained.
All the songs in the show were originally written for only Flather to sing them, but in SISTERHOOD, they're arranged as solos, duets, and beyond. Not only that, many are songs that had been sung by the performers before, even in their own shows in the case of Sowers-Adler and Kidwell.
"When I first heard 'Too Intense For You,' I felt like it was written for me," Kidwell says. "Most of my favorite songs are the ones that feel like they were written just for me."
So much of that comes down to who Flather assigned to each song. "Meg did an incredible job of assigning these tunes to us (and I've heard that from others)," Krauz says. "She knows [us] oh so well."
"Her choices of which songs would go to which person fit hand in glove, almost as if they were tailored for each vocalist," Stark continues. "This not only speaks to her abilities as a songwriter who can channel numerous styles but also as an observer of the subtle qualities in all of the vocalists' personalities."
Having each performer take on each of her songs in their own specific way is unquestionably moving to Flather; you can see it on her face as she talks about a song's creation and where it will lie in the show, who is singing it, and how they've transformed it.
"You just weep because you can't believe this little thing that you made in your small apartment has any weight," Flather beams.
Back in those May rehearsals, the first person she heard sing was Josephine Sanges on Flather's MAC-winning "Hold on Tight."
"That voice took---" she starts but catches herself. "Isn't that funny? I just caught myself saying 'my little melody and my little lyrics.' That's what women do: we go 'my little...'"
Much of the process of this show, as well as TOGETHER and the time we are living in, has led to a series of revelations. Flather is the first person to tell you now she has a tendency to minimize her work as a form of humility. That humility, by the way, is one of the biggest reasons she is so loved by the community; the words "generous," "kind," and "warm" come up time and time again when talking to the performers in the show and those around her. Watts calls her "smart, passionate, and full of creativity" and says working with her "is always a fulfilling experience." All of her other collaborators echo that sentiment.
"I hit the jackpot when I first met Meg," Yaeger says. "She is a true champion to our cabaret community."
"Her warmth, heart, talent, and kindness wash over you before she even utters a word," Amoroso adds. "She has this innate ability to see the good and special talents in everyone. She just makes you feel valued and that you belong."
"One of Meg's gifts, as the stellar, thoughtful, pro-female woman she is, is that she brings people together," Stark says. "When she came to me with this idea, I was not surprised that it involved dozens of women. Actually, her biggest concern was that there were women in the community who might feel left out."
The list of compliments goes on: Viggiano calls her "a true artist" with a "pure heart." Zecher says "she speaks profoundly to our experience as women, but more than that, she acknowledges our common humanity." The show truly is, as Matsuki puts it, "a gathering of amazing ladies who all love Meg and her work."
And Flather has nothing but remarkable things to say about her collaborators, in turn, as well as their bodies of work. But in putting together a show of her own work, with support, time, and accolades to show, she's also had to process a lot of internalized sexism and envy.
"There's something about being a woman and thinking, 'Are my songs enough and am I enough?' It's really interesting how we are taught, based on our gender, how to compete. And women do compete, but we put all this junk in the way--- that you have to be nice and you have to be self-effacing and you have to put yourself down. It was amazing that all these women said yes. Then, I got really scared: 'Are these songs good enough for them?'"
She is unwaveringly proud of her work over the years, as she should be. But again, a realization as she says it out loud for the first time, surprising herself: "I wanted them to be better than me. I wanted them to be so much better than me as they sang my songs. And that's how I know I've let these songs go and set these songs free."
It even fits into the structure of the show, especially figuring out where she should speak and where she should allow for silence. She met with Watts, who advised her to let the work speak for itself instead of needing to explain each song individually. "If it wasn't for Lennie, I would probably set up every song. That's actually putting myself down, because it's saying you can't imagine these songs without me [explaining them]. I would diminish it. I would make it too casual. I would apologize. If I had a moment that was powerful on stage, I would immediately destroy it with the patter that followed and take it all back."
Flather and I talk about that idea of being threatening versus being powerful as women, being labeled as a "bitch" or, in what has become a rallying call for many women, "nasty." She asks, thinking out loud, if she were a man, would feel the same way? In putting together a show of her own work, would she feel so guilty?
And how, in that scenario, would she reckon with working with this large group? Again, if women are told to compete against each other by default, then Flather is breaking the system. For her, "the envy goes out the door about their instruments" (of which she is envious about in different ways) when they open their mouths to sing a song she wrote. "That envy is transformed into gratitude. The singer-performer about me [is] checked at the door and the writer [is] like, wow, I am so lucky to have these voices."
The gratitude is mutual, of course, not just for Meg but for the show, as well.
"As I spend more time in the cabaret community I realize how lucky I am to have found a place where I can share common experiences with people who really know what it's like to put yourself out there time and time again," Sanges says.
"It's incredible to be surrounded and supported and encouraged by all these strong, talented women, to learn from them and to support them," Kidwell says. "It's important for women to lift up each other so that they can be a force of good in the world."
"I have found, as I have gotten older, women supporting women makes life so much richer," Villaescusa adds. "For Meg to pull all these women into a sisterhood is a brilliant outreach...to let us know we aren't alone [and] we are here for each other."
Just like TOGETHER, SISTERHOOD feels so much bigger than its initial intent. The "little" thing Flather has created is, in a word, "profound," Krauz says.
"This has turned out to be quite visionary on Meg's part. I believe this sisterhood illuminates the political times we're living in. In this "time of the woman" in our country (and our world) we get to represent this progress in our cabaret sisterhood. We are a huge part of the cabaret community and, as a group, a driving force. It feels like an incredibly powerful and positive way to represent, not just within our community but the sisterhood of the world, as well."
"To get to be included in a show that spreads a message of compassion, love, and optimism is an honor," Nucci adds. "I don't think there is a better or more important time to be spreading these messages into our world. Cabaret is a platform that is meant to express oneself and share their vision of the world, and what better vision than women empowerment and strength?"
Ashley Steves is BroadwayWorld's Cabaret Editor-in-Chief, the co-host of BroadwayRadio's TODAY ON BROADWAY, and a freelance arts and culture writer. You can find her on Twitter at @NoThisIsAshley.