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The State of the Art

With the closing of Judy's Chelsea, the Siegels issue a health report on cabaret life in New York City and offer some suggestions. logo

New York City's cabaret community is reeling after a series of blows that began with the "Now you see 'em, now you don't" arrival and departure of the FireBird Upstairs Supper Club, followed by this week's double whammy: the demise of the cabaret section of TimeOut NY and the sudden, sad end of Judy's Chelsea.

The blow that hurts most is the closing of Judy's. Here, at last, was a cabaret room that was actually designed for both singer and audience. Comfortable, with carefully designed sound and lights, it was a classy venue that was often filled with equally classy talent. In addition to the loss of the room, there is the loss of Judy's piano bar, where so many talented entertainers made sweet music -- and made their living. To Judy Kreston, David Lahm, and Richard Hendrickson, who kept the club alive and thriving when it was on West 44th Street and during the period of its ultimate glory in Chelsea, we thank you. To the folks employed there, we wish you the best of luck in finding work that keeps you in our lives. To the performers who played there and the audiences who went there, now is the time to take stock...

Some say cabaret has never been in a canyon this deep before -- and the walls at the bottom of the canyon look mighty sheer and awfully high. With yet another club shutting its doors, where will cabaret artists play? Don't Tell Mama has been forced by NYC fire marshals to cut the number of shows in its two rooms. The Duplex and Danny's might absorb some displaced shows, but there are obviously limits. And then what? Where are the necessary training grounds and jumping off points to places like Joe's Pub, The Oak Room, Feinstein's at the Regency, and The Café Carlyle? We need clubs at graduated levels to provide opportunities for beginners and for stars on the rise. We need places like Judy's, Arci's, and Eighty Eight's to fill the void.

There is reason to hope. As anyone who has been around long enough will tell you, there is a cycle to these things. The current vaccuum is so clear and unmistakable that, the minute some well-heeled individual opens a new club with reasonable prices and books it with even a modest degree of intelligence, audiences will flock to it. The level of support will be something to behold; every evening might end with a chorus of John Bucchino's "Grateful."

But there is another issue here. Cabaret is changing. The economics of this intimate art form are fragile. When dealing with small rooms, it's just as hard for the owner as it is for the artist to turn a profit. If cabaret is to grow, it has to evolve -- and this has already begun to happen. On the one hand, Donald Smith and the Mabel Mercer Foundation are truly expanding the horizons of the art form by bringing cabaret conventions to new cities all over the country, if not the world. Nothing sells cabaret better than cabaret itself; put it out there, done properly, and people will come.

Purists might complain that cabaret in a concert hall isn't cabaret at all. But the singer, not the venue, ultimately defines the form. When Andrea Marcovicci performs at Town Hall, she turns that 1,500-seat theater into an intimate boite. And, speaking from experience, the economics work a whole lot better when you've got the potential to fill a lot of seats. Yes, it's possible for a producer to lose his or her shirt (and pants and socks and scarves), but at least everyone involved has a chance to make a profit. If cabaret is going to survive, all of those who participate in putting on a show have to make money. The very idea that cabaret artists can put on a show in a small room, sell out, and not earn a profit is a problem that simply must be addressed.

Meanwhile, a new generation has entered the cabaret world to reinvigorate it. Witness the re-emergence of The Duplex, thanks to the aggressive and smart booking of Phil Bond. This is also the time for a new generation at MAC [the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs] to step up and fill the void with programming sponsored by the organization itself. The ASCAP Songwriters Showcase is a model of what can be done to provide performance opportunities for its members: MAC should offer a series of shows featuring its member performers. Rent a hall -- small, medium, or large -- and sell cabaret to the general public. This gives the entertainers a higher profile and makes it just a little easier to promote them in clubs, both here and around the country.

Of necessity, bad times prompt new and fresh ideas. Rather than complain about what's wrong with cabaret, it's time to see what's right, build on it, and embrace the future.

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