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Come to the Cabaret--in N.Y.

The dream of singing before intimate audiences in chic Manhattan clubs helps keep the genre alive.

March 02, 1997|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — The limousines pull up at the corner of 76th Street and Madison Avenue and moneyed New Yorkers spill out to catch the late show at the Cafe Carlyle.

Entertaining in the 100-seat room tonight is Barbara Cook, whom many in the audience saw in their young-buck-and-doe days when she starred in the original late-'50s Broadway run of "The Music Man." Tonight, she will regale them with a night of songs whose lyrics were written by Oscar Hammerstein II.

At the same time in Midtown, at the historic Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, a more youthful group crowds into the narrow room to hear Paula West. This performer lives closer to another Broadway, the one in San Francisco, the town where, when she is not singing, she makes herrent as a waitress. The 90-seat room is about three-quarters full, perhaps mostly with West's friends and people who had seen a good review of her work in the previous day's paper. She sings classic American songs with difficult lyrics--songs such as "If I Only Had a Brain" from "The Wizard of Oz"--many of which are on her own, self-produced, self-distributed CD.

Five blocks away, at Rainbow and Stars atop Rockefeller Center, Joe Williams, the ageless jazz-and-standards crooner, is singing to sold-out rooms during his monthlong engagement. Rainbow and Stars, with its panoramic view of the city, finds its 90-seat room filling up with tourists hoping for a New York experience that will sound marvelous in the retelling.

This is cabaret in Manhattan. While people sing the songs of Cole Porter and the Gershwins and Sondheim and Bernstein the world over, they dream of singing them before intimate audiences in chic Manhattan clubs, while champagne glasses tinkle and evening gowns shimmer. This illusory state may just be enough to keep the genre of cabaret alive.

"I think everyone will admit this, that there are not a lot of people who can make a living just playing to rooms of 90 people," said James Gavin, cabaret habitue and author of its primary history, "Intimate Nights." "But I would hate to live in a world where such entertainment was left to die."

Cabaret in New York is an expensive night out. At the Cafe Carlyle, for instance, each showhas a $45 cover. There is no minimum, but most at the early show have dinner and the entree list at the cafe starts at $21. Or you could have a magnum of 1988 Cristal Louis Roederer Brut champagne for $390 if you just sold a screenplay.

For this, you will normally hear someone sing about 20 songs, most of them written between 1930 and 1960. The singers will tell stories about the songs, or about themselves. And, unlike in jazz clubs, you will probably not chatter, smoke or even so much as hum along.

"A crowd at a cabaret is respectful," said Rene Peyrat, who runs the Cafe Carlyle as part of his job as the food and beverage manager of the Carlyle Hotel, which rises above the cafe. "When Barbara [Cook] is singing without a microphone, the room is quiet. In cabaret, people come to the show and honor the artist. In the bar, you have a conversation, even if the artist is great. In the cafe, it is a mini-concert; people want it to be intimate."

To take a circuit of the three or four plush rooms in Midtown Manhattan is like a pilgrimage for serious devotees. Most of the reliable talent lives in New York--hoping for Broadway slots to open up or even small bookings--or likes to come to perform here. Locals and tourists looking for perceived sophistication find it in the veneer of these crowded clubs.

That's why Andrea Marcovicci, a Southern California actress most of the year, spends her falls in New York as the headliner at the Oak Room. It's why Bobby Short, who otherwise lives in the South of France, comes back both spring and fall to play to a sold-out room night after night at the Cafe Carlyle. And it's why Paula West took leave from her normal waitressing job to put herself up for two weeks in expensive Manhattan.

"Most of us aren't going to be able to support ourselves with our music like Andrea or Bobby, but you have to get to New York to do it at all," West says. "You have to fly yourself out there and hire your musicians. But you hope you are doing something right so people will take notice and want to hear more from you."

At one time, a two-week gig at a place like the Oak Room or Rainbow and Stars would be a launching pad to fame and financial security.

"These were steppingstones to things such as TV, which was exploding and looking for singing stars," Gavin says. "Musical comedy was at its peak. Major record companies were looking for unknown singers. You could take your nightclub act all over the country. There were many opportunities then that don't exist now."

Even so, singers from stars to novices seem to want to do cabaret. The opening of Rainbow and Stars in 1989 brought new life to cabaret in the city. The room had glitz, and with its twinkly, starlike lights above and picture window 65 stories above Rockefeller Center, it was an instant tourist attraction.

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