BWW Interview: Seth Sikes of TWENTY 20'S SONGS FOR 2020 at 54 Below
Seth Sikes is living one of those great show business stories. An actor who got out of the game, Sikes found himself missing the artistic outlet provided by performing. One night he found himself in one of the many piano bars scattered around Manhattan, there to find a blissful new existence as one of the regulars, singing his heart out on a weekly basis. The quest to find the right piano bar for him lead him to an uptown place where he could sing the kind of music he had always loved. A lark of a one-man show for friends and family elicited a response so great that that show became a gig, and that gig became a career. Now Seth Sikes is one of the cabaret industry's most sought after performers, with several different shows available to each of the many clubs who book him for their clientele.
This winter Mr. Sikes was offered a prestigious opportunity to entertain the New Year's Eve crowd at Midtown Manhattan's chic Feinstein's/54 Below. For the special occasion, Seth has been working 'round the clock on a brand new show with an appropriate theme: Songs from the 1920s to take us into the 2020s. Studiously researching the original 20's and conferring with his artistic collaborators, Mr. Sikes is preparing an evening to ensure that the next '20s will roar as loudly as the last.
In the days leading up to December 31st, Seth Sikes took time out of a busy rehearsal schedule to tell me how it's going, what it feels like to become a sensation after a ten-year hiatus, and what the guests at 54 Below can plan on for their New Year's Eve celebration.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Seth, you've been taking the clubs by storm these last few years, and I think you've also taken your act out on the road. How does it feel to be one of cabarets best selling artists?
SS: It's very strange to hear myself referred to it that way because I never expected to become a cabaret artist. I guess I'm an accidental cabaret artist. I did my first Judy Garland tribute as sort of a one night only stunt for all my friends because I had been singing her songs in piano bars all these years and I wanted to do this crazy thing -- I thought I could fill the room with my friends. I didn't know that it would turn into more shows and a press agent and going on the road and singing all these songs and going on cruise ships. And now here we are, six years later, I'm doing a brand new show. It's completely... every time someone reminds me that I'm a cabaret singer I have to sort of laugh because it was all so accidental.
But that's a fun part of life, isn't it?
SS: It sure is!
You mentioned that you started in piano bars. What was your experience in the piano bar world?
SS: I grew up at Marie's Crisis -- that's where I was going when I was a kid. That was before the vibe changed and sort of became a little bit more touristy, and a little bit less of a gay bar. But when I was younger, that's where I found all the people that were like me who loved musicals.I was there several nights a week. Then I found the Townhouse, which has this great elegance to it. And they have fantastic pianists. At the townhouse, instead of being in the back singing Rent and Little Shop of Horrors, they would be playing the old standards cause the clientele is older. So there I was singing Gypsy and Guys and Dolls and the classic stuff. Then, of course, they would play these songs I like, like the Judy songs... songs from the '20s and '30s that they don't necessarily play at Marie's Crisis! So that became my hangout and I spent, I'm telling you, more time, more nights there a week than I care to admit. And that's when I started to realize, "Oh my god, Seth, you miss performing. You miss singing. You've got to start doing this again." That's how I started doing all these Judy songs. So it was having a place to let out all this singing passion that I had burning underneath but had no outlet for it. It was a way to let it out.
You had been out of the game for a while -- more than a decade. Why did you quit?
SS: I went to acting school at Circle in the Square Theatre School for musical theater. And I started auditioning, I did one or two shows, I knew pretty immediately that the world of auditioning is not for me, it was not the kind of rejection that I could take all the time. Plus, I realized something else that I think was kind of important to realize: that I wasn't a very good actor and there weren't a lot of parts for me. I still wanted to work in theater. And so I did what a lot of people do: I moved to the other side of the table and I worked as an associate director, which I still do and have for the last 15 years, on and off-Broadway and regionally
Now you have this new artistic outlet for you.
SS: That's exactly right. I don't miss being in a production. I don't miss the work doing scenes; I have this outlet for singing now.
I'm personally acquainted with a number of men who feel like they were born in the wrong era and listening to you described yourself, I would say that you are one of them.
SS: I am 100% one of them! Except I'm glad that I live in an era where we have deodorant and iPhones.
You mentioned your Judy Garland show -- what was the impetus for creating this show your friends?
SS: I've had a lifelong obsession with her, like a lot of gay men I know. I've been obsessed with her since I was about eight years old when I discovered the movie Summer Stock. As I discovered my addiction to this kind of music, to singing at piano bars, I realized that it was only on this kind of old fashioned sound that I actually sound good! I can't even sing pop music. I sound completely ridiculous. I can't do riffing and all that, but I can belt! That's the kind of stuff I can do. So, as I realized that it was her music that I could connect to, and had been connecting to my whole life, I thought, "well, there's a story here." And there was! That I was growing up on a farm outside Paris, Texas... and I saw Judy Garland, a farm owner going around doing her chores, singing, "Howdy Neighbor!" I thought, wow, I want to be just like that. I thought "there's a show here" and I wrote this whole show about being born in a truck outside Paris, Texas, and about how my obsession with Judy led me to show business, led me to New York, and then brought me back around to music and back around to getting on stage. The prevalence in my life has been there constantly and I thought "This is going to be a very heartfelt tribute."
When you began doing this show, as you continued doing the show, have you found that it has opened up doorways to relationships with people that feel the same way about Judy?
SS: Oh my god, yes! People will come up to me after a show, especially sometimes older men grab my hand eand say, "I understand." Yes. I have met lots of people who feel that way and some people who I've had lunch with are HUGE Judy fans. And I've become close with several Judy fans through the general fandom that's out there.
And you've also done two other tribute shows. What is it about the tribute show format that appeals to you?
SS: I wouldn't necessarily say that the tribute show in general appeals to me. It's just as I had genuine affection for the three performers who I've paid tribute to Judy, Liza, and Bernadette. I am a little worried about becoming the guy who only sings women's songs, which is why I'm glad I'm doing this 20's songs show -- which is not dedicated to any one particular performer. I wonder... do you consider a 20's songs show to be a tribute to the '20s? Does that count or no?
I would call that a theme show. And so I think you are officially breaking free of the dude who only sings girl songs thing.
SS: Okay. That's the goal here.
Tell me about this new show for New Year's Eve. What kind of research have you done to create a show of only music from the 1920s?
SS: I have been immersing myself constantly in a Spotify playlist of songs from the '20s -- songs from the '20s, recordings from the '20s, albums about the '20s, all different kinds of recordings. And there's so much music out there now, it's endless! And of course YouTube... I'll go down a YouTube hole and watch hours and hours! I've got all these wonderful books that I go to about songs from the twenties and thirties, Tin Pan Alley songs, Cole Porter's Complete Lyrics! I've been getting through all of that. Also, I didn't know if you know Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks but they perform every Monday and Tuesday night at Iguana so I'm there a couple of times a month. They only play songs from the '20s and '30s, sometimes the '40s, so I got a lot of ideas by listening to them. I have musician friends who love songs from this era, and I'm just constantly listening to it, so I've got a list that's so long that it's hard to trim it down. What I always try to do is figure out what songs I can use, what songs fit into my story. These songs were written a hundred years ago but a lot of them, if you just slightly tweak them, they apply to today. And some of them, because technology has changed so much the meaning of the song, has completely changed. If you just give it a slightly different context... I've had a lot of fun twisting with the context here and there.
And have you discovered any new artists from the 20s that you can fall in? Love with and immerse yourself in.
SS: Oh yeah! I love Helen Kane - she's someone I didn't really know much about. Eddie Cantor! I knew who he was, but I didn't really truly understand how funny his songs are. They're just hilarious. I'll always be more and more impressed with Al Jolson, the more I listened to him. The one that surprised me, I'd never heard of Lucille Bogan before... There are these really incredibly filthy songs from the twenties that I would be... I would say they're too embarrassing for me to even do them. But they let me do them on stage at 54 Below! You wouldn't believe how dirty!
They wrote really dirty songs back then.
SS: Yeah. I haven't picked a dirty one, I want to pick a really raunchy one, but I haven't found the perfect one yet, so I will have to look at that again.
SS: It's true. It's so true!
I'm not sure what decade she was, but if you're looking for dirty songs to sing, you need to check out Alberta Hunter. Okay. You know, if you listen to an Alberta Hunter song, you're going to hear a song that makes you blush.
You clearly have a strong passion for music and for great singers. How did the interest begin for you? The love of music that you have?
SS: I really truly think it began with watching Summer Stock.
So you owe it all to Judy.
SS: I really do think I do.
What made 54 Below and you come up with the idea for your New Year's Eve show?
SS: Well I was surprised and honored to be asked. I've been sort of kicking around the idea of during the 20's show, but I thought it would be fun to do it in 2020. When they offered me the New Year's Eve slot I thought this is the perfect time to do it because it's the evening of the 20th. So it kind of came together perfectly.
Do you usually spend New Year's Eve performing or will this be your first December thirty first onstage?
SS: It is my first December 31st on stage. I hope people come.
Now, what are you planning for the new year?
SS: Oh goodness. Well performing wise?
Do you have any shows on the horizon?
SS: I don't have anything booked after this. I'll probably reprise this at the club if I feel good about it. I'm hoping to do more shows at 54 Below at Sea, which I've done a few of last year on a cruise.
When you book your shows out of town and you're contracted to work on a show on Broadway, how does that work? Do they give you a leave of absence and somebody stands in for you?
SS: Since I work mostly as an associate director on Broadway, my presence isn't consistently required. I have to be there only as needed so I don't have to be there all the time; if I were to go for a few weeks, that's usually okay. The stage manager can handle it.
That's a lot of personal freedom to have in your life.
SS: Yes. And of course, I also have a day job, a couple of different day jobs. So I never stop going and I never know what the next week is going to hold. It's all a big puzzle.
Well, a couple of different day jobs is the plight of the artist.
SS: It is and at least I'm not waiting tables.
Waiting tables! A right of passage for the artist! Now. Are there other singers for whom you will be doing tribute shows in the future, or will this break you loose from that genre?
SS: The goal is to break loose from the genre. However, I would not be surprised if at some point I do have a Barbara Streisand tribute just because it seems like the natural thing to do. But I'm going to try not to let myself do that for a while.
When you're creating a show and singing the music of such iconic and legendary artists does it make you nervous?
SS: Of course! Of course, it does in some ways. However, I do not do an impersonation. And because I'm not a woman, I think I automatically am not exactly compared to them. For those two reasons, I think I can get away with it, 'cause I'm not trying to do impersonation and I'm not a woman.
While you're working on your 1920's show, are you writing it by yourself or do you have a collaborator or a director with whom you work?
SS: So I pretty much do everything myself and then, then I have a wonderful director named Eric Gililland who punches up the show. He touches it up by giving me jokes. He's a comedian and joke writer; and I have a wonderful friend and lyricist, Lisa Lambert, she wrote the lyrics to the Drowsy Chaperone and won the Tony for that. She's a dear friend and she helps me tweak all the lyrics that I write, but I mostly write everything myself.
SS: I would show you first Get Happy and then, Oh god, I think I would start by showing you Summer Stock.. the songs. You know, I would sit you down for an hour and show you Get Happy and then the live performances and dance performances like Me and My Gal. The live performances from the Judy Garland Show! I think I'm going to say Old Man River. Okay, No! NO! I'd sit you down in a room and give you a bottle of wine and play you from the beginning to end: Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall!
Do you sing every day?
SS: No, I do not.
You don't sing in the shower or while you're doing the dishes?
SS: No. I should but I get out of the habit.
And what is your new year's resolution for 2020?
SS: Ooh, I haven't come up with one yet. Maybe get back in shape.
Your workout begins on the stage of 54 Below on New Year's Eve!
Follow Seth Sikes on Twitter and Instagram @sethsikes