THE BLOG

The Art of Cabaret and 54 Below

02/08/2015 08:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015

I have never really liked cabaret (small "c"). I didn't know this years ago. When I first started writing about theater, I thought it would be great to see actors I liked in solo performances. Then I started going. Patti LuPone's shows are always amazing. I remember laughing really hard during Donna Lynne Champlin's Finishing the Hat. But most other shows I have seen I've been bored during. I have seen people who are theater stars perform cabaret and I've seen people who are solely cabaret stars do it. I've been to all the great venues. It just doesn't speak to me generally.

I have some idea of what my problem is with cabaret. When it comes to hearing "theatrical songs," I like to also hear a real story. I don't love revues for that reason. If I wanted to see a concert, I would go see Garbage. I also don't love self-indulgence, and I believe too many cabaret shows are really about that.

This all said, I do sometimes go, most frequently to see new talents (and Patti, always Patti). This coming Friday, I'm heading to 54 Below to see a performer by the name of Danielle Hope, who I have heard very good things about. (Tickets are apparently scarce, so if you want to join me, act quickly!) And I've been really interested in the 54 Below calendar, which offers a variety of standard cabaret performances, cabaret performances with a theatrical spin, concert versions of shows that haven't ever been to Broadway, concerts of shows that haven't been on Broadway in a while and more (including "Hit List" from Smash).

A ton of these things sell out the 147-seat venue. Jennifer Ashley Tepper, director of programming at 54 Below, told me that things with Jeremy Jordan in them sell out especially quickly. (Clearly Harvey Weinstein didn't take that as a sign.) It's really, to me, become a place where the theater fanbase congregates. Even people who wouldn't normally go to a traditional cabaret show go there to see a concert put on by the cast of The Last Ship or theater performers doing Dolly Parton songs or Greg Hildreth doing a show about being a second fiddle with the stars of some relevant shows. 54 Below presents sometimes three shows a night though, so there are traditional cabaret offerings too. Marin Mazzie just finished a stint that I believe would fall into that category.

"The way I got the job was I was producing one-off shows," said Tepper, who was previously best known for producing the If It Only Even Runs A Minute concert series of songs from short-lived shows. "I had never worked on a standard cabaret show. I think it's important to bring both to the table. It's developing a new audience and keeping the traditional cabaret audience."

I'll be interested to see how 54 Below develops in the coming years. I probably won't be a frequent patron, but I look forward to going every once and a while when something catches my eye. And I appreciate that the venue is giving shows a chance to be heard. I don't think it will change my mind about traditional cabaret, but you never know.