Poetry slams have been around for at least 14 years but have not yet penetrated the general public consciousness. "I had to explain to Sondheim's agent what slam is," Cabico relates. "I don't think Sondheim really knew, either." On the other hand, "some of the poets didn't know who Sondheim was."
In a regular slam, poets are judged based upon content and performance, but the Sondheim Slam focuses more on interpretation. Cabico assigned the pieces, making an attempt to tailor them to the style of each poet. "There are some words that are just not in someone's vocabulary or diction," he explains. "I have to give the poets something they can work with under pressure, that can fit what they can do. It's not necessarily what I think should be in the show, but what these poets can sell and work."
Participants include Evert Eden, Yolanda Wilkinson, Helena D. Lewis, Maida Del Valle, Shappy Seasholtz, Cristin O'Keefe Aptoicz, and Patricia Smith. At first, some of them found it difficult to divorce the lyrics from the music. "Yolanda cannot do 'Children Will Listen' from Into the Woods," says Cabico by way of example. "She just can't. She starts singing it. It's better if you don't know the song; that really, really helps. Someone was trying to do 'America' from West Side Story and started singing. I had to tell them, 'No, no, you can't do that. We don't have the music rights!' "
The first Sondheim Slam was performed at Joe's Pub on January 6 to a crowd that seemed to be a mix of Sondheim devotees and performance poetry buffs. (It's rumored that Sondheim himself plans to attend the next slam, slated for Sunday, January 20, but no official word has come down on this.) Cabico has also recruited celebrity judges: Lea DeLaria served in that capacity for the first slam, George C. Wolfe and Mos Def are signed up for the second, and Cabico is also trying to get Mandy Patinkin.
The judging adds an element of surprise to the evening. "The scoring is 1-10," explains Cabico, adding that "10 is if it deserves a Tony nomination." The audience is encouraged to cheer or boo the scores; the judges, in turn, sometimes talk back to the audience. After being booed twice in a row for giving what many in the audience perceived as a low score, DeLaria stood up and shouted back to the crowd: "I'm obviously the Eastern Bloc judge. Christ!"
In the hands (and mouths) of the poets, Sondheim's lyrics take on new and sometimes unexpected meanings. Cabico's version of "Sooner or Later" (from the film Dick Tracy) drips with homoeroticism. African-American poet Helena D. Lewis turns the vaudeville number "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum into a biting social satire that is as much about race as it is about class. Cristin O'Keefe Aptoicz brings out the sexual subtext in "Cool" from West Side Story by way of a breathy voice and a coquettish manner, wrapping her mouth around the words "Boy, boy, crazy boy / Stay loose, boy / Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it / Turn off the juice, boy."
The future of the Sondheim Slam is uncertain; no dates beyond the January 20 performance are scheduled as of yet. In the meantime, Cabico has his plate full with other projects. He's in the Off-Off-Broadway show Reddy or Not, opening on January 23. Then he'll be working on a new piece with longtime collaborator Aileen Cho, to be featured in the Downtown Urban Theater Festival at the end of February. But Cabico definitely wants to continue slamming with Sondheim. "I think this really has the potential to run," he says, "but it's a weird thing. You can't just get an actor from Juilliard to step in and do a show like this. You need a slam poet--someone who's really carved out a persona, a style, and a certain life-and-death struggle with language."
Although the poets involved are obviously having fun with Sondheim's work, they are also quite respectful. "No one has butchered anything," laughs Cabico. "Because you're being evaluated in the slam, you've got to really mean it. Sondheim's agent came to the first slam and was pleased that the poets stuck faithfully to the text. She also said that Sondheim would probably be the least surprised about the success of the event. He knows his powers as a poet."