Reflecting on the Hanson Award(s) for Cabaret

By ROB LESTER**** I ran into a smiling Ira Lee Collings at intermission of the final Cabaret Convention song-a-rama. The self-“I just wanted to get closer to the stage and touch it,” said the frequent cabaret attendee and performer, jovial recipient of last year’s Hanson Award from MAC, the Manhattan Association of Cabaret.  Livewire Collings is counting the days until October 29, his next nightclub appearance at Don’t Tell Mama on Manhattan’s famed Restaurant Row, AKA West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The name Hanson refers to Mr. and Mrs. Peter Hanson, whose generosity and interest in the art of cabaret brings worthy individual practitioners and preservers attention, encouragement and more than a little cash. The name had been prominently in the air during the first half of October 19 concert, when the Hanson-sponsored prestigious Julie Wilson Award was presented to singer Joie Bianco between numbers in a tribute to songwriter Hoagy Carmichael.  (My seat was just behind the broadly beaming Bianco parents who were in the front row, as unaware as their daughter was that the honor would be coming her way along with prolonged applause.)

The Hanson-generated honors have long acknowledged both newer cabaret artists with demonstrated potential and talent as well as those who have been around the cabaret block for years without yet getting their due.  Then they do get their due without further ado.  At this past year’s presentation of the Hanson Award to Ira, he sang the pensive and celebrational “Here’s to Life” (the lyric of which embraces “dreamers and their dreams”). There is an age difference of 65 years between dreamers Mr. Collings and Miss Bianco, who was, her mom told me, backstage doing her high school physics homework during intermission.  Ira’s homework these days is tweaking and polishing his entertaining cabaret act which has the same name as his proudly self-chosen sobriquet: The Gay Geezer. You can also find him at many an open mic around town and in the audience at many a colleague’s cabaret act.

It’s a small world, this planet called cabaret.  But the awards made possible by Peter and Linda Hanson make the names of some of its citizens —and their talents–more visible.  Mr. Collings’s director, Sally Darling, was chosen as MAC’s performer Hanson Awardee the year before he happily got it.  Darling and Collings currently have the same pianist/musical director John M. Cook.   Between solo appearances, this Darling diva is appearing at Don’t Tell Mama in Together, the group show which also includes yet another MAC Hanson recipient: Meg Flather, who got the nod in 2015.  And when October goes, November enters and soon finds yet another Togethermate  taking the solo spotlight: Lisa Viggiano.  And the last two days of November bring back two more Together gals, but separately: the Darling night of Love, Lust and Longing is the 29th and before the Mama month magically morphs into December, November 30 finds Josephine Sanges celebrating her new CD that’s all about celebrating Ann Hampton Callaway, with the aforementioned John M. Cook manning the keys.  (Celia Berk completes the bevy of Together participants, and she’d been onstage at the Cabaret Convention on Tuesday in the Gershwin night; she won the Margaret Whiting Award in 2015–the honor that Josephine Sanges was presented with in the second half of the Cabaret Convention’s closing event on Thursday after the younger Josephine (Joie for short) got her happy surprise, and audience members were reading the just-distributed issue of Cabaret Scenes magazine, which features articles about the teen wonder and Cabaret Convention queen wonder KT Sullivan and has Hanson Award winner Ira Lee Collings’s smiling face on page 13 as one of five recommended editor’s Picks and a review of Sally Darling’s act on page 27.  The magazine itself has a major supporter/donor in the personhood and pocketbook of Peter Hanson: you’ll see him consistently listed as a Diamond Patron on the page showing and thanking the contributors to the and indeed he is also the Executive Director and Secretary on the Board of Cabaret Scenes Ltd. You see how it all comes together?

And speaking of Together, all the ladies in that group show were nominees for last year’s MAC Award in the Female Vocalist category—which brings me to the qualifications for getting that special MAC Award named for the special Hansons. Unlike the majority of annual awards for which all MAC’s  membership may cast ballots, the Hanson is chosen through discussion and vote by a small committee.  The directive and restriction is that the committee must choose someone who is a MAC member, who has shown long-time dedication to working in cabaret and who, besides being worthy in talent, has never yet been nominated for a MAC Award.  I remember these stated boundaries well, having been invited to serve on the selection committee in past years, along with MAC’s President, Lennie Watts, Board member Sidney Myer, veteran reviewer and advisor Roy Sander and Sue Matsuki who has metaphorically worn almost as many hats in cabaret as Mabel Mercer Foundation head KT Sullivan has on her own head in the literal sense. The discussions were lively, often coming back to “Really?  That person is eligible?  In all these years was that performer not once a nominee in any category?  Debut? Group show? Hard to believe.”  As you can glean, while some Hanson winners may have gotten the response of “Who’s that?” from casual or new cabaret-goers, the familiarity increases from the attention, including the coveted opportunity to sing at the MAC Awards ceremony in front of a huge crowd at the ceremonies now held at BB King’s.  So, it’s been interesting to see someone like Meg Flather move from being under some nightclubbers’ radar to becoming a Hanson Awardee to a more frequently reviewed singer to a nominee in MAC’s Female Vocalist category and then winning that prize in votes cast by her fellow members, many of whom are singers themselves.  Or Sally Darling soldiering in these fields and then getting her Hanson nod and being MAC-nominated by the membership and now directing the reigning Hanson-anointed performer, Ira Lee Collings, that Gay Geezer audience-pleaser.

Among past Hanson winners have been Natalie Douglas, Lucille Carr-Kaffashan, Will Trice, Amy Beth Williams (a MetroStar runner-up who’s back at Don’t Tell Mama on November 13), Miles Phillips, Jeanne MacDonald, the late David Gurland, Maureen Kelley Stewart — and Angela Shultz, who memorably satirized the over-the-top performance styles and ever-modulating, power-notes-packed, modulating, buttons-pushing, envelope-pushing arrangements of TV’s “American Idol” competitors in a special number created by Brett Kristofferson.  Cabaret is a more nuanced art form, done with class (as in Sally Darling’s well-matched work from Noel Coward’s repertoire or when she directs the man she passed the crown to who has a twinkle in his eye and a song in his heart and a show right around the corner: Ira Lee Collings.

The Don’t Tell Mama shows mentioned above can be seen or have reservations made for at the venue’s calendar pages at www.donttellmama.com/shows —the address is 343 West 46 Street  in Manhattan