The Development of the Medium We Call Cabaret
This is article #1 in this new running series by Shellen Lubin.
You go to see a show. It’s in a nightclub, or a concert hall, or outdoors in a park. There’s one person onstage, or a few people, or maybe there’s no stage at all. They’re singing, and maybe they’re talking, too. There’s one accompanist playing a piano or a guitar, or there’s a whole ensemble, or a band. Some of these are considered cabaret acts and some are not. So, what makes it cabaret? I believe that the history and evolution of the medium of cabaret, and even the derivation of the word itself, can give us insight into what cabaret has become and how it continues to evolve.
The Beginning of Cabaret in Paris
Cabaret is primarily a creation of the 20th century, although the word itself was first used in Montmartre, Paris, in the 1880s, to refer to any establishment serving liquor. The very first venue to be called a cabaret was Le Chat Noir, but it was followed quickly by the Moulin Rouge, most famous now for being the home of the can-can. Cabaret soon became widely known (at least in Paris) as an informal sharing of ideas and presentation of new material by writers, performers, and other artists—even magicians—in a saloon. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were many such establishments in France and Germany, where artists performed unpaid (or passed a hat), people became the audience for the price of a drink or two, and owners could insure they’d have clientele for a nice long stretch of evening.
Those elements remain, particularly the small tables, the proximity of the performer, and the intimacy. Cabaret might not always be informal anymore, but it always has that quality of intimacy. Here we are, just us, in on something special. No matter how formal a cabaret act becomes, if it’s done right, its very intimacy makes it feel informal, warm and friendly, almost like you’re in someone’s living room, or a guest in their home. And the evolution of the sharing of ideas and the presentation of new material is reflected in the contemporary version of the medium as well. It can be aspiring artists, artists sharing budding writers, or artists sharing new takes and interpretations on well-known material. At its best, cabaret feels intimate, feels shared, feels new and experimental, feels daring, feels in the moment, and, so, feels as if we are in on something, as if the performance is in some way ours.
From Europe to America
After the end of World War I, Berlin, during the period of the Weimar Republic, became the home of the next generation of cabaret. You probably know this from the musical of the same name, which definitely reflects the cabaret of that period, as does the film The Blue Angel. Both films are accurate examples of the form, which was highly stylish and stylized, with blurred and crossed gender lines, torch songs and ballads of tortured love, and also satire. All of these qualities became hallmarks of another kind of cabaret, but still with the qualities of intimacy and daring (of a sexual and satirical nature, as opposed to artistic exploration). They also continued the direct address with the audience, using those feelings to heighten the sense that no one else who isn’t here will ever totally know or understand what is happening. The rise of the Nazis ended that form of nightlife in Berlin completely.
In the early years of the 20th century, America picked up the style more than the substance of European cabaret. Those first “night clubs” were called that because they were actually private clubs. Because of the institution of cabaret laws that restricted music and dancing, these “members-only” clubs were the only places that were allowed to have music and dancing after 2 a.m. During Prohibition, these night clubs (like the Cotton Club) and also speak-easies (illegal bars) were the only place to find alcohol. Live entertainment made them seem more legitimate, and beautiful women singing songs of love kept people drinking longer and later. But, in jazz venues, something closer to those first French cabarets continued to evolve, with artists performing, sharing space with other artists, and improvising late into the night — the later it got, the more informal, adventurous, and outrageous the music could become.
After Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the “supper clubs” — like Delmonico’s and Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe — arrived, since any establishment that served alcohol also had to serve food of some kind. Then, after a decade or so of larger, more star-driven performance venues with candlelight and tuxedoed waiters (such as The Persian Room), the smaller, more intimate spaces began to flourish again. There were jazz clubs uptown, folk clubs downtown, and midtown venues like Upstairs at the Downstairs for more theatrical acts singing theatre music (e.g., Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Barbra Streisand, and Kaye Ballard, among others), and/or acting out sketches (such as Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara), and even raunchier material as it got later into the night. These continued for many years, but were almost put out of business completely by the advent of rock and roll and television, as younger audiences wanted a different kind of music and older audiences could just stay home and watch and listen to their favorites.
The Golden Age of Cabaret
The current period of cabaret began in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, around the time that Bette Midler was performing (with Barry Manilow at the piano) at The Continental Baths in the Ansonia Hotel, a gay bathhouse. The term “cabaret” actually became the moniker for the genre again in 1972 because of the movie Cabaret, the Bob Fosse screen version of the Broadway show of the same name. In this period, and even more in the 1980s, cabaret became widespread as a term, entering the lexicon as “an entertainment held in a nightclub or restaurant while the audience eats and drinks at tables.” (Note that nightclub has now become one word after World War II, when one no longer had to be a member to go in and see a show.) Phil Donahue did a TV episode devoted to the medium, and Stephen Holden wrote a piece in the New York Times in 1985 titled “The New Golden Age of Cabaret.” In that article, Gregory Dawson, owner of the Ballroom and a board member of MAC (the Manhattan Association of Cabarets), stated what has become the essential truth about cabaret: “What matters isn’t the size or type of entertainment, but the relationship of the performer to that audience.” Holden summed it up with the statement, “Indeed there are few entertainment experiences more intimate and intense than the passionate rapport of cabaret performer and enraptured audience.”
However, at the same time that cabaret continued to grow, and more and more venues came into being (yes, many closed as well, but usually another opened soon after), fewer and fewer of the venues (including Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, and Eighty Eight’s) could now book performers for extended salaried runs and it was difficult for some performers to cover the cost of arrangements and musicians on their own. Instead, venues mostly became “showcase” houses which meant, as in those very early days in France, performers were not paid, or, if performers were paid, they were paid by a percentage of the number of people that they themselves brought in. This has led to an extended period where cabaret primarily consists of two groups of performers. The first, people who have the money from another source to support a cabaret career, or just use their savings or day-job salaries to present a show; or, the second, people who have a parallel career (e.g., Broadway, recording) which draws a larger audience in, and thus, are able to maintain well-attended longer runs and ongoing cabaret performances.
So cabaret reached, and is still in, a golden flourishing period. In venues all over town you can see terrific performers introducing new and different songs, even new and different genres, or wildly new spins on old material and genres. But, at the same time, cabaret as a medium has become almost completely performer-driven. Those shows that are not created by performers may be created by writers to showcase their own work, or by producers who have a concept or an artist they want to showcase and develop. Still, t can be sad when some of the finest cabaret performers have small audiences because their following is primarily other artists who can barely afford the cost of the show’s cover and the club’s two-drink minimum.
Once and Future Cabaret
So what does all that information and context mean for us, here and now, as we try to understand how to put together a great cabaret act in the 21st century?
Has it become an avocation, something to be done solely for the love of it? Not necessarily, although it is a much beloved medium that many performers and musicians cherish deeply and continue to cultivate with craft and devotion. In fact, many of the shows are crafted, honed, and directed with the care of a theatre piece. That is something that has evolved slowly over these last 50 years, and has defined what is now the potential of cabaret, if not always its actuality.
Cabaret has become more thoroughly and completely what it began as, a place to work things out, to develop talents and stories and collaborations, to try things out, to see how audiences respond to them. Once again, it is a place for new ideas, new material, new takes on old material, informality, intimacy, taking risks, developing material and shows over multiple performances and runs. And, now and again, when a show develops a following that continues to grow; when an artist catches the notice of other artists, directors, agents, booking agents, and/or casting directors; or when a songwriter’s work is performed by a number of artists in different venues, there can be more solid traction gleaned through cabaret, beyond cabaret, and, most definitely, because of cabaret.
It is this ideal of modern cabaret that we will be exploring in this handbook. Carefully-chosen material (both what is sung and what is spoken) can be structured into a journey that reveals character and has discovery. It is done not just with talent, but with craft, imagination, and awareness. And it is all done through the connection to the performer’s acting partner—the ever-changing, present in the shared moment, participant in the experience—the audience
About the Author
Shellen Lubin is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote." www.shellenlubin.com, www.mondaymorningquotes.com, @shlubin