Special Reports

Come to the Cabaret: Downtown Denizens Frolic With International Celebs at Joe's Pub

The Public Theater’s cabaret space draws performers and guests from far and wide.

Joe's Pub is the cabaret venue for the Public Theater.
Joe's Pub is the cabaret venue for the Public Theater.
(© Paul Wagtouicz)

It was Monday night and the Public Theater looked like the hottest club in town — a DJ spun in the mezzanine as raucous revelers packed into the lobby to celebrate the opening night of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes. Camped out in Joe's Pub, the cabaret space just off the Public's main lobby, Shaina Taub and her crew seemed determined to outdo them. No fewer than 20 musicians took the stage to celebrate the release of her album Visitors. The ensemble, made up of strings, brass, woodwinds, and a gospel choir, could have been called the Shaina Taub Orchestra. Such a massive assembly would be a novelty in any other cabaret space in the city, but not at Joe's Pub, a venue that has distinguished itself as a showcase for the unconventional.

"The first thing we look for is diversity," says Joe's Pub director Shanta Thake. She and her team schedule 75 to 80 performances a month encompassing a wide variety of artists and genres. Recent acts have included Adele, French stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh, and Mongolian folk rock band Tengger Cavalry. Joe's Pub frequently hosts outrageous cabaret performer Bridget Everett (who debuted her acclaimed show, Rock Bottom, there in 2014). On April 21, Venezuelan-American performer Migguel Anggelo and his band, the Immigrants, will share a night with the reunion of Kiki and Herb. Thake explains, "We want artists at the highest levels of the industry alongside those just starting out, artists with whom we can put a stake in the ground."

Taub is one of those artists. "The first concert I ever saw in New York was here," she announced while seated at the piano, "and the first concert I ever performed in New York was also here." It was Taub's night off from her regular gig at Signature Theatre's Old Hats, so this was the perfect time and place for her album release party.

"I've known Shaina for years," says Thake. "It's been amazing to watch her career flourish." Taub's musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is set to play the Delacorte Theater (the Central Park amphitheater where the Public presents Shakespeare in the Park) in September. "One of the benefits of having Joe's Pub within this organization," says Thake, "is that it can be a platform to introduce new voices to the Public Theater."

Really, that was always the theory (if not the practice) behind Joe's Pub. "In the beginning," says managing partner Kevin Abbott, "it was a space for artists to create." Abbott has been with Joe's Pub since it was founded in 1998, so he has seen the club shift away from that mission and then come back to it over the years. "For a while," he says, "performance became secondary to the idea of a space for pre-theater dinner and a nightclub." It seemed unavoidable that the room attached to the kitchen would become a convenient place to grab a bite before seeing a show at one of the Public's five other theaters. What is more surprising is the fact that the Public Theater briefly had an in-house dance club.

Patrons flock to Joe's Pub for two to three performances every night.
Patrons flock to Joe's Pub for two to three performances every night.
(© Kevin Yatarola)

"We had a velvet rope and a dress policy," Thake recalls with a chuckle. At 11 o'clock every night, the chairs and tables were cleared out to create a dance floor. Abbott speculates that 9/11 led to a pause in nocturnal excess, making the operation of such a nightclub less lucrative. Also, the 2013 opening of the Library (the Public's gourmet restaurant operated by Andrew Carmellini) meant that another space could serve the needs of pre-theater diners. This allowed Joe's Pub to come back to its original purpose: introducing innovative artists to an adventurous audience.

One immediately feels a sense of camaraderie upon stepping into the room. While the term has been maligned in recent years (not least because so many artists have moved to Brooklyn), one gets the sense that there is an actual downtown community at Joe's Pub. During Taub's show, rising cabaret star Shakina Nayfack sat with choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) under a giant portrait of Patti Smith (one that looks like she's performing live from a hurricane). Glee star Ali Stroker sat a few tables away, near Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. Some guests worked the room, moving from table to table to greet friends. The whole place was teeming with working theatermakers, and not just on the overpopulated stage. They were there to see Shaina and they were there to drink.

After 18 years at Joe's Pub, Abbott has developed an instinct for what an audience is going to imbibe on any given night. "I can look at a show and know immediately if it's a martini crowd or a wine crowd," he says while sipping on his cocktail of choice: a variation on the Manhattan called 'The Dandy Riot' (Old Overholt Rye, Byrrh, Aperol, Colonial Bitters, and a Talisker 10 Year rinse). For downtown cabaret, it's mostly martinis. "We had Noche Flamenca this past week," he says, "so it was a lot of wine." For wine drinkers at Joe's Pub, Abbott recommends the Alhambra Malbec: "It's absolutely delicious and has a little spice to it."

It proved to be the perfect drink to accompany Taub's show, a spicy and soulful evening of her original songs. She led her choir in gorgeous harmonies for "O Luck Outrageous" and took us to church with "A Joyful Noise." The whole room joined in for her infectious drinking ditty, "Reminder Song." It was like being inside an early scene of a Verdi opera.

Following this rollicking finale, the tipsy audience spilled out of Joe's Pub and into the lobby to mingle with the remnants of the Head of Passes opening, now considerably mellowed. Performers embraced guests and everyone retired up to the Library for more drinks. It was just your typical Monday night at Joe's Pub.