Cabaret Wanes As The Oak Room Is Felled | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Cabaret Wanes As The Oak Room Is Felled

Play associated audio

One of New York City's most famous cabaret clubs, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, is closing. At least one person will feel the loss — Murray Horwitz, the author of two Broadway musicals and numerous cabaret acts.

I know what you're thinking — but this is not about nostalgia for lost glamour. Like those movies from the '30s, with women and men in gowns and tuxedos, sipping champagne cocktails in plush velvet booths. The emcee announces the performer. Then she enters, gorgeous, launching into her opening number. That's actually not far from the real scene, but what concerns me now is the art form at the heart of it.

Every cabaret show is an adventure. It may be a singer with a trio, telling stories between the songs. It could be a whole show, with comedy sketches, and maybe even a little dancing. Or just a guy at a piano. But each performance tries to take you on a journey. It might be a celebration of a songwriter's works, the life story of the singer, or a scathing political satire. And from the opening number to the finale, the audience knows: We're all in this together. No fireworks, no smoke machines, no giant cranes — just some people in a room, having a good time.

For the person onstage, it's a very risky art form. But if you're in the audience when everything is just right, the world falls away. You find yourself thinking, "I don't want to be anywhere else but in this club, with this drink, listening to this person sing." There's a thrill in hanging on every rhyme of Stephen Sondheim's "The Miller's Son." The comedian Alan King once said the biggest laughs he ever saw were for Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin at the Copacabana. People were knocking over tables and falling on the floor. In a cabaret, somehow, the music and words are more intense, and the laughter deeper.

You can still see something like cabaret. Often it's in surprising places: college campuses, bookstores, community centers and church basements. But — just as Broadway holds up a professional standard for others to emulate — it's important to have some brilliant spots at the top. Something to shoot for. New York cabarets like the Oak Room were the pinnacle, and now, they're almost all gone.

This is bad for our republic.

There are a lot of American artists who learned their craft in cabaret. When the performer and the audience can actually make eye contact, it's impossible to hide. Songs and comedy bits can't be phony even for a split second — it all has to feel real, and genuine. And cabaret audiences tend to do their part, too — kind of pulling for the artists, wanting to have a good time. They're not like a comedy club audience — arms folded challenging the performer, "Make me laugh."

I know it's hard to get dressed up, go downtown, and spend money on a drink and some stories — but if you're lucky, occasionally they'll feel like your own stories. And if the places where that happens continue to disappear, American entertainment will sink further into impersonal diversion. And we won't have nearly as much fun.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Making A Change To Keep A Constant Consonant

Given two words, change the first consonant sound in each word to the same new consonant sound and you'll phonetically name two things in the same category.
NPR

Need A New Sweet Potato Recipe For Your Thanksgiving Table? Try Gnocchi

Because some cooks like to mix it up for Thanksgiving, we offer a Found Recipe from our archives: Julia Della Croce's purple sweet potato gnocchi.
WAMU 88.5

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb Lays Groundwork For Presidential Run

Virginia's Jim Webb has formed an exploratory committee to pursue a potential bid for president in 2016.

NPR

Car Ride Service Puts Gender In The Driver's Seat

Car share programs are extremely popular, but so are concerns for safety. NPR's Tess Vigeland talks to Stella Mateo, founder of SheRides, which allows passengers to choose the gender of their driver.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.