Interview: Michael Kirk Lane Of CABARET CONVERSATIONS... And So Much More

When the interviewee becomes the interviewer.

By: Sep. 01, 2020
Interview: Michael Kirk Lane Of CABARET CONVERSATIONS... And So Much More

Michael Kirk Lane did not spend his quarantine watching Netflix, that's for sure. The newly MAC Award bestowed member of the cabaret and club community returned to New York City after time away with family and jumped right in with his new work doing virtual programs for The 92nd St Y, and, true to form, he was a smash, right out of the gate. Many watched as one of the industry's most popular comedic entertainers went out on a limb and proved his versatility. Weeks later, as he prepares to welcome some legendary ladies to his program CABARET CONVERSATIONS, Broadway World Cabaret caught up with MKL to hear all about his journey into uncharted waters and to ask him how others might follow his lead.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced, here, in its entirety.

Michael Kirk Lane! Welcome to Broadway World Cabaret!

Thanks for having me again!

It's been a while since our last interview, I think it was at Christmastime. Let me start by congratulating you on your MAC Award. It's well deserved and a long time coming - were you with family when you saw the broadcast announcement?

Yes, and we spoke in March right before the world shut down, for that beautiful profile piece you published on my birthday. Thank you again for that, and for your congratulations on the award. It was such an honor to win this year, but also so surreal to not be all together celebrating as usual. The awards were so early in this, I think they were before any of us had gotten used to living our lives on Zoom. I was watching on my computer and had a chat conversation on my phone with the friends I usually sit with at the awards. The chat provided a little bit of normalcy to the celebration, and Lennie, Amy and Lorinda did a wonderful job making the night special. It was also great to then be part of the "Thank You" music video that MAC put together.

You left the city for the quarantine - how was your time in Texas?

I did leave for a bit, and like many, for a lot longer than initially planned. I have some pre-existing medical conditions that when this all started made it seem that I would be at high risk. I know I'm very fortunate to have had the option to leave for a while. I was able to go to stay with my brother and his family in Austin.

My brother and I figured out it was the first time we'd lived under the same roof since he graduated college in 2000. I helped with school for my teenage nephews. I'm now closer to them after spending months being a constant in their daily lives rather than the usual distance and only seeing them a couple times a year. Since I've left, we text all the time. I also became closer to my sister in law than ever before. Those are all small silver linings, and again, I'm thankful for the blessings the privilege to escape provided, but I'm so happy to be back in the city I've called home for 14 years. To those who are ringing its death knell, you are wrong. The city and our art form may look different, but it will survive and thrive yet again.

When you returned to New York, what was your process in getting back into the swing of things?

I think we've all gotten so used to living life on Zoom. When I got back, I took some time to quarantine. Then I'm fortunate that some of be "chosen family" live within a 6 block radius of me. We do masked walks together and more recently have met for dinners outdoors. . I've also gone to support them as a patron as some of the piano bars have begun to reopen for outdoor dining. We've created a sort of pod, while still be extremely conscious of the reality of the world we are still living in

While many performers have been learning to navigate online shows and some have gone back to live performing, you have branched out in a completely different direction. How did CABARET CONVERSATIONS come about?

I had joined the Music Faculty at The 92nd St Y in February. My friend, Mary Feinsinger, brought me in as her co-teacher for the long running Exploring Cabaret class that 92Y School of Music offers. When the world shut down it didn't make sense to keep two instructors on the new remote version of the course, but Yana Stotland, Director of The 92Y School of Music, asked me to brainstorm what other cabaret offerings we could do online. I had a great online meeting with her and her amazing team, and we came out of it with the two programs we've been running since June: Cabaret History and Great Performances, a four-week lecture and discussion course, and Cabaret Conversations, a monthly interview series.

Is this kind of interview format program something you had been giving some thought to for a while?

Honestly, no. It, well both of the programs really, came from wanting a connection back to my world while I was away. A glimmer of normalcy and a chance, while the cabaret world was on pause, to sit with others and discuss the art form and learn more about it. I'm lucky others thought that would be interesting too.

Did you find you found that connection to home?

The biggest connection for me in prepping for these programs was having zooms and text and e-mail conversation with people I know and respect who have been a part of this little world much longer than I have while I did my research. I talked with Sherry Eaker, Roy Sander, Sidney Myer, Jay Rogers, Rickey Ritzel, Eric Michael Gillett, Marta Sanders, Kenny Bell and KT Sullivan to name just a few. Many of those I spoke to pointed me to James Gavin's wonderful book "Intimate Nights" which is a gorgeous history of our world and an invaluable resource in prepping the history course. I also bounced ideas off of my peers and friends. It felt like I was working toward a goal again and was, like MAC Award night, connected again to "normal life".

What has the learning curve been like, from your first program to your most recent?

For Cabaret Conversations, I'll admit I was a little nervous for the first couple. You were watching the first one, so you can let me know if It showed.

It absolutely did not show - you seemed like a fish put back into water.

Well that's kind, and I did appreciate chatting with you afterwards as well, but the nerves were there

For my first guest I asked someone that I knew I would feel comfortable talking with the length of the interview. I hadn't done anything like this before, so I knew I needed someone who would a) be appealing to an audience, b) have great stories, and c) with whom I had a rapport . I turned to KT Sullivan. KT of course is the Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, and an icon of a cabaret performer, but she's also a friend from our years together at The Laurie Beechman Theatre (where she often performs, and I've worked since 2012). She has such a rich understanding of the history of cabaret as an art form, and lovely stories and anecdotes to share. I found it interesting and it seems the audience did as well.

As these have gone on, I've learned to relax and just talk to my guests like we were sitting over a glass of wine in the back of one of the clubs talking about this shared love and appreciation of the art form of Cabaret.

Who else have you had as part of the series and who is coming up?

I've been lucky so far to be joined by Joe Iconis, David Sabella and Sue Matsuki. I'm also thrilled about the lineup I've got joining me for the rest of the year too! On September 14th, I'll be joined by Karen Mason. In October, on the 5th, Natalie Douglas will be my guest. In December, my dear friend and mentor Sidney Myer will join me; and to circle back to November...on November 16th, I'll be joined by the legendary Chita Rivera.

Interview: Michael Kirk Lane Of CABARET CONVERSATIONS... And So Much More

As a side note, If I thought I was nervous for the first one, I can't imagine where I'll be in November as I prep for Ms. Rivera. I mean, if you'd have told closeted high school me that one day he'd be sitting down to chat with Chita for a one on one interview, I think he'd have fainted. Due to my grandmother's love for the American Songbook and Musical Theatre, I've known who Ms. Rivera is for as long as I can remember. Actually on my mother's most recent trip to city we were lucky to have ringside seats arranged to see Ms. Rivera at 54 Below, and my mother and I both cried out of joy thinking of my grandmother that night.

Put a picture in my head of the kind of prep work it takes to put together one televised interview with an artist you admire.

That's the thing, even with those who've been on the series or even those that are coming up that I'm friendly with, they are all artists I admire and respect. There are hours of prep for each interview. I try to find any interviews they've done or statements they've made about cabaret, as well as watch any clips or videos I can find of their work. Obviously, I'm familiar with their work already, but I look for things I may not have known or interesting clips from that past that will be fun to share with the participating audience. Then the night before, I play James Lipton and write out my index card with questions that I think will make for an interesting evening for both the guest and I, as well as the audience.

How is the history course structured?

Over the course of the four sessions (once a week for four weeks) we go in chronological order from the art form's beginnings in Paris in Berlin dating back to the late 1800s and move right up to today. I also use audio and video clips of important or influential performers to highlight each era. Of course there are clips of performers you'd expect to see like Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Julie Wilson and Nancy LaMott, but also some amazing older recordings I found of Claire Waldoff, Nan Blackstone, Hildegarde and Madame Spivy right through to exciting performers from today.

Michael, why cabaret? What is it that makes the art form one in which you not only want to participate but want to discuss as well?

I've now spent over a decade working in the clubs, as a waiter, or singing and slinging, or managing, that's all in addition to my work as a performer. I've found a home in the cabaret world, in more ways than one. As we brainstormed ideas for programming, I realized that though I'd heard anecdotes over the years, I didn't know the real history of the world in which I was living. I'm someone who believes we are all lifelong learners, so to study, in depth, something you enjoy is a blessing. I acknowledged that my place in the community offered me the chance to approach some of these icons and ask their stories and find out why they love the art form. It also lets me shine a light on performers of my generation and younger who will be the future of the art form. To document the history and stories and to shine a light on what could be the future, well that seemed interesting to me. I'm so happy others are finding it interesting as well, which allows the programs to grow and continue.

Help Broadway World to inspire others - would you encourage people who are living and working from home to try something new, something like this, something off of their path?

If you are fortunate enough to have the means to take a class or grow a skill while we are all still on pause, I encourage you to do so. If an offer for something new and outside of your norm, but that piques your interest come along.... say "yes!" You never know where that opportunity or new skill may lead. Take KT Sullivan for example, in our conversation in June, she told us she was beginning to work on her piano skills again, trying to work on a new song each day. Well, I saw her announce that she'll be making her debut accompanying herself on 9/5 and 9/12 as the incidental music at West Bank Café.

Now that you have your feet wet as an internet interviewer, are you going to join the other artists who are singing for their supper online? You have a unique voice in the community that would be most welcome.

Oh, I've joined in a few shows virtually during all of this. My wonderful Musical Director, William TN Hall, recorded some tracks for me to use for just that purpose. I've appeared on Piano Bar Live a couple of times. I'll actually be joining Scott Barbarino as his co-host for the Sept 22nd edition of Piano Bar Live as well. I also sang in one of the fundraisers for Brandy's Piano Bar before they were able to reopen for outdoor dining.

I'm not sure I'm ready to put together a full "show" for the online sphere yet. But I suppose never say never. There are some new songs, well new to me at least, that I've grown to enjoy in the last few months that I'm itching to get my brain around, and who knows, William and I may come up with something eventually.

I will say that for the Brandy's fundraiser, if you watched it online you know, there were 10 of us who were in the bar to perform. We wore masks the entire time we weren't singing and spaced ourselves around the bar to maintain distance. But, oh to be able to sing live and make music with friends again. I didn't expect it to be as emotional as it was. I think I cried a little during every person's set that night. William was playing for that event and the moment he started playing the first song of my set, a song we've been doing together for years, I had to stop myself from tearing up.

Michael where can people catch your programs with 92Y School of Music and when?

Well we will be offering Cabaret History and Great Performances again in October and you can find that info HERE

The lineup for Cabaret Conversations, as I said, is
Sep 14, 2020: Karen Mason
Oct 5, 2020: Natalie Douglas
Nov 16, 2020: Chita Rivera
Dec 7, 2020: Sidney Myer
All the information about those, as well as the subscription discount available for the Oct-Dec editions can be found HERE

While we're on the topic, I'd also like to publicly thank Yana Stotland and the team at 92Y School of Music (Lindsay Cabaniss, Kyle Landry and Michael O'Day) for all of their enthusiastic support of these two programs.

Thank you so very much for chatting with me today, I really appreciate it. I'll be watching during your next show!

Thank you for asking me to chat! Thank you also, for all you do to shine a light on the world of cabaret!

I'm blushing but I'm appreciative for your comment; and it is all done with love.

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