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Hello, NiteLife Exchange Readers! It’s great to be Thinking and writing this column again after a three month hiatus. For those of you new to these musings and unfamiliar with their format, let me (very) briefly reiterate some thoughts from last summer’s first column, “Sondheim at the Cabaret,” which, along with my other efforts, can still be read elsewhere on this site. Each week, I will be expressing my viewpoint on various entertainment topics, usually using a current show or event as a jumping-off point.
I won’t be reviewing, per se, the musicals, plays, films, cabaret shows, television programs, DVDs, etc, I write about, though my personal taste and opinions will be very much on display.
I may also draw on my personal and professional experiences, both past and present, with occasional disclaimers about possible conflicts of interest, in much the same way as NY1 reminds its viewers that it’s a subsidiary of Time Warner, which owns the world.
So, what have I been thinking this week? Lately, I’ve found myself pondering the relationship between musical theatre and cabaret. After all, I spend my days and nights going back and forth between the two!
As a member of the BMI - Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, I’m writing/revising two or three shows of my own while participating in spirited discussions about many of my colleagues’ musicals-in-progress. As a cabaret songwriter/director, I’m writing special material for various artists while working on shows as diverse as Janice Hall’s Grand Illusions, a non-imitation tribute to the life and music of Marlene Dietrich, and Adam Shapiro’s No Chestnuts!, a Christmas show with no traditional holiday music in it. As a neophyte member of “the press,” I’ve found myself attending shows in both genres, musical theatre one night, cabaret the next. So, that’s my life, folks, back and forth between the two, every day, every night, and you know what? They’re starting to look a lot alike!
Huh? Say what? After all, aren’t musicals today typically BIG - with elaborate sets and production values, often based on pre-sold movie titles, in venues seating hundreds of people who, for the most part, are there because it‘s a tourist attraction or they‘re taking Aunt Ruth out for her birthday? And isn’t cabaret typically small, with lights and sound often done on the fly, based on nothing but the singer’s desire to showcase him - or herself, in venues seating dozens of people who, for the most part, are there because they know the singer - or because they know them from musicals!?
At first glance, perhaps, but a closer look will reveal an encouraging development in both camps. Whether by choice or necessity, consciously or unconsciously, new, relatively youthful artists are bringing qualities associated with musicals to their cabaret work, while emerging musical theatre writers are bringing cabaret techniques to their projects. New musicals are starting to become more intimate and personal, breaking down that traditional fourth wall between performer and audience, while cabaret shows are becoming larger in scope and more adventurous in style and subject matter, with stronger “arcs” and increased integration between songs and “patter.“
Recently, I’ve seen several examples of this. In this week’s column, I’ll look at cabaret shows that remind me of musicals. Next week, I’ll explore musicals that remind me of cabaret.
Last week at the Duplex, Nikki MacCallum, a cabaret newcomer with musical theatre roots, performed her own take on a topic all too frequently explored in cabaret - the dating game and how difficult it is for a single woman to find a suitable man in Manhattan. However, her show, entitled Matchmaker, Matchmaker, I’m Willing to Settle, had some unusual things going for it. Using a power-point video display as a visual garnish, MacCallum’s journey through the world of computer dating was full of specific characters and situations, with protracted monologues that organically segued into the songs she performed. One would have thought the show had been scripted by a veteran musical theatre librettist. Whether eating a meal from Boston Market while singing “A Dieter’s Prayer,“ or using the “Finale” from the 1973 Broadway musical Seesaw as a perfectly suitable finale to her own show, MacCallum proved that stealing from musical theatre can make a cabaret cliché, like man-hunting, fresh and viable.
Over at Metropolitan Room, 2009 Bistro Award winner Deb Berman was tilling the same field and also using musical comedy tools to do it! Although her new show, All in Good Time, wasn’t entirely focused on the search for a mate, one of its highlights, a speed-dating episode using the Burton Lane/Ralph Freed standard “How About You?” as its musical base, shows how a cabaret artist can integrate her musical material and her so-called “patter” (and isn‘t it time we referred to what a singer says between songs as a show’s script and not something reminiscent of raindrops?!) into a seamless sequence rivaling anything in musical theatre. Directed by Susan Winter and musical directed by its only musician, guitarist Sean Harkness, the show will be returning in December to a different venue, Don‘t Tell Mama. (Disclaimer: I wrote Ms. Berman’s title tune with composer Barry Levitt.)
As an example of how a cabaret artist can explore unusual subject matter, 2010 MAC Award winner Hector Coris will reprise his Life Is Wonderful for a final performance Nov. 16 at Don’t Tell Mama. In his exploration of that ever popular topic, death, Coris brings both an irrepressible sense of humor and a poignant sensitivity to the songs he sings. One is also struck by the variety of the musical theatre material he includes, ranging from Zorba to The Drowsy Chaperone. He proves that, with nothing less than the world’s entire song catalogue to draw from (plus special material from contemporary songwriters, to boot!), there is no limit to the choices an adventurous cabaret artist can make or the chances he or she can take! He also proves that one's intelligence, talent and taste are practically all one needs to create a satisfying evening of entertainment. (Okay, there was also a musical director/pianist, a cellist, a director, a tech director, a mic and a stool involved, too. Not to mention the one thing every show, whether a musical or cabaret, has in common: money!)
Speaking of which, there’s a lot of that, among other things, on display over at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, where Kevin McMullan’s Twist of Fate will be resuming performances on Nov. 20. Exploring much the same theme as Hector Coris, death and its aftermath, McMullan’s show is, by cabaret standards and, in contrast to Life Is Wonderful, a mega-production. With six musicians, three other cast members (Adam Hemming, Sierra Rein and Dara Seitzman), a set, costumes, tons of staging, Lord knows how many light cues, and even a one-woman ballet (!), one is truly impressed by the professionalism and creative artistry of musical director Mark Janas and director Miles Phillips in effectively executing what amounts to a fully produced musical theatre piece on a cabaret time table! Whether this collage of psychic phenomena, reincarnation, gypsy folklore and McMullan’s own personal experience of losing a loved one, ultimately succeeds as either cabaret or musical theatre or both, I will leave to others to decide. (See Rob Lester’s review, elsewhere on this website.) But one can’t deny the ambition of the enterprise, a fine example of cabaret stretching itself beyond its usual boundaries.
Finally, at The Duplex, there’s the currently running (till Nov. 12) latest production of Opening Doors Theatre Company, a shortened, revised version of the 1965 cult musical Drat! The Cat!, with book and lyrics by Ira Levin and music by Milton Schafer. Although I’ve yet to see this latest effort by the Bistro Award-winning company, if last season’s Subways are for Sleeping and Is there Life After High School? are any indication, it’s a must-see for any musical theatre “flop collecto,r” and believe me, there are enough of those to fill the tiny Duplex many times over! Speaking of tiny, to see the typical talented Opening Doors cast do a fully staged, off-book version of a '60s musical (hardly a small-cast, shoestring budget genre) on the Duplex stage is to witness what cabaret ingenuity and making magic on a dime is all about! Much credit must go to the company’s Artistic Director Suzanne Adams and its Associate A. D., Hector Coris. (By the way, Mr. Coris will be sorely missed when he leaves New York at the end of the year.)
So, the next time you have a yen for musical theatre and can’t afford the price of a Broadway, or even an Off-Broadway ticket, why not look at the cabaret listings carefully? You may find a mini-musical playing at a club near you that will cost, with tax, tip and the price of two drinks, less than half of what the in-a-theatre equivalent will set you back. As my mother would say, “Now, that’s a bargain!”
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