When I’m not taking in a musical or a play, you can usually find me at one of the city’s fine cabaret venues: 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, Birdland and the ever-swank, Cafe Carlyle. I love a great cabaret performance, and the whole ambiance of the night; or as my ex would say, “Steve loves a good dinner theater.”
However, the last year’s dealt a few blows that left me wondering, what is the future of New York City’s great cabaret tradition? Feinstein’s at Lowes Regency shuttered their doors, and Elaine Stritch, a stalwart resident of the Carlyle Hotel, packed her bags and moved to Michigan, leaving a hefty open bill at the Cafe Carlyle (referring exclusively to their performance schedule, of course).
So, to get some perspective on what the future might hold, I took a trip downtown to catch up with an old friend and celebrated performer, Tori Scott — as well as spent a lovely Saturday morning chatting with the legendary “host with the most,” award-winning entertainer, Birdland’s own Jim Caruso.
Tori Scott, “I’ll Regret This Tomorrow”, Joe’s Pub (February 6, 2014)
Show co-written by Tori Scott and Adam Hetrick*
In December, Tori Scott’s show at Joe’s Pub was selected as one of 2013’s top-10 cabaret performances by Time Out New York, among fellow up-and-comers, as well as Broadway and TV veterans like Rebecca Luker, Laura Benati (who earned acclaim for her role as Elsa in the live NBC production of “The Sound of Music”), as well as the grand dame herself — an icon from uptown to downtown (Lincoln Center, Broadway, cabaret) and around the world — Barbara Cook.
However, here’s what I’ll say sets Tori and her fantastic show apart from her celebrated peers – she’s one brassy, beautiful bitch, who seamlessly transforms from broadway, to pop tunes, all the while entertaining you with hysterical stories of her nearly unbelievable tales as a single girl in New York City.
Kicking-off with my favorite song by Queen, “Don’t Stop Me Now,” she launched into a series of party-themed songs and anecdotes, like how she learned the hard way that pushing for that last puff off a joint can leave a gal without eyelashes. Or how, sometimes risk actually leads to reward, like accepting a ride from a total stranger because frankly, “it’s cheaper than a cab ride home.”
Playing to a packed house at Joe’s Pub, Scott had them all in stitches but I don’t want to show bias. Instead, I think Scott’s humor is best summarized in a quote by comedian Lisa Lampanelli, the “Queen of Mean,” “Every comedian knows, comedians don’t laugh… [except] when I saw Tori Scott at Joe’s Pub… and I laughed for a full hour. How’s that for fu*kin’ funny?!?”
However, her comedy aside, it should be recognized that Scott also has a great set of pipes on her that could rival many of the leading ladies playing uptown in Broadway’s best musicals. With a soulful range and commanding belt, she treated her audience to an array of broadway and pop tunes, all interweaved with her comedic tales.
For instance, when sharing her approach to babysitting her niece and nephew, she noted that the best way was to drink a bottle of wine while the kids play, that way she knows it’s bedtime around eight — or when the two look like four. From this, she launched with confidence into a powerful rendition of “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” a song traditionally associated with the one-and-only Judy Garland.
But she nailed it – along with other songs including “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “You Ought to Know” (Alanis Morissette), and “The Way You Make Me Feel” (Michael Jackson).
This is a girl whose childhood friends from Texas are “on their third child, while she’s on her third iPhone,” making her true and relatable to a young NYC audience, a riot to listen to, and joy to hear sing.
Other stories included her admitted love of gay boys that’s led to twisted perceptions, like around the premise of the movie “Her.” She thought it was a gay film about the boy no one wants invited to a party as in, “oh… Herrrrrrrr,” and the fact that she simply can’t be a lesbian because she “has a lazy tongue” (which launched her into a themed set including Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” and Annie Lennox’s “Why”).
She even shared stories from her favorite film as a child, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which is why she believes she “supports legalization of prostitution.” Weaving in beautiful renditions of songs like “Movie in My Mind” from Miss Saigon and Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas,” she explained how she played out stories like “Whorehouse” with her “brothel” of Barbies, but not Skipper – because she was too young. Instead, Skipper would support the house and perform “back-alley abortions.”
When catching up after the show, Scott relayed to me that she truly felt that cabaret was alive and well, just in different venues and forms than it’s typically been defined.
She said, “I used to not like the word, ‘cabaret’ because in my opinion I felt like I was too young to say I did it. To me, cabaret was always older people in their pearls, lounging on then piano and telling stories of the good old days and singing jazz standards, which is always a lot of fun but didn’t feel young and vibrant.”
Instead, she’s worked with Adam Hetrick and her team to craft a show that “I hope they can find relatable. Being single in New York, with a sort of Peter Pan complex that comes with living here. When you live in the city and don’t have a family, its hard to realize your true age. People in their 30s where I’m from have a very different life than I do, which I think people here can relate to.”
Regarding the state of this city’s cabaret traditions, she seems to think it continues to grow with new performers and venues (like The Duplex, Joe’s Pub and the highly regarded 54 Below that opened in 2012, where Scott has also performed her solo show), and evolves along with different forms of performance and music.
“I think there’s just a need for something fresh and new, and there are a lot of people doing that right now,” Scott told me. “I think Broadway has changed so much. It’s commercial – they don’t take as many risks as they used to. So, to be creative, people are venturing more off broadway to these cabaret venues to be creative like Erin Markey, Bridget Everett, and myself, to create our own sort of style, as opposed to what you find on Broadway.”
Lastly, she did assure me that Skipper’s no longer in some back alley. No, “Skipper is now a part of the brothel. She’s matured, she went to college.” Thank goodness.
* “I’ll Regret This Tomorrow” was directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn (“Les Miserables”, “Evita”, “A Little Night Music”), featured musical direction by Jesse Kissel (“Leap of Faith,” “Chicago” national tour, “The Scottsboro Boys” L.A. premiere). Scott was accompanied by Kissel on piano, Mat Fieldes on bass, and Mike Lunoe on drums.
Jim Caruso, Award-Winning Performer & Host With the Most, “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” at Birdland
To get some additional perspective, I caught up with Jim Caruso, one of the best known names in New York City’s cabaret scene today, to hear what he thought the future might hold, compared to its “heyday”. Headliner, recording artist, six-time MAC award winner and co-star of the Tony-nominated show, “Liza’s at the Palace,” Jim knows a thing or two about our great theater traditions.
Similar to Scott, Caruso said, “It kind of bothers me when I hear people say that cabaret is dying or cabaret is on the decline. I think cabaret has always been a very fragile art. I think we look back on the 40s, 50s and 60s with great nostalgia. But, it just so happened that the performers then were singing what were the standards of the day.”
Instead, he sees the future as a mix of both continued celebration of the Great American Songbook, combined with innovation and new music infused by the younger generations. In fact, he’s “thrilled that there are young, up-and-coming performers singing original tunes, singing songs that are more contemporary because that’s the only thing that’s going to get a younger audience.”
Additionally, he emphasized that the definition of cabaret shouldn’t be restricted to the typical image of a lady at piano belting out show tunes. Instead, it’s fluid and the music and performers can take many forms, even in some ways reflected by the audiences attracted to singer-songwriters or other music, as Caruso admitted, “I think it is great and I don’t think cabaret is dying. There are downtown clubs that I don’t even know about… and that’s a really good thing.”
“In the 60s, cabaret was certainly contemporary music, it was folk music, it was rock and roll. See I don’t think cabaret means a certain style of music and I think a lot of people do. Oh, cabaret – that’s a woman in sequins singing Gershwin. No it’s not. That’s just one small slice of the pie,” said Caruso. “Broadway singers singing show tunes, people singing standards, comedy, country, pop. If it can be sung in a small room, it can be cabaret.”
However, he’s quick to also defend cabaret’s roots, noting the amazing traditions of the 20s, 30s, and 40s that did help our nation build the famed “Great American Songbook.”
Citing his experience with Liza Minnelli in which they celebrated the great cabaret act of writer and performer, Kay Thompson. “Kay Thompson was one of the unsung heroes at MGM,” he said. Of course she received a lot of acclaim as a writer for Eloise… but no one [remembered her] nightclub act, until Liza called and said, ‘let’s do a recording of Kay’s stuff’. That’s how it started and we got to singing,” then they traveled the world eventually opening on Broadway. “It was the joy of my life to spread the word of Kay Thompson. [Liza] brought her name in to the 21st century.”
He’s also a tremendous supporter of Birdland, where he serves as an emcee and performer, and they typically book more traditional cabaret and jazz performances. “I’m so proud to work for 10 years at a club that has truly served the public with great music. The minimums are easy and the food is good. It’s reasonable without cutting anyone out.”
He also lauds both the person and venue that really help keep the highest form of the art alive, Michael Feinstein, who has been called the keeper of the Great American Songbook and Cafe Carlyle, which he feels is “the perfect combination of muse and booze.”
For more information about Jim Caruso and to purchase his albums visit, http://www.jim-caruso.com/. Additionally, to learn more about “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” held weekly at Birdland, visit “http://www.birdlandjazz.com/”
NYC Cabaret Venues:
For more information and to find a great cabaret event coming up this year, visit some of the venues at their websites, below:
54 Below: http://54below.com/
Joe’s Pub: http://www.joespub.com/
Cafe Carlyle: http://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/dining/cafe-carlyle
The Metropolitan Room: http://metropolitanroom.com/index.cfm[polldaddy poll=7784563]