Cabaret and Politics: A Brief Observation of 100 Days

BY MARILYN LESTER**** It’s long been debated why creatives, as a body, tend to be liberally open-minded and progressive. Perhaps it’s a heightened sense of empathy, but artists seem to easily embrace the philosophy of the common good – a belief that, if it happens to one, it happens to all. The impulse to create can also powerfully move the artist to act as a vehicle and voice for social change. Thus, from the earliest civilizations, in all manner of expression, creatives have engaged in activism, resistance and protest, even at the peril of their lives. Political theater in ancient Greece, for example, was popular and vibrant. Even Shakespeare used his art to satirize the politics of the day, as did Gilbert and Sullivan in the Victorian era. In New York City in the 18OOs, Thomas Nast famously used cartoons to oppose the political machine. Meanwhile, European cabaret emerged as a popular (and sometimes underground) means of social commentary, characterized as theatre “by the people, for the people.”

And so it was on and after Election Day 2016 that the cabaret community sprang into action, taking to heart Carrie Fisher’s entreaty to “Take your broken heart and make it into art.”

It was a response exemplified by Election Night tweets across the creative community. “We have done a terrible thing. We have done a terrible thing,” tweeted Martha Plimpton. Sara Bareilles tweeted, “God help us.” Cheyenne Jackson tweeted, “A true American Horror Story,” while Kristin Chenoweth simply tweeted, “Not good.” And on and on it went, with countless artists venting and expressing themselves perhaps in words and ways never before seen.

Then, what happened next was quite extraordinary. As a reviewer who spends a great deal of time in cabaret rooms, I experienced an unprecedented response to the election that carried on uninterrupted for about 100 days. Without fail, every single show I attended, from Tuesday, November 8, 2016 onward, contained some level of political commentary against the results of the voting. There were plenty of “formal” responses, but the one of which I write was grass-roots: unplanned, spontaneous, gushing forth as blood from a wound. From the viscera, an entire community of artists felt a strong need to express and share their pain. Some performers were subtle, some more voluble and direct. Yet, whether tangential or delivered as an outspoken statement of disbelief/ horror/ resistance/ disgust/ terror – fill in the blank – the cabaret stage became a platform of protest. The need to respond to outrage was necessary for performer and audience members alike. All ears in the room needed to hear that we were not alone, there are kindred spirits with whom we are a part and with whom we can find solace. We’re in this together was the message. It was a kind of group therapy that was clearly needed and almost unanimously welcomed.


Above: a Thomas Nast cartoon

Eventually, as the inauguration of 45 proceeded, and as time wore on, performances resumed “as usual.” But that is not to say the community of artists in New York City (and beyond) grew silent. Far from it. The current political climate demands constant resistance and creatives know it. With an administration that considers support of art and humanities imprudent and unnecessary, efforts to eliminate art funding are everywhere being challenged – as they must be. We in the community know only too well the real and present dangers of any effort to snuff out critical voices and freedom of expression. The spontaneity of protest may be gone now, but the activism continues. As per the promotion of a recent show at Feinstein’s/54 Below: ‘They may try to silence us. They may try to break our spirit. Nevertheless, We Persist.”