It's open-mike night at a Hollywood landmark, the Dresden nightclub on Vermont Ave., and show regulars Marty and Elayne are warming up the crowd. One more time through a '60s classic, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" and finally they are ready to relinquish the stage to the unknowns. "Let's hear it for Patrick Barnett," says Elayne with a flourish on the piano.
As it turns out, Mr. Barnett, whose day gig includes a role as a "Star Trek" Borg, is quite satisfactory. In fact, given half a shot, says club owner Carl Ferraro, he could enjoy a full-time "avocation" as a cabaret performer. This sad financial reality is true for nearly all but the top names in the intimate world of cabaret, where performers pour their hearts out to handfuls of small-club patrons and even hefty cover charges barely meet costs.
But despite the nasty economics, which has forced the recent closing of some premier clubs on both East and West Coasts, this close-contact art form is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.
"Music seems to go in cycles," says Peter Matz, musical director for the Reprise! theater series in Los Angeles. "Now, people are tired of music they can't understand, where the lyrics don't reach them." He points to the rekindled career of Tony Bennett in the early '90s.
The recent revival of the musical play "Cabaret" reflected the renewed interest in story over stars. The show's memorable songs were parceled out to members of the ensemble, and the central character of Sally Bowles was explored with more pathos and depth of character as a whole new generation of theatergoers discovered the world of cabaret onstage. Adds Mr. Matz, "Younger people have discovered all these wonderful songs that really are stories, and they can't get enough of them."
Indeed, the standing-room only audience at the Dresden on a recent Saturday night was heavily twentysomething.
Marty, who has headlined the show for 17 years, says that although he and his wife lean toward jazz singing more than classic cabaret, the whole definition of cabaret-style performance is expanding along with its audience. "Kids like a broader range of styles," he says between songs. "But for sure, they like to have a song that reaches them, that means something to them. That's why they're coming back to this music after all that heavy rock with words you couldn't even hear."
This rebirth of interest is also redefining the genre, says John Hoglund, a New York-based writer who has covered the cabaret scene since 1984 for The Village Voice and the industry paper Backstage. "Most people picture cabaret as a lady in a slinky gown singing torch songs," he says, laughing. While that still happens, what he sees now is the blurring of distinctions between genres and venues.
"There is pop music, rock music, jazz music, all performed with the same sort of intimate emotional intensity that has always set cabaret apart," he says. "But now you're also finding it in theaters and concert halls as well as clubs."
Cabaret has its roots in the European salons of the 19th century, where intellectuals and artists gathered for passionate political discussions. Much of the European cabaret music that later emerged from those creative hothouses, penned by the likes of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, was drenched in political overtones.
This tradition has not taken root in the American cabaret scene, where the emphasis is on glorifying popular songs by writers such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter. But where the two traditions meet is in the emotional heart of the song.
"It's a one-on-one experience for the performer and the audience," says Les Traub, director of Cabaret West, an organization devoted to the growth of cabaret on the West Coast. "It's a direct connection between them," he adds, that is more intense than other sorts of live entertainment.
His four-year-old organization is modeled on the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs, which he says launched the current revival when it was founded a dozen years ago. Since 1995, his group has grown from the founding 15 members of club owners and performers to more than 300. Similar organizations have sprung up in San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston.
Changing demographics also have helped fuel the growing attention to cabaret. Tom Rolla owns one of Los Angeles's preeminent cabaret clubs, Gardenia.
"A lot of actresses who find that TV and film no longer have a spot for them find a life in cabaret," he says. Mature actresses such as Cybill Shepherd and Andrea Marcovici have pursued singing careers that now may outlast their acting careers.
"Nobody thinks about age in cabaret," Mr. Traub says, pointing to some of the top names who have thrived in its cozy world.
Musical director Matz suggests that cabaret is a good medium for an actor to continue honing his skills. But the fact there are more mature performers available is also evidence of the maturing baby boom, which in turn is creating bigger audiences for all sorts of entertainment. "The audience will have a pendulum swing, too," he says. "As they mature, they're going to want more meaningful forms of entertainment."
Beyond the demographics, Cabaret West's Traub says that anyone with an interest in music will benefit from the resurgence of cabaret, because it is the soul of American popular music. "It perpetuates an important American art form that's not being done on Broadway, which is going rock," he says. "Cabaret is keeping it alive, which is important because it is a vital part of our cultural heritage."
Where to see cabaret
Cabaret is performed in clubs all over the United States and around the world, usually in a room seating fewer than 100 people. Expect to see a performance that is personal and from the heart.
If you plan to attend a show, be sure to make reservations, be on time, and cancel if you change your mind. Making a reservation allows the performer and the cabaret staff to prepare for the show.
Some noteworthy clubs:
Algonquin Oak Room, West 44th St. (212) 840-6800.
Danny's Skylight Room, West 46th St. (212) 265-8133.
Don't Tell Mama, West 46th St.
Kit Kat Club, West 43rd St.
Cinegrill in the Ambassador Hotel
Gardenia on Santa Monica Blvd.
The Metropole Room at the Fairmont Hotel, (312) 565-8000.
*For cabaret listings all over the country, and for more information, check out www.svhamstra.com