You wait ages for one classy cabaret place to open, and then suddenly there are two in the space of less than two months on either side of the Atlantic: just last weekend I saw a preview performance, to an invited audience only, of Janie Dee in cabaret, the first act to play the new Live at the Hippodrome cabaret space at the newly-refurbished Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square; and two nights ago I visited Studio 54, a new cabaret nightspot below the old Studio 54 nightclub (now a Broadway theatre), to see the opening night of Broadway veteran Ben Vereen’s cabaret set there.
The Hippodrome is the latest attempt to bring high-end cabaret to London, after previous attempts at the Cafe Royal and the Connaught rooms famously failed. We’ve mainly had to rely on pizza (and pizzazz) at places like the late, lamented Pizza on the Park, and its Pizza Express replacement, the Pheasantry on the King’s Road.
The Hippodrome is a high, wide space, innately theatrical and very glamorous, with little booths of banquettes hugging the walls and tabled seating in front of it. Seeing the irrepressible Janie Dee — even when suffering a bad chest infection — owning the room entirely, you know that it has vast potential.
In New York, of course, there’s a golden tradition of high-end rooms, and if Rainbow and Stars (above the Rockeller Centre) and more recently the Algonquin’s Oak Room have passed into history, it is still being maintained at places like Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel and the Cafe Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel, both of them on the East Side of Central Park. What 54 Below does, though, is bring classy cabaret to the heart of the theatre district, where it earns its place as a show in its own right, as well as providing drop-in post-theatre possibilities, too, with late night shows.
On the one hand, these rooms — with their high cover charges, and steep food and drink ones to match — perpetuate an air of exclusivity around cabaret that can make it, like opera, seem for a moneyed elite only; on the other, of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that it can be an exclusive sort of privilege to have a performance encounter with a great artist in a comparatively tiny room. I’ve seen the great Barbara Cook, for instance, everywhere from Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House and the London Coliseum to Feinstein’s and the Carlyle (not to mention the Donmar, several West End theatres and the Royal Albert Hall), and of course one of the things that great cabaret stars routinely do is shrink a huge theatre or concert hall to the size of a small cabaret room, yet make a small cabaret room seem like the most important space in the world.
It’s all about the art of intimate communication. And this week in New York, Ben Vereen — who is now 65 years old, took us on a personal voyage through a career that has stretched from Fosse (in a touring Sweet Charity and the original Pippin on Broadway) to Wicked (in which he took over on Broadway as the Wizard). He has a quirky, idiosyncratic singing voice (whose phrasing reminds me of a cross between Lena Horne, Shirley Bassey and Eartha Kitt) and a sometimes casual approach to the lyrics (some, like “Magic to Do” from Pippin that he first introduced, that he must have sung a million times).
A packed room that included Liza Minnelli welcomed this New York theatre legend with open arms; like Dolly Levi, it was so good to have him back where he belonged — on a stage and in our hearts.
The weekly publication of the previous week’s Broadway grosses is a long-established exercise in business transparency; I wonder if you’d ever catch Barclays or another bank offering a similar insight into their own weekly ups and downs, at least without distorting the figures first to make sure that it drives up their bonuses. By tradition, of course, these appear in the pages of Variety, the weekly trade paper; but now that it is but a pale shadow of its former self, it is sometimes the only legit (as they call theatre) coverage in the paper at all. In any case, you no longer have to wait for the print version to appear; you can get up-to-date figures for the week just ended the moment they are released every Monday by logging on to Playbill.com, who publish it, too, entirely for free.
Careful reading of the figures enables you not only to spot the obvious about what’s up and what’s down in New York (apart from the Bronx and Battery Park), but also to predict longer-term considerations for Broadway. The figures for Evita last week, for instance, proved just how dependent that show is on the star power of the presence in it of Ricky Martin — with him taking a week’s holiday, the show’s takings suddenly plummeted, from a previous week’s gross of $1,191,200 to $643,663, almost half as much. As the New York Times duly noted, “How much pressure is on the show’s producers to find a major star to replace Mr. Martin when his contract ends in early January?”
To paraphrase Alfred Doolittle from My Fair Lady, “I’m getting married in the morning/ding dong/the bells are going to chime/I’m getting married in the morning/so get me to the park on time”….” It’s true — I am getting married tomorrow morning to my long-term partner, who also happens to be called Mark, in Central Park. And yes, we’re getting married over here because we can actually get married and call it exactly that: there’s no apologetic hiding behind the compromise of civil partnership to recognise our right to declare our love for each other.
In a recent interview in Attitude magazine, Daniel Radcliffe, no less, put it better than anyone when he said: “The ultimate reason gay marriage should be legalised everywhere is because, as a kid, you look to your mum and dad and they’re married; then you look at the gay couple who’ve been together for the same amount of time, but because they can’t get married their relationship doesn’t seem the same. Yes, gay marriage is about symbolically blessing a relationship, but the larger issue is about transmitting a fundamental message about equality. Gay people should have equality in law everywhere.”
Quote of the week: Nicky Silver, on the experience of seeing his first play get to Broadway The Lyons, after many years of off-Broadway success, writing in the New York Times: “Someone asked recently why I was at the theater so much. I was there nightly, you see. Part of it is superstition. I must say, ‘Have a good time’ to each actor at half-hour. I don’t know what tragedy would befall us if I didn’t. (I wouldn’t risk it!) But the real reason is this: It’s my home. I don’t mean the Cort, per se, although that’s been home recently. The theater I am in is my home. And the people in it are my family. The crew, the ushers, the audience, the staff and the cast. I had been with most of this cast for 11 months, and I could write a column on each of them…. You see, I tend to write plays wherein the characters feel isolated, separate from the world and alone. I have never felt more connected and part of something than I did through this experience. The only real change between Broadway and Off-Broadway is that the circle grew. The other changes are all microscopic.”