Hello, NiteLife Exchange Readers! After my first two assignments for this website that is “all about entertainment,” its publisher, Scott Barbarino, has invited me to write my own weekly column, entitled “What Was I Thinking?” expressing my unique viewpoint on varying topics related to the arts, usually using a current show or event as a jumping-off point. You may very well ask, “What was Scott thinking?”
To most frequenters of this website, I’m a cabaret director, songwriter and former producer of an open mic. What qualifies me to be a columnist? And won’t my continuing activities in cabaret and musical theatre present a conflict of interest?
You can formulate your own answer to the first question by perusing my biography, posted (or soon to be) elsewhere on this web site. Perhaps my crucial credential is that, for over 40 years, I’ve been a show biz expert and enthusiast. Not many 14-year-olds subscribed to Variety in
As for conflict of interest, first off, I won’t be reviewing, per se, the cabaret shows, plays, films, television programs, DVDs, etc, I write about, though my personal taste and opinions will be very much on display in these columns. I also believe in supporting my opinions with personal experience, so you may find me mentioning a past or current project I’m working on as a point of reference to something I’m writing about. Next, since so many of us in the cabaret community wear more hats than Hedda Hopper in her heyday, it would be virtually impossible to avoid mentioning artists I’ve worked with or may work with in the future. I will point out these connections, when appropriate, as best I can, in much the same way that NY1 reminds their viewers that they are a subsidiary of Time Warner, which owns the world.
Enough with the explanations and disclaimers. On with the show, this is it!
On Monday, July 5th, I attended the first in a four-week series of cabaret concerts called Sondheim Unplugged. Produced and directed by Phil Geoffrey Bond, this ambitious enterprise premiered at Don’t Tell Mama and will continue on Monday nights in July, at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. A rotating roster of over 40 cabaret and theatre artists will perform selections from the celebrated songwriter’s canon with only piano accompaniment, but, belying the series’ title, with amplification. The accomplished musical director Tracy Stark, has taken on this daunting task with occasional guest pianists to assist her. Each evening features a special guest who originated a role in the premiere Broadway production of a Sondheim show, in this case 2010 Bistro Award winner Sarah Rice (Johanna in Sweeney Todd). Joining her on Monday’s program were, in alphabetical order, Christina Bianco, Harris Doran, Eric Michael Gillett, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Trent Armand Kendall, Karen Mack, Cindy Marchionda, Susie Mosher, Mark Nadler, Karen Oberlin, Jana Robbins and Becca Johnson Southworth. The songs were grouped according to the shows they were from, with well-researched, at times humorous commentary provided by Bond. Future shows will find audiences listening to the likes of Carey Anderson, Lisa Asher, David Brian Colbert, Natalie Douglas, Michelle Dowdy, Barbara Fasano, Terese Genecco, Larry Hamilton, Joe Iconis, David Gurland, Audrey Lavine, Lorinda Lisitza, Rob Maitner, Liz McCartney, Miles Phillips, Shaynee Rainbolt, Leenya Rideout, Trevor Southworth, Elizabeth Stanley, Katie Thompson, Will Trice, Jonathan Whitton and Lennie Watts, with some surprise return appearances from the first night’s roster. Future scheduled original cast member guests are Danielle Ferland (Into the Woods, 7/12), Pamela Myers (Company, 7/19) and Pamela Winslow Kashani (Into the Woods, 7/26).
As I listened to the 14 songs from seven musicals and one television show (Evening Primrose) on display, I was reminded why I think Sondheim’s work has become such an integral part of cabaret repertoire in the past 40 years. It’s not just the amazingly skillful lyrics and gorgeous music. There are many terrific songs from musical theatre that would not function well as part of a cabaret show. Ideally, cabaret material should require little or no set up to stand on its own as a performance piece. It should also have enough weight and specificity to allow the singer to create his or her own personal take on the material. Sondheim’s work may have been written for well-defined characters ranging from Cinderella to George Seurat, but much of it achieves that unique balance of specificity and universality that makes an effective cabaret song. Take “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd, for example. Full of specific references to the character’s situation and the show’s time and place, the music and lyrics nonetheless convey the universal struggle of a beautiful, restless spirit determined to break free from the restraints which confine her. It doesn’t need a word of explanation to hold its own dramatically. Conversely, a deceptively generic ballad like “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Along, is carefully structured and composed in such a way that we wind up knowing more specifically about the singer and the relationship in question than initially apparent. In the hands of a talented cabaret artist, these songs become one-act plays that create a satisfying musical and dramatic journey for both the performer and the listener. Yes, Stephen Sondheim has been very good to cabaret.
But cabaret has been good to Sondheim, too. It is a primarily unsung hero in his work’s five decade journey towards the acceptance and stature it enjoys today. It may come as a surprise to some readers, but the original productions of most of Sondheim’s shows were not, well, they weren’t very … popular. Audiences at the time, particularly the typical, frequent theatregoers of the 1970s, were seriously divided in their reaction. As a 15-year-old, I will never forget exiting the Winter Garden Theatre after a Saturday matinee of Follies in July, 1971. Overcome by its brilliance and the beauty of its score, which I already knew by heart from its cast recording and sheet music, I was surrounded by mostly disgruntled people who would rather have been walking out of the smash hit revival of No, No, Nanette, or the 1970 Tony winner, Applause. Two middle-aged women were going on and on. “No story. No humor. And those songs! I couldn’t understand a word.” I remember interrupting them and starting to recite the lyrics of “Could I Leave You?” right there on 51st and Broadway. Their annoyance turned to wonder as I rapidly recited Phyllis’s litany of things she could leave behind. “Why… Why, that’s wonderful!” one of them said. “Why didn’t we hear those words?” “Because you weren’t listening,” I thought to myself. Or perhaps, accustomed to shows like Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof, wonderful in their own right, they were so put off by something so different, they couldn’t absorb the songs for their own sake.
Then, in 1977, a show called Side by Side by Sondheim opened on Broadway, imported from
The love affair has continued for over thirty years, and is still going strong at the Beechman this month, and at cabaret venues all over the country. Cabaret loves Sondheim, but Sondheim, I’m sure, loves cabaret, too, for constantly reinventing his work, for keeping it alive and vital and available for anyone willing to listen.
Sondheim Unplugged will continue at The Laurie Beechman Theatre on Mondays in July (7/12, 7/19, 7/26) at 7pm. There’s a $20 cover and a $15 food/drink minimum. For information and reservations, contact: 212-695-6909.