Cabaret Carries On -- Part Two
Tom Andersen, Julie Reyburn, Sidney Myer, and other cabaret stalwarts talk about moving on after the tragic events of September 11.
Like everyone else in New York, the cabaret community was deeply affected by the death and destruction recently inflicted upon our city by terrorists. Some of us came perilously close to the abyss; others had to face difficult choices in the wake of overwhelming sadness. What emerges from the approximately three dozen interviews contained in the chronicle continuing below--the first installment was in our Cabaret Notes of last week--is that September 11 was not the day the music died.
Very Few Degrees of Separation
"I work two blocks away from 'ground zero,' " says singer Julie Reyburn. "Luckily, I was running late to work that day and was stuck on a subway. I went above ground and watched the tragedy from Washington Square Park, praying that my co-workers and the workers in the towers were safe. I felt completely helpless and now a bit guilty for not being at work on time to help anyone who might have needed it. Thankfully, everyone in my office was able to escape."
But there is no escaping what needs to be done next. "I can't imagine opening my mouth to sing a note," she confessed a few days after the tragedy, "but Traci Reynolds had to do a show shortly after the tragedy. We just grasped hands and hugged, and she said, 'I'll be damned if they'll scare me out of my freedom.'" Reyburn has followed her friend's admonition; she's already performed in Mark Hartman's Friday and Saturday night late shows at the FireBird Café.
Reyburn wasn't the only person lucky to be late to work on the 11th. "I keep thinking about the fact that I was supposed to actually be in the World Trade Center the morning of the attack," recalls cabaret graphic designer D. Bruce Stevens. "I was supposed to be a part of a seminar on the 60-something floor. The seminar was at 9 am that Tuesday. I didn't go because I had been up so late the night before, I couldn't rouse myself. This ensures my late-night lifestyle for years to come!" Meanwhile, Stevens has used his artistry to create two graphics of a flag in the form of ribbons; you might have seen one of them on a recent cover of Back Stage. "The only thing I don't want is for anybody to make money on them unless it's to benefit the victims," he says. "Otherwise, it's offered free and without restriction for use on websites, e-mail, correspondence, and print." You can find Stevens' flag ribon design here, and below.
To Sing or Not to Sing
One of the biggest issues facing cabaret artists has been deciding when it would be right to begin performing again. In our opinion, there is no wrong answer; everybody has to find the right time for himself or herself. If a performer lost someone close in the disaster, putting on a show would not be the first priority. And what if the nature or subject matter of the show seemed entirely wrong under the circumstances?
"I lost one of my best friends," says Richard Skipper, who channels Carol Channing. "He worked on the 102nd Floor of the second tower. I canceled my show on Saturday. I felt that, by its very nature, the show seemed inappropriate. It's one thing to get up and sing, but to engage in comedy so soon would have been premature." Skipper tried to volunteer to work at ground zero but was told to make a contribution instead. "I'll do something soon, like those old USO shows, to raise money," he tells us. "I can utilize my talents that way."
"Nobody knows what to do," says cabaret producer and performer Jamie deRoy. "Perform or not perform. I'm planning shows in November and I stopped making calls, but now I'm trying to fill out the shows. I just hope nothing else happens. I guess we'll always be feeling that; I don't think our lives will be the same. But we have no choice. We're performers."
Singer Audrey Lavine went ahead and did her show. "My feelings change radically from moment to moment, between determination, despair, anger--and, yes, fear." Looking ahead, Lavine says, "I know the coming months will be full of benefits and fundraisers, and even more re-evaluation of what lyrics are appropriate to sing at times like these. But I know that, after World War II, the theaters were among the first things to be rebuilt. People need to hear music; they need to laugh, to cry, to feel." Another singer, Anne Steele also had to decide whether or not to go on. "It seemed so inconsequential against all the amazingly large things that were happening," she says. Her director, Lennie Watts, offered: "It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want to help by giving people escape and pleasure. On the other hand, you feel guilty. I told Anne that she had to do the show, and it turned out to be a very healing experience."
It's tough enough to put up a dramatic show these days. What about the comedy acts? Sidney Myer had to tackle that issue on the first Friday after the attack when the Poole Party! took the stage at Don't Tell Mama. "I was very hesitant about performing, wondering how the show would be received by everyone," he said. "It was such a breakthrough because people were laughing. They yearned to have some relief, and they were roaring. They were going on with life."
Musical director Christopher Denny admits that he had doubts about performing at the piano for Gerta Grunen's show about the 1940s. "I didn't want to do it," he says. "It was about war. But she and her director felt strongly that it would help people. There were some cuts and changes; we didn't cross any lines." In the end, he felt okay about it. Now, Denny feels that whether or not a show goes on should depend on whom the show is for. "It has to be about the audience, not the performer," he cautions. "If you want to play, do it for them."
Rick Jensen, who musical-directed a couple of shows soon after September 11, observes that "If people choose to go to a club, they're saying they want to get away from reality for 60 minutes. Performers should, therefore, think twice about what they say on stage about [recent events]." Meanwhile, Jensen says that, as a songwriter, "I'm pouring my feelings into a song. It's called 'Brotherly Love.'" Howard Fishman of the Howard Fishman Quartet--purveyors of a darker sort of music--made some adjustments to his shows. "We're not doing any murder ballads," he says. "Everything I sing now goes through the prism of what's happened. I've been including some songs that we haven't done in a while--older standards and traditional numbers."
Performer Marilyn Volpe admits that in the aftermath of September 11, she felt guilty even putting on a CD, let alone attending a show. Nonetheless, she says, "I can almost imagine that it would be cathartic to hear Julie Gold or Ann Hampton Callaway do something tasteful, smart, and relevant." Speaking of cathartic moments: Greg Rodeheffer, who works at Don't Tell Mama, had the opportunity to see Tommy Femia as Judy Garland, sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which happens to be a regular part of Femia's act. "He got a standing ovation," Rodeheffer says. "It was quite moving."
With forthright honesty, songwriter/singer Amanda Green says that "The first night [after the attack on the WTC], I wanted to move to Vermont. But I'm a New Yorker. I'm staying. It's pointless to give up what you do." Green found that concentrating on her work was healthy, and promptly agreed to perform in a recent benefit. Singer Aaron Lee Battle feels much the same way. "We're rallying," he declares. "We're the benefit people of the world. Some people are putting benefits together now, some will do it later. I'm ready, willing, and able to do whatever is going to happen."
Support From Near and Far
"I always think it's a gift to make people laugh and cry," says songwriter Francesca Blumenthal. "I go out each night to see people. Marnie Baumer is doing a benefit in the Midwest and called me about New York songs. I sent her 'Queens' and 'Museum.' I also suggested some old songs. Not all depressing things, but all the lyrics have to be checked," she warns.
"We're planning to see KT Sullivan at the Hideaway," says Ed Kurtzman, a regular cabaretgoer with his wife, Ruth. "You can't just keep thinking about the bad stuff. You've got to take your mind off the tragedy for a while. People say we have to go on. We can't let [the terrorists] put our lives at a standstill."
"When it first happened, I thought, 'What has happened to mankind?'" says singer/songwriter Tom Andersen. "This was the darkest side of human nature I've ever seen. But I was so encouraged by the reaction from all around the world. People were really reaching out to America. We're not alone. I got a number of e-mails from people who knew me through CDs of my music and who wanted to see if I was all right. These are people I don't know; they just reached out."