Interview by Rob Lester ♦♦♦ Following up on our Night-of-the-Finals report on the ultimate winner of the second annual Mama’s Next BIG Act! cabaret contest, Joshua Lance Dixon, NiteLife Person of the Week, here’s our interview with him after the news sunk in the next day.
Visions of dollars dance through his head with the $1500 cash prize towards the cost of putting on a new cabaret show at the nightclub that housed the contest, Don’t Tell Mama, where his show poster will then adorn the wall of historic early shows. There will be a cost-covered graphic design package for that. He’ll also be interviewed for a feature story in a 2017 issue of Cabaret Scenes Magazine.
And, much has jokingly been made of the prize that, for fun, suggests the prizes on television game shows–a Hamilton Beach 10-speed blender that does everything you’d want a blender to do. “It grinds,” remarked the venue’s acerbic booking manager Sidney Myer, “And so do I.” The blender has been the running gag in each week’s kibitzing by the host, Lennie Watts, who –like the mercurial Myer — is a terrific role model of a performer himself. Josh can josh about that prize himself, posing with it, taking requests for smoothies, carrying it with pride, with a rose he was given. He remarks, “I’ve never loved an inanimate object so much.” JLD with Hamilton (not the musical–a Hamilton Beach Blender)
Of course, knowing he was hoping to win, but definitely not convinced he would, I asked him what it felt like after the runner-up was announced and there was an agonizingly dramatic pause and then the name of one of the remaining four finalists would then be spoken as the first-place winner. During the pause, knowing that runner-up (the only other male among the five) was not the winner, he thought of the three quite different women and made a guess. But when he heard HIS name come from the lips of competition host and creator (and the President of the cabaret organization, MAC) Lennie Watts, Joshua tells me, “I got really overwhelmed. My heart cracked open. I got chills and I couldn’t stop my eyes from watering.” He says he thought what he was feeling must be what winners on those contests we’ve seen on TV all our lives, from talent competitions to Miss America, where they bursts into tears of surprise and gratitude and disbelief.
Knowing that he’s fairly new to NYC cabaret performing, but has been in the city for some years and not out of the cabaret loop, I wondered why he hadn’t jumped into this competition or the longer-running MetroStar Talent Challenge (also created and originally hosted by Mr. Watts during his tenure as booking manager at the Metropolitan Room). As he jogs his memory about when how long he’d been living in Manhattan before he started to meander in the fields of cabaret, he suddenly gasps. “Oh! I just realized that today is actually the anniversary of the day I moved to New York!” And he has surprised himself as some memories come flooding back for the gregarious guy who lived in many places growing up—born in Kansas, he also resided in Alabama and Germany. Here in NYC, he had formal training as a theatre performer at Circle in the Square.
Turns out that the Dixon way is not always to jump into things. “Oh, I once entered a singing contest at a bar. It was horrifying.” Instead of getting judges’ feedback and points combined with audience member votes, as in M.N.B.A.! and MetroStar, “the people who come to the bar vote on who should be eliminated.” It was like those TV shows where viewers vote unpopular people off the island. “So, some friends of contestants come and vote to get rid of the people they think have a better chance of winning than their friends do.” So, with no feedback from any judges, a singer doesn’t know if he’s being booted because he’s bad — or because he’s too good and could steal the crown from the weaker competition who bring lots of buddies to the bar. “But I did make it to the Final 4.”
(But it was time to move beyond the far-less-serious contest at the bar…and raise the bar. In the cabaret contests, the audience must vote for more than just one person, and judges’ votes weigh heavily, with consideration to whether the hopefuls have absorbed the feedback and applied it as the weeks go by.)
Joshua recollects, “I knew about MetroStar and that it could be cut-throat. Lennie told me about Mama’s Next BIG Act starting up when I took a class with him, but I didn’t think that was for me.” Meanwhile, he was learning songs, making appearances, doing some recording, and had his first cabaret act, Fly Up!, that took up his time. If he needed encouragement about his cabaret abilities to connect with an audience, very positive reviews and winning two major cabaret awards for his debut and being nominated for another was more than a lovely boost. But he sees the structure of this week-after-week competition as a whole other thing. “I did like the idea of challenging myself every week and to be forced to learn new material.” So he thought about it again.
It was Lisa Yaeger, one of last year’s runners-up in the contest, who made him decide to get on the cabaret diving board and take the plunge. “I knew her from a class. She told me that the finalists that first year had actually been very supportive of each other and had bonded.” I have heard this repeatedly from the other 2015 runner-up, Wendy A. Russell, who found the competition to be a very positive experience, and her recent solo act and the group she’s recently become part of, Those Girls, which features on-stage supportive teamwork with sensational harmonies have been two of the major stand-outs in my recent cabaret-going. (Those Girls, which features three other female singers, including M.N.B.A.’s substitute host Karen Mack, is about to make the first of many happy returns on September 8 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre four blocks south of Don’t Tell Mama’s Restaurant Row/West 46th Street location.)
And, indeed, says Joshua, as he began the 11-week contest, “it felt like a safe environment.” And there was the valuable chance to again sing in front of room full of people, including strangers, each week if he didn’t get eliminated. “I hadn’t been singing in a while.” Sometimes, he was nervous and glad to be early in the line-up, as he liked to relax and watch the other performers. Other nights, he was set to go on near the beginning and was worried, “and I’d be thinking, ‘Oh, God, I need more time!!!’ And I’d see the other contestants not like that and I’d be saying, ‘HOW CAN YOU BE SO CALM?!?!'”
Cabaret is about presenting yourself as yourself on stage, choosing and then personalizing songs to reveal your perspective, with spoken material also included in revealing your thoughts and experiences to the audience. “I didn’t know people were going to do patter in the first round, so when I heard some people speaking, I made sure I had some patter. One week was easy–I was able to use something I’d had in my show and it went over well. Then I thought– Oh no, I have to be this good again next week!!”
I inquired about his decision process when choosing material. “One week I came in with ‘Make Someone Happy,'” and he recalls how he thought that gentle number from the musical Do Re Mi about a love relationship’s satisfactions being more important than show business success would hit the sweet spot he wanted after earlier performances that showed his ability to go for intensity and angst.
“But when I came to the sound check to rehearse,” referring to the pre-show runthroughs with the competition’s pianist, Steven Ray Watkins, “I heard what everyone else was doing and…” Well, he had second thoughts, with more than a teaspoon of panic. There was a little time before the audience was let in, and he made a decision to chuck that Jule Styne/Betty Comden & Adolph Green ballad and go for something splashier. But WHAT song? He didn’t have anything else with him. Suddenly, he remembered….. There had been that funny, endearing piece he’d sung on stage in a musical many years ago, and had done well with, “I’m Coming Out of My Shell,” playing a snail in an Alabama production of A Year with Frog and Toad, based on the popular series of children’s books. In the small window of time left, he raced to a hotel lobby where he knew they had a computer people could use, hunted down sheet music for the song, printed it out for himself and the (fortunately) quick-study Watkins, ran back to the club —wisely not yet getting into character as far as a snail’s movement— and pounded the lyrics and melody back into his head, hoping the old memory cells would regenerate at a rate speedy enough to make him look more prepared than scared. His instinct proved wise. This male snail didn’t fail to nail it, regale, and sail through to survive another round.
But those growing-up years were more snail-like in his becoming a performer. “I loved seeing shows when I was in school, but didn’t think I could be in them. The first musical I saw was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the second one was Pippin.” (That must have made an impression as a young man trying to find his way in the world, seeing a show about another a young man trying to find his way in the world, crystallized in the character’s tale of seeking his “Corner of the Sky,” a selection that the sensitive Dixon made for the competition’s final night.)
Growing up Mormon, trying to figure out who he was as a person during his teens, was quite an experience. “Seeing a [local] production of Godspell in my freshman year [a show based on the Bible, like Joseph….] “Well, and the next year’s show— Cabaret –well, theatre was a real eye-opener.” The frank views of freedom, sexuality, and depravity were quite something for the high schooler to add to his expanding world view. He got to know the cast members who played leads Sally Bowles and the androgynously devilish Emcee, both of whom had also been in Godspell. One gave members of the company opening night gifts and generously offered fan Joshua one, too. “It was a hand-made ornament. I was shy. But I thought, ‘Hmmm. I think I could be accepted here.'”
And so began his dipping his toe into the waters of performing and then a foot and then a snail’s full body and soon there was no place he’d rather be swimming. (And that’s still the case.)
So, the score to Cabaret was filed away in his brain, and its song about that necessary root of all evil, money, came in handy on the contest’s night where the theme was songs from movies, since the revivals of the 1966 Cabaret combined the original stage version’s “Money Song” with a number on the same subject added by writers John Kander and Fred Ebb to the score for the movie version. And who, to his teary delight, showed up to cheer him on that night? Those two actors he’d met when, as a teen, he saw them in the aforementioned shows. “I’d stayed in touch with her a little bit. She didn’t live in New York, but has a job where she comes in from time to time. I had heard he was living in New York, and I had connected with him on Facebook a couple of times, but I hadn’t met up yet. Well, she brought him to the contest that night.” The reunion was sweet nostalgia.
In remembering old times, he told me about a high school production he was in after he’d taken that theatre plunge’s first laps. He’s played Cornelius, the second male lead in his school’s hello, Dolly! That experience, like so many others, helped him out as an adult performer. “We took our school production to The International Thespian Festival in Lincoln Nebraska. The waiters had stopped the show with their dance, so from that moment on, I wanted to learn it. Remembering my high school teacher’s advice, ‘Just audition for experience’s sake,’ after I finished my training at Circle in the Square, I saw the audition notice and went to the dance call [for the professional production of Hello, Dolly!]. I didn’t think I had a chance because I was not and am NOT a trained dancer! But I had so much fun!” And he had the confidence he could SING the material. After several callbacks, he landed a role. “I thank the gods of the theatre over and over. and got offered my Equity card for that production at Stages St. Louis.” He’d already signed for Frog and Toad at a non-Equity Birmingham, Alabama children’s theatre. “So I was able to do both!”
He’ll have another special experience in a few weeks: “I’ve been asked to come back to Alabama because another theatre company there is doing Frog and Toad and once again, I’ve been asked to be the snail!”
His snail redux is how he’ll spend his vacation from his day job. Having to get up very early every weekday for employment outside the arts is not what he wants to be doing, of course, but it’s steady and there is rent to pay, alas, and classes that have costs, and cabaret shows by people he admires and/or is friendly with, of course. But the survival job with its long hours did have a silver lining as its pressures inspired one of his song choices-–something to pair with the Kander and Ebb piece for the movie-themed round. “One day I was flipping out at work, saying to myself, ‘I hate that the only time I have to discover and learn new material is on my lunch break at work!'”
Then it came to him. “My teachers always told me to put my life in my work.” And he thought of the Dolly Parton title song from the film 9 to 5. As Yente the Matchmaker says in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s a perfect match!” It proved to be a tough thing to learn quickly, in an arrangements where the two pieces went back and forth more than a flip-flopping politician. Not every turn on stage in the competition was a piece of cake. But now dedicated Dixon is having his cake and eating it, too, as a friend, the superb singer Lisa Viggiano (a recent returnee to Don’t Tell mama and cabaret), put it when he ordered carrot cake at his post-competition restaurant dinner celebration where I joined him to get a headstart on this piece and offer my own congratulations in what seemed to be an avalanche of hearty, happy hallelujahs.
Choosing and learning new songs week after week, coming up with arrangement ideas, and the crucial linking patter is time consuming when you have a full-time demanding job, long commutes, and other things on your plate.
But now that the sweet victory is his and the contest’s demands over, it will be easier to be less pressured in learning some other new material for a group show he’s part of at the Metropolitan Room on September 11 and 17 — It Helps to Sing About It, a revue of songs of Ben Schaechter & Dan Kael, writers of That’s Life, Goodbye Forever, and Pets. The night is being directed by Sara Louise Lazarus and also features include Celia Berk, Nora Davis, Marissa Mulder, David Perlman, and Kelli Rabke. “It’s beautiful music,” Joshua enthuses, “And the lyrics have passages that tug at my heartstrings. There’s also some asymmetry in the music that is really interesting. At the first hearing, I was very moved by a few of the songs.” He’s looking forward to his rehearsals and performances and sharing the stage with some performers and writers whose work he admires. “I’m really excited to be in that line-up!”
Then Joshua Lance Dixon will be packing his snail shell and heading back to Alabama (where some of his family still lives) and is eager for whatever challenges the coming months bring, including the show he’ll put together as part of his prize package as the man who IS Mama’s Next BIG Act! Unlike a blender where you just have to follow the step-by-step directions and everything is smooth, life and a performing career are more complicated and uncertain. However, he understand the high-stakes instance of taking a risk and how it can pay off, describing the experience as “the jumping-off-a-cliff moment — exciting…..and scary!”
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Photos of our NiteLife person of the Week live in performance in the contest and with coveted blender prize by Maryann Lopinto
Publicity photos courtesy of www.JoshuaLanceDixon.com — where there are more photos, news, resume, reviews, and performance videos)