Hollywood has Oscar. Broadway has Tony. New York nightlife has MAC. The Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) is the umbrella under which divas strut, chanteuses enchant, jazz singers scat, and comics are a joke away from becoming sitcom stars. MAC celebrates the art of live performance, and that celebration will reach its apex this year with the organization's annual awards show on April 9 at Town Hall. On that night, winners in 30 different categories will receive the ultimate recognition for their work: the praise of their peers.
More than 100 nominees for the awards were announced on Thursday evening, March 2 at the Laurie Beechman Theater of the West Bank Café by comedian Julie Halston and composer Julie Gold, MAC winners in their own right, who read the list with entertainingly outrageous abandon. When Gold graciously suggested that "all of the nominees are winners," Halston comically countered: "No, they're not!" And after Gold read the name of Male Debut nominee Gregg Rodeheffer, she slyly remarked--to tumultuous laughter--that she herself had been called a "road heifer" in her time.
There was no laughter for the nominations themselves, only appreciative applause. Like any such list of nominees, however, are some controversial choices and glaring omissions. Why, for instance, was Mark Coffin's critically acclaimed show at Judy*s Chelsea overlooked in the Male Vocalist category? And how did the MAC process go so wrong in the Recording of the Year category, forcing the organization to put 22 CDs on the final ballot? (A complete list of all eligible CDs may be found below; the three final nominees, plus the winner, will be announced at the awards ceremony.)
Snafus aside, there are any number of categories in which the nomineees could hardly be improved upon. In particular, the Female Vocalist roster--including Barbara Brussell, Natalie Gamsu, Jeanne MacDonald, and Marilyn Volpe--is as richly varied in musical styles and personalities as it is highly competitive. In the Major Male Vocalist category, Michael Feinstein has strong challengers in Phillip Officer and Steve Ross.
Indeed, like this year's Oscar race, most of the MAC categories seem so wide open that any one of the nominees in each area could go home happy. Certainly, the audience at the awards show will go home happy: On tap to entertain are Robert Cuccioli, Faith Prince, Karen Mason, Alix Korey, and Julie Wilson. Special honorees Barry Manilow and Bobby Short are also scheduled to perform.
We asked Nancy McCall, producer of the event, if she was worried about comparisons to last year's unforgettable show, which featured Liza Minnelli's triumphant return to the stage. "The talent is just as good as last year," McCall replied. Then she playfully turned to the show's director, Thommie Walsh and asked: "Are we worried?"
"No," said Walsh. "The show is going to entertain and thrill people." McCall told us that "Barry Manilow may be performing something nobody's ever heard before. And he may be doing some songs he did way back, when he was in the cabaret world." Unknown at this writing is the identity of the star who'll present Manilow with his special MAC. We did, however, get the scoop on who'll hand the legendary saloon singer Bobby Short his award: nationally syndicated columnist Liz Smith.
It has taken the MAC Awards a long time to become the kind of high profile event that attracts the likes of Liza Minnelli and Barry Manilow. Julie Halston noted that such entertainers as Tony Award-winner James Naughton now proudly list the MAC Award in their bios. Added Julie Gold, "There is only one New York. To be recognized in the greatest city in the world for doing something of a creative nature is very important."
Halston agreed. "The MAC Awards are talked about on Regis & Kathie Lee, and on Rosie O'Donnell," she noted. "Let's face it: When you get the national press to cover an event, it's big. That's why I always get my hair done for the MACs." Speaking of (and to) the national press, Variety music critic Bob Daniels told us that he feels the awards have added "a lot of prestige" to cabaret.
The event's importance is underscored by the seriousness with which MAC members take their voting responsibilities; there are more than 1,000 eligible MAC voters, and it fell to them to nominate the finalists. As cabaret critics, we've seen the vast majority of the acts that made the cut for nominations, and--allowing for differences in taste--we'd have to say that the members generally went for quality over popularity. No doubt, they'll do the same when they cast their final ballots.
Entertainers count on that high level of judgment, in that the integrity of MAC means a great deal to them. "I'm thankful that MAC was formed when it was," said jazz pianist/singer Billy Stritch shortly before the nominations were announced, "because it provides recognition for an art form that tends to fall in the crack between concerts and theater. To win a MAC award is very gratifying because it comes from people in the field. And it helps visibility with the public, as well. I'm glad to have won a MAC--and, hopefully, there will be another one down the line!"
Stritch, by the way, made the final ballot. A complete list of nominees follows. But whatever the individual honors, the big winner on April 9 will be New York's cabaret community.