BWW Feature: Cabaret Today
Change is in the air, quite clearly.
Recently, I read an editorial by a cabaret journalist about the lamentable tendency that many of today's cabaret artists have in using their club acts as a kind of mushy touchy-feely, group-therapy session. The author of the piece (whom I both respect and admire) labeled the practice as regrettable and wrong, pointing out that their decades-long career in cabaret-going resulted in their having seen some ten thousand shows, none of which they walked into hoping to learn something about the artist on the stage.
Therein lies the answer to that journalist's unhappiness at this new development in the art form: the decades and the tens of thousands - that's a long time and a lot of shows to go through without expecting change.
Everything has a shelf life. Times change, and with it, change the styles and expectations of the society that is evolving with the day. If we look at the fashions of each decade in the last century, we can point at photos online or displays at FIT and say "That miniskirt is from the 60's," "Those hot pants are from the 70s," and "These shoulder pads and beads have the 80s written all over them." Twenty years ago, we would have looked at those photos in books, not online. In the mid-1980s compact discs replaced record albums (never mind reel to reel, cassettes, and 8 Tracks) but today a music lover doesn't even have to buy an album - they can subscribe to a streaming service and call up whatever random song creeps into their head, like I did this morning when I just needed to hear Jill Clayburgh sing "I Guess I'll Miss The Man" but didn't want to listen to the entire cast album of Pippin. Speaking of Pippin - observe the Broadway musicals of the past decades and a very distinct changing of the guard of styles can be clocked within those decades. Consider the different sounds between Cabaret (1966) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), A Chorus Line (1975) and Dreamgirls (1981), Les Miserables (1987) and Falsettos (1992) - the same approximate number of years passed between these decade-defining shows, yet each score is vastly different than the one separated by a few short years.
Everything must change, or so says one of the all-time great songs (by Benard Ighner) and the populace at large seems to be aware of that fact. Still, there are times when each of us pauses for a moment in the day to stare out into the ether and remember, wistfully, nostalgically, a different time in our lives when we were content, satisfied, happy. Those moments in our days are lovely and they are universal, but they do not negate the necessity to grow with the times - times that will change with or without our participation.
There is no reason to suggest the art form of cabaret should exist in a vacuum. There is no reasonable expectation that artists in the club and concert industry might adjust their standards to match those of artists whose careers, even whose lives, ended long ago. This is the era of transparency, of vulnerability, of absolute honesty. That is largely due to the social media that controls our daily lives. Some people have, with gritted teeth and heels fiercely dug in, protected their lives and their privacy by staying away from social media - and bully for them. No, really, more power to those people. There is not a day that goes by that this writer doesn't fantasize about shutting down his online footprint -- but I need it to do my work. It's that simple. Social media and transparency are the new wave; they aren't going anywhere, any time soon. Either we grow with the times, or we get left behind, and I doubt anybody does their morning meditation and comes out with the message "Hey, I think I want to become a dinosaur." Everybody wants to remain relevant, everyone wants to stay visible, all of us want to be active in our work and our communities, but human nature has always been disinclined to change -- at least human nature of a certain age. The young people of today embrace that which is new; they want to learn more, they want to move forward -- and they want to do it fast.
Note how quickly, during the pandemic, the youth of the industry took to their social media to connect with others. Performers of all sorts have expressed themselves creatively on their Youtube channels, their Facebook Live feeds, their Instagram stories. The Drinkwater Brothers were doing streaming programs within the first two weeks. Telly Leung was creating motivational workout videos in the first month. Garrett Clayton has released almost daily TikTok videos of himself singing, dancing, showcasing his makeup skills, and each video is a work of art that, clearly, took time and effort. However, he has also used his Instagram to share photos and stories about him and his fiance, Blake Knight. Orfeh and Andy Karl have been a prolific presence on their Instagram, using silliness and seriousness to comment on the world at large, their work, and their life at home. The smartest of the senior members of the business took to the internet to share themselves and save themselves. Judi Dench has declared that having her grandson Sam teach her how to use TikTok saved her life in quarantine, and Patrick Stewart inspired countless people with his regular readings of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cheesy though it may sound, we now live in Star Trek. We use communicators to talk and we can put each other on the big screen. And on those big screens, we share the stories about our lives and our journeys; we tell loved ones in our lives and strangers who love us, who we are, and what we want for them, for ourselves, for our planet.
What better way will we find to bring the transparency of today's world to the performing arts, than in cabaret? When you walk into a cabaret, a club, or a concert venue, you aren't going to hear an actor recite lines written for a character by another person - you're going to see that human being. In the performing arts, there is no venue more appropriate than a concert stage, big or small, to just be yourself. In the past, that wasn't the norm and it wasn't the form - you could sit in a club and listen to the greats just sing the songs. I don't think there is a single person who doesn't sometimes wish they could go back in time to see Peggy Lee or Nancy Wilson or Sammy Davis or Bobby Darin - or the big one: Judy Garland. Only the people who saw them know what their acts were like, but we are led to believe that they just stood at the mic and did their thing, which is great! But it was their thing. It is not Luba Mason's thing, whose show last season featured a painful admission that her first husband abused her. It is not Shani Hadjian's thing, whose act last year was ALL about overcoming her phobias and getting into the light. It is not Dorian Woodruff's thing, who built an entire evening on the stories that came out of the homes from his youth. It is not Jaime Lozano's thing, who specializes in shows informed by his life experiences. Today's artists of the club persuasion are, in fact, only doing that which they have been shown by the greats who light the way for them.
Joanna Gleason's show "Out of the Eclipse" and Jeremy Jordan's show "Carry On" are basically one person musical plays in which the former shares the painful but enlightening journey of saying goodbye to her parents within weeks of each other, and the latter shares the terrifying tale of what goes on in the head of the father of a newborn. Does that sound like group therapy? Yes, it does. Did the audiences ovate them tumultuously for many minutes at the end of their acts? Yes they did. Natalie Douglas does a series in which she pays tribute to famous singers and Ms. Douglas, who has never been particularly interested in censoring herself, shares the stories about why the singers and the songs are important to her, as well as her decades-long practice of sharing the stories about her life as a black woman (and some pretty sexy talk about her husband, Billy Joe Young). Kathleen Turner's entire club act is autobiographical and sells out every time - and Miss Turner would be the first to tell you that she has a limited vocal ability as a singer; nevertheless, she sells out every single time.
The less famous artists coming into cabaret, the newcomers - whatever their age - look to these more prominent performers for guidance. After seeing any of these shows, it wouldn't be a far reach to think that they might opt for transparency and a more personal touch, and that is their right, just as it is the right of every artist who prefers NOT to share their story onstage. Arguably the greatest living nightclub singer in the business, Marilyn Maye does not talk about her life: she sings the songs, she tells the stories in those songs, bringing her worldly wisdom to each of those individual journeys. When Kristen Lee Sergeant takes the stage, she is there to show her expertise at the art of jazz singing. But if Ari Axelrod is up there, you can expect him to talk about Judaism, and an installment of The Lineup with Susie Mosher features more interpersonal loquacity than you ever thought you would experience in a nightclub. Try telling Nathan Lee Graham or Samantha Sidley or Shakina that they can't bring their truth to their club act... um... no. That ain't gonna happen. Drag artist Latrice Royale was once incarcerated and comedy goddess Julie Halston was widowed but neither shies away from these intimate subjects during their shows. The point is that, in the year 2020 (especially in the year 2020), the art of cabaret is more fluid than it ever has been before - there are more opportunities to do the type of show YOU want to do, to tell your truth, to share your story, to be an artist whose heart and soul and journey inform their work. That is exactly as it should be. Because of ZOOM, and Facebook Live, and Instagram Stories, and TikTok, we have seen inside each other's homes. We have seen inside each other's hearts. We have seen our greatest fears put on display through our social media because we need each other, desperately, more than we ever have before. Everyone is in pain, worried, scared, and troubled by the thought that they might disappear. By sharing our stories, we remain safe in the fact that attention has been paid.
Cabaret is not an isolated art form; it requires the willing and human participation of every member of the community, on the stage, in the audience, behind the scenes, behind the screens. There is no benefit in rhetoric that derides and diminishes a person's artwork; even as journalists, we can say a person needs to spend more time with their voice teacher, or tighten up their script, or even learn the words to their song - but we can do those things, as journalists, and as audience members, without asking the artists of the industry to compromise their artistic vision, their personal expression, in order to fit into an outdated box of expectation from fifty or sixty years ago. Those artists from back then, the style from back then, the shows from back then - they were wonderful, weren't they? But they are not the artists and styles and shows of today.
The year is 2020 and soon it will be 2021. Let's throw a birthday party, light a candle, and celebrate.
Cabaret has come of age.