Up Close and (Very) Personal: Three Cabaret Singers Discuss Their Musical Memoirs
For most any cabaret show, performers will want to share something about themselves. They’ll note, for instance, what a particular song in their setlist means to them personally and why they decided to include it.
But certain shows go well beyond that. Such presentations are essentially spoken-word memoirs—deeply personal and sometimes cathartic monologues punctuated with musical interludes. Recently, these sorts of shows seem to have been trending in the NYC cabaret scene. We decided to chat with three performing artists who have found success in crafting these kinds of programs.
RIAN KEATING: “They come for the spoken word”
In recent months, Rian Keating has spent a good deal of time on the stage of Don’t Tell Mama. In addition to Time Stamps, his Manhattan Association of Cabarets (MAC) award winner for Special Program, Keating revived an earlier autobiographical piece, In This Traveling Heart. (He’s also recently performed an evening of Jacques Brel’s music.)
Throughout his long career as a singing storyteller, Keating has not shied away from sharing intimate parts of his life. In Time Stamps he tells the story of a gay-bashing incident he survived as a young man. The show’s most compelling segment, however, is a 20-minute story about his beloved younger sister’s descent into mental illness and substance addiction. For each segment of the show, Keating includes a song that sheds some light on the subject matter at hand.
Keating’s first New York cabaret performance happened when he was 25—at a club on Bleecker Street called Horn of Plenty. His partial deafness has impacted his cabaret career from the start. (Keating’s experience working through this challenge was explored at this site in a feature by Simi Horwitz.)
“Of course, I couldn’t sing,” he recalls of that Horn of Plenty engagement. “And I was full of all that twenties narcissism. I think the videotape disintegrated, but I would really be embarrassed to look at it.”
Although singing the musical numbers he’s chosen for his shows has always been the thing he cares most about onstage, his listeners inevitably gravitate toward the spoken-word components in his shows.
“That’s what they come for. And I knew that early on. So, I’ve always tried to give it its due.” Along the way, he attended college and launched a teaching career. But he continued to perform in cabaret, honing his skills and performing for charity. (His “Golden Door Scholarship” program helps undocumented immigrants find their way to higher education.)
A few years ago, he studied acting with cabaret stalwart Steve Ross, whom he found intimidating: “For some reason, I felt that he could see right through me…that he would see me as a fraud.”
Keating nonetheless invited Ross to one of his shows, When You Go Down to the Sea (2018), which focused on his relationship with his father, a merchant seaman turned bartender/songwriter who eventually went out to sea again. Ross was kind and supportive. “He just flipped over the talking part,” Keating remembers. Ross advised him to continue writing his stories. “Of course, I thought to myself, Well, what about the singing? But that wasn’t what he was focusing on.”
For his next show, In This Traveling Heart (2019), Keating decided he would hire a director and chose Tanya Moberly, even though he was “a little afraid” of her. “She is very efficient and no-nonsense—and brusque, I would say.” At first, Keating saw her as “an adversary.” But it turned out that she gave him the help he needed to go deeper with the material. He is now deeply appreciative of her.
“She really made me dig and think about the writing. She really wanted to know the back story to everything—which, for me, really brought it to life.”
During COVID months, Keating enrolled in an online memoir-writing course taught by author Elissa Altman (Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing). Each student in the course had a primary project they were working on. But there were also some shorter assignments with very specific directions: Write about something that you observed but were not part of. Write about a failure that led to new opportunities, etc. Keating found these miniature assignments the most useful part of the course, and he decided he could use his responses to them in a new show. He latched on to one particular assignment—Write about a family conflict, juggling the chronology.—as inspiration for what would become the keystone sequence in Time Stamps: the piece about his troubled sister, Moira.
Some of the show’s segments provided the project comic relief, including a sequence about Keating’s search for a suitable apartment and roommate upon first moving to New York City. But that “family conflict” component was unrelievedly dark. Even a segment in This Traveling Heart, about a dark encounter with a priest when Keating was a schoolboy living in Ireland, was not quite so uniformly sad and troubling. “It was just really grim….” he says of the Moira story. “And I really had to make it palatable. I had to find humor in it and find redeeming qualities [in Moira] that I had really forgotten about.”
He had to make his sister likable at certain points, “so that audience could sense why [her deterioration] was such a traumatic thing and why it was such a tragedy.” And he didn’t want to break the tension by moving about the stage. He felt he needed to deliver the piece standing stock still.
He grew so exasperated at one point that he wanted to scrap the segment altogether, but he knew he would have no show without it. The thing that was most important to him was to find a place of commonality with his listeners. “I really wanted to take these painful things and turn them into something that could ultimately be positive.”
In the final event, the hard work (and over three months of rehearsal) paid off—especially in one unforgettable performance.
“In the middle of it, I thought, ‘This does not happen often in cabaret—if ever, in my experience. You could just feel the audience leaning in for what’s going to happen next. It was really a moment for me, as a performer, just to realize how powerful [cabaret] could be as an art form.”
Below a scene from Keating’s show:
ANDREA BELL WOLFF: “I was a free spirit”
Not all confessional cabaret shows are tragic and troubling. Andrea Bell Wolff’s Vegas Adventure is—mostly—a comedic romp: a frank and fond look back on Wolff’s stint as a Las Vegas entertainer when the swinging 1960s were giving way to the even swing-ier 1970s. The show earned Bell a 2022 MAC nomination for Musical Comedy Performer.
As a young singer-actor, Wolff had encountered good fortune in one of musical theatre’s biggest enterprises ever: Hello, Dolly! She’d found a niche for herself in the role of Horace Vandergelder’s niece, Ermengarde, both on Broadway and beyond. She’d hoped to have a chance in the larger role of Minnie Fay, and she even auditioned for the role of Minnie in Twentieth-Century Fox’s movie version. But after losing out to E.J. Peaker for the film, she began to look at different career paths. She left New York City for Las Vegas, where she eventually became part of Bottoms Up, a racy revue on the strip that was a far cry from Thornton Wilder’s squeaky-clean tale of a Yonkers merchant and his intrepid matchmaker.
In recent years, Wolff has dealt with personal issues in her cabaret outings. In Prisoner of Love, she talked about falling in love too easily. In I Can’t Trace Time, she shared her experience in raising a daughter with disabilities, surviving a bout with breast cancer, and getting through the travails of growing older. But the response she’s received for Vegas Adventure has been different from that for earlier shows.
“They almost have the look of shock on their faces: ‘Wow! Oh, my God! I didn’t know you even had that in you.’”
She and musical director Jude Obermüller wanted a fun-filled entertainment to mark their return to cabaret as COVID retreated. They had been planning a different show when the idea of Vegas Adventure was first hatched.
One day Obermüller said to her, “You know, all these stories you tell me about when you were in Las Vegas are just fascinating. Why don’t we do a show about that?’”
After some difficulty finding the right director for the project, they chose Jimmy Larkin, a young theatre director. Larkin simply “got” Wolff—and that was, perhaps, his most valuable attribute. “He didn’t shy away from anything that was a little risqué,” she explains. “He was a very openminded young guy.”
The team also brought to the mix another performer, Elliot Litherland, who helped bring Wolff’s memories to life onstage. Litherland took on an array of supporting characters in the show.
Wolff had kept a diary during her long-ago time in Las Vegas, and she drew on that—along with a brain brimming with unrecorded memories—to build the show. She knew, however, that she was not a writer—she found it difficult to reduce anecdotes to their essentials. So, she supplied the trove of memories to Obermüller and Larkin, and they fashioned it all into a script. For an earlier show, she’d gotten hold of some of the songs from Bottoms Up, including such titles as “Bounce Your Boobies” and “The Hot Dog Song.” She, Obermüller, and Larkin all contributed other ideas to complete the musical setlist.
Along with the naughtiness of those Bottoms Up tunes, Woff included memories of sexual-revolution goings-on, a romance that soured, a near-drowning, and a crush she’d had on pop singer Grant Smith, the star of a popular Caesars Palace show.
“Look, I was a child of the ’60s—a teenager of the ’60s, I should say. And that was a time when people were very free, and I was…a free spirit. I did a lot of experimentation with sexuality and things like that. And I have no qualms about talking about it. ’Cause that’s what I did and who I was.”
For the most part, the show is good-naturedly bawdy (if decidedly un-PC at moments). But, late in the program, Wolff includes a segment in which she recalls briefly taking a job in a production that was more peep show than burlesque act. Suddenly, the breezy fun in the show gives way to discomfiting creepiness. Wolff is not apologetic for this shift in mood.
“I did not hesitate about putting it in. Because it’s what it is. And if I’m gonna make a story about a true experience that happened in my life, I’m gonna try to document it as [closely] as I possibly can.”
Ironically, she’s not, she says, someone who likes to look back at the past:
“I look forward. I’ve had quite a lot of sorrow in my life, and things weren’t so easy or wonderful…. I came down with the breast cancer, and I promised myself that, if I survived this, I was gonna keep going and do what I really enjoyed and what makes me happy. And knowing that helped me get through what I went through. I decided, no matter what, I’m just gonna keep chuggin’ along.”
CLAUDINE CASSAN-JELLISON: “We have real estate in each other’s stories”
There have been two phases to Claudine Cassan-Jellison’s cabaret career. As a young woman, she would put together collections of songs to sing in clubs. These were very informal presentations. She would ad lib freely, because she didn’t really care about written patter. And, like her peers in those days, she didn’t hire a director to help her give a show cohesion. “Nobody could afford it,” she says.
Like Keating, she embarked on a teaching career. She put her club-singing on hold. When she returned to the cabaret scene, about ten years ago, she began doing more formal—and personal—sorts of shows. She enlisted the support of musical director David Gaines and director Barry Kleinbort, and together they created a string of programs that incorporated both singing and autobiographical storytelling. She drew on something she had learned from her teaching experience. When she’d taught kids about reading, she would tell them that it is about “asking questions”:
“You ask a question, you make a hunch, and then you move on, and you ask another question. And I think a personal show is like that. You…ask a question, and the audience is making some hunches. And then you ask another question, and they’re making more hunches. And then you get to the end—and all will be revealed.”
The five shows she’s worked on with Kleinbort seemed to grow increasingly personal and revealing. The third one, for instance—Just Visiting (2016)—dealt with her childhood insecurity about her identity as a French-American girl. After that, Packing Orders (2019) reflected on a downsizing that she and her husband needed to do when moving to a new home. While sorting out items to be packed or discarded, her memory of incidents from the past was refreshed.
By the time she prepared that show, Cassan-Jellison had been diagnosed with the “essential vocal tremor” that would impact her singing abilities in future performances. (She talked about this with Simi Horwitz for the previously mentioned bistroaward.com article.)
Cassan-Jellison’ most recent show, this season’s Hey, Frenchy! Stories and Songs from the Pantry, earned her (along with Kleinbort and Gaines) a Bistro Award. It expanded on the themes explored in Just Visiting. The show started out, in fact, simply as a piece about her love of certain French performers (Charles Trenet, Patachou, Yves Montand, etc.). But she couldn’t find the right “hook” to personalize the material. In presenting the idea to her director, she would “have notes for each song and would read them between songs.” Kleinbort wasn’t impressed. He told her (“in an un-cruel way”) that all she really had were “songs and a lot of blurbs about singers.”
But soon, she says, “Dad helped me tell the story.”
Her father, Pierre Cassan, had been a celebrated French chef working in New York City: a charming, affable man. She’d had a wonderful relationship with him in her childhood, but as she grew older, things had become conflicted and strained. She had, nonetheless, brought him to a performance of Just Visiting at Don’t Tell Mama. Shortly after that, he suffered a stroke, and she became his caretaker. Although he couldn’t speak, he suddenly became interested in singing—which brought him to life again. “The only other thing I could get him to respond to was chocolate mousse,” she says.
The story of their relationship’s trajectory became the story she shared in her show. “I go to my sense of identity. I go to the conflict that I had with my father. And then I go to his illness.”
One pitfall she sees in some personal cabaret shows is that performers will want to tell someone else’s stories rather than their own. She notes that her father’s reasons for separation from her would have been his to relate. “I didn’t tell his story. It’s not mine to tell. What happened with him with me is mine to tell…. My story is my childhood story with him, and then [what happened] when we got back together.”
Along the way, she found that she needed to delete music she’d originally planned to use. She’d wanted to feature songs by Jacques Brel, for instance. But her father had had no connection with Brel’s compositions. So, out they went. She ended up including more spoken word in this show than in previous endeavors. And because her vocal tremor had become a bigger problem than before (necessitating “talk-singing” throughout), having fewer songs may have been a good thing for Hey, Frenchy!
Like Rian Keating (whose work has “stunned” her with its “wonderfulness”), she looks for ways to make the specificity of her own stories take on a “universal” appeal—creating a sense of commonality.
“We have real estate in each other’s stories…” she says. “When you meet somebody, you always want to know about them, to know things about them. Then you go, ‘Oh, yeah. I did that too.’”
When Cassan-Jellison was a young woman, she took a job on the waitstaff of a club, just so she could study the performance of one of her idols: Mabel Mercer. She notes that, in an interview, Mercer was asked whether her performances differed, based on where in the world she happened to be singing. Mercer said that they did not, that humans worldwide have strikingly similar life experiences, erasing the need to customize her shows from place to place.
In a small club, Cassan-Jellison points out, audience members are literally able to touch the hand of the performer at times. Not to mention the hands of other listeners.
Watching Mercer, young Claudine became aware that the smallness of the cabaret stage can paradoxically help to create a very big experience, precisely because it allows for connection in such an intimate—and even a tactile—way.
Below a scene from Cassan-Jellison’s show:
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.