If you have an image of cabaret in your head, it probably goes something like this: A performer dives into the American Songbook, softly sobbing as the words of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter connect to their own remembrances of lost love.
Get rid of that image.
There are many different kinds of cabaret in the Twin Cities — one that’s a sober space, another that focuses on songs from musicals — but they’re bringing in younger fans by adding songs from Rufus Wainwright and even hip-hop to the classic songbook. And they’re rejecting that sob-prone cliché because, as performer Joey Babay says, it’s “pretentious” and, frankly, “Nobody wants to see you have a breakdown on stage.”
Unless, of course, it’s the breakdown written right into “Rose’s Turn” or “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Those musical theater staples could easily pop up at Musical Mondays at Lush, which co-founder Max Wojtanowicz says could be more accurately called a showcase, since it’s about show tunes rather than storytelling.
But who’s going to argue that it’s not cabaret when you might hear a song that’s actually from “Cabaret”?
Still, a few basic rules do apply to cabaret.
“It needs to be in an intimate setting, this concept of a listening room,” says Babay. “It’s different from musical theater, where it’s a scripted show. And I think the performers want to be able to see the faces of the audience.
“It’s not just songs. It’s stories and songs.”
Let them see you sweat
These days, there are a lot more stories and songs. Venues such as the Town House and the Commodore in St. Paul and the Warming House and Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis regularly present cabaret. Last month, the Lab Theater debuted a new one, “Light the World,” that may return.
Babay is president of the Twin Cities Cabaret Artists Network, which helps members find gigs and accompanists, and offers workshops and a blog with links to performances. Membership in the group has grown from 14 to 37 in just a few years.
One secret to cabaret’s popularity: It gives audiences an intimate relationship with singers.
“Musical Mondays is really about creating opportunities for talented folks to show their stuff, and for the community to get to know more about these performers,” says Wojtanowicz of the five-year-old event that began at Hell’s Kitchen and appears the first Monday of each month at Lush, drawing 100 or more music lovers.
Each performance features six actors — from musical theater veterans such as Bradley Greenwald and Melissa Hart to newbies — singing stage tunes, including some obscurities. Generally, the songs are organized around a theme.
Intimacy can also mean being able to see the flop sweat. Several years ago, Erin Schwab and her pianist, Jay Fuchs, were bombing at Jitters. When the manager suggested that Schwab shift the mood by pretending to be drunk, a staple of her act was born.
“It’s this version of the Patsy Cline song ‘Crazy’ that can take anywhere from five minutes to 30 when we do it — OK, that’s an exaggeration — but we play with each other and I tell jokes in the middle of it and I go up to people and drink their drinks, getting to know them,” says Schwab. Unusual requests from regulars offer clues to their emotions, she says: “When the person who usually wants a singalong to ‘Sweet Caroline’ suddenly requests [heartbreak song] ‘It’s a Fine, Fine Line,’ you know something sad is going on with them.”
The audience/performer bond may be even stronger at Balls, an alcohol-free cabaret that has happened virtually every Saturday at midnight — even Christmases — since Leslie Ball founded it in August 1991. Originally at the old Jungle Theater, it’s now at the Southern Theater.
“We really don’t believe there’s a line separating the performers from the audience,” Ball says. “At the beginning of each week, I talk about how we’re all collaborating together and then we take a picture right at midnight of the audience and the performers. One night, you might see something offensive and artless, but two minutes later there’s something that takes your breath away.”
Aside from sobriety, she doesn’t limit performers, who can include poets, jugglers, comedians (Maria Bamford had one of her first gigs at Balls, playing the violin) or a naked man who sings while getting sprayed with whipped cream. The result, Ball says, is a spectrum of political and artistic beliefs that come together in a space where “we’re all figuring out how to be a community.”
Finding themselves in song
Sometimes, the intimacy of cabaret can help performers find their own community.
Schwab, who trained in musical theater, salutes the generosity of Twin Cities cabaret staple Lori Dokken, who gave Schwab her first professional cabaret gig at the Town House.
“Lori would say, ‘You should do this song,’ and I’d be, ‘I can’t. It’s too high.’ But she’d play the song in a different key and all of a sudden I realized, ‘Hey, I can sing anything I want.’ It was this amazing situation,” recalls Schwab, “but I also think it was the most naked and vulnerable I ever felt in a room because it was just me, telling my story.”
Wojtanowicz says Musical Mondays lets actors, who usually play characters unlike them, reveal a little more about themselves, with themes that have included “What are you afraid of?” and “What’s your day job?” He can think of only two Twin Cities theater vets who declined because they didn’t want to be themselves on stage — or because they feared the occasional flub, such as a Musical Mondays performer who coughed through a song last summer after accidentally inhaling the fake mustache she wore for a tune from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
“Our very first show was six people we knew,” says Wojtanowicz, who founded the show with his collaborator, co-host and “favorite singer in the whole world,” Sheena Janson Kelley. “But people started saying, ‘Hey, I want to do the next one.’
“We knew from the beginning we wanted to keep introducing new performers to our audiences, as well as veterans. In the five years we’ve been doing it, we’ve had more than 300 performers on our stage.”
One of those 300 is Hope Nordquist, a self-described “Sondheim kid,” who hosts “The Wine in Her Voice” the third Sunday of each month at Lush, often with friends as musical guests (that title pun refers to a woman who has been known to enjoy both a whine and a merlot).
Nordquist has envisioned herself playing embittered, 50-something Phyllis in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” ever since she was in middle school. And she still owns a pair of sweatpants she customized as a teenager, with the lyrics to the Sondheim showstopper “Getting Married Today” scrawled all over them.
So, yeah, she loves Sondheim. But she believes she’s often not looked at for roles because she is Asian-American.
“My response initially was, ‘Why don’t people see me in this way I want to be seen?’ But with ‘The Wine in Her Voice,’ I can show people what I am and what I can do,” says Nordquist.
In other words, by choosing specific songs, Nordquist can cast herself in roles she dreams of playing, such as Elphaba in “Wicked.” She also can do numbers no one would expect her to perform, such as an acoustic cover of the raunchy “My Neck, My Back.”
“I think people can really tell when I do something that is meaningful for me,” says Nordquist. “I am out as a bisexual person and, really, the first way I started to say that was through music. It made me braver and bolder and now I can walk around the world like, ‘Yes, this is how I identify.’ ”
Adrian Lopez-Balbontin, a theater director who hosts Cabernet Cabaret on Mondays at the 60-seat Troubador Wine Bar in Uptown, says that’s the big lesson of cabaret: “I’ll see a performer taking a break and they’re saying hi to people they don’t know. I’m thinking, ‘How cool. Songs really do bring people together.’ ”
Not in it for the money
Nobody is getting rich from cabaret, although Lopez-Balbontin says the shows make economic sense because they can draw crowds on nights that aren’t usually busy.
Musical Mondays hosts Janson Kelley and Wojtanowicz don’t pay themselves; they split the take between performers for gas and drink money.
Cabaret performers who do get paid are mostly freelancers, with the uncertainty that implies. And at Balls, the low ticket price means there’s not much cash to spread around.
“Almost every Saturday on the way there, I’m like, ‘Oh, what am I doing with my life? I’m 62 years old. I’m tired. This is not a moneymaking venture — the tickets are five bucks and we spend that on treats for everybody. So what am I doing?’ ” asks Ball. “But then I get there and the people in the audience start to show up and the performers amaze me and the feedback I get is so heartwarming. It just keeps reminding me why I wanted to do this, 26 years ago: this incredible sense of community.”
What she’s talking about, of course, is not unlike what John Kander and Fred Ebb meant when they wrote “Cabaret” more than 50 years ago:
“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play.”