To say The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention is challenging this 31st year is to minimize what the community is enduring. Once again, however, rising to share music with those for whom it’s solace, entertainment, pleasure and continuity, curated performances of veterans and newcomers will be available in four 7:00 pm shows- this year, virtually!
October 19-21 and Streaming for 24 hours at mabelmercer.org (Free $25 Suggested Donation.) Registration at: Mabel Mercer Events.
October 22 – Streaming Once Only (Ticket Purchase Required $20, plus $3.50 handling.) Registration and tickets at: Broadway World Virtual Cabaret Convention.
I spoke with the foundation’s Artistic Director KT Sullivan in the organization’s office, currently overtaken by a large, white piano (gifted by Chairman Charles Bullock and his wife Sue), a spider web of cables, and considerable recording equipment. In-house filming is being executed by the masterful Chinua Thomas, head of Audio Visual at John Jay College who donated his services. Pangea, Don’t Tell Mama, and the Iridium generously provided additional space for New York artists to film.
Sullivan tells me it wasn’t until July the Mercer board resolved to stream. Coordination must’ve been like routing Hannibal’s elephants over the mountains. This year’s overriding theme seems to be we will survive with memories and hopes hand in hand.
Monday, October 19: OPENING NIGHT! NEW YORK CABARET: YESTERDAY AND TODAY About two hours.
Stephanie Blythe, Ann Hampton Callaway, Natalie Douglas, Shana Farr, David LaMarr (new this year), Mark Nadler, Karen Oberlin, Daryl Sherman, Larry Woodard, and Amra-Faye Wright, Eric Yves Garcia, Marissa Mulder, Sidney Myer, Aisha de Haas.
Aisha de Haas (new this year): “Late last year, Natalie Douglas asked me to perform in this year’s Cabaret Conference on the night she was to host. It would have been my first time performing at the Conference and I was thrilled to be asked. Then of course, the Pandemic… So, how wonderful that the Mabel Mercer Foundation found a way to present it and it’s a joy for me to be included.”
Eric Yves Garcia: “A small confession: playing piano in small, noisy bars is not preparatory for that minute-long cross from Stage Right to Steinway followed by the pin drop expectant silence from 1,200 people. Backstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I could’ve paced clear to the Palisades in that tuxedo. I remember being delighted to receive the first Margaret Whiting Award and the crammed after-party at Josephine’s and that night from a stage I shouldn’t have dreamed of playing, that my horizons had changed.“
Marissa Mulder: “My first cabaret convention was in 2013. I sang “Day After Tomorrow” by Tom Waits from my show “Tom In His Words.” Before I performed I was presented with the Julie Wilson award by Julie herself. That was an incredible moment in my life! Julie was the epitome of grace, kindness personified. I still feel so lucky I knew her and won an award in her honor!”
Sidney Myer: “When Donald Smith created The Cabaret Convention, it was truly beyond imagining for Cabaret devotees like me. I was thrilled to be in the audience nightly. It never occurred to me to be included. Then, a few years in, he invited me to appear, I was floored. Until the audience’s applause that first evening, I was unsure if my novelty songs and “get-up” would be embraced by the crowd and the powers that be. Could I have ever dreamed that I would become a Convention fixture for decades?!”
Internationally acclaimed opera mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe will receive the Foundation’s 2020 Mabel Award presented by Sandy Stewart. Last year Ms. Blythe wowed the audience with spirit and fluency in this completely different genre she evidently loves.
Stephanie Blythe: “I have been hearing American Songbook for as long as I can remember. My father was a jazz musician, though he wasn’t overly fond of singers. In college, I spent a summer doing the occasional set at a local bar. As time went on, I performed more songbook in recitals realizing common language created a more organic connection. I became addicted to that connection and it inevitably led me to cabaret. I plan to keep singing and playing American Songbook, and to teach it to the next generation of sharing artists. We owe it to the ancestors.“
The evening also includes reminiscences from veteran participants: Karen Akers, Klea Blackhurst, Jeff Harnar, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Mason, and Steve Ross, all of whom, excepting Blackhurst, were at the very first 1989 Convention.
Tuesday, October 20: THE FUTURE OF CABARET. About 45 minutes. Foundation board members Adela and Larry Elow have created an Endowment Fund specifically to encourage teenagers to learn and perform The Great American Songbook, as composed between the years 1900-1970. (We’ll hear from the two beneficent standard bearers in Bedford, New York.) Participants are nominated from pupils who attend New York City public performing arts high schools.
Tonight’s roster includes 2020’s winner of the Elow Songbook Competition, Savannah Lee Henry, plus finalists Leonay Shepherd, Jennifer Poroye, Julia Parasram, and Kylie McNeill. (Ms. Henry, Ms. Shepherd, and Ms. McNeill are from The Professional Performing Arts School, Ms. Poroye the Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School, and Ms. Parasram the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School.)
This year’s participants will be joined by Anais Reno (2019 winner), Thomas Hogan (2019 finalist), Christina Jimenez (2018 winner), and Hannah Jane (former finalist and recipient of the 2019 Julie Wilson Award, presented by Linda and Peter Hanson and The Mabel Mercer Foundation).
Savannah Lee Henry 2020 Winner responding to my questions
When did you decide you wanted to be in music? theater? Why?
“My whole family sings, so from a young age I was encouraged to be artistic in any way I could. I know it sounds cliché, but I think I always knew I wanted to be a performer in theater. My mom always has Audra McDonald or Billy Porter playing around the house. I was the weird kid at school who didn’t know any of the current songs because my mother was always playing show tunes.”
What are your music/ theater ambitions? “I would really love to be a performer on Broadway. It has always been my dream. It dawned on me that growing up I had few people who looked like me with whom I could compare myself. It’s become my goal to diversify the theater world while also dismantling the systems of discrimination within the community.”
Is cabaret something in which you’re interested? “Yes! I was part of a little cabaret troupe in Middle School and even got to perform a song at the MAC Awards! I haven’t really done Cabaret again until now. But this has really reignited my love for it, and I would love to start again.”
Have you attended cabaret? Do you have favorite performers? Or favorite musical theater performers and why?
“I haven’t really attended Cabaret, so I wouldn’t know a lot of performers. My favorite Musical Theater performer is definitely Audra McDonald. Besides breaking stereotypes of what black women can do in theater, she’s one of the most amazing storytellers I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Did you learn anything about performing from this experience? “I learned that you don’t have to do a lot to make an impact. Simple things can make the biggest difference. It doesn’t have to be all big and loud. I think I learned that while doing multiple takes.”
When do you graduate? “I graduated High School last year and I’m at Carnegie Mellon right now. I graduate there in 2024. And then? “I’m going to move back to New York City and pursue a career in the arts.”
What will you do with the money? “I’m going to use it towards paying for school!”
Anais Reno 2019 Winner responds to my questions.
When did you decide you wanted to be in music? theater? Why? “I was first attracted to singing when I was about five years old. That became a love of Jazz when I was about eight. Since then, my understanding and appreciation of the fact that music heals has increased from year to year. Moments of my own grief were remedied by music. (After the death of Anais’ paternal grandfather, she found solace in the lyrics of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” )
“Other arms reach out to me/other eyes smile tenderly…” immediately reminded me of those glances we would have towards each other that made him so important to me. Suddenly, I had a connection to him that was more profound than feeling loss. I understood the lyric, “still in peaceful dreams I see/the road leads back to you…”This song lead me back to his memory. I believe music is the most powerful force on this planet.
What are your music/ theater ambitions? Have you attended cabaret? Do you have favorite performers? My musical ambitions are to be a professional jazz singer. Performing on a stage is the only place in which I feel I can truly and freely be myself. My dream is to perform live and to record. I’ve attended several cabaret performances over the years. I adore KT Sullivan, love Billy Stritch, and appreciation of Marilyn Maye goes without saying- her attention to phrasing and lyric is simply unmatched.
Of course, everyone’s lives have changed because of Coronavirus. Quarantine has given me time to record. Before this summer, I would hate singing in recording studios without an audience. Through practice, I’ve found a deep love for this aspect of the art form. During this time, I recorded a Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn album with the brilliant Emmet Cohen trio.” (Title to be determined.)
Wednesday, October 21:A WORLD OF CABARET About two hours. Features performances from across the United States: Boca Raton, Chicago, Georgia, Miami, Minneapolis, Ohio, Ojai, Oklahoma, Palm Beach, Palm Springs, Rhode Island, San Francisco, St. Louis and around the world: Amsterdam, the Cayman Islands, London, and Sydney.
Performers include Joie Bianco, Leanne Borghesi, Carole J. Bufford, Tim Draxl (who last performed at the 1995 Convention), Josie Foster (new this year)- Winner of the Jim and Elizabeth Sullivan Scholarship, Jaedyn Hanna (Cayman Arts Festival), Hans Pieter Herman (new this year), Christian Holder, Marilyn Maye (direct from Crooner’s in Minneapolis), Amanda McBroom, Tammy McCann, Colindra Rodericka McGarvey-Sterling (new this year)- The Cayman Arts Festival, Maureen McGovern, Beckie Menzie & Tom Michael, Jennifer Sheehan, Deborah Silver, Avery Sommers, Iris Williams, Nicolas King.
Nicolas King: “October 2020 I was 17, and nervous as could be expected. Donald Smith gave me the absolute greatest introduction I ever heard that set my nerves at ease, and after I was met by the open arms and enormous feather boa of Julie Wilson, I sang my heart out to an applause that I won’t soon forget. It was my introduction into the community of New York cabaret, and it was a memorable evening I’ll always keep close to my heart.”
Thursday, October 22: CABARET CLASSICS: PERFORMING FROM BIRDLAND Live to Tape – about an hour fifteen featuring Karen Akers, Christine Andreas, Natalie Douglas, Barbara Fasano, Jeff Harnar, Karen Mason, Steve Ross, Billy Stritch, Eric Comstock, and KT Sullivan.
Eric Comstock: “In September 1995, Donald Smith came into Rainbow and Stars, liked my set, and told me he’d work me into the next month’s convention. On the day – it was a Sunday matinee at Town Hall – my nerves were evident at the start, but I calmed down and got a really lovely hand in the biggest room I had ever played. It was at that very moment that I loved concert work as much as saloon work, and that, truly, has changed my life and career.”
Barbara Fasano: “In the late 90s, Donald Smith asked me to appear at the Convention on Michael Kerker’s ASCAP evening. Singers performed standards followed by actors reciting each lyric. I was nervous sharing the stage with George Grizzard. After I sang, he stepped forward and with a twinkle in his eye paid me lovely compliments. Then, in that gorgeous speaking voice recited Cole Porter’s lyric to “In the Still of the Night” And I thought, oh, I could just stay here forever …”
Cabaret Treasure Steve Ross is the recipient of the 2020 Donald F. Smith Award, presented by Adela & Larry Elow and The Mabel Mercer Foundation.