Most fans of musical theater doubtless are familiar with Cabaret, the jaunty musical written by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb that focuses on the decadent lifestyle favored by the bohemians and artists who lived in Berlin in the post-World War I years shortly before Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich came to power.
They might not be as familiar, however, with the cabaret scene popularized as the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret. The artistic expression of song styling known as cabaret flourished in the early 20th century not only in Germany but in France, England, the United States and elsewhere as well.
Cabaret in St. Louis came alive in the 1990s and in 2006 expanded its potential when Tim Schall, producer and co-founder (with Sharon Hunter) began the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, now a nationally recognized training program for singers in the art of song performance.
The conference, which spun off from the St. Louis Cabaret Festival in 2012, this year includes performances by Tony Award winner Faith Prince (July 30), renowned singer and songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway (July 31), pianist/vocalist Billy Stritch and the legendary Marilyn Maye (both on August 1), all at the Sheldon Concert Hall Ballroom.
The Sheldon ballroom seats about 250, says Schall. “We’re setting it up with bistro-sized tables so that it’ll look like an old-fashioned supper club.” Then, on Saturday, August 2, 30 singers from the five-day conference training program take the stage at the Kranzberg to showcase what they’ve learned in a closing-night concert. Their faculty at the conference held at Webster University includes all of the aforementioned headliners.
Tickets range from $25 for the August 2 showcase up to $75 for the premier performers and can be obtained by contacting Metrotix at 534-1111 or www.metrotix.com. Show times are 8 p.m. on July 30, July 31 and August 1 and 7 p.m. for the Sunday, August 2 finale. More information is available at www.thecabaretproject.org or by calling 359-0786.
“This is the third official year for the St. Louis Cabaret Festival,” said Schall. “It consists of three nights of performances at the Sheldon and one at the Kranzberg. We’ll open with Broadway diva Faith Prince at the Sheldon with the St. Louis premiere of her delightful, one-woman show Have a Little Faith. Faith burst onto the scene in the 1990s revival of Guys and Dolls starring opposite Nathan Lane and won a Tony Award for her performance. Including last year’s revival of Annie, she has 11 Broadway credits under her belt.”
That’s just for starters, notes Tim. “The next night is Ann Hampton Callaway. She’s returning to her cabaret roots. Ann is a cabaret singer who has focused on jazz in the last dozen years, but this is a little more of a straight-up cabaret show called The Streisand Songbook. She’s one of the few singers who have the chops to pull off a Streisand salute. Ann usually performs this tribute to her mentor with an orchestra, but for the St. Louis Cabaret Festival she’ll perform The Streisand Songbook with an intimate trio of piano, bass and drums.
Then, on August 1 is a cabaret “double-header at the Sheldon,” adds Schall. “The first show is Billy Stritch singing the songs of Cy Coleman, the Broadway composer who wrote Sweet Charity, On the 20th Century and City of Angels. Billy is a real great jazzer, a powerhouse pianist/singer, who spends his spare time as Liza Minnelli’s pianist/arranger. Audiences will love him.”
“The second show that night is Marilyn Maye. There is nobody like her, and you will not be the same after you see her perform. As her web site says, she’s a ‘national treasure.’ She was on the Carson (Tonight) show a record 76 times and she has a recording enshrined in the Smithsonian. She’s part Rat Pack and part Edith Piaf. Marilyn is 86 years old and, trust me, she will blow the roof off the place!”
In addition to being a cabaret impresario (like Jim Dolan of The Presenters Dolan, who earlier this year presented the Gaslight Cabaret Festival at Gaslight Theater), Schall is a practitioner of the cabaret art form as singer, teacher and performer. Cabaret is “a live performance in an intimate setting defined by the performer’s relationship to the material and to the audience,” he says. “That relationship is highly personalized based on the lyrics, versus jazz, which is pretty much based on musical exploration. Ultimately, cabaret is about songs being sung.”
While cabaret in the early 20th century could be “bohemian and political, cabaret as we think of it now in our culture is the Great American Songbook of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Tim. “While that is true, there also is room for contemporary popular music and new songwriters. It still is where new songwriters get heard.
“Scores of songwriters in New York City find getting heard is difficult, so they get their songs sung in clubs,” he added. “John Bucchino, who was here last year, is a prime example of that. He’s been writing songs for 35 years, and in the last 20 years his songs have started to take off, covered by cabaret artists, people like Liza (Minnelli), Barbara Cook and Andrea Marcovicci. Jason Robert Brown, who just won a Tony Award for The Bridges of Madison County, has had his work performed in cabarets.”
To Schall, cabaret can be a precise and significant art form. “Cabaret is so focused on the song,” he says. “Ideally, it’s a three-minute, one-act play, versus jazz, which is a cousin of cabaret but is more based on musical riffing, although some jazz artists come close. Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, in their way, were cabaret singers on a very large scale.”
Schall notes that the resurgence of cabaret in St. Louis “got going with the Grand Center series in the mid to late ‘90s. Maureen Cannon booked the series and brought in New Yorkers. It was performed at the Grandel Theater, which was a wonderful venue for cabaret performances, with a three-quarter, thrust stage a little lower than the audience. Performers really connected with the audience.”
“The St. Louis Cabaret Festival is part of a larger mission to support, develop and sustain the art of cabaret,” adds Schall. “We do support other efforts, such as Jim Dolan’s work. We have a monthly e-newsletter, and we have a monthly open mic night at the Tavern of Fine Arts hosted by Chuck Lavazzi and accompanied by pianist Carol Schmidt.”
The St. Louis Cabaret Festival is kind of like the cherry on the top of the cabaret sundae. “We produce this festival to create energy and buzz,” says Schall. “It develops audiences for the art form and provides St. Louis with a week of performances by the finest names in the field.”