One of the worst pieces of showbiz news I have heard lately is that the classic Oak Room cabaret lounge in the iconic Algonquin Hotel in New York has closed. This room has played host to some of the greats of cabaret around the world and the room, like the hotel, is drenched in New York theatrical history.
It is the room which helped begin the careers of people such as Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum and Harry Conick Jr. Just about every major New York cabaret identity has played the room at one time or other. Australians who have performed in the room include Tim Draxl and Hayden Tee. Most notably; for the last 25 years, it has played host at Christmas time to classic cabaret chanteuse Andrea Marcovicci.
The room itself is full of old world charm and has been referred to as a ‘tennis court’ (owing to its long thin style with the performer perched in the middle) and often noted as a tough room for an artist to play. Yet, few cabaret rooms anywhere possessed its sort of warm intimacy and feel of romantic, old world magic.
The reason for its demise, it seems, is a new management who say the room has been losing money. A huge petition has been circulating asking people to help support trying to save the room (a link for this follows at the end of this column). This of course is not the only NYC cabaret room to fold. A few years ago the glorious Rainbow and Stars cabaret room closed for similar reasons.
Cabaret as a business is tough. Just ask any cabaret performer trying to use this style of solo presentation, giving an audience intimate chat and music. Often they see it as a way to help get their careers started and also explore the art form in the process. It is expensive, time consuming and very rarely brings any sort of financial rewards. Of course cabaret has made stars of some of the aforementioned people and it certainly gave Australian performers such as David Campbell, Meow Meow and Tim Minchin a terrific kick into the careers they have today.
In fact, what is most interesting is that Australia seems now to be at the forefront of creating a new type of cabaret which appeals to a younger audience. Whereas a lot of New York cabaret is still set in a refined and romantic world of yesteryear, Australia has been creating a new, challenging and energetic cabaret for a new age. Just look at some of the fabulous people who have performed at the Spiegeltent in recent times (Meow Meow must be at the top of this list). Tim Minchin began his career by performing in the 30 seat Butterfly Club in Melbourne. Recently he sold out the Royal Albert Hall and his new musical Matilda is a smash hit in London with New York and (no doubt) Australia to follow. Minchin is indicative of a new earthy comedic style of cabaret which speaks directly to young audiences with an emphasis on comedy, satire and most importantly original material.
Another event primary in creating some new exciting artists has been the Annual Cabaret Showcase which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The showcase grew from a tiny event I started as a way of finding some sort of replacement for the popular but very short lived Sydney Cabaret Convention. It has grown into a major annual event which has introduced some terrific young theatre and cabaret stars into our consciousness. Now run by Jeremy Youett, who has turned it into a major national event with prizes that include seasons at all the major cabaret festivals around the country, the showcase has introduced fabulous young performers into our consciousness such as James Millar, Nick Christo, Elenoa Rokabaro, Marika Aubrey, Lucy Durack and most recently the great young comic Toby Francis who went from the showcase to guest starring with John Cleese at the Opera House last year to Gillian Cosgriff who has just completed a very successful national tour.
Many of these people have brought their own original songs and style of comedy which has given cabaret a terrific new pulse. Also instrumental in this new age of cabaret in Australia has been the Adelaide Cabaret Festival which, apart from boasting some terrific international headliners, has given a stage to exciting and developing artists.
So, yes it is sad to see the Algonquin close and I hope everyone can petition to try and save this classic room, but the New York style of cabaret is very different to what we are seeing in Australia (and Britain) these days. All differences are to be celebrated and encouraged, but cabaret is a tough business and only the very talented, the very tenacious or the very original succeed. Cabaret strips the performer of most of the props they can rely on, to a large extent it is them, the piano and maybe one or two instruments and a small crowd hanging off every word. It’s a make-or-break art form and it may never make anyone rich, but it’s also enduring and will always survive in one style or another. Whether singing romantic ballads written eighty years ago or performing your latest satirical ditty, it’s real, its intimate and it has to be honest and that is the thing that makes it most appealing to an eager audience.