Anna Maxwell Martin may be singing ‘Life is a cabaret’ right now on Shaftesbury Avenue, but for some, cabaret is a life – and a way of putting their own lives onstage. There’s inevitably a narcissistic element to most forms of performance – “look at me!” – but in the best kind of cabaret, you’re invited even further inside: “look into my soul”. And that’s why I love it so – at its best, that is. When it isn’t, it can become an exercise in the worst excesses of performance narcissism: you’re forced to look, but like joining the neck-craners at a car accident, it’s disturbing because you can’t look away, either, even though you probably should. Or, worse, cabaret can even be a weird kind of necrophilia, as we watch performers in the dying throws of their careers making one last grab for attention.
In London, its cabaret itself that’s in its dying throws – all but destroyed by a fatal lack of outlets in which to showcase it. Pizza on the Park used to be the venue of choice for the best of international cabaret artists – its where I first saw Ann Hampton Callaway back in the early 90s, and cabaret legends from Julie Wilson and Margaret Whiting to Maureen McGovern, Blossom Dearie, Andrea Marcovicci, Richard Rodney Bennett and the late Marion Montgomery.
But cabaret barely gets a look-in there these days; and if you want to build a cabaret career, it seems, you need cross-over appeal in jazz and popular song, where you’d be equally at home at Ronnie Scott’s or the Vortex as you would in the more rarefied world of cabaret. No wonder Callaway (the best of the all contemporary cabaret singers in New York) and Barb Jungr (our best exponent over here) have followed this route.
But though there’s definitely cross-over between jazz and cabaret, there’s also a lot that’s distinct: cabaret is more vividly theatrical and intimate, jazz is more about the expansive spontaneity of the music. Cabaret therefore thrives in settings that are more theatrical, and by a wonderful coincidence, there are currently two attempts in London to re-assert those possibilities.
As I wrote in The Stage last week in a review of Andrea Marcovicci’s return to London for the first time in nearly a decade , “The art of American cabaret may, like the Broadway stage that it is closely associated with, be something of a fabulous invalid. The plant may be dying but it keeps trying to sprout new leaves. Now singer Jeff Harner is attempting to revitalise its traditions in London by hosting, programming and appearing in a four-week season in the intimate surrounds of Jermyn Street Theatre, neatly turned into a cabaret boite with onstage tables and atmospheric lighting and plants.”
Marcovicci, I also noted last week, is a paradox: the season couldn’t, I said, “hope for a better advocate - or a more dire warning, depending on your point of view”, than her. On the one hand, she’s the kind of performer who has you in the palm of her hands by the force of her personality; but the voice is sometimes like nails being driven into the back of your head – or at least of her own being drawn, as I wrote, across a blackbird. But you don’t go to a Marcovicci gig to hear her sing. You go for her witty personality, her storytelling and her archival researching of material that means she doesn’t alight purely on the most obvious choices.
But as a performer who has chalked up an astonishing 20 year annual residency at both of America’s premiere cabaret spots – New York’s Algonquin and San Francisco’s Plush Room (probably my favourite cabaret room in the world now), she must find it weird that Jermyn Street is now the best we can do.
Or at least I thought so, too, until I went to the Shaw last night, to see Eartha Kitt who is doing a week-long, sell-out season there. Formerly buried within what was a public library building on the Euston Road, the Shaw rather more auspiciously now has its own entrance and two bars – and is now surrounded by a luxury hotel, for which it serves double-duty by day as a conference facility to. And in the lounge-like comfort of its airline-style seating, and the intimacy of its auditorium, it could well be an ideal home for prestige cabaret.
Eartha, of course, is a one-of-a-kind performer: “I may be 80,” she says, as she reveals a still-shapely leg from the slit of her dress, “but I’m still burning!” Which was thrilling to see again, since on her last London solo first night nearly 18 years ago (at the Shaftesbury Theatre in March 1989), she very nearly crashed and burnt. I remember vividly how the audience were kept waiting about 45 minutes before she finally came on; and midway through the second number, lost the lyric, started the song again, lost it again, and then virtually lost it entirely: she stopped the band and said she couldn’t go on. She started to cry. The audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats. After what seemed like an age – but was probably only a matter of seconds – someone shouted out from the stalls, “We love you, Eartha!” It was all she needed to hear. She composed herself, started again, and all was fine.
That last solo show, of course, was in the wake of her London appearance at the same Shaftesbury Theatre in Sondheim’s Follies, where she first gave what has become one of her signature songs – and truth to tell, the signature song of every performer d’un certain age – “I’m Still Here”. And opening a set that also included that other indelible anthem to survival, “I Will Survive”, she certainly proved both of those facts. Like Marcovicci, it isn’t about the voice, but about the delivery. As she prowled and growled her way gracefully around the stage, she was in her element. And the audience, which included Dame Shirley Bassey sitting right behind me, was clearly in theirs.
While Eartha has gone on in the years since Follies to appear in shows both good (The Wild Party on Broadway in 2000) and terrible (last year’s off-Broadway Mimi le Duck, that I only lasted to the interval of before fleeing), it was great to see her owning a stage so powerfully in a way that the best kind of cabaret allows. (A friend of mine wittily uses Eartha Kitt’s name as Cockney rhyming slang for needing to perform a particular bodilyfunction — as, in a different rhyme but to the same purpose, is “taking an Ivana” (Trump), but there was nothing excremental about Kitt’s performance last night, nor was the venue she was appearing in a dump, either!)
Cabaret can also, of course, be a chance to simply let your hair down; and fresh from the Shaw, I went to the Prince of Wales Theatre’s beautiful Delfont Room – the long stalls bar – for a late night Valentine’s Day charity cabaret put together by the company of Avenue Q. Though these occasions are inevitably a little ragged, they’re propelled by the goodwill of both the performers (there to give some party pieces, here ably assisted by their puppet personas, that earns them a break from the regular night job) and the audience (there to cheer them on). It’s also wonderful to see a West End theatre living beyond the normal curtain down time in this way; and outside of the luxurious formality of the Shaw, this room could well turn out to be best cabaret spot in London.
It re-thinks cabaret outside the box (and confines) of the sort of rooms you usually hear it in. The crisis in cabaret isn’t just about the talent on offer – and Avenue Q’s company shows that we have talent in spades in the West End – but more to do with the available outlets for it to be performed in. Even in New York, where the genre clings on more ably than here, things are confined to rooms at the extremes of being: the over-priced exclusivity of places like the Algonquin, Carlyle and Feinstein’s, versus the free-for-all indulgence of Don’t Tell Mamas, which anyone can book for a fee regardless of whether they’re any good. And I was saddened to notice a couple of weeks ago when I was in town that another New York room has been lost: Danny’s Skylight Room on W46th Street – the regular home of Blossom Dearie – has shut shop.
No wonder that I now feel offers a life (and home) for cabaret is thousands of miles away from both London and New York — in Adelaide, Australia. I have been to its annual Cabaret Festival every June for the last three years running — I’m going to pass this year, but its the one place I know where cabaret is still taken seriously — and given the room to grow.