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David Finkle

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First Nighter: Is Cabaret Today Yay or Nay?

Posted: 03/14/2012 4:20 pm

Do most people associate the word "cabaret" with something appealing or with something repellant? Do most people even know what the word "cabaret" means, what it connotes -- that it indicates accomplished singers and musicians showing off their talents and their commitment to new and old quality music in rooms where intimacy is an uppermost concern?

I raise these questions in response to the recent closing in New York City of the Algonquin Hotel's famous Oak Room. The venue was one of three major rooms continuing to present self-described -- and proud of it -- cabaret artists. Its demise -- a surprise to some, a long-expected development to others -- is a profoundly sad event in itself but at the same time symptomatic of a much larger issue: Is cabaret still a viable form of entertainment?

The answer is yes, of course. Forms of entertainment -- cabaret is indisputably one of them -- in which performers share both their mastery of the craft and their emotional lives can't fail to engage audiences now as they have since story-tellers enthralled listeners around communal campfires.

So what's the problem? The fast answer is unfortunately simple. Too many of today's potential cabaret-goers have no idea what they'll experience when they get there. Or they have the wrong impressions, fed them by commentators like Simon Cowell, who regularly denigrated cabaret to millions of American Idol viewers as "old-fashioned." (On The X Factor he still does.) In the best hands, however, cabaret is anything but antiquated. Another way of putting it is that the chart-topping Adele could very well be characterized as a cabaret performer.

It has to be said that Cowell and American Idol's current cabaret-nay-saying Jimmy Iovine are hardly the only obstacles to building new and younger cabaret audiences. The people behind today's cabaret have to share a good deal of the blame. The fact that cabaret entertainment is sometimes unimaginatively programmed and/or can be prohibitively expensive -- maybe even for fiscally valid reasons -- doesn't help. Even though many of its purveyors have been lowering rates in the last few years as a reaction to the economic downturn, the perception remains that the costs are discouraging.

The resistance to a pricey bill is, needless to say, only mentioned by those who know about cabaret -- who know that such a thing exists but doesn't strike them as compatible with their budgetary limits. Those who aren't aware of cabaret's high-enjoyment quotient are in a different category. They need to be reached.

But who's doing the reaching? Some are trying, just not in the most effective manner. For example, look at how advocates are rallying around reviving the Oak Room. At the moment, a petition aimed at reopening a spot revered since 1980 is being circulated by one determined cabaret lover. An on-line ballot for that purpose exists. It's a noble gesture -- one nearly 2,900 signers have applauded.

Yet, how meaningful is it? After perusing a list boasting many celebrity names, will the Algonquin's management reverse their pronouncement? They know the bottom line on the room's diminishing business hasn't changed. (That's the reason given for the room's closing.) Or will they just ask how many of the signers have been putting their money where their signatures are?

I can only report anecdotally that I called two of the people who signed the petition and was told they'd John-Hancocked because they disliked the idea of an Oak-Room-less New York City, even though -- here's the point -- they hadn't patronized the revered space since they couldn't remember when.

Don't the people adding their names to the petition realize this? Doesn't the petition's creator understand the Oak Room deciders are well aware it's easy to sign a petition but takes more than a dotted line to support the room in a way that really counts? Doesn't anyone get it that people in business to make money from their enterprises -- as the Marriott hoteliers, not known for love of cabaret, are -- might not cotton to the idea that cabaret could (should?) operate as an image-enhancing "loss leader"?

But the Oak Room situation, as devastating as it is to the world of cabaret, also draws attention to the bigger picture. If cabaret is to survive in other Manhattan destinations as well as in other cities where the number of rooms is shrinking -- new audiences schooled in cabaret's positives need to brighten the right doorsteps. They need to be assured that while hewing to traditional quality, much cabaret entertainment is moving with the times and has been for a while.

They can't know that if they're not educated about what cabaret is -- if the misconceptions about cabaret they've accumulated from it-doesn't-matter-where aren't corrected. And that's a major undertaking. At this late date in the history of cabaret, it involves nothing less than a major public relations campaign run by people who know what cabaret is and what it can be, and are effective at getting their beliefs across.

The bad news is such an action seems unlikely. Donald Smith, whose Mabel Mercer Foundation has done plenty over several decades to ballyhoo cabaret, has just died, although his annual October cabaret convention, which has been scaled back in recent years from a seven-day event to three days, will continue.

More disappointingly, there is only one other organization supposedly dedicated to fostering an appreciation of cabaret, but that outfit has yet to give signs of carrying out such a demanding mission or, maybe more pertinently, hasn't the finances or man-power or woman-power to take on such an endeavor.

Without such an activist movement, it could be true that -- as one long-time Oak Room performing veteran has put it -- "Cabaret? It's over. It's time to move on." If so, that's a crying shame. If not, if the recently announced 54 Below -- set to open in June with, at first, performers associated more with Broadway than cabaret -- offers glimmers of refurbished promise, then maybe a muted hurrah is in order.