At the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, the Dina Merrill Theater has been transformed into a dimly-lit lounge where well-heeled patrons sit around a grand piano, at tables adorned with single stemmed roses and chilled bottles of wine. Jazz standards melodiously drift in and out of the lulled chatter as the audience waits for the evening's cabaret performance to begin.
It is a new year for the theatre center's Cabaret & Performance Conference as Grammy, Tony and Emmy Award-winning composer John McDaniel takes the helm in his first season as the conference's artistic director.
The program has been running since 1987 and was conceived by Betsy White, wife of George White, founder of the O'Neill. With two teaching programs that entail professional cabaret artists working with Fellows and Junior Fellows, the ten-day conference features a performance open to the public every night. This year's acts includes the folksy truths of Bob Dylan, the music of Sammy Cahn and interpretations of Stevie Wonder's songs.
McDaniel, who has worked with Patti LuPone as well as produced and composed the 1996 television talk show "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," was first exposed to cabaret when he was in college. His father had taken him to see Bobby Short's cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle in New York and it got him hooked. He said he was "mesmerized by this one man and his piano and that he was able to hold the attention of a room full of very smart people."
It is that desire to leave an audience spellbound that McDaniel wants to recreate at the O'Neill this summer. For him cabaret is an organically unique art form where the performer and the audience thrive on each other's energy.
"I love cabaret, and I love this intimate art form where you can go into a room and someone opens their heart and lets you in and tells you stories and sings," said McDaniel. "The artist is very vulnerable. It is a very human experience and it is not like anything else. It's is not like reading a book, it is not like going to a movie, it's not even like going to a big Broadway show."
It is the storytelling aspect of cabaret that appeals to McDaniel and it is what has been one of the impetuses behind the performers that he has invited to his first-ever conference.
This year's repertoire reads like a Who’s Who of the world of cabaret and musical theatre. Acts include Donna McKechnie, Tommy Tune, Linda Hart, Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill as well as Barb Jungr, Ben Rimalower, Jeff Harnar, Jennifer Sheehan and Nicholas King.
After eight months of planning and preparation, the acts are all part of McDaniel's "wish-list" of shows. For McDaniel, joining the O'Neill family is a "glorious" experience.
For Tom Viertel, the chairman of the board at the O'Neill, bringing McDaniel to the theatre center bodes well for the future of the conference.
"I think we’ve got one of the great music directors and one of the most encyclopedic knowledgeable people in all of cabaret," said Viertel. "He [McDaniel] works coast-to-coast and internationally with every wonderful cabaret star there is. I think he will bring to this a fabulously wide range of performers over the next years and that is tremendously exciting."