As we sat in the back of the orchestra, just a few hours to curtain, Julie Rose poured over the menus for that evening's performance of Cabaret, pointing out little changes that had been made during the preview period. Rose is the president of Sweet Hospitality Group, which is responsible for providing concessions at Studio 54, as well as 11 other Broadway houses. Cabaret is, by far, their biggest current project, with 15 people on staff serving an all-original menu of items inspired by the show.
After nearly a decade's absence, the popular revival of Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, has returned to its old home at Studio 54. The show centers on a Weimar-era Berlin nightclub and the strange and extraordinary people who frequent it. When they first brought their production to New York in 1998, Mendes and Marshall did something very usual for Broadway: They transformed the inside of the theater into the cabaret, putting the audience at the center of the action. In 2014, that kind of "immersive" theater is far more common: Off-Broadway hits like Here Lies Love, Sleep No More, and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 have invited theatergoers into the world of the play with action and design that envelops the audience. It's still a relatively rare experience on Broadway, however, meaning that Cabaret is unique in its league. Accordingly, it needed a unique approach to food and beverage service.
The show offers five different food platters with traditional German edibles like Black Forest ham, Linzer tortes, and pretzels. In addition to a fully stocked bar (complete with absinthe), Sweet Hospitality Group's resident mixologist, Michael DeMono, has concocted three specialty cocktails: The Toast of Mayfair, the Mein Herr, and the Don't Tell Mama. "We read the scripts to come up with the drinks, the signage, to decide what our presentation will be," Rose said.
In many ways, Rose is just like any theater director with a scrupulous attention to design and how it relates to the text of the play. "We spent many a meeting going over plastic ware and the arrangement of our platters," she said. "We have weekly meetings with [Roundabout Theatre Managing Director] Harold Wolpert and the team to make sure we're on the same page."
So while Alan Cumming and other members of the cast slink through the aisles during the show, at intermission they're replaced by members of Rose's staff wearing fishnet stockings and unbuttoned tuxedo vests. "Our costumes are designed by William Ivey Long," Rose noted, pointing out that her staff wears the same outfits as the cast. Their aesthetic is meant to fit seamlessly within the world of the cabaret.
In creating the nightclub, Robert Brill embraced both Weimar-era Berlin and the storied history of Studio 54. The audience sits at round cabaret tables lit by little red lamps. Wild leopard-print sofas line the room.
Apparently, this clubby atmosphere leads people to drink more. "Our wine sales are up thirty percent," Rose boasted. "We compare that with our biggest drinking show, which is Book of Mormon." This may seem like a big increase, but even before they started work on Cabaret, Sweet Hospitality Group had already revolutionized the way people imbibe in the theater with their most ubiquitous invention: the Broadway sippy cup.
The sippy cup (officially known as the "show cup") is that capped plastic tumbler bearing the show's logo that you find at nearly every Broadway house. It allows patrons to drink their vodka cranberries or Don't Tell Mamas while the show is in progress, without the risk of spilling all over the carpet and chairs. Some people have very strong feelings against them, believing that viewers should focus on the show, rather than their drinks. "It's been controversial," admits Rose, who still thinks the cup has been a net positive for the theater experience. "We weren't trying to ruin the show. We were trying to enhance it. A lot of people want to enjoy their drinks while enjoying the show."
And like so much of her business, the sippy cup is constantly evolving: "We've adapted them at the Jujamcyn theaters to cut down on the noise factor," Rose revealed. "Jujamcyn got a sponsorship with an ice machine company, so now the ice is crushed so you won't hear clinking during the show."
Ultimately, Sweet Hospitality Group aims to serve the production while serving the audience. "We have to be sexy and then we have to be quiet," DeMono said, recognizing that the Sweet Hospitality staff is an extension of the experience, but not the main attraction.
The show in the house will always be secondary to the show onstage, but that doesn't mean it can't be done with style and zest. "It's about trying to serve as many people as you can, as fast as you can, and as nicely as you can," Rose explained.
Niceness is essential to Rose when it comes to staffing. "We hire people [who] have just started their adventure in New York City," she said. "It's a lot of actors and artists, people who just got here and are so excited to be here and working in a theater. I call them shiny happy people."
And much to the delight of theatergoers, they do shine. The night I attended Cabaret, a hirsute waiter in guyliner and criss-cross suspenders was serving patrons at the table behind me. After they complimented his salacious attire, he replied with a huge smile, "Thanks! My parents would be so proud to see me right now." It's quite a way to make a Broadway debut.