Cabaret, concerts, club acts... these words can be used interchangeably, particularly when describing the solo shows of many musical theatre stars. For some of them, it's a reliable stream of work in between productions. The word "cabaret" has come to describe a genre of music, including the Great American Songbook and other pieces written for the stage or cabaret room. There's a decades long tradition of not just comedic "special material" for intimate clubs, but also heartfelt ballads and stirring anthems by a host of songwriters, some also Broadway tunesmiths, others not. But if cabaret means music, it has to also mean something else.
After all, performers are creating a set of songs from disparate sources and in the best cabaret acts, there tends to be some semblance of a through-line, whether in a literal narrative sense, or just in the visceral experience of the evening. How do the artists arrive at these choices? And then they have to talk, too! There are hardly any cabaret shows where the performer simply sings without speaking to the audience at all — in fact, some talk quite a lot! How do they know what to say? Playbill spoke with a few theatrical talents engaged in cabaret performances around town about how they put their shows together.
Across the board, all the artists approached emphasized the importance of feeling a personal connection to the material they're performing. Megan Hilty explained that her process "starts with song selection. I don't sing anything that doesn't have a very strong purpose. I figure out the flow and order, so nothing comes from too far out of left field."
Roslyn Kind, who recently received rave reviews for her decades-in-the-making return to New York cabaret at 54 Below, echoed that. "It's gotta be songs you identify with. You can't lie to an audience. Even if you're not an actor, songs are a three-act play." Two-time Tony nominee Robin De Jesus took this idea one step further in his recent sold-out 54 Below show, #TheStruggleIsReal, by opening up to the audience about his personal struggles and insights. He described how in the middle of "a meltdown about turning 30." Paula Cole's "Me" inspired him.
"Interestingly enough, that song did not make the cut," he elaborated. "A lot of songs didn't." de Jesus's director and trusted friend, Yvette Kojic, would ask him, "What is this song about for you?" If he couldn't answer, then the song had to go.
Even more personal, cabaret and theatrical musical director Brian Nash, recently performed a 54 Below concert celebrating the release of his CD, "Forever/After" — a song cycle chronicling his divorce. Despite this linear approach, Nash was careful to keep a conversational connection with the audience. "I don't want to sound planny-planned — you know, sitting on a stool and cocking your head slightly to the left, saying, 'You know the funny thing about love?'"
Hilty says, "I really like our shows to feel like you're sitting in our living room. I have a set list and I have an outline of bullet points, anchors. If I stage it too much, there's a distance," and Kind feels "very free talking with my audience. I love when they yell back at me. It's so in the moment."
The Tony-winning star of Aladdin, James Monroe Iglehart (who recently sold out two shows at 54 Below) writes an outline but also takes a lot of leeway in live performance. Before each song, he has "two lines for my band, so they know when to come in, but I give myself enough space to play with the audience."
As an example of a cabaret performer Nash admires and aspires to emulate, he cites Nightlife, Bistro and seven-Time MAC Award-winner, Natalie Douglas, who will be repeating her acclaimed Dolly Parton tribute, "Hello, Dolly!" at Birdland July 6.
"She knows the idea of what she wants to say and she knows the shape of it. But it's never the same, she knows the bullet points, the points she wants to get across and how that's going to connect to the next piece."
Douglas explains that one of her acting coaches instructed her, "when doing a monologue onstage, you're not alone. The audience is your scene partner and they have to be a living, breathing thing to you. It's about having a conversation with them."
She extends this notion of connection into her song interpretations as well. For Douglas, the ideal response is, "I know. Yes, right, me too." A Tony nominee for A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder, Lauren Worsham (who will appear at 54 Below in Corsets And Combat Boots June 24), shares this focus on connection, striving for a balance "between letting people know why I picked these songs and not boring them."
Worsham studied at Yale and credits much of her cabaret sensibility to her former teacher, performance artist and playwright Deb Margolin.
Now in preparing for Corsets And Combat Boots (in which she segues from opera to rock, changing from ballgown into thigh-highs and a miniskirt), she laughs, comparing the new show to her college solo performance project. "It was all about body image — I think I started in a Snuggie."
Combing disparate elements, this Broadway star with more avant-garde training, takes a cue from "Downtown" performers like Taylor Mac and "Kiki And Herb" (Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman), "One minute you're talking about JonBenét Patricia Ramsey and laughing, and the next thing you know, you're crying."
Nash agrees, "the people who work in smaller rooms know how to relate to everyone in that room on a very specific level."
Iglehart believes that theme and story come first. Then, he figures out what he's going to talk about. In this case, it was, "How did I get here? How did I get from nothing to Aladdin?" On the road to that final product, many ideas have to be scrapped. "So many songs I want to sing, I had to put on the back burner because they didn't fit with the story." He describes practicing bits of his show for friends and castmates in his dressing room, to see if it all makes sense.
Kind, too, emphasizes the necessity of collaboration. "Nobody is an island. It takes a group of creative people getting together to make something rich and rounded."
Kind credits her director, the notoriously sharp Richard Jay-Alexander, with some of the most affecting parts of her act, both a moving medley of Jerry Herman's "It Only Takes A Moment" and "Kiss Her Now," as well as Kander and Ebb's "All That Jazz" preceded by a hilarious introduction set to the vamp of "Roxie."
She says it was also Jay-Alexander's idea to go back to her roots, opening the show with "It's A Beautiful Day" from her 1969 debut album, "Give Me You." The moment is so effective RCA has released on CD and MP3 both her records from that era.
Similarly, Hilty feels the most audience excitement performing songs she's been associated with, whether on "Smash" or in any of her other roles.
"I've got songs that are mine that people want to hear from me. And I'm gonna sing 'em!"