Reports of Cabaret’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Reports of Cabaret’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Cabaret has been integral to New York nightlife for more than a century, but every so often, reports of its death — however exaggerated — cause a stir. The singer and educator Natalie Douglas, who arrived from Los Angeles in 1988 and has performed steadily at the storied jazz club Birdland and other venues, figures the premature mourning started “at least 70 years ago — as soon as people moved from the cities to the suburbs and had room to entertain at home.”

Douglas (age: “Not as young as I look”) is noted for her tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and the great Stevies of pop (Wonder and Nicks). Recently on a brisk afternoon, she arrived at a loft in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, for a confab with four other veterans of the cabaret scene. Tammy Lang, 57 — who has earned a devoted following through her titular comedic persona as Tammy Faye Starlite, an evangelical country crooner, and through her homages to Marianne Faithfull and Nico — perched beside her on a sofa.

Jennifer Ashley Tepper, 37, the creative and programming director of 54 Below — a Midtown hot spot known for showcasing Broadway stars, cult heroes and aspirants — joined, along with Lance Horne, 46, an Emmy-winning composer, arranger, singer and music director whose collaborators include Liza Minnelli and Kylie Minogue. Horne holds court Mondays at the East Village’s Club Cumming, playing piano for singalongs that stretch into the wee hours. Such late revelry is less common than it used to be, pointed out Sidney Myer, 73, who, as longtime booking manager of Don’t Tell Mama near Times Square, has nurtured careers for decades and is a performer himself.

Myer mused that when he got his start in cabaret, some 50 years ago, “the whole culture was different” in a few key ways. “People didn’t have a thousand channels at home; they didn’t have the world in their hands in the form of a phone.” And, he added, “They weren’t as health-conscious; there was smoking in all the rooms, and people weren’t watching their alcohol intake as much, or thinking about getting up to jog.”

Since originating in Europe, cabaret has accommodated both traditional and experimental artists; here it has encompassed comedy, drag and burlesque alongside curated American songbook compilations and more contemporary and quirkier musical fare. In New York, venues range from the tony Café Carlyle to downtown “alt-cabaret” spots such as Joe’s Pub and Pangea. At 54 Below, where Tepper programs some 700 shows a year, guests can catch rising composers and performers or the cast of a musical on its night off; Myer noted that award-winning stars were born at Don’t Tell Mama — “even a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

Recent years have brought fresh challenges around the country, including Covid shutdowns and legislation seeking to limit drag performances. But over a discussion that touched on these and other issues, all five participants touted the resilience of an art form that Horne described as a fusion of “radical self-expression and radical self-acceptance.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Talking about how things have changed in the past few years, a few of you mentioned that there’s less late-night programming than there was before Covid struck.

JENNIFER ASHLEY TEPPER A lot of things are different. In the collective trauma of the pandemic, people got accustomed to staying home, so often they aren’t willing to stay out quite as late. We still do shows at 7 p.m. and 9:30, but we don’t do 11:30 p.m. anymore. There are certain artists’ audiences that still haven’t come back. But people are starved for community. Post-pandemic, people started making more friends with other people at their tables. And there are new audiences and younger people.

LANCE HORNE At Club Cumming we still stay open till about 4 a.m. on Mondays, and we have an ongoing youth climate. You have to work hard to make sure people don’t want to go home.

SIDNEY MYER Don’t Tell Mama is noted for many things, including a piano bar that goes from 9 p.m. to 3 or 4 in the morning with singing waiters and bartenders, and the audience gets up and sings. Liza Minnelli and Marilyn Maye have gotten up there.

Has the price of a night out become an issue? Cabaret typically involves food and drink expenses, too.

MYER I think you have to start with the price of eggs. Many people feel, sadly, that theater and nightclubs are luxuries, not part of their survival — which is sad, because they could do so much for their quality of life.

HORNE We’ve seen people drinking less alcohol at our Monday parties, which is much better for their bodies, but not good for the performer if their income is tied to playing at the club. We just got a partnership with BKE Kombucha, and I happen to love kombucha. We’re just trying to keep things accessible.

TEPPER One of the reasons we transitioned to being a not-for-profit in 2023 is to support inclusive pricing; things couldn’t be based 100 percent on ticket sales anymore. A great thing that came out of the pandemic — which is a sentence we can’t use often — is the accessibility that has come from streaming shows. You have to create a balance because you want to keep things profitable for the performer and the venue. But I’ve found it’s become a marketing tool: People see something streaming, and they say, “I want to see that person in New York soon.”

How about social media? Has that been helpful in attracting new audiences?

TAMMY FAYE STARLITE Without social media, I don’t know how I’d do it. Through Facebook and Instagram and — I’m just going to call it Twitter — and Threads, you form friendships with people, too. There are obviously aspects that aren’t great; a lot of things I used to do blithely before, I need to think about them more now. There’s a balance you have to keep in mind. But cabaret to me has always been a little transgressive. When you find you can say forbidden things, it’s like going down a roller coaster.

Cabaret is constantly evolving musically, in part as our sense of what a standard is changes. Natalie, you coach students at public performing arts high schools for an annual competition held by the Mabel Mercer Foundation; how do they relate to older music? And how do we encourage a love of traditional pop while also promoting a more expansive view — and promoting interpretive singing generally?

NATALIE DOUGLAS The students must learn and perform a song from at least 50 years ago. The competition started with a cutoff of 1963, but we’ve moved it forward a bit each year, which I love! There are standards still being written. Some of these kids already have a love for the older music; they’ve discovered it on social media and YouTube and through their parents and grandparents. I don’t expect them all to become cabaret singers, but you can get them to think about how to use the songs to express themselves.

STARLITE I started as an actress, and while I always sang and did musicals, I’m not really a musical theater person — I don’t have the voice, and I’ve always loved rock. I got into alternative comedy downtown, and I saw everyone doing a million characters, and I wanted to do just one. Because I’m a liberal Jewish Democrat from the Upper West Side, I decided to be a right-wing country singer. Then I started doing other characters; I don’t separate cabaret from theater, really.

Black artists have been a pivotal part of cabaret history, from Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short onward, and over the past few years, there have been renewed calls for more BIPOC representation. Has that translated into substantial progress?

DOUGLAS In some rooms, with some programmers, absolutely. The Green Room 42 and Chelsea Table + Stage make a consistent effort, and Birdland has always been a place where you can see many artists of color. But some people have already stopped trying — they’re done. Aside from my solo work, I do revues, and there are people who work hard to make sure their rosters of artists look like the world, and then there are people who don’t, or don’t anymore. The last three years have made them really uncomfortable, so they’re happy they can put that aside now and just say, “I’m doing an evening celebrating Ella Fitzgerald” with all white people.

I don’t appear onstage with all-white bands anymore because I can’t be the only Black person onstage, especially since my shows are so political. Because I’m Black, and this is America. Some people just want to provide a respite from things that are hard; I want to give people that too, but I also want to give them a sense of: This is the world through my eyes. That’s what cabaret is all about; we tell individual stories and give our own perspectives.

HORNE Social media is the greatest ally for people who are curious and looking for BIPOC artists. There are great organizations like [an online directory of women and nonbinary musicians that allows users to search for persons of color], so there’s no excuse not to look.

Drag acts, including transgender and nonbinary performers, are central to cabaret. Platforms like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” have given artists like Peppermint and Jinkx Monsoon wider visibility than even stars of the form, such as Joey Arias and Justin Vivian Bond, have enjoyed. But we’ve also seen politicians trying to limit where so-called “adult cabaret performances” can take place. Do you worry about a chilling effect?

DOUGLAS We’re in ridiculous times. There are people who will not be happy until every bit of progress we’ve seen from 1954 on is reversed. But the thing is, I travel a lot and I meet people who are open-minded and interested in different things. They’re self-selecting because they’re coming to our shows, but I’ve had people tell me they heard something they hadn’t heard before that changed their minds. They want to know why Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam.” They don’t get up and walk out — although one family did when I played that song in New York.

HORNE Our community is everywhere. You hold space for them and you attract people, and it’s your job to let those people coalesce.

TEPPER I think one thing that’s so vital about cabaret is, when you see a movie or a Broadway show, it’s the same thing you would have seen the night before. But in cabaret, if something happens in the news, an artist can address it by talking about it — or by saying, “Here’s a song that makes me think about what just happened.” It’s always happening in the moment, and that gives people a platform to share their views.

And cabaret continues to provide a particularly intimate forum for that kind of sharing.

STARLITE Because you’re always talking to the audience, you’re including them. It’s like the original Greek catharsis: Meanings will change with different audiences, but whenever you find yourself wandering or lost, you can focus on them because they’re always with you. That relationship is key — it’s a constant give and take.

MYER Cabaret has always offered performers an opportunity to be themselves. People may think that’s common, but it isn’t. You could be the biggest star on Broadway or in Hollywood, but there are directors and producers telling you what to do. In cabaret, it’s all your vision, your dream. With many people who start here, the world has to catch up with them. Barbra Streisand was a cabaret star before she was a star in movies or theater; she was singing all kinds of songs, and reinventing beauty.

DOUGLAS There’s just the power of that room, and being able to take it all in; that sense of, I’m just like you — but completely different. We can see ourselves together and stop being so divided, just for a moment. We can all feel safe, and we can feel seen.

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