Back in March, I was heralding the welcome return of a full-time cabaret club at last to London, with the establishment of a permanent residency of the American Songbook in London at Pizza on the Park. But last night, sitting amongst a meagre audience of just 19 spectators including myself and partner (plus four more who arrived later) for the long overdue return of Maureen McGovern to these shores, I started wondering if we actually deserved such a club - or artists of such calibre - if they can’t be more actively supported.
Already the producers have been forced to “postpone” two of their planned artists, Paula West (who was due to appear there from May 5-16) and Andrea Marcovicci (June 2-13) - the first completely unknown over here, though I’ve seen (and loved) her in San Francisco where she is based, so she was probably a tough sell, while Marcovicci has visited more regularly over the years, most recently in 2007 as part of the inaugural American Songbook in London season at Jermyn Street Theatre, so she may have become over-exposed.
That’s part of the paradox of musical cabaret: there’s only a tiny pool of artists to draw on, and to build and sustain an audience for them is a fine juggling act.
There’s not much of a cabaret press to speak of, either, to help the promoters in their cause: outside of The Stage’s own pages, the only regular reviewing outlet is The Times (where Clive Davis thankfully continues to fly the flag for cabaret, and reviews McGovern enthusiastically today) and, occasionally, the Evening Standard.
In yesterday’s Standard, Jack Massarik pointed out one of the problems of the season: as he writes, she “starts work promptly. Her opening set began at 7.45pm, the cabaret equivalent of dawn, and ended at 9.15 with Knightsbridge still in broad daylight.” That’s not really cabaret’s ideal hour; nor, to be frank, is a Pizza Express menu, marked down in choice but up in price, ideal to set the ambiance. When we protested at the sorry size of the portion of chips, at £3.30, that accompanied the £9.50 cheeseburger, the waiter thoughtfully brought a second helping.
But none of this matters when McGovern sings. And while the best of cabaret artists, as I’ve frequently said, make you feel like you’re being sung to alone - whether you’re in the Metropolitan Opera House or a small room like this - last night it was almost literally true. It certainly made for being part of a very exclusive club. It saddened me, however, that she had to give her considerable all to such a tiny audience, and I hope that she isn’t discouraged from returning in the future. I once saw Ann Hampton Callaway, one of my all-time favourite cabaret performers, perform in this room to just 12 people - and she’s never been back.
It was all a far cry from McGovern’s first visit to this room over 15 years ago, in the early 90s. I had seen her the year before at Rainbow and Stars, the cabaret room high atop Rockefeller Centre in New York (now alas no more), and it was one of the most electrifying evenings of my life, in every sense: a massive lightning storm accompanied her performance, and since the venue had undraped windows to allow views over Manhattan to play behind the cabaret, you kept seeing flashes of lightning.
There’s no such possibility in the subterranean Pizza on the Park, of course; but McGovern is her own lightning conductor to interpreting great music, and when she came here first, with a Gershwin-inspired collection based on her fine 1990 album Naughty Baby, I remember coming to seven or eight nights of her 12-night run! (Yes, I was suffering from OCD, even then!)
Her current show, based on her latest CD release last year A Long and Winding Road, abandons showtunes entirely for a programme that revisits pop classics from the likes of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lennon and McCartney, Jimmy Webb and Carole King. It is unmissable.