Friday, March 28, 2003
sound: Hearing cabarets growing appeal
By Sarah Rodman
Psst! Hey you, want to go to the cabaret?
If you do, youre part of a growing number of people in the Hub discovering
the joys of a little night music.
Now is an excellent time for that discovery, because March is cabaret
month, highlighted by this weekends Boston Cabaret Festival. Although
the month may be coming to a close, the numbers of performers and performances
has risen in recent years and options remain. In any given week, fans
of this fizzy and fun style of performance have a half dozen shows to
choose from throughout Greater Boston.
What is this thing called cabaret?
First of all people think of the movie Cabaret, which
is partially right, because cabaret started in Paris and then moved over
and expanded in Berlin, says vocalist Will McMillan, local repository
of all cabaret knowledge.
Then a certain segment of people, who maybe spend too much time
late at night on the Internet, think that cabaret means triple XXX, as
in a euphemism for pole dancing or lap dancing.
Members of the local music community are doing their best to dispel misconceptions
and wilkommen as many new listeners as possible with this weekends
festival in Cambridge and Lexington.
Everyone in the close-knit local scene seems to agree on two key ingredients
in the cabaret cocktail: an intimate venue and a singer who can make an
emotional connection with the audience through storytelling, music, humor
To me its good singing and good songs, says singer Jan
Peters, who has hosted a cabaret open mike night at the Encore Lounge
in Bostons Tremont Hotel for three years. Its a very
intimate concert where youre going to be entertained, youre
going to know something about the performer when you leave, youre
going to be touched, youre going to laugh. Its like a good
Sophia Bilides, producer of this weekends festival, says, One
minute youre laughing at the wit of one of the songs and the next
minute youre touched by the wisdom.
Dont fence me in
What constitutes the cabaret repertoire? Though the Great American Songbook
- a catchall term referring to everything from Gershwin to Sondheim -
is in regular rotation, it is certainly not the only well from which singers
The music doesnt necessarily have to be show tunes or standards,
says Brian De Lorenzo, president of the Boston Association of Cabaret
Artists. There are some great songwriters nowadays who are writing
for cabaret singers, and a lot of cabaret singers here and in New York
sing blues and rhythm and blues and folk songs, too. And even country,
because a lot of country songs are about heartbreak and falling in love.
McMillan cites his own concert favorites: folk and rock singers such as
Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel and local songwriters such as Barbara
Baig and Krisanthi Pappas.
Any old place with you
Venues such as Scullers in Brighton, the Regattabar in Cambridge and Club
Cafe in the South End - which all host cabaret performances - conjure
up the classic image of the smoky cabaret. But like churchgoers without
a house of worship, cabaret musicians make music wherever they can.
Bobbi Carrey has become something of a star on the public library circuit,
winning over fans among the stacks in Newton, Brookline, Boston and Brighton
as well as at her regular nightclub gigs. Also, universities are
great, says Carrey, a former Fidelity vice president and now a full-time
How long has this been going on?
Cabaret began just before the turn of the century in France, expanding
famously during the Weimar era in Germany, as portrayed in the Bob Fosse
film Cabaret, and then spreading worldwide.
In Boston, the scene has ebbed and flowed through the years,
says McMillan, who remembers a flurry of activity in the late 80s
and early 90s at Club Cafe.
In 1995, the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists, which grew out of
informal living room meetings held by local singers, established itself
as a place to support those people who are producing cabaret,
says De Lorenzo. Its 150 members include performers, producers and fans,
making it the go-to group for performers seeking accompanists, chart transposers,
collaborators or booking advice.
It pays to advertise
New York and San Francisco have dedicated cabaret rooms, but in the Hub,
performers generally have to rent out the performance spaces and produce
and promote their shows themselves.
Rumors have swirled in recent months that a dedicated space will be opening
soon, but Bilides says, I'll believe it when I see it.
Could a space promoting only cabaret shows thrive in the crowded Boston
entertainment market? Maybe not. De Lorenzo points out that even in New
York, a cabaret mecca, the rooms double as bars and restaurants. Cabaret
generally doesn make money for everybody involved. It best
to have a club that has other things going on.
Another hundred people
Though a dedicated club may be a pipe dream, the audience is growing.
Dayla Arabella Santurri has witnessed that growth as general manager of
Scullers jazz club. In the last couple of years it been really
tremendous. What happened in the last six months, especially, is
that I'm starting to see Scullers' (jazz) regulars cross over to cabaret
shows. It not an overwhelming wave, but it just starting to
happen, she says.
The performers themselves also believe the numbers are getting larger,
borne out by the growing number of performances.
People are producing more shows, and I don think they would
be if there weren people to bring to them because it a major
financial investment in yourself, says Peters, who works in the
offices of Bread and Circus by day.
The audience swell is attributed to a number of factors. First, there
is the grassroots organizing and out-of-the-box venue play, what McMillan
calls WHAM, winning hearts and minds.
Pop and rock artists performing standards, as recent Grammy winner Norah
Jones does, and such movies as Chicago also help, they say.
Current popular entertainment and events also may play a role.
I think that there is a trend going back to the real beautiful simplicity
of that kind of entertaining, says Peters. I know for me some
of the music that is out there is such a turnoff, a lot of stuff on television
is such a turnoff and I think people are going back to the basics, and
cabaret is such a basic, honest human form of entertaining.
Start spreading the news
Boston talent pool is crowded with quality vocalists. So crowded,
in fact, that Bilides had trouble choosing just 10 singers for her gala
concert event tomorrow night at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington.
I coulde easily doubled the (number), says Bilides,
who also oversees the association Web site.
My original motivation was that it would be great to pull this together
for one night and to celebrate what we have here, says Bilides of
last year sold-out event. Wee all doing our individual
shows, but I thought that the community had grown to the extent that it
deserved to be spotlighted in a larger context.
Isn it romantic
For anyone who might think cabaret audiences are filled only with well-heeled
sophisticates and stereotypically swishy, Judy Garland-loving gay men,
McMillan often sees a 30something mom and her cabaret-loving 10-year-old
daughter in the front row at his shows. Bilides gives thanks for all the
young faces she sees at her performances because it reassures
her that these songs, which she calls an American treasure,
will get passed down.
McMillan, a former rocker, advises music fans to keep an open mind. The
way in for the straight guys, he says, is for them to realize
that whoever theyre dating would probably love the experience.
So, if life is a cabaret and this is cabaret in Boston, then clearly life
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