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.

 

Give ‘em the ol’ Razzle Dazzle

Need a song-and-dance cabaret act for your next event? Look no further than Ovation!, the Patel Conservatory’s traveling troupe of professionally trained entertainers for hire.

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The Straz Center launched its first ever professional student cabaret ensemble, Ovation!, in a 2015 pilot program. Here, they perform in our TECO Theater.

For a few years, a delightful idea from the Patel Conservatory’s theater department rolled around in The Straz’s creative hopper: what if … is it possible … could we have a group of students trained and prepared to gig like any other working performers? And, could they collaborate with our food and beverage team to provide entertainment for public and private clients?

A few stars needed to align with timing and leadership – and, eventually, they did. Last year, the Patel Conservatory hand-picked 16 students who they invited to try out a pilot program to see if the idea could grow legs. Ovation! was born.

The 2016-2017 Ovation! ensemble

The 2016-2017 Ovation! ensemble prepares for its working season in the Straz Center Rehearsal Hall.

Under the vocal direction of Vice President of Education Suzanne Livesay and with choreography from theater faculty member Scott Daniel, Ovation! eventually congealed into a hybrid show choir and cabaret act able to perform medleys for public and private events. The group cut its teeth in-house, performing for the President’s Luncheon, the Patel Conservatory end-of-year Spotlight show and an Evening of Dance.

Eventually, Ovation! made its way into the world, entertaining at the Neiman Marcus holiday event and in Whole Foods during a fundraiser for the Patel Conservatory. Their big break came when Redstone Investments booked the group as a surprise for co-founder Jonathan Levy during their holiday gathering. The party organizers requested the Ovation! crew pretend to be random carolers – but instead of singing traditional songs, the medleys would be parodies of the company set to the tunes of holiday classics starting with “Jonathan the Levy,” a rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.”

“It was fantastic,” says Patel Conservatory theater instructor Audrey Siegler. “Redstone died laughing. Everyone at the party was hysterical. Ovation! was a hit, and we knew we had something that worked.”

The gigs throughout 2015 defined and refined the shape of Ovation!, with the directors deciding to create customizable gigs depending on the client’s needs. “We have 10-20 minute medleys ready to go around Broadway themes, love songs, holidays. But there can be other themes, or a longer duration, and combinations of performers depending on what the client wants. We’re training talented young people to sing and dance. They’re prepared to go anywhere and perform to professional standards,” Siegler continues.

With the ground under its feet, Ovation! has deepened its training this season with Popular Dance program director Kelly King, a former Rockette, taking the helm as choreographer with Livesay. Auditions happened in August and will again in January. The Ovation! company rehearses weekly to keep the material and their performance chops sharp.

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Ovation! strikes a tableau from a show number. The company is for hire. All proceeds from Ovation! gigs go directly to Patel Conservatory scholarship funds.

“We’re still shaping and working out the logistics,” says Siegler. “We’re looking for more gigs this season, and anyone interested in hiring Ovation! – please contact us and we can work out a show for your event. All the booking fees go directly to the Patel Conservatory scholarship program, so the more they perform, the more opportunities become available for others.”

If you want to book Ovation! or get more information, please email audrey.siegler@strazcenter.org. If you are a Straz Center donor and would like to book Ovation! or get more information, please contact bill.rolon@strazcenter.org.