Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torm_ may be long-gone legends of the cabaret scene, but today's performers have been resurrecting their repertoire as cabaret continues to attract new audiences in Chicago. On any given evening, nostalgic fans can find salutes to big names of the past across the city. Most recently, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Ethel Merman were the subjects of sold-out cabaret showcases. That's not to say modern performers merely impersonate these famed entertainers. They craft their own styles within the familiar terrain of the Great American Songbook, singing at a variety of diverse venues that are giving cabaret a new lease on life.
Though intimate clubs and hotel lounges have been the traditional haunts for cabaret, more and more, theaters are welcoming this unique musical form of entertainment. Earlier this year, Drury Lane Water Tower Place teamed up with the Chicago Cabaret Professionals, an advocacy and support organization for musical artists, to create Musical Mondays, a popular once-a-month series of themed cabaret showcases. On October 27, acclaimed local performers Beckie Menzie, Tom Michael and Joan Curto, among others, will deliver Curtain Up! Broadway Showstoppers. "We saw a void in cabaret in the neighborhood," says Kyle De Santis, president of Drury Lane Productions. "Since inaugurating the series in February, we've attracted a loyal following that used to listen to music at area clubs that have closed."
De Santis is referring to the Streeterville's Gold Star Sardine Bar, shuttered in 1997, and the nearby Jazz Showcase, which closed its doors in 2006. In addition, most hotels have eliminated live music altogether in favor of plasma televisions and piped-in tunes; the swanky lounge singer has gone the way of plush-velvet banquettes and white-gloved waiters.
But cabaret, ever the resilient art form, has found a way to reshape itself for the 21st century. Besides Drury Lane Water Tower Place, the Auditorium Theatre has been transforming its stage for the past three summers into a 1940's-style cabaret club through its On Stage With initiative. Lincoln Park's Royal George Theatre, the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, and the renovated Skokie Theatre also promote cabaret.
Interestingly, the Drury Lane Water Tower Place: when it was run by Kyle De Santis' late grandfather, Tony De Santis: once brought in stars like Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald. That was back in the mid-seventies and early eighties. So on a frigid night in February this year, Musical Mondays debuted with My Fair Cabaret: The Music of Loesser, Lerner and Loewe. The show sold out. July's production: All American Songwriters: The Music of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Ellington and More: attracted such huge crowds, Drury Lane had to add an extra night. And, as De Santis observed, the show drew a fairly diverse audience, with patrons ranging from their thirties to their sixties.
In 2006, Brett Batterson, executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, observed a greater interest in the "soothing quality" of cabaret music, spurred by the public's ongoing love affair with Tony Bennett and retro crooners like Michael Bubl_ and Ron Hawking. Besides wanting to show off the freshly renovated Louis Sullivan landmark theater, the Auditorium was looking for ways to use the space in an innovative way. On Stage With: which combines a lounge atmosphere with entertainment and full bar service: was the answer. Tables and chairs are arranged on the proscenium stage, which can accommodate up to 300 people. The program kicked off with Shelley MacArthur, who offered a contemporary take on Stephen Sondheim, Henry Mancini and Jerry Herman. But the theater also promotes new music. Susan Werner recently performed her own songbook: a witty blend of folk, jazz and pop.
Batterson admits it took some time to cultivate the cabaret nights and that they have not completely sold out. But the program brings in a similar age demographic as Drury Lane's, and he has seen steady growth. A fan of this kind of music, Batterson believes cabaret is appealing "because it crosses all genres and age groups." But why does it suddenly seem to be appealing to thirtysomethings and middle-aged audiences? Batterson laughs, "Maybe it's music for those of us who are getting too old to listen to rock 'n' roll."
A bigger challenge faced by most artists now is how to expand beyond the Great American Songbook. After all, that's what brings in the crowds. And since many local performers are not marquee names themselves, they devote an evening to the legends. Chicago singer Joan Curto says she has tried to do evenings of new music, but those shows simply did not sell. Her strategy, like most performers today, is grouping the familiar and new around a theme. Curto's concert on the subject of giddy romance, for example, interspersed the contemporary songs of Amanda McBroom with chestnuts by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
While some theaters are still working to find a cabaret audience, the fact that they are presenting cabaret has been a boon for local singers, who are eager to get their music out there, no matter what the venue. Nonetheless, a number of artists prefer the intimacy of a club. Chicago _born actress-singer Karen Mason, who lives in New York but returns often to perform at Davenport's (one of Chicago's most popular cabaret rooms), is one of them. "In New York, we still perform in clubs," says Mason, currently on Broadway in Hairspray and a regular at Manhattan's Birdland. "It's great that theaters in Chicago are promoting cabaret. For me personally, it would seem a little strange because you're in a small space that has been created apart from the bigger theater. But there's still this big theater around you."
Bradford Thacker, a longtime cabaret and music-theater performer who is the public programs manager for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, has crafted a number of cabaret series at Maxim's: The Nancy Goldberg International Center, which is operated by the city. The Gold Coast landmark, a recreation of the art-nouveau Parisian caf_, hosts a monthly program of local cabaret artists and just inaugurated "Launch," another monthly series where artists from all genres (including cabaret) can try out new material. He is thrilled about the increased spaces available to cabaret but also has fond memories of more traditional night spots. "I've always loved the elegant setting of the clubs and hotel lounges," says Thacker, "where you could spend a quiet night listening to an exquisite artist telling a story in an intimate setting. My concern with large theaters becoming new cabaret venues is that some performers can't carry a big space."
Luckily, for every Toulouse on the Park that closes, a beloved cabaret caf_, such as Katerina's, opens. Davenport's, a classy club in Wicker Park, has been tirelessly promoting cabaret artists for ten years: an anniversary that coincides with that of the Chicago Cabaret Professionals (CCP). The group, which now boasts more than 200 members, was formed in 1998 to create networking opportunities for local cabaret artists. It has no doubt contributed to the growth of cabaret in Chicago by the sheer volume of performances its individual members have given, its sold-out showcases at the Park West, and its many gala fundraisers. CCP's president Suzanne Petri noticed that cabaret opportunities began to wane in the 1990s because of the economy and the closing of key venues. CCP took a strength-in-numbers approach that paid off. Singers went from performing mainly for private parties to being in the limelight.
CCP member Beckie Menzie acknowledges the renewed interest in cabaret, but she's quick to point out that, by its nature, cabaret has always ebbed and flowed. "If it should start to ebb, then it's our job as artists to keep going and reach new audiences instead of reminiscing about the good old days."
Cabaret, it seems, will continue to weave between honoring legends of the past and freshening them up for current times. But no matter what the material, Thacker believes everyone can relate to the "honest human stories" cabaret artists share. And now, with more theaters getting involved, Mason envisions cabaret gaining greater credibility, as well. It's no longer a part-time gig for singers to do between their bigger: and higher paying: performances in musicals. Says Mason, "It's an art form all its own."
Tickets for Curtain Up! Broadway Showstoppers, priced at $25.00, are available at the Drury Lane Box Office, by calling 312-642-2000 or Ticketmaster.com.