Old Soul Storytelling Hour

The Art of the Cabaret Singer

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A poster advertising a tour of the Le Chat Noir’s troupe of cabaret entertainers. (Théophile Steinlen, 1896)

In Parisian cafes after the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, discontent grew. People were sick of social repression, war and constraints to expression. Artists, writers and other interesting people gathered to speak freely, often sharing their art with each other in small cafés. Eventually, these small gatherings became formal clubs. France, the first European country to give voting rights to all males, buzzed with a sense of equality, and perhaps the most alive with this bohemian restlessness was the city of Montmartre. Creative types flocked to its streets, and artists began to dismantle the notion of art as inaccessible fancies for aristocrats. They sought to create some art form crashing high-brow and low-brow together into something new.

From these efforts, Montmartre produced the most famous cabaret of all time – Le Chat Noir, “The Black Cat,” in 1881, named after the eponymous short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In this small space, singing met spoofs met skits met shadow play in a low-cost hotbed of provocative entertainment. Cabaret was unpredictable, it was immediate, and, most importantly, it was fun.

Cabaret spread to Germany quickly, and by the 1900s, Germans managed to incorporate the traditional, unobjectionable variety show with experimental, avant-garde work, although they eschewed the risqué aesthetic of the Parisian cabarets with its nudity and casual profanity. World War I brought American jazz and African-Americans to German cabarets with legendary trailblazer Josephine Baker performing her cabaret revue in Germany in 1926.

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Josephine Baker performing at the Folies-Bergère, Paris. (Walery, 1926)

This cultural blending across European borders eventually traversed the Atlantic to the United States where cabaret began to take hold in the Prohibition speakeasies where anything goes and everything went. Chicago and New York boasted the most vibrant cabaret scenes, with an electrifying racial mixing of dancers, musicians, Mafiosos, working class, poets, writers and the socially adventurous who sought to defy (or at least taunt) the strict separation of races, classes and mores of the day. In this liminal space, Billie Holiday debuted her haunting, classic exposé of white supremacy, Strange Fruit, at Café Society, a cabaret in Greenwich Village. This moment, a raw, unflinching, terrifying expression of honesty not just for Billie Holiday but for the audience, captures the great essence of the cabaret singer: a public performance of a private moment, the sense of a shared experience with a trusted friend, a story told in song. Often these rough emotional moments were followed by a rollicking number, and this structure of ups and downs, sentimentality balanced with humor, remains the winning combination for a solid cabaret show.

According to Katherine Anne Yachinich’s thesis The Culture and Music of American Cabaret, “The word ‘cabaret’ stems from the French cambret, cameret, or camberete, for wine cellar, tavern, or small room, but ultimately comes from the Latin camera, for chamber.” Today, 134 years after Le Chat Noir opened its doors in Montmartre, cabaret remains largely defined by the fact that it happens in a small space though what happens in that small space may be rather loosely interpreted by the artists performing within it.

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The 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET, which comes to Tampa Jan. 24-29. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For the cabaret singer, opposed to song-and-dance numbers, puppetry or burlesque shows, which often also fall into the cabaret category, the art form relies on the intimacy of the chamber, his or her ability to make a performance space feel as comfortable as a living room. Cabaret coach Anita Hall said in an interview with writer Rita Kohn that “people [who] are drawn to cabaret are old souls. I’ve shared my stage with children who can phrase and swing better than entertainers that have been at it for decades. You either have it or you don’t.”

The cabaret singer’s challenge is one of balance: the subtle interplay of patter (talking or storytelling between numbers) and song choice, the correct push-and-pull of tension between him or herself and the audience, of measuring honesty and anecdote, of dancing around instead of delivering a theme.

Cabaret, unlike many performing arts, refuses to construct the fourth wall – the accepted, invisible barrier between the stage action and the audience – which means that the audience has access to the singer’s vulnerabilities. By its nature, since it was created to build community and expression, cabaret demands the flow of intimacy between the performer and the audience. Any good cabaret act knows how to take an audience to its edge and back again.

A great act convinces everyone to jump off the edge with them. In fact, they make it sound like fun.

 

The First To Taste The World

Singers, entertainers, recording artists and twins Will and Anthony Nunziata. (Photo by Andrew Werner.)

Singers, entertainers, recording artists and twins Will and Anthony Nunziata. (Photo by Andrew Werner.)

Rarely do we get twins performing together on stage at The Straz, so it is a double (quadruple?) treat to have Will and Anthony stopping by the Jaeb this Saturday for their cabaret show. We thought we’d celebrate this rare occasion with some interesting factoids about twins from around the world. We also threw in a few interesting factoids about Will and Anthony, just for fun.

In African Yoruba mythology, twins are knows as Ibeji, sacred spirits called Orishas, that symbolize wealth, power …. and trouble. The first born is called Taiwo, “having the first taste of the world,” and the second is Kehinde, “arriving after the other.”

The Aztecs were not as generous. One twin was killed to save the life of a parent and the other was thought to possess evil powers. No bueno.

The Lillooet tribe believes bears are the parents of twins.

Some famous mythical twins include Romulus and Remus, suckled by wolves in ancient Rome, and, of course, the Weasely Brothers, of Harry Potter legend. There’s also Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Artemis and Apollo, and the Hindu Ashwini Twins, who act as Healers.

Will and Anthony Nunziata. © Stephen Sorokoff

Will and Anthony Nunziata will perform Broadway Our Way as part of our Cabaret Series on Dec 6 and hold a workshop on Dec 7. (Photo by Stephen Sorokoff.)

Will and Anthony got their start on stage playing Judas and Jesus in Godspell. Wait til the show, and they’ll tell you who was who.

Their mother told them apart by dressing one in red and one in blue.

Their first professional gig was stealing (inadvertently, of course) a Cheerios jingle from the Harlem Boys Choir.

The twins’ first major show was called “Thank God the Egg Split: A Twin Show.”

They played with Upright Citizens Brigade. They are charming. They are funny. They are good-looking.

Seems like they prove a lot of the twin mythology just may have more than a little grain of truth.

The Lioness Returns

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons’ early career began on stages around the Tampa Bay region, one of which was our Jaeb Theater. She left for New York City the week of Sept. 11, 2001, to audition for Aida, a Disney production. Her audition led to an interest in her for The Lion King, and she and her husband stayed in the city during the chaos of the September 11th crisis. That Monday, Sept. 17, Kissy was cast as Nala in The Lion King, directed by lauded Julie Taymor, and began a decade-long journey with the show on Broadway, in Las Vegas and on the first national tour, which came to Morsani Hall in 2002.

Kissy, short for Kissimmee, a town close to her birthplace of Floral City, FL, returns to the Jaeb Theater Nov. 1, 2014, for a solo show as part of our brand new Cabaret Series. In many ways, she is returning to her roots, and we are happy to welcome her home. Caught in the Act caught up with Kissy by phone in her New York City apartment to talk about identity and place and her upcoming performance in the Jaeb.

CitA: We’ve been hearing rumors that your show is going to be a retrospective/introspective look at your life from the Straz to Broadway and back again. Is this true? And will you talk a little bit about how your upbringing in Florida has shaped your life as a performer?

KS (laughs): My show centers around the Straz, how I got my start, and where life has gone. For me, it all hinges from church. I was just a church girl who wanted to play the organ. I saw our organist in church and I thought “oh my goodness, I want to play the organ!” My talent derived from that environment and was facilitated there—even acting. We did skits and had to deliver Christmas speeches. You know, you don’t think about ‘down the road’ when you’re doing it, but now I look back and see. I look at my daughter (2-year-old Sadie), and I know that experiences like that matter. It makes a difference, at least it did for me. Those are my roots. The Straz … well, that was a really big deal. I had this idea of being a performer, but I didn’t know what that meant, it felt like a fantasy. I didn’t know how I would get there. I would audition at the [Florida] theme parks and couldn’t get a job with them. Luckily, the Straz was there and I was able to do so many cabaret shows. The Straz was a blessing. I even got married there!

We didn’t know that! Do tell.

Yes, by the water. We were in rehearsals for Swing! Swing! Swing! I approached Judy [Lisi, Straz Center President] to do something small, and she was like “oh, honey…” and my little idea turned into a wedding I never could have imagined! It was run like a show with calls and everything.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center's brand new Cabaret Series.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center’s brand new Cabaret Series.

That’s fantastic. So this is a real coming home for you.

I feel no shame in where I’m from. I’m from Floral City, the town with one traffic light. I walk around New York City in my cowboy boots. That’s where I’m from—I’m a small town country girl. You are who you are. For me to come back from being away and experiencing so many cultures, Vegas, New York … it’s refreshing to come home and see how people can ground you. When I go to Winn-Dixie [the grocery store], people say hello. My high school friends who stayed now have their kids at Inverness Middle School. It’s nice to see people I have roots with rooted in their own families. There are so many people to keep me connected, and it’s important for me to come back—but it is just as important for me to give back. You realize people have been rooting for you this whole time, and it’s a two-way street. It’s an opportunity to perform for people who supported me. People give me the strength to be able to do this, and I like to give it back. I’ll always be in and out of Florida even though New York is where we are.

You are an extremely down-to-earth person, with a relatively normal life, long-time marriage, a child … how do you stay humble in the entertainment business and stay out of a lot of the traps of the lifestyle?

I met Anthony [her husband] when we were both running track at USF [the University of South Florida]. I saw him and knew that was what I wanted, and that was that! (laughs) I know entertainment is what it is. I see it as such a blessing and opportunity. I get to do what I love. All jobs are important. All of our jobs no matter what it is are so important, and I view life that way. To blow it or waste it, for me, would be tragic. I know people recover [from addictions] and overcome, which is wonderful. But I just look at it like a huge blessing that I get to participate in. I’m my own worst critic, and in this business, it’s subject to people’s opinions. It’s a judged environment, and that can be hard. I learned humility through church, and maybe if I didn’t know to pray then I would be tempted to do something external to help me out, but I can stay grounded in being grateful for the opportunity. But that’s just my perspective, just the path I have been on.

We are really looking forward to having you to all to ourselves for your cabaret show. Will you give us a little sneak peek of what we can expect?

Let’s just say … expect some familiar tunes! Especially from shows done in the Jaeb. This performance is going to be a great time. Expect lots of fun and fun moments. Stan Collins, my piano player—he’s phenomenal. I wouldn’t do this show with anyone else! It’ll be me, Stan, and bass and drums. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.