Giving cabaret a fresh shot

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Descending the staircase into 54 Below, the raffish, speakeasy-like cabaret in the basement of the notorious disco Studio 54, you feel a stir of excitement.

The audience, made up largely of Broadway professionals, music-theatre fans and tourists, is typically so revved up that you might imagine that cabaret, the struggling stepchild of musical theatre and first cousin of jazz, is enjoying a renaissance.

Where else can Broadway babies shed their theatrical roles and strut their stuff as soloists singing whatever they choose?

There is nothing like the thrill of discovery and, during the past year, 54 Below and its alt-cabaret equivalent, Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, have been the best places in New York to find talent potentially strong enough to overcome the barrier facing singers outside the pop-rock-hip-hop mainstream where the fastest route to stardom is exposure on a TV talent show such as The Voice.

The most promising rising star to appear at 54 Below this year is Annaleigh Ashford, a brash, saucy, latter-day flapper and alumna of the Broadway hit Kinky Boots.

Ashford, who belongs to the Cyndi Lauper school of pop, is the antithesis of a traditional nightclub chanteuse grounded in the American songbook.

Like many alt-cabaret performers, she is a performance artist first and a song interpreter second. The night I saw her, she offered a hilarious history of Studio 54 in its louche heyday and cavorted onstage with a giant spoon.

A tough cookie with a soft centre, the fearless, Colorado-born Ashford, 29, is part of a lineage that stretches from Jean Harlow through Judy Holliday to Bette Midler, Madonna and Bridget Everett. Her repertoire includes hits by Gnarls Barkley and Alanis Morissette as well as Donna Summer and Harold Arlen.

Because Ashford, currently stealing the show as the ballet-addicted daughter in the Broadway revival of You Can't Take It With You, is also hot property on TV (she plays the mouthy blonde prostitute and research subject on the Showtime series Masters Of Sex), cabaret is only a sideline, but in whatever medium she appears, she crackles with charisma.

Other younger performers who came to 54 Below and Cafe Carlyle from Broadway or from television shows such as Glee and Smash have included Jarrod Spector, Kate Baldwin, Katie Finneran, Sierra Boggess, Megan Hilty, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes, all of whom have enthusiastic fan bases.

Artistically, they may be a mixed bag. But whether good, bad or indifferent, they represent the young blood that cabaret needs to lift it above the radar in a media climate that is blatantly, unapologetically ageist.

Anyone who has seen Marilyn Maye, a long-time favourite guest of Johnny Carson's and a regular at 54 Below, can attest that she is a pop-jazz powerhouse who, at 86, can outsing almost anyone of any age. But getting her on television is virtually impossible.

Fitful attempts to bring cabaret to television in a variety-show format have fizzled. The pace of contemporary life is too fast and too loud to showcase new, rising talent in an intimate, convivial atmosphere. Nowadays, singing on television is a competitive sport.

This year, traditional cabaret continued to sputter along at the New York Cabaret Convention, which celebrated its 25th year in October with four marathon concerts in Rose Hall at Jazz in Lincoln Center.

One evening paid tribute to the revered Julie Wilson on her 90th birthday. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was the ne plus ultra of cabaret artists and widely acknowledged as the genre's undisputed queen. Even so, this great artist was not considered fit for television.

The convention's new artistic director, singer and actress K.T. Sullivan, has been a tireless and effective fund-raiser for the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which produces the festival.

This year, cabaret stalwarts such as Maye, Andrea Marcovicci and Steve Ross performed before enthusiastic audiences. But they were joined by a raft of questionable hopefuls who padded the concerts' running time to four hours, the sort of thing that can give the genre a bad name. Even among the die-hard cabaret aficionados, complaints were widespread.

The convention made a brave effort to showcase young male talent in a female-dominated field. But the only men to generate real excitement were proven theatrical performers Jason Robert Brown and Steven Lutvak.

Within the backbiting hothouse of cabaret, the generation gap that performers such as Linda Ronstadt breached three decades ago when she recorded popular standards and was savaged by the rock establishment as a traitor still roils.

One of the most talented younger performers, Lauren Fox - whose this year's eerie show, Ghosts Of Love: Songs From The Reel World Of David Lynch, with bassist Ritt Henn, had a brief run at Stage 72 - has so infuriated traditionalists by singing Joni Mitchell's Woodstock that you would think it was 1970.

Fox, along with Carole J. Bufford, a formidable blues belter, and Marissa Mulder, whose brilliant show of recent songs, New Standards, consisted of contemporary gems, are the closest thing to a viable next generation of non-Broadway cabaret performers.

Meanwhile, the staid Cafe Carlyle is experimenting, with some success, by booking rock veterans including Buster Poindexter, aka David Johansen, who is 64, and Debbie Harry, 69, who opens there in late March.

Grown-up punk rock has arrived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a generation of rock elders may have found a promising platform. Because they are synonymous with rebellion and rule breaking, to their greying peers, they are forever young and surly.

Ultimately, the problems bedeviling the cabaret world are structural and have more to do with the cost of doing business than with any dearth of talent. In show business, as in life, youth inevitably wins the game.

 
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