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A room with a Cue

Cabaret rooms are throwing open their doors and, sometimes, quietly closing them. But no one can deny the resurgence of interest, says Jo Litson.

"For $10 you can go and see Julie Wilson [in cabaret] in New York City and break your heart. To me that's far better than paying $90 to see sets rise and fall on Broadway," says David Campbell, who regularly plays with people's heartstrings himself at leading cabaret venues in New York - the mecca of the art form - as well as in his native Australia.

That's the wonderful thing about cabaret: the chance to see a top-notch performer up close and personal, and to be moved, really moved, by them. Being able to sit in intimate surroundings, sipping on a drink or two during the performance with perhaps something to eat, adds to the relaxed atmosphere. When it works, there's nothing like it. Audiences leave feeling that they have been let into a corner of the artist's life, and that it was very warm in there.

Kane Alexander, Les Solomon and Tim DraxlThe success in New York of Australian performers such as Campbell, Judi Connelli, Combo Fiasco and now 17-year-old Tim Draxl has clearly inspired their compatriots. Les Solomon, who manages Campbell, Draxl and newcomer Kane Alexander, gets an average of two to three calls a week from performers asking him to manage them, 99 per cent of which he politely turns down.

Musicals are few and far between at the moment, which means there is a host of talented musical theatre performers looking for other ways to make a living. But getting up and singing show tunes, no matter how well you sing them, ain't cabaret. It takes more than that. Many a talented musical theatre star has got up on the cabaret stage and gone down like a lead balloon. The recent Sydney Cabaret Convention illustrated the point clearly. A minority had what it takes to make a song their own and to create that special rapport with the audience, which takes a performance beyond a concert.

To do cabaret well you have to be able to take the audience on a journey with you, says Solomon. "Towards the end of the show you start David Campbellgoing a little bit deeper, a little bit darker, and taking audiences to places they didn't expect to go, making it personal, but never that personal, making it real and honest and true. All the great cabaret artists in New York do that, and the great artists here do it too, though they're few and far between. It's a very refined art form and only a few people know how to do it well."

Kane Alexander is one of the few Solomon believes has got what it takes - although it took some convincing to persuade him, and Solomon says Kane still has a lot to learn. Kane was Campbell's understudy/alternate during the most recent production of Les Miserables. When he met Solomon, Kane made it plain he'd love to be doing what Campbell was doing. Solomon didn't bite: "At that time I was being beseeched by chorus boys who all wanted to be the next David Campbell. It was only when Kane went to New York and studied with [songwriter] John Bucchino and sang for Liza Minnelli at a private party and all these people came to me and said, 'This boy is good, he's got something, you should take him seriously', that I decided I should."

Solomon has worked with Alexander to create his show Into the Fire, which he has been performing at The Stables in Sydney, will perform at Caper's in Melbourne from July 29 and at The School of Arts Cafe in Queanbeyan, just outside Canberra, in November. Capers and The School of Arts Cafe are Australia's only permanent cabaret venues. Sydney has been without one since the closure of The Tilbury in 1996, though plenty of others have tried to take its place. There are now cabaret rooms popping up all over Sydney - a fact that has been made much of in the press as evidence of a resurgence.

Judi ConnelliCafe Nine, in the Haymarket, recently began to present cabaret several nights per week, while the Side On Cafe in Annandale plans to add cabaret to its roster in August. The Sydney Opera House is also going into cabaret mode with performances at its new space, The Studio, and at the Drama Theatre on, Sundays in August, featuring artists such as Peter J. Casey (who won the recent Sydney Cabaret Convention), Genevieve Lemon, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli and Simon Burke. There are also plans to convert the scene of the Sydney Cabaret Convention, the lower Town Hall, into a permanent cabaret venue, with a resolution to this effect already passed and the issue likely to be discussed by Sydney City Council over the next month. There's also the Clarendon Hotel in Katoomba - a long-time producer of Reg Livermore's cabaret-style theatre work.

In Perth, His Majesty's Theatre presents cabaret at the weekends in its bar areas during summer, while the Burswood Theatre also has a cabaret room. The Victorian Arts Centre presents Sunday afternoon cabaret, with the likes of Philip Gould and Christine Sullivan among the performers, while in Adelaide the Bakehouse Theatre features cabaret on Friday and Saturday nights, and a new cafe called C J's is doing some cabaret.

How many of these venues survive remains to be seen. The sprouting of cabaret rooms is a cyclical thing. After the closure of The Tilbury, a host of Sydney venues tried cabaret, but most quickly became disappearing acts, among them Xu Restaurant in Kings Cross, 135 Bar and Grill in King Street, and the Cambridge Inn in Surry Hills. A couple of months ago La Bar in Darlinghurst opened its doors as a full-time cabaret room but has already floundered, cancelling bookings for artists such as Geraldine Turner.

Part of cabaret's appeal is the intimacy of the experience, but small rooms aren't economically viable. To make any money, you generally need at least 150 seats. The Tilbury found 100 seats was too few. La Bar had 60. Cafe Nine has only 60, as well as two huge poles. Its manager, Tasia Doukakis, plans to open a basement room to seat about 90. Sorlies Restaurant at Glen Street Theatre, in Sydney's Frenchs Forest, can squeeze in 110 and hopes to extend the room. Improved economic viability will allow Sorlies to present more cabaret, says Glen Street director Greg Randall. Currently it presents about 12 weeks of cabaret per year but, says Randall, it has built up an audience eager for more.

If a room becomes too large, not only do you lose the intimacy, but it becomes hard to fill. Peter Townley began putting cabaret into the banquet room of Sydney's Sebel Townhouse on Sunday nights last June. It is a lovely room, which seats up to 290, but so far only David Campbell has been able to sell it out. Tim Draxl performs there tomorrow and Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston perform there throughout August.

The Sebel is cabaret at the swisher end of the market, offering a silver service dinner (no show-only tickets) costing $70-$90. Townley, who believes firmly in the quality of the room and the artists he is presenting - so much so that he is putting his.own money into it - says he is determined to keep the room going, and is looking at presenting international artists next year, but he concedes that "it's a long hail".

Paul Raden, the owner of Caper's in Melbourne, agrees that cabaret is "not a get-rich-quick scheme". Caper's charges $49.50 for a three-course meal and show. It is "ridiculously cheap, but in order to develop the culture you have to do that," says Baden. He and his business partner, chef Patrick Smyth, are making nothing out of it financially and don't expect to for some time, but Baden is also in for the long haul, and very passionate and exited about it too.

He knew nothing about cabaret when he was first approached to put a show in there, but liked the idea. The first show, Underneath the Arches, was performed on the carpet with an electric piano and rudimentary lighting. Since then Baden has ploughed any profits back into the comfortable 120-seat venue, building a stage and adding sound and lighting. He now plans to go to New York to see how it's done there.

Debra ByrneAlready Caper's has found quite a following. In fact, Baden has been inundated with requests to perform there. Forthcoming seasons include Bernadette Robinson and a return season by Debra Byrne. As well as main shows Tuesday to Saturday, Baden has introduced $15 Sunday nights for lesser-known talents. Alexander played two sell-out Sundays there recently. Baden may now open a Caper's in Sydney.

Sydney certainly needs a permanent cabaret venue, seating at least 150, to complement the places that present it on an occasional basis. A similar venue in Adelaide and Brisbane would create a circuit for performers (there are some venues in Queensland). But even then, it would be virtually impossible to make a career of it. There simply isn't the market in Australia, and there are only so many times than an artist - even a Campbell or a Connelli - can perform in one city.

"It's not a career in itself," agrees Solomon. "I don't put these young people into cabaret to become cabaret stars. When people come to me saying they want to be a cabaret star, I say, 'Go and find yourself another occupation.' You just can't make a living out of it in Australia. It's a way of promoting talented people, showcasing them as solo artists in their own right, in a way that they would never be seen if they just did plays or musicals, even in leading roles." It has certainly worked for Draxl and Campbell, who now performs regularly in the US in cabaret, concert and theatre. He recently toured the west coast with cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci and played the lead role in a limited run of Babes in Arms on Broadway, as a result of which he was offered many Broadway roles. "He's been promised he romantic lead in The Sweet Smell of Success, the musical version of the Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster film, but it could take four years to get to Broadway," says Solomon. "And the people who are doing the musical of Thoroughly Modern Millie, based on the film, are interested in him, but it's been put back four times now.

"Getting these shows up takes time, but when the time is right, David will get his role."

Meanwhile, Draxl is to perform at the Oak Room at New York's legendary Algonquin Hotel and plays Rolf in the forthcoming Australian production of The Sound of Music.

But, cautions Solomon, you need to have money to get started, to pay for venues and sound equipment and advertising. "I slogged through this with David for three years before his break came in 1995. It was lucky that David's father [Jimmy Barnes] could put some money into his career to get him started; the same with Tim. I would say to anyone who wants to do cabaret in this country, go to New York - just for two weeks, if necessary - and watch Andrea Marcovicci, and watch Barbara Cook, and watch Bobby Short, the masters of the form, and learn what it really means to do cabaret, and then decide whether you think you can do it."

For producers, cabaret will quickly suck you dry financially if you don't find the right-sized venue with the right ambience and the right performers. But when it all comes together, it's a gem of an art form, a heart-warming, deeply satisfying communion between an artist and audience in convivial surroundings. No wonder so many Australians are currently keen to give it a go.

But, as Solomon says, "Let's not kid ourselves that it's a thriving industry."


The Weekend Australian - 24 July 1999