Audra McDonald pulled composer-lyricists Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown out of the audience to sing with her. Ute Lemper enticed a woman from the audience to dance with her--and also slipped cash out of a ringsider's wallet. Sam Harris got the audience to sing backup. Betty Comden and Adolph Green had a party with the audience.
Okay, where is this audience? It's at Joe's Pub. For almost two years now, since its opening on November 19, 1998, Joe's has been offering such a wide array of performers that the room has already become a fixture for cabaret joy-seekers on the prowl for stimulating entertainment.
Although the Pub is open seven days a week--and though it turns into an altogether different kind of trendy watering hole late at night--each Monday at 8:30pm is the designated time for what's known as the Songbook Series, which kicked off its new season this week with a show featuring composer-lyricist William Finn abetted by singers Stephen DeRosa, Carolee Carmello, Norm Lewis, Wanda Houston, and musical director-pianist Vadim Fleichtner. (Click here for schedule.) The Songbook Series is supervised by Wiley Hausam, who's rarely found at the club during the later hours, because "I'm 42, and I don't need to do that."
Glad to gab about the project, Hausam asks if he can answer my questions over lunch at Time Cafe, just a few blocks south of the Joseph Papp Public Theater. The late Joe Papp is, of course, the Joe of Joe's Pub--although it's very possible that many of the younger patrons have only a hazy sense of who he was. (Note: When Hausam was interviewed, he was on the Public Theater staff. He has since left to concentrate full-time on his own operation, Wiley Hausam Associates, but will continue as a consultant to the Public on musical theater and will also continue to book the Songbook Series.)
Medium-sized and open-faced, Hausam begins by detailing how the Joe's Pub roster took shape. "My principal job at the Public was to develop new musical theater," he explains, "so I had established relationships with the young generation of composers. We thought [a performance room] would be a very good complement to the Public's musical theater development component. Then I realized you could broaden the definition of that a lot, and it could be very interesting--different from anything in clubs in New York."
Thus began the Songbook Series, about which Hausam says further: "I don't really believe in arbitrary distinctions between theater and opera and even more experimental theater forms. That's how Joe's is programmed--without those distinctions." And it's the impetus behind the appearance in the room so far, in addition to those mentioned above, of Billy Stritch, John Bucchino and David Campbell, Dawn Upshaw, Ann Hampton Callaway, Mary Cleere Haran, Karen Mason, John Pizzarelli, Patti LuPone, Mike Reid, Judy Kuhn, David Zippel, Lauren Flanigan, Victoria Clark, Malcolm Gets, Brooks Ashmanskas, Melissa Errico, Amanda McBroom, Lea DeLaria, and maybe a dozen others. Some of them (McDonald, for instance) have appeared on their own to salute songwriters, and others (Flanigan, Clark, Gets) in revue-tributes to the likes of Mark Blitzstein and Jerome Moross.
Hausam explains that it was artistic director George C. Wolfe, who wanted the ground floor of the Public's Lafayette Street headquarters to be given over entirely to performance spaces. That's why and how Joe's Pub--underwritten by city funding--came into existence in the first place. The restaurant and bar is run by Serge Becker, who also owns and operates Time and Bowery Bar and shares with the Public's Bonnie Metzgar the responsibility of booking Tuesday through Sunday night performances at Joe's.
According to Hausam, arranging the Monday night gigs isn't terribly stressful. "Mostly, it's people I seek out," he reports. "Occasionally, somebody calls me, and I'm thrilled they're calling. But if it's the kind of event that can be seen in other rooms in the city, I tend not to do it." Once a booking has been made, "I never ask to hear what they're going to do or make any kind of editorial comments, because I only invite people I have complete trust in. I just know the show is going to be good. The afternoon of the first performance is the first time I see it."
This doesn't mean, however, that the job is completely angst-free. The Songbook Series is expected to carry the rest of the Joe's Pub agenda. That's a heavy burden, and not one that programs categorized as "cabaret" might be expected to carry in a town (and in an entertainment climate) where that art form is, at best, marginalized. Yet, Hausam maintains that three out of four nights at Joe's are sell-outs, "and without advertising."
Booking the room has been an exciting endeavor for Hausam, who left his Sedalia, Missouri home to be a musician and came to the Public after stints in opera management, as a production assistant for Hal Prince, and as an ICM agent (George Wolfe was a client). Although he served as something of a jack-of-all-trades at the Public, Hausam feels it's with his current duties that he has hit his stride. Following Finn on the Monday night lineup will be Michael John LaChiusa presenting some of his lesser-known songs, Bill Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein in an evening of selections from their operas and other works...and opera singer Catherine Malfitano doing whatever she decides will work.
Hausam also has his eye on less well-known composers--people with whom, he says, "I really need to fall in love." Among them are Lance Horne, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and Steve Marzullo, although Hausam hasn't settled on the right format for them. He also says he'd like in invite Rufus Wainwright "to come to the club and do whatever he wants to do." He plans to feature singers and songwriters from other cultures, as well: Misia will come to sing fado this fall, and Hausam is working with Olivier Gluzman, who represents Julia Migenes and Hannah Schygulla.
On top of all that, he's thinking about a reading series focused on newer shows by less familiar songwriters or the kind of obscure musicals that would be unlikely to show up in the Encores! series. In February, he'll devote three performances to Radiant Baby, a musical about Keith Haring that he's been developing with composer Debra Barsha, lyricist Ira Gassman, lyricist-librettist Stuart Ross, and director-choreographer Joey McKneely. And Hausam loves the idea of starting a running revue written by "really smart, really funny people who have a point of view about contemporary life." But, he says, it needs to be organized by "someone who is brilliant at that form and who would be devoted to making it an ongoing and vital thing."
If Joe's Pub attendance so far is any indication, the audience that has gone along with Lemper and laughed at DeLaria and backed up Harris will continue to show up, as it has on Monday after Monday. Hausam says that "core" group "looks different than the crowd at an uptown cabaret or the Carlyle. It's kind of the Public Theater audience. It's younger." He's so eager to hear their feedback that, he says, "I'll happily communicate with anybody on e-mail"--so happily that he gave out his e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I guess I like the unfamiliar," Hausam says in summing up his booking philosophy. "That's what it comes down to. The greatest challenge is maintaining standards while still being open to new, fresh material."