Op-Ed: It’s Cabaret’s Comeback

| December 6, 2011 4:00 AM

 

Where: The Metropolitan Room
When: Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.
Price:
$20

The word “cabaret” conjures up images ranging from smoke-filled rooms (remember smoke?) to lap dances. We may have lost the smoke, but cabaret is back in a big way in New York.

In a world where music is everywhere, on your iPod, cell phone and in TV shows like “American Idol” and “Glee,” the unsung venues are the cabaret rooms. These rooms include long-standing uptown music rooms like Café Carlyle and the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room and less highfalutin venues like the Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street, which offers a roster of both famous names and newcomers, as well as Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th Street and the Laurie Beechman Theater on West 42nd Street.

Elaine Stritch poses for a photo before performing on her 85th birthday at the Café Carlyle in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010. AP Photo/Charles Sykes

The artists who play at Joe’s Pub and the City Winery meet the growing demand for live music in a more intimate space. Burlesque seems to have been adopted by the 20-something set with rooms like The Triad and Duane Park Café (great food by one of my favorite chefs, Richard Overholt). A number of other venues in the East Village/Lower East Side and Brooklyn, including The Box and Galapagos (respectively) offer a diverse calendar of acts.

In these rooms performers strive for the chance to communicate with an audience. Nothing’s needed except the singer, the song, a musician or two, and the give and take of the audience. It’s the rare opportunity to express yourself with lyrics that mean something and music that shapes those lyrics indelibly. You can explore a vast treasury of great songs and can take a familiar pop song and give it new life and meaning. It is the job of a singer to convey the story behind the music. I can’t tell you how many times someone has come up after a show to say they had never really heard the lyrics to a pop song until I had sung it. 

As I took to the stage there was a dubious silence, but once I began singing, I started hearing, ‘you tell ‘em, baby.’

Part of the fun of cabaret is how audiences differ so much depending on the location and venue.

I was the first white male to sing at Sweetwater’s, an R&B club in New York. It was fun because I got to work with the house band who had toured with Aretha Franklin. As I took to the stage there was a dubious silence, but once I began singing, I started hearing, “you tell ‘em, baby,” and “sing it child!” It took me a minute to get used to this participatory crowd, where you would sing and they would answer you right back — but I loved it!

In London, the audiences seem like very serious students, silent throughout the song and until the pianist has played his very last note and then politely applauding;  afterwards they tell you how moved they were. In Los Angeles, they sigh audibly and want to stay after the show to discuss in detail every song you chose and where you found it. In New York, they heckle (good-naturedly!) and, if they like it, applaud enthusiastically even before the song is over. It’s all wonderful. And you never know who you’re going to meet…

Early on, I had gotten a lot of attention from some record labels, and I was working at a club called Mickey’s with famed singers Karen Akers and Cissy Houston. Bob Feiden of Arista Records asked me to stay for Cissy’s show to get my take on her daughter, whom Cissy was introducing in the act. Into the spotlight stepped this pretty teenager with minimal makeup wearing a sheath dress. Barely moving, she sang a very pure version of Barry Manilow’s “All the Time.” Her beauty and simplicity were amazing. It was, of course, Whitney Houston.

Craig Pomranz in the recording studio. Photo courtesy of Craig Pomranz.

So many people think they can sing, and do, that it’s important that the world of cabaret offers them a venue, especially in New York. You don’t have to have a beautiful voice.  Some of the greats had little range but were all soul. Frank Sinatra says he learned it all from Mabel Mercer, who often talked her way through a song. Insiders hail Fred Astaire as a great singer, and some of the finest songs were written for him (“The Way You Look Tonight” for example). He had a small voice but exquisite rhythm, timing and a reserved emotional quality that could be heartbreaking.

What prepares you to be a singer? Life! What art form is more immediate, able to change from night to night according to musical fashion or even the headlines? In a world full of noise and clatter, people yearn for the kind of intimacy a small music room provides. Like all live performance, you never know what you’re going to get…But it’s oh so worth the visit. So go out and support live music, be it a cabaret, a piano bar or any other venue. Let yourself be transported, and have a cocktail while you’re at it. Cabaret is a key part of New York’s culture.

Craig Pomranz is an actor, singer, dancer, recording artist and song stylist who sings internationally. His new show in New York is “Love and the Clock” at The Metropolitan Room.

  • Robert Singerman

    Encompassing article; personal and inspiring, like Craig’s music and like Craig. When we “support live music” we are supporting ourselves, with the messages, emotions and life of the songs and the singers/musicians. “you tell ‘em, baby!”

  • judith

    Interesting perspective from a great cabaret singer. Missed his last show, but I’m looking forward to the next. Thanks for suggestions of some of the smaller/newer spots to enjoy cabaret singing in NYC.

  • Dani

    Well-written article. It’s great to see some attention being paid to these venues and these performers. And Craig is one of those performers to whom attention should be paid. I have been to many cabaret rooms — especially in New York — each with its own style . . . and price point. There’s something for almost everyone. Ain’t nothin’ like live music.

    • Sarah Rice

      An informative article on the world of Cabaret. I have had people tell me they like cabaret better than Broadway. More upclose and personal and a lot less money. Craig has a well deserved following for his beautiful voice, fun persona and touching moments.

  • Lee

    What a delightful article- brings me back a bit hearing the old club venues. Listen to Craig Support Live Music!!! And if you can go see his show – its just wonderful!

  • Monica

    Well done and I hope more singers get the opportuniy to voice their musical and cultural opnion.
    Peace.
    Monica

  • Robert Campus

    This excellent op-ed piece by Craig hits the bullseye. The days of great cabaret rooms, which used to introduce new performers, are gone, but two or three rooms are continuing the tradition. Thank you, Met. Room!

    I have been delighted by Craig’s cabaret chops, his performances are always funny, quirky, and entertaining. His choice of songs can be surprising, a few times each evening, he introduces some little known classic pop tidbit. He wraps himself around the lyric, with that very special “I’m singing just to you” warmth. This only happens in cabaret, not TV or movies. We gotta be thankful for Craig and his cabaret clan and long may they vibrate with their vibrato.

  • joe g

    Thanks for the uplift on New York’s true fabulous invalid, live cabaret. (Alas, from what visitors tell me, it’s a dead duck on most of the mainland.) Cabaret is always said to be tottering on the brink of extinction, and the demise of a good room seldom is balanced by a good and affordable space opening to replace it, but once you hear someone like Craig Pomranz or Miss Annie Ross or any of the dozens of amazing talents who appear locally chase your blues entirely away in a cozy space that offers food and liquid refreshment, rather than the formal setting of a concert in a hall, you realize that cabaret cover charges should be a health care plan covered service. That’s how much good it does body and soul to hear wonderful live music. If you can’t remember the last time you did, get it in gear right now, dear, and start enjoying.

  • Mike

    Craig has performed for us in St Louis and we love him. If you are in New York (or St Louis Dec 17) get out to see his show. You are sure to love it.

  • kathy

    Wonderful op-ed article full of information, history, and insight! I saw Craig perform in Los Angeles and it was a truly wonderful evening. If you are are looking for something to do this Saturday (Dec 10th) in NYC, I can’t think of a better idea than to go hear Craig perform and hear for yourself how true everything is that he describes in this op-ed piece!

  • Bobbie Horowitz

    I’ve been a fan of Craig’s for many, many years. He never disappoints me. Once again, in this article, he’s stepped up to the plate. I’m thrilled to see Cabaret given it’s real definition. So many people around the country misinterpret the word Cabaret. Some of the big cities “get it” and not even all of those. This article can make an imprint in the minds of visitors to New York and to any area that has cabaret entertainment. Thank you Craig!

  • rick starr

    Who knows Cabaret! more than our Craig!
    I love that he has this venue to FILL YOU IN!!!
    Muchlove,
    Rick Starr

  • Kathleen Swan

    Great article; wonderful to get this performer’s perspective. There is nothing like live cabaret. We are so fortunate here in NYC to have access to many wonderful performers but the experience of an evening with Craig Pomranz is something singular, a special delight!

  • clive hirschhorn

    If anyone undertands the intimate world of cabaret and its unique relationship this art form has with audiences, it’s Craig Pomranz whose infectious joy in singing is one of the special treats the city has to offer. Catch him whenever you can.
    Clive Hirschhorn

  • Ellen Ciompi

    As a non-NY-er I’ve never heard Craig perform but as a cabaret singer myself I can attest to the truth of what he writes. Cabaret is such a personal art and, if it’s done with honesty and musicality, can deliver an emotional punch like no other. Plus the repertoire is vast and you’ll never hear the same show twice. So support local artists and locally owned establishments wherever you live! Buy a CD directly from someone whose music has moved you–it may be convenient to download something but your cash at the door will go directly to the performer who needs it. Experience cabaret for yourself and then make it your goal to “spread the gospel” to someone else. And keep singing!

  • Billie Roe

    A wonderful article on Cabaret and a terrific singer! Bravo!

  • Belle McIntyre

    Love the article. Love the sentiment. Love Craig and LOVE his latest show at the Metropolitan Room. The song selections are brilliant carrying you along in lovely arcs through the whole gamut emotions. And along with the intimacy provided by the cabaret venue, and particularly the Met. Room – Craig manages to make every person feel that he is singing directly to them. The evening is totally satisfying in every way and I left floating on air. I couldn’t recommend it more.

  • George

    Nice article. It’s fun to hear about cabaret from the point of view of a cabaret performer. I’ve heard Craig sing and he’s fantastic! I’m going to his show on Saturday. Whoever is reading this should too.

  • Terese Genecco

    Fabulous round up from a wonderful cabaret performer who’s “in the know!” There is a robust and exciting roster of venues and talent presenting shows all over NYC. Some additional venues not mentioned in the article that are very much worth checking out for a variety of nightclub/cabaret experiences: The Iridium on Broadway @ 51st (I’ll be there with my Little Big Band on 12/27), The Duplex on Christopher Street in The Village, Urban Stages on W 30th @ 8th (currently presenting their “Winter Rhythms Cabaret Festival”), The Darby on 14th @ 8th, Feinstein’s on Park Ave @ 61st, Birdland on 44th @ 8th. There are also a ton of little jazz clubs all over the place with a variety of genres being offered. Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar on W72nd @ B’way has an eclectic schedule that includes cabaret/jazz crossover artists like Shaynee Rainbolt. Jazz singer Vicki Burns has a great Tuesday night vocal jazz series at Pigalle on 8th @ 44th. There’s 55 Bar, Somethin’ Jazz Club, Smalls, Smoke, The Village Vanguard, The Jazz Standard, The Blue Note, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, B.B. King’s Blues Club, just to a name a few that come to mind. There are two new clubs opening in NYC in 2012 that will continue to add to the list of wonderful nightlife and entertainment opportunities in Manhattan. And in downtown San Francisco, I highly recommend The Rrazz Room in The Hotel Nikko! If you sign up to become a member of MAC (The Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) you get member discounts at most of the member clubs and almost all of the shows! Check them out at http://www.macnyc.com and join! See you in the clubs! And thanks, Craig, for the great article!

  • Jace

    This is a thoughtful and smart analysis encompassing some of my favorite singers by one of my favorite singers. As an expert at phrasing timing and song choice, Craig sure knows what he’s talking about. And his experience in the cabarets he speaks of lovingly add to the sense we all get about the personal resonance of music — and why Craig’s shows linger in my heart and mind for days after.

  • Sean Harkness

    This is great. Thanks Craig for putting together such a compelling glance at this wonderful medium of performance art. I am honored and humbled to be a participant. See you around the neighborhood!

    Sean
    http://seanharkness.com/

  • Corinna Sowers-Adler

    You bet it’s cabaret’s comeback! What an insightful look at this wonderful art form…Thank-you, Craig, for helping to keep the art of Cabaret alive and well with your generous heart, lovely voice, and genuine spirit!

    ~Corinna Sowers-Adler
    http://www.corinnasings.com

  • Lori Henriques

    Thank goodness there are people like Craig! He follows his path with artistry, tenacity, and an infectious love of life. I love the way he shows us the history as well as the presently thriving culture of cabaret in this article. Thanks, Craig. :) And I look forward to the next time I am in the same town as you for one of your gigs!

  • Deborah Geffner

    Beautiful article. So true.

  • carol ardman

    Wonderful to know the world of cabaret is flourishing, since I love the intimacy and the opportunity to hear the fabulous music live. Thanks, Craig, for this overview with its wealth of information! Carol Ardman

  • Michael Lavine

    Very classy article, Craig. I agree with all of it, of course. Wish I’d been in the biz back then, too!!

  • Deb

    He’s handsome. He’s talented. And he can write too! Well done.

  • James

    What a great article – recently started enjoying cabaret stuff myself, and I’m so glad to have read this!!!

  • Ann Hampton Callaway

    Thank you, Craig, for articulating the many things that give cabaret its often misunderstood power and allure. It is an ever evolving artform that when shared at its best is satisfying to the heart and soul like few things in this intimacy challenged world. Continued success to you!

  • Bart Greenberg

    Lovely column, Craig. Especially enjoyed your description of the differing reactions in various cities to the same performance. An interesting cultural study.

  • Steve J

    Well written from a talented guy who obviously knows what he’s talking… and singing… about.

  • Cara Winter

    Great article! So glad to hear that cabaret is making a come-back in New York… and that there’s an interest in reinventing the genre, a bit!

    Here in Chicago, there are some great cabaret performers – With a Twist (a hilarious man-trio), Joan Curto, and Beckie Menzie, just to name a few. Here’s hoping more great singers in Chicago will jump on the bandwagon!!

    Cara Winter
    http://www.carawinter.net

  • Gavin Lee

    Who else would you ask to write a great piece on the art of Caberet but the wonderful expert that is Mr Craig Pomranz?! Catch one of his shows ASAP.

  • Geri Malino

    Craig, you write like you sing BEAUTIFULLY !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • C Fruchter

    The rule of three C’s… Cabaret + Craig = Cathartic

  • christina saffran ashford

    Great article! It captures the wonderful soul of cabaret!

  • Marilyn Forrest

    Craig, good analysis and understanding of the thrill of singing cabaret. I lke the slightly unsettling feeling of being a little on the edge with new lyrics and arrangements. Met you at Hollywood Studio Bar & Grill, where we were both singing one evening. I thoroughly enjoyed your performance, and I hope to catch your act when you’re back in L.A.
    Marilyn Forrest

  • Chuck Lavazzi

    My friend and fellow cabaret artist Ken Haller describes cabaret as the art of telling stories through song. Craig certainly does that in his show, as do all the best artists in this field.

    As an out-of-towner (from Craig’s home town, in fact), I’m not surprised to learn that New York is still a big cabaret town. What may be surprising to some of you in New York, though, is that cabaret seems to be thriving all over the place these days. We have an increasingly lively cabaret scene here in St. Louis – due in part to the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, which just completed its sixth year – and we’re not alone.

    Chuck Lavazzi
    http://stageleft-stlouis.blogspot.com

  • Ken Starrett

    Clearly “cabaret” is now more than a venue where one hears someone sing a song.
    In a way it is now a kind of theatre. Many performers have carefully structured shows with a theme or a story to tell. Thank you Craig for defining the experience for those who attend cabaret and those who have yet to do so.

  • Cynthia Crane

    WONDERFUL TAKE ON CABARET. THANKS SO MUCH!!!!!!

  • Amanda Abel

    Beautifully put. Yes, we’re glad to be rid of the smoke, but not the smokin’ hot talent! Viva La Cabaret!

  • Mark Hinchman

    And we’ve also enjoyed seeing Pomranz in St. Louis and Chicago. Still hoping to squeeze LA in one of these days. Great article – thanks.

  • Bob Nathan

    Thanks, Craig for this great article. You really get to the heart & soul of what Cabaret is all about!

  • Jim Caruso

    Congrats on a beautifully-written, thoughtful piece on the wonderful world of cabaret!

  • joey infante

    Wonderful article..very informative to the cabaret artist and to the general public who love cabaret and it’s intimacy. I never miss a Pomranz performance.

  • Donald McDonald

    Very well put, Craig. Almost made me feel like leaving my warm house and go out. Its been awhile since I’ve been, but I’ve been to most of the places you mentioned. You’re also correct in saying that nothing beats the give and take, of a live audience. New Yorkers can be tough, but when they like you they’re not afraid to let you know.
    Hope your show went well and you’re still feeling that high, that only a NY audience can give. Thanks for sharing this article and hope to see you live sometime soon.

  • jody prusan

    Well Done Craig. I have wonderful memories of singing at the GARDENIA in LA and at the ROOSEVELT HOTEL and felt so ALIVE and INTHE MOMENT. The interaction with the audience was electrifying and I miss it. You’re a terrific writer. Thanks for sharing.
    jody prusan

  • Chris Carpenter

    A great article from a fine writer & performer. I so wish I could get to NYC more often to check these great shows out!

  • Alex

    Great article from such a talented artist… Hope to catch your show in New York soon!

  • Mary Lahti

    Beautifully written. Craig paints a great picture of cabaret life and its differences as well as its value. There is such a vast array of talent and venues and there are probably many people unaware that there is something for everyone. Thanks for your talents and for sharing your thoughts, Craig.

  • Gail

    “What prepares you to be a singer? Life!” Well put. Thanks for the enlightening article.

  • Houston Allred

    From your mouth to God’s ears, Craig, & we hope She’s listening!!! I’m working with friends in Atascadero to bring cabaret to Central California by opening a piano-bar restaurant. Hope you’ll sing with us here someday! You always brighten every venue you grace. Peace & love, Houston Allred

    • Magpublisher

      Did you ever get the piano established?   How’s it going? 

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  • Geri Malino

    YOU ROCK, CRAIG !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • john meyer

    Craig –thanks for keeping the flame alive and the torch moving from artist to artist, generation to generation. There’ll always be live performing venues because of artists like you who require and enrich them. Good piece.
    Best, John

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