Life In A Cabaret

Benjamin Eakeley brings his latest show, “Broadway Swinger, Volume 2,” looking at the birth of swing music in the 1930s, to 54Below on August 14. | Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | They were the icons of an era — The Tropicana, El Morocco, and The Stork Club — clubs that defined New York’s nightlife in the 1940s through 1960s as the sine qua non of the glamorous life, dripping with stars and churning with gossip, all to the tune of fantastic entertainment. That, at least, is how it’s portrayed in movies such as “White Christmas,” “All About Eve,” and that camp classic “Valley of the Dolls.”

The cabaret scene in 2018 may not glitter with evening gowns or men in tuxedos, but it’s vibrant and exciting with diverse entertainers and unique shows one won’t find anywhere else. At least in New York, you can find something wonderful and different virtually any evening in the wide number of rooms around the city devoted to these shows.

Performer and presenter Jim Caruso, who travels the country performing and who has for the past decade run Cast Party at Birdland on Mondays, a hugely popular open mic night where an aspiring performer and Liza Minnelli may be on the bill, is overseeing the opening of the Birdland Theater. He spoke to the opportunity for diverse offerings, saying, “The room will allow us to showcase new talent and [be] a breeding ground for creative endeavors including comedy, cabaret, and burlesque.”

Check out the intimate, diverse nightclub scene this summer.

Caruso came by his role naturally. Growing up in Dallas with parents who were entertainers, he started early doing magic and ventriloquism and recalled that his house “was a singing, split-level ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’” It was constant entertainment, and he’s trying to recreate that sense of excitement and fun for his audiences. He’s already booking a stellar line-up including Lucie Arnaz, Robert Fairchild, Marilyn Maye, Miss Coco Peru, Linda Lavin, and Miranda Sings.

Diverse offerings are also the essence of Joe’s Pub down at the Public. Associate director Alex Knowlton said that the space is devoted to trying to tell many stories, encompassing dance, music, spoken word, and more.

He added, “People want a ‘dangerous space’ where they might learn something. That’s part of the edge. We’re playing to the home team [New Yorkers], where they come to be challenged, and you can create a huge range of experiences within that.”

The Green Room 42, in the Yotel on Tenth Avenue at 41st Street, is one of the newest rooms in the city. Just over a year old, it was designed as both a showcase for artists and to be accessible to audiences, explained programming director Daniel Dunlow. Reasonable cover charges and no food or drink minimum can make an evening there, as he said, “less than the cost of a rush ticket” for a Broadway show.

There are the established rooms, including the Café Carlyle and Feinstein’s/ 54Below. While they may be perceived as bastions of the so-called Great American Songbook, a collection of standards from the early-to-mid 20th Century, they have their share of diverse offerings, as well. Producer Scott Siegel, noted for his beloved Town Hall concerts, including the “Broadway by the Year” series, has developed a wide range of shows for a variety of audiences for 54Below, including compilations of the Beatles songs, shows for individual performers, and a classics show, “11 O’clock Numbers,” which is a compilation of those emotional highs that come at the end of virtually every show.

The intimate relationship between performer and audience is what makes cabaret unique and appealing. Unlike a Broadway show where the “fourth wall” imposes distances, in cabaret as Caruso says, “The act is virtually in your lap as an audience member.” Audiences range from 100 to 200 people tops, which Knowlton said is ideal for “including the audience in the artist’s experience.” He added that cabaret provides a social experience as well. Seated at tables, sometimes with complete strangers, audiences naturally interact with one another during the course of a shared experience.

The interaction, the intimacy, and the opportunity for artistic expression are what appeals to the performers, as well. That’s a good thing because while the talent gets paid, people aren’t getting rich, and for some performers after paying music directors, musicians, and other fees, they can end up losing money. Years ago, a cabaret performer from the long-gone Judy’s Chelsea told me that if he sold out every performance, he only lost five dollars.

So why do it?

Siegel said it’s a great opportunity to “show your flag,” and for artists to be seen, and a room like 54Below is a great credit on a résumé.

“The wonderful thing about this art form,” he said, “is that you’re always the star. You’re not in the ensemble, and there’s no one who trains you to be a star.” Even in an intimate setting, cabaret is a bit like flying without a net and learn to command a stage. In fact, Seigel said, “It forces you to do it.”

Benjamin Eakeley would certainly agree. Eakeley, who has appeared on Broadway and recently played Cliff in the national tour of “Cabaret,” said that doing a solo show in a small venue has helped him define himself as a unique artist.

“I’ve been able to expand myself and carry that forward in auditions,” he said.

He cited Harry Connick, Jr., as a catalyst for his taking this approach. When Eakeley worked with Connick in the revival of “On a Clear Day…,” Connick told him, “You’ve got to sing the way you sing.”

Eakeley’s latest show, “Broadway Swinger, Volume 2,” hits 54Below on August 14 and gives him the opportunity to “express myself as I want. I can challenge myself in my approach to the music as well as in my voice.”

Eakeley grew up going with his parents to see some of the cabaret greats, including Bobby Short, Susannah McCorkle, and Andrea Marcovicci. He was fascinated by the way they told stories, and he wanted to do that as well.

“Broadway Swinger” is about the birth of swing music. It’s exclusively songs from the 1930s, and he explained, “It’s about how music lifted American spirits through the Great Depression.”

Eakeley was quick to point out that this is not a “Ted Talk with music.” Rather, Eakeley’s exceptional voice paired with sociological insights from the humor of writer Tim Murray promise an evening as exciting as his “Volume One,” which looked at the evolution of the swinging 1960s.

Spencer Day, who is in monthly residence at The Green Room 42 at the Yotel, appears next on August 17. | Photo courtesy of Spencer Day

Spencer Day, who has just taken up a monthly residence at The Green Room 42, also loves the scale of rooms like that one.

“It’s the ideal size,” he said. “I did a set at the Hollywood Bowl, which seats about 17,000.”

Of his current gig, he said, “The most magic moments are when you get to connect for a few seconds with an audience member.”

He added with his characteristic humor, “However, you have to be aware of the difference of a moment of warm connection and the cold stare of a psychopath.”

His recent set, largely taken from his recording “Angel City,” demonstrated his immense talent as a singer-songwriter. His style pays homage to classics but is fresh and original, with songs that resonate with a contemporary audience on topics such as stalking on social media and wry commentary on the level of co-dependency in popular music. Day’s beautiful voice and flawless phrasing get every nuance from the songs he presents, and he connected wonderfully with the largely young audience that packed a recent show.

Kevin Smith Kirkwood is bringing his show, “Classic Whitney: Alive!,” to Joe’s Pub from August 5-13, presented as part of Showtime’s “Salon Series,” a year-long tribute to LGBTQ performers. Kirkwood was inspired by repeatedly watching the classic Whitney live show and by Rufus Wainwright’s recreation of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall concert.

“I thought I could give Whitney that kind of treatment,” he said. “I’d had this idea for about 10 years, and when she passed it seemed more urgent.”

Kirkwood explained he grew up in the projects in Toledo, Oho, and “as a kid coming from the hood in the late 80s, people like Whitney and Michael Jackson were huge to the community because of the barriers the were breaking and what they were doing.”

After performing in a local community center, an anonymous donor paid for Kirkwood’s voice lessons. To this day he has no idea who that was, but “It was one of those random, selfless things that changed a life.”

Kirkwood has done the show before, and says he’s been surprised by the diverse audiences he’s attracted. Of course, many people loved Whitney Houston and her music, and he said he approaches the show “as an actor playing a role. So I’ve looked for specificity at every turn. I want the audience to forget that they are watching a man in a wig and a dress.”

When audience members come up to him and say they felt they were watching Houston, he knows he’s done his job.

These previews, of course, only begin to scratch the surface of what’s available. As Jim Caruso said, if you look you will find something that resonates with you. From new songwriters to new ways of interpreting the classics, if you’re willing to explore you’re likely to be richly rewarded.

BENJAMIN EAKELEY | “Broadway Swinger, Volume 2” | Feinstein’s 54Below, 254 W. 54th St. | Aug. 14 at 7 p.m. | $40-$74, with a $25 food & drink minimum at

SPENCER DAY | Green Room 42, Yotel Hotel, fourth level, 570 Tenth Ave. at 41st St. | Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. | $25-$50, with no food & drink minimum, at

KEVIN SMITH KIRKWOOD | “Classic Whitney: Alive!” | Joe’s Pub, inside the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Place | Volume 1: Aug. 5 & 13 at 9:30 p.m.; Volume Two Aug. 6 & 12 at 9:30 p.m. | $30 each or $55 for both shows, plus a $12 food & drink minimum, at

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