Have you seen the word “cabaret” and wondered what it is exactly? Do you imagine burlesque or bombastic show tunes? Certainly the cabaret repertoire includes Broadway classics, but I’m talking about the art of singing songs from the Great American and European Songbooks, the kind of music that engages the audience in a personal way. Show material can run the gamut from Cole Porter and George Gershwin to Madonna, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Lady Gaga.
Singers and fans also discover a magical connection to the past performers and songwriters who forged the first chapters of the Great American Songbook. Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Julie Wilson, Barbara Cook and Eartha Kitt are some of the performing luminaries who created the cabaret culture, alongside lyricists and composers like Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim and Dave Frishberg, to name a few. Writers are still adding to the Great American Songbook and singers are still choosing songs both old and new that will make a connection with listeners.
On the national level, Michael Feinstein, singer/pianist/impresario/archivist, is the undeniable ambassador of cabaret. His American Songbook Competition, open to talented high school students, has a two-fold mission, to bring these classic songs to young people and ensure the Songbook’s future. We have bragging rights since two Chicago students were finalists in the 2014 competition.
If you’re interested in attending a cabaret performance or getting actively involved in the cabaret community, you are quite lucky, because the Chicago area has several options.
Open mics, where audience members can sing one or two songs with the house pianist, might be a first step to familiarizing yourself with material and performers. The back room of Davenport’s Piano Bar schedules one-hour cabaret shows by local artists as well as visiting national acts. The front room at Davenport’s and Cabaret features open mic nights on Mondays and Wednesdays, but also has front room entertainment on Thursdays with Natalie Myre, Fridays with Marianne Murphy Orland and George Howe, Johnny Rodgers doing the early shift on Saturdays and Sunday evenings and Daryl Nitz with George Howe doing their long-running late night act on Saturdays.
Beckie Menzie and Denise McGowan hold court at their sophisticated open mic, “Monday Night Live,” at Petterino’s where you may see touring national musical theater cast members warble a tune or two, or you might find yourself sitting next to an actor from the attached Goodman Theater next door. Note that singers need to get their names on a sign-up sheet before the 7:30 p.m. show and slots go quickly.
Joining Chicago Cabaret Professionals (CCP), a non-profit organization dedicated to singers and fans of the Great American Songbook, might be another avenue to pursue. Access to fan lists, cabaret calendars, venue information and online profile pages about members are just some of the membership benefits.
Perhaps the largest and most visible CCP activity is the annual fall gala at Park West, where the cream of membership performs and the organization honors both local and national luminaries in the cabaret field. National honorees have included Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Mason, Ann Hampton Callaway, Marilyn Maye and most recently, cabaret artist/actor Stephen Wallem known as nurse “Thor” on the Showtime TV series, “Nurse Jackie.”
CCP also sponsors shows throughout the year, including the annual Holiday Cabaret evenings that raise money for “Hands Together, Heart To Art,” Auditorium Theatre’s summer camp for kids who have lost a parent, “Strut Your Stuff,” which allows newbies and pros alike the chance to try out a mini-set, and Musical Mondays, an on-going quarterly themed cabaret series presented at Victory Gardens Theater.
If you begin to get serious about your singing, you should consider pursuing the performance of cabaret with individual voice teachers or coaches but you may also consider group education. Songshop, an adult education class led by Claudia Hommel and sponsored by DePaul University meets on the Lincoln Park campus weekly to work on song interpretation. Old Town School of Folk Music also hosts an eight-week cabaret group vocal class in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. The Midwest Cabaret Conference periodically brings New York music professionals to Chicago to lead a group master class. Entrance is by audition with this year’s Chicago dates being July 9-13, 2015.
Many Chicagoland venues and organizations schedule occasional cabaret programs. Notable engagements have been singer-songwriter Susan Werner’s eight shows for the Auditorium Theatre’s “On Stage” series, jazz vocalist Rene Marie at the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival and Martha Wainwright at City Winery Chicago. Skokie Theatre, Pianoforte, Mayne Stage, the Jazz Showcase and even Symphony Center book the occasional singer who connects with the audience in a personal way.
Aside from the entertainment aspect, there is a very personal component to belonging to the Chicago cabaret community of singers and fans. Singers encountering medical emergencies have benefited from the largesse of their colleagues. Cabaret lovers and practitioners have lent emotional support when fans, singers or their spouses have passed away. The widow of one ardent fan even had a handful of cabaret singers perform at her husband’s memorial service. Good things, like new CD releases or weddings, engender group celebration as well. Facebook and Twitter posts abound when anything of note happens in the cabaret community.
The next time you see the word “cabaret,” instead of thinking pole dancing and strip-tease, think of thoughtful lyrics, memorable melodies, and emotional engagement between singer and audience.
Singer-pianist-composer-writer Elizabeth Doyle has performed across the United States and Europe. Doyle was a featured guest on the late Marian McPartland’s NPR program Piano Jazz, as well as a magnet at Chicago’s famed Pump Room. You can hear her perform every Friday night at Barba Yianni in Lincoln Square. Her blog features reviews on books, movies, TV, music and food.
Singers KT McCammond and Suzi Petri during the CCP Gala at Park West, 2014.
Photo: Jennifer Girard.