Karen Akers, who will be honored at this year's MAC Awards ceremony, discusses the importance of the cabaret art form in a post-9/11/01 world.
Aside from giving audiences a chance to enjoy the great talents of cabaret stalwarts whose names may not yet be familiar to the general public--Natalie Douglas, Mark Nadler, Phillip Officer, KT Sullivan, et al.--the annual awards ceremonies of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) often feature appearances and/or performances by more famous folk--e.g., Liza Minnelli, Barry Manilow, Rosemary Clooney. Sure to be a hit at this year's shindig at Town Hall on April 1 is Karen Akers, the elegant chanteuse who has performed in concert and cabaret venues throughout the U.S., Europe, and the former Soviet Union. Theater mavens know very well that Akers also made her mark on Broadway, garnering a Tony nomination for her work in Nine and later appearing in Grand Hotel (both directed by Tommy Tune), while film buffs will remember the lady for her turns in such flicks as Heartburn and The Purple Rose of Cairo. At this year's MACs, Akers will receive a Board of Directors award and will perform as well.
She and her husband now live in London after several years spent in Monaco, so Akers might be described as an "expatriate"--geographically but most definitely not emotionally speaking. Though the time has perhaps come when it's not necessary to ask every interviewee about 9/11/01, I decided to "go there" with Akers, suspecting that she might have a novel perspective on the horrendous events of that day because she is no longer based in America.
"September 11 effects us still and I imagine it will affect us always, in ways we don't even understand," says Akers. "Our perceptions have changed. I was alone in our apartment in London at the time [of the terrorist attacks]. A friend of my husband's called and said, 'Turn on the television; I think you need to see this.' So I dutifully did so and I saw the film of the second plane hitting [the World Trade Center]. I called my husband and asked him to please come home immediately. From that moment on, like everyone else, we were glued to the television for four days. On Friday that week, there was a service at St. Paul's cathedral that was extraordinary; the whole plaza outside of the church was packed with people. The first music that they played over the loudspeakers was 'The Star Spangled Banner' and we all sang with tears streaming down our faces.
"I was supposed to work right after that at Odette's [in Pennsylvania]," Akers continues. "Of course, when something so terrible happens, everything else seems frivolous and unimportant. I thought, 'God, they can't possibly want me to come and sing at a time like this.' But I spoke with the people at Odette's and they said, 'Please, we're counting on you.' There was a feeling that people really wanted to regain some feeling of normalcy and wholeness. So, six days after 9/11, I flew to New York. I wanted so badly to be here at that point. No matter where I live, I'm a New Yorker at heart. I was born and raised here, and it never leaves you. I felt that my city had taken such a blow. Some friends and family narrowly escaped: Both my husband and I have brothers who worked at the trade center and, unbelievably, both of them were absent that day. But my son lost his ex-girlfriend. She worked on the 94th or 95th floor of the first tower that was hit. They were still very close. "
Needless to say, Akers' return to New York has been a highly emotional experience. "I did a benefit for the families of the firefighters," she reminds me. "Every cabaret diva and divo in the city was there, it seemed; we did it down at The Bottom Line. Then I went to work in Pennsylvania and San Francisco, but I'm glad to be back. We did two shows recently at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center [in Newark] and I shook hands and spoke with so many people afterwards. I'm very lucky to be blessed with devoted fans. They follow me through thick and thin--it's amazing. People will pop and say, 'I remember you from Mickey's' or 'I came to see you at The Ballroom.' Once in a blue moon, there's even someone who has followed me since I played Reno Sweeney's!"
Akers is bullish on cabaret despite the recent closings of two high-profile New York clubs--Arci's Place and the FireBird Café. "I just came from doing a cabaret convention in Chicago and it was packed," she notes. "The audiences were hungry for this sort of entertainment. I've got to believe that cabaret is still a thriving art form. I can certainly tell you that New York audiences have been great to me. They're absolutely wonderful."