Cabaret as Personal Musical Theater

I was looking through my past blogs to see if I’ve defined cabaret before and couldn’t find anything.

This past Friday, I was thrilled to reunite with Ryan Cappleman to perform a revised version of my first cabaret, “Oh! To Be a Movie Star!” at Germano’s in Little Italy (the revision includes the addition of the exclamation point after “Oh!” where there had previously been a comma). We had a terrific turnout, unlike the performances that Ryan and I did back in Milwaukee, and it was extremely well-received. It’s nearly a week later and I’m still re-living moments that I felt went particularly well and not moments that went badly (this never happens).

There was one friend who had planned to come but didn’t because he said he had a hard time getting his fiancée to go to concerts on Friday night, which is their date night. I was surprised that he said that, because he’s a musician and actor as well. He thought that the performance was going to be something along the lines of a recital, rather than – well, what it was.

So I’ve done some more musings on exactly what cabaret is. And the title of this article is from something that was said to me by Amanda McBroom at a cabaret workshop I attended in Brookfield, Wisconsin, when she was asked to define cabaret. She thought a bit and said, “Cabaret is personal musical theater.” It’s taking pieces that mean something to you and developing a narrative from those pieces. It might be that you have a theme in mind, or it might be that a theme comes from the pieces you’ve selected.

In the case of this week’s show, my theme was movies and movie stars, and the songs I chose reflected that. And more important, what movies have meant in my own life.

Another definition that I came up with was that creating a cabaret was like writing a script for a jukebox musical. A jukebox musical is a bunch of songs by one artist or composer around which an often-lame script is written. Now, I generally hate that genre. My own personal idea of hell would be sitting through endless productions of Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys, and Pump Boys and Dinettes. But a cabaret is picking songs – perhaps by the same composer, perhaps based on a theme or an era – and putting them together with a narrative of some kind.

However, in a musical, there’s a full cast of characters. In cabaret, all the characters are played by a single performer (or a small group of performers) who might have some specific lines that she wants to say to introduce a song, but the songs are the script. They are what tell the story, through the singer’s interpretation.

In Oh! To Be a Movie Star!, Ryan and I told stories of wanna-be actors, both from a humorous and a tragic perspective, of fans who admire and obsess over the object of their affection, of up-and-coming stars and those fading into obscurity. It wasn’t a single narrative following one person from beginning to end. That’s a different kind of show. And maybe it’s one I’ll do someday.

All I can say right now is that cabaret continues to be one of the most rewarding and creative outlets I have as an artist these days. It’s not the only outlet, which it was in Milwaukee (and why not having an audience was so demoralizing to me), but it’s the one that makes me feel the most like myself. It’s personal. It’s musical. And it’s theater.