The 14th Annual MAC Awards at Town Hall on April 9 had more twists than Chubby Checker. From a slew of dark-horse winners to the record speed with which the show was concluded, this year's MAC ceremony had a spin all its own. That spin was largely applauded by a sold out audience that gave standing ovations to the likes of Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bobby Short, Board of Directors Award winner Barry Manilow, and Major Female Vocalist winner Julie Wilson.
More than 30 awards given, but the evening seemed to race by thanks to the rock 'n' roll pacing of Thommie Walsh's direction and Nancy McCall McGraw's savvy as producer. It started with a dynamic one-two punch: Julie Wilson's opening number, in which she was supported by many of cabaret's most talented male performers, was immediately followed by Liza Minnelli's emergence on stage to present the Male and Female Debut Awards. The evening held nothing back, going for broke from the start, and it paid off with a real sense of excitement.
The MAC ceremony never lost its edge thereafter; for every moment that was expected, there was another that was not. One of the biggest surprises had occurred before the show even began, with the naming of entertainer Jim Caruso as the evening's host. Some controversy ensued, because some thought Caruso was not "high profile" enough for the job. By the end of the evening, however, he was unanimously praised. With self-effacing humor, quick wit, and a puckish style, he himself was one of the night's big winners. Composer John Bucchino, who won a MAC that night, said: "Caruso was a wonderful host; I think he should do it every year. He should be the Billy Crystal of the MAC Awards."
Tim Draxl, an 18-year-old Australian, took home the award for Outstanding Male Debut in a very competitive category. "It was a huge surprise that I won," he told us afterwards, and he was not being modest--most observers would not have picked him as the favorite. (Fellow Australian David Campbell, who made the most auspicious cabaret debut in memory a few years ago, did not win in this category.) But Draxl's win was nothing compared to the evening's biggest shock, as the single-named "Thomas" seemingly came from out of nowhere to cop the Male Vocalist award.
There were many tight races. Some of the notable winners were Natalie Gamsu (Female Vocalist), Georga Osborne (Female Musical Comedy), Billy Stritch (Major Jazz Performer), Joyce Breach (Jazz Performer), Richard Skipper (Impersonation/Characterization), and Scott Barbarino & The Bev Naps (Musical Comedy Group). Carlos Martin was this year's winner of The Hanson Award--an honor voted upon by the cabaret press to acknowledge a performer who, as yet, had not been acknowledged by MAC voters.
Who Should Perform?
There is no surprise that the controversy continues about who should get those coveted entertainment spots during the course of the award show. On one side are those who argue it's wrong to bring in a Broadway star like Robert Cuccioli and a concert artist like Barry Manilow, when many performers who regularly work the clubs would benefit from the opportunity to perform in front of 1,500 cabaret enthusiasts at Town Hall. For instance, top talents Tom Andersen, Bobby Belfry, Charles Cermele, Scott Coulter, Tommy Femia, Eric Michael Gillett, Jeff Harnar, and Phillip Officer were all thrown into the show's opening number to act as Julie Wilson's back up singers; none of them had a chance to shine on his own. The idea to feature them was right, but the way they were featured (barely) was open to debate.
On the other side of the argument are those who believe that bringing in big stars helps focus outside attention on MAC and, ultimately, affords greater recognition and credibility to its winners. We have long advocated a middle ground, suggesting that part of what one receives as a MAC winner should be the opportunity to perform at the following year's awards ceremony. In addition to the high profile entertainers who are lightning rods for cabaret, perhaps two winners from the previous year should be chosen from a regular rotation of categories and given the chance to expand their audience by exhibiting exactly what it means to be a MAC Award winner. In an informal way, MAC is already leaning in this direction: Comic Ron Poole, who won last year for the first time, was given a chance to perform this year--and he caused so many waves of laughter, you would have thought Town Hall was experiencing a tsunami. (Poole then proceeded to win yet another much-deserved MAC Award.)
Who Did Perform
The rest of the entertainment was mostly of the same high quality. Avid cabaretgoer Vickie Stuvalla summed up the experience nicely, saying: "I had the chance to see so many of the performers I follow in the clubs, and I only had to pay one cover charge instead of 75 separate ones." A highlight was Karen Mason's blowout version of "I Can See It" from The Fantasticks. Then there was Robert Cuccioli's charming version of "Larger than Life" from his current cabaret show at Arci's Place. And, finally, there was Alix Korey, stopping the show with a number that wasn't half as good as she was.
As the evening roared along, the audience was fully warmed up for MAC's two special honorees, Bobby Short (Lifetime Achievement Award) and Barry Manilow (Board of Directors Award). After a funny, gossipy introduction by Liz Smith, Short really "sang for his supper," demonstrating the wares he's been selling at the Café Carlyle for lo, these 31 years. To cap the evening, Manilow accepted his award and then used music to explain his career journey. At one point, he stopped to list the extensive number of cabaret artists with whom he had worked as a musical director--among them, Jamie deRoy, Andrea Marcovicci, Margaret Whiting, and, of course, Bette Midler.
After the awards show was over, the crowd dispersed to at least three different unofficial parties. John Jerome and Kristopher McDowell threw a big bash at the West Bank Café in honor of Jamie deRoy (a double winner, for Outstanding Variety Show and for her CD "The Child in Me."). Over at Don't Tell Mama, the home base of a great many of this year's winners, there was plenty of celebrating going on as well; Tommy Femia eventually came out to the piano bar and put on a show of his own. And at Chelsea Lobster Company, Scott Barbarino hosted his annual MAC party, which rocked to the wee hours.
The show is now over and the parties have ended, but something is left behind. "For so many years," John Bucchino told us, "when I was living in L.A. and writing lots of songs that nobody listened to and nobody cared about, I think I yearned for this kind of family of artists and creative people to be a part of. I didn't even know I was yearning for that until I moved here, and people started to notice and respect what I do. The respect of my peers is the most important thing to me. So [the MAC Award] means everything." Christopher Denny, who won this year for Musical Direction, said much the same thing: "It's a very nice thing to feel recognized. It gives you the courage to keep going in spite of the obstacles that exist in this kind of business. It gives you a warm glow to help you get through the next few months."
For a complete list of the winners, click on page 2 below.