Theater News

Cabaret Influences

Liza Minnelli, Jeff Harnar, and Alexandra Haas reveal the biggest influences on their cabaret careers.

What good is sitting alone in your room when you could be sitting alone in a cabaret?! I’ve asked that question of myself many, many times–believe me. I, myself, had several failed attempts at putting an act together. One involved me as the singing sensation and my mother on the piano. The act was called “Son of a Bitch” and we played fish restaurants all over Dallas. I wore black turtlenecks and sang a lot of Edith Piaf tunes. You haven’t lived until you’ve walked into Stefano’s Seafood at happy hour and seen a 24-year-old man singing “Hymn To Love” with his mother. Je regrette beaucoup. Needless to say, one thing led to…nothing. But I eventually formed a male vocal trio called WISEGUYS and we were a hit.

I wanted it to be the best combination of two sublime acts that I had seen. The first was Gotham, a musical comedy trio on the New York scene in the ’70s and ’80s. No one was ever funnier. Three hairy men in tutus singing “At The Ballet.” It was brilliant. The second was Montgomery, Plant & Stritch, a jazz-vocal trio that started in Texas and exploded on the Manhattan club scene in the most chic and sophisticated way. Billy Stritch’s arrangements absolutely fractured me with their style and polish. Seeing those two spectacular acts changed the way I heard music forever, and gave my cabaret career a point of reference.

I had the pleasure of hosting the 14th annual MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards at Town Hall on Sunday, April 9, and it really got me to thinking about the many dazzling performers I’ve seen in those boites over the years.

Who was the biggest influence on your cabaret career?

Charles Aznavour! Watching him perform changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no intention of doing concert work;

Liza Minnelli, touring with Minnelli onMinnelli, currently at the KennedyCenter in Washington, D.C.
Liza Minnelli, touring with Minnelli on
, currently at the Kennedy
Center in Washington, D.C.

I just wanted to be a dancer on Broadway. Peter Allen kept talking about this man who was so marvelous and who wrote great songs, so we went to see him in concert. From the moment he walked onto the stage, I was hypnotized! He was singing in French, and I only understood a little, but I knew something important was happening. Each song was like a little movie or a small musical. The characters in the songs were so specific and had so many different things happening to them. I thought, “That’s what I want to do!” Later, I learned that Edith Piaf performed in the same style and that Charles was her protégé. Talk about lineage! – Liza Minnelli

Yes, I was one of those guys who grew up loving show tunes! I especially loved Barbara Cook because, as a child, I was in a local production of The Music Man. After her Broadway success, Barbara re-invented herself outside the context of musical theater and started to play small, intimate rooms, singing music that was incredibly wonderful. I had her record As Of Today, and it really inspired me. I loved Wally Harper’s arrangements too; the idea that a musical director could take standards

Jeff Harnar, appearing in TheSongs of Mickey and Judy withShauna Hicks at The FireBird Café
Jeff Harnar, appearing in The
Songs of Mickey and Judy
Shauna Hicks at The FireBird Café

and make them so personal really interested me. Keep in mind that I had a subscription to The New Yorker when I was 16 years old! I read that Barbara was appearing at a club called Reno Sweeney’s. I was just a child living in Chicago, but I couldn’t believe that people in New York were lucky enough to go out four nights a week and hear Barbara Cook sing live for $13. That’s the very first place I went when I got to New York. Later, when I saw Karen Mason create an evening that was so theatrically satisfying, I knew I wanted to get up there and give it a try. Karen was about my age, with enough talent to be in a Broadway show, but she was singing songs she loved in cabaret. That was the beginning for me.
– Jeff Harnar

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that Bette Midler was a huge influence on my life. I remember her very first appearance on The Tonight Show like it was yesterday. She sang “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” The next day, everyone in high school asked me if I had a sister named Bette! There was such a similarity in our look and personality, which I haven’t been able to escape ever since. To this very day, in the grocery store, no matter where I am, I’m compared to her. The thing is, I really adore her style, so I’ve never had any urge to fight against the similarity. She was the first performer I saw who painted the whole picture. She was intimate on a grand scale. She told stories, she was hilarious, and she picked great songs. She had heart. She could make you laugh and cry all at the same time. Does that sound smarmy?

When I first realized I could sing, the songs I gravitated towards were the old torch songs and those great Petula Clark songs from the sixties. I also loved French songs, the Piaf stuff. I threw in a few Portuguese fados for good measure. There weren’t many places to do that bizarre range of material, so the cabaret scene was perfect for me.

Alexandra Haas, upcoming atThe FireBird Café in June
Alexandra Haas, upcoming at
The FireBird Café in June

Plus, I could only afford to work with a piano player. If I would have had the money for a whole band, I would be a pop diva wearing spandex right now. Symbiotically, I was picking material and performing it in the clubs for months, and then Bette would record it. We had very similar tastes. Growing up, her favorite book was Eloise. So was mine. And I grew up with a Portuguese background, she grew up in a Portuguese neighborhood. We both had fantasies of royalty, too, which is frightening. At one point, I toured Europe with Bob Lockwood, a famous drag artiste. One of the pieces I did was in full Midler drag. I wore the costume from the Bette Live concert: pink bloomers and a red wig from hell. Those hideous German papers called me a “big white-legged woman,” which sealed my fate forever.
– Alexandra Haas

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