BWW Review: MEG FLATHER SONGS A CABARET SISTERHOOD Brings Powerful Women to Don't Tell Mama
My Mother taught me to respect women, to value their strength, their intelligence and the immense value of their contribution to the world, and I've spent five decades watching the ongoing rise of female power, and one of the beautiful sights in the world is women bonding together, offering one another the sisterly hand of support. It is a description that evades, but a force that pervades, that of the Sisterhood of women, and a lucky full house of cabaret-goers caught a fine example of it over the weekend at Don't Tell Mama, when some of the great female artists of their community gathered to showcase the works of one of the preeminent songwriters of the industry, Meg Flather.
For a long time people have sung the music of Ms. Flather, a winner of multiple awards for her work as a singer/songwriter, and, like those awards, Flather had amassed a collection of friends who will do anything for her, and who will do anything to sing a Flather song. So, when Sally Darling insisted that there be a show of Meg Flather songs performed by the Cabaret Sisterhood, 25 women said YES(!) to the suggestion and the show Meg Flather Songs: A Cabaret Sisterhood was born.
When you hear the phrase Standing Room Only, it's usually a slight exaggeration - there can usually be found a lone chair, a stool at the back of the room, a 4x4 space of floor where you can plant your feet. This was not the case at Don't Tell Mama on Saturday: this show was authentically Standing Room Only, as members of the cabaret world packed The Original Room to hear the likes of Lina Koutrakos, Karen Oberlin and Lisa Viggiano raise their strong female voices in strong female songs. The afternoon was, admittedly, ballad-heavy, but Ms. Flather is a musical storyteller, and the art of telling a story through song frequently relies on the ballad format, particularly when dealing with emotions and extremely personal stories like the decline of a loved ones' health due to dementia. It was, therefore, entirely acceptable that much of the entertainment was slower and quieter in nature. The key to not losing your audience to an unexpected nap in situations such as this is the perfect arranged marriage of artist to material, and Ms. Flather (assisted greatly by Lennie Watts, the creative consultant on this performance, and musical director Tracy Stark) meticulously positioned the participating musical artists to ensure that every match was one made in heaven. When Sally Darling opened the show with "Only See You" it was a performance of such powerful presence that all in the room ignored their food and drink until she was finished, and when Karen Oberlin dropped into the emotional pocket to sing "Mistress Waltz", it was pure musical monologuing. Duets from Heather Villaescusa & Lisa Viggiano ("It's About Time") and Helane Blumfield & Mary Sue Daniels ("Downstream") abounded with chemistry and pure joy, while three-part harmonies and an amazing connection made Lucille Carr-Kaffashan, Rosemary Loar and Tracy Stark's "My Heaven" a little bit of paradise.. Out and out comedy came from Becca Kidwell with "Too Intense for You" and THOSE GIRLS with an extremely topical "Like Me", while Deborah Zecher gave open vulnerability with "He Shares Me With a Lot" and Kathy Kaefer enchanted with the modern-day lullaby "Cause I Do".
Particularly exciting were Laurie Krauz's deep, rich, emotional ranges during "What Only We Can Know" and Lina Koutrakos' sly, sexy and sleek stylings on "September Man" - both women plunge to the depths in different ways and break the surface, sufficiently bringing home the power of Flather's lyrics, and everyone felt all the feels when Celia Berk delivered a lovely "Hold On Tight", Corinna Sowers Adler & Elizabeth Nucci sang "On The Second Floor", and Deborah Stone and Sue Matsuki performed "Like a Sunday" -- all songs about Flather's journey with her mother's dementia. Ending the show on a strong and optimistic note, Ms. Flather was joined onstage by Earth Mother, Godmother, Activist, Leader, Champion, Warrior and best friend to everybody in the cabaret community, Natalie Douglas, for "We Are As Strong", which featured every woman's voice, as they gathered in the audience, singing along with the twosome onstage to announce something that this writer has known, all along: that the women are here, that they are unified, effective, and powerful, that there is hope, and that they are going to change the world.
In the days following this show, I had questions for Meg Flather about her work, so I reached out to her with some questions.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Meg, was this the first time that this set was performed by these women?
On July 14th, the same set was performed but the cast slightly changes. So what's great is there's a chunk cast and then, depending on other peoples' availability, I've given other women an opportunity.
This concert was Sally Darling's idea, is that right?
What happened is I would love to give Lisa Viggiano credit, too. Lisa and I became very, very close the year of 2017. Josephine Sanges, Lisa Viggiano, Celia Berk, Sally Darling and I (all MAC award nominees in the same category that year) formed a show called "Together", and because of that show, we really bonded and became very close friends. And she volunteered that she was a fan of my writing and I was so blown away by that because my writing is primarily for folk-pop, folk-rock music. She said "You really need to incorporate it more in the cabaret world" and I volunteered to her that one of my dreams has always been to create an evening of women and Inclusiveness - of different ranges, different levels of experience, and different levels of success in the cabaret community, coming together and supporting each other and singing from where they were. She was at me to do something like this, but it was Sally Darling... this spring she said to me "You REALLY need to do it!" and when SHE says you REALLY need to do it, and you need to do it NOW... I basically went home and that night emailed Sidney Myer and channeled the right women.
Will there be an encore?
Oh YES! October 6th at 4. And November 2nd at 5.
I know that there are some songs on here that deal with your mother's dementia...
Yes. There's a lot of isolation and silent suffering that goes on, and I think that's why I write about it so much. In my case, I was very lucky because my mother's dementia manifested in a way... At different stages she had different moods, of course, the early stages she was a little more feisty and I had to work harder at giving her the help, and helping her to receive the help. Ultimately what happened to my mother, Becky, is she became so emotionally and physically available and it was a tremendous opportunity for me -- intimacy and healing with her... she's always been the love of my life, even my husband understands that. And in many ways I feel like I was born to do the last eight years of care ... it was 2009 when we started seeing signs, and then I moved her into my building in 2010, and she passed away in 2018. She became the sweetest, happiest, most calm little girl, and was so grateful for the bubble we created for her. It was interesting to see that through the dementia she no longer remembered that she was a widow, she no longer realized she had a daughter with special needs, she didn't know Trump had been elected (much laughter), she didn't know that her two dearest friends and her brother and her maid of honor had all passed away. So there was this interesting...I saw the beauty in the disease because of who my mother was in her life - she was that woman who carried everyone on her back. She was the Type A personality, workaholic, putting herself through school at night, giving and giving and giving and giving, had tremendous deprivation issues, and then through the dementia, all that turned around. She was eating and she was loving and she was receiving. And as long as she had her Turner Classic Movies she was happy. So I had her down the hall in a studio apartment with wonderful caregivers that cared for her the way they wished they cared for their own mothers, cause they were from all over the world - an extraordinary melting pot of women. So mom had lots of different foods and traditions, caregiving from India to Mexico to Poland to Jamaica. The best thing is I got to get part of her daily life, and as someone who didn't have children, it was the ultimate healing because I had a daughter. I had a daughter for eight years and that was my mother.
So I wrote the songs about what she taught me. The final song, that Celia performed, "Hold On Tight" was based on a moment when I went in and I was all worked up about something, and I was trying to conceal it. And she had a moment of clarity. She just put her hand on my face and gave me a look like "What's wrong?" and when she did that, the caregiver, Grace from Poland, said "Oh, Meggie! Window open! Window open!" and I knew in that moment to cancel my day and to stay put and be with her because the window was open, and she was available. She taught me to stretch time. She taught me to stay in the moment. I was that person with the three-year plan, the six-year plan, the ten-year plan. I have no friggin' plan now. I have learned the art of staying in the moment because she taught me, she demanded that I learn that. So that song is about going to THEIR world, and how, when you go to their world, you deepen your world.
"On the Second Floor" is all about the early stages, when she first moved on the second floor of our building - and the panic attack of "what have I done?" I remember when I moved her in, she was pretty independent in her old apartment, but by moving her into my building, she completely changed. She turned to me and I said "Ok Mom, enjoy your new apartment and enjoy your day" and she said, "You can't leave me alone." That's when I realized "Oh my god, what have I done?" When you move them, they drop. That was all about the first year of moving her in, but then again, what she taught me. It's all about how her dementia, even in the early stages, gave me this purpose. What's ironic is that within weeks of moving her in, I got the biggest job of my career, and having to care for her and be on top of her care, neutralized the anxiety of the job, the pressure of the job, and it was a sort of a gift because I considered the real job was her. So it helped me have more confidence at work and be less desperate for affirmation and attention. Because I almost treated my work with Mom as my job, and then my career as my survival job.
"Like a Sunday" is my song about losing her and my experience with grief. It's interesting when you lose somebody who's gone through a very long hard disease and they're ready to go. Because it is a blessing. But it's still your mother, and it's still your favorite person, and you are left behind. And so I wanted to write her a song because she deserves it and I talk about how the missing of her feels like a Sunday. That melancholy day before school starts, that melancholy day before vacation ends. And how I'm willing to feel that feeling for her all the time; and I want to feel it all the time. Because that's how we stay connected.
Helane Blumfield and Mary Sue Daniels
Sue Matsuki and Deborah Stone
Photos by Stephen Mosher