It seems odd to me that an artform should be defined by the space in which it is presented rather than anything intrinsic to the art itself. But this seems to be the case with cabaret. The word literally means “room”. Here’s the definition from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:
Main Entry: cab·a·ret
Pronunciation: \ˌka-bə-ˈrā, ˈka-bə-ˌ\
Etymology: French, from Middle French dial. (Picard or Walloon), from Middle Dutch, alteration of cambret, cameret, from Middle French dial. (Picard) camberete small room, ultimately from Late Latin camera — more at chamber
1 archaic : a shop selling wines and liquors
2 a : a restaurant serving liquor and providing entertainment (as by singers or dancers) : nightclub b : the show provided at a cabaret
There’s only a small scene here in San Francisco. Mostly it’s based out of a venue called The Rzazz Room, a low-ceilinged nook in a corner of the Hotel Nikko downtown. But other venues host cabaret-like events such as Yoshi’s, Bimbo’s, The Exit Theatre, The Eureka Theatre and the Marine’s Memorial Theatre.
It’s really a very amorphous artform that seems to feed on the outer edges of other more well-defined genres such as musical theatre, jazz and singer-songwriting. Few artists these days can be said to be truly indigenous to cabaret. I suppose that’s not surprising when the word itself means a container for art — the walls between which it exists — than the art itself.
Yet at it’s most pure, cabaret isn’t a place to get tipsy while watching washed-up Broadway people slug their way huskily through “Summertime” and “Somewhere Over a Rainbow.” Although cabaret attracts artists from many, many different backgrounds, there are in fact specific parameters to presenting a cabaret performance that help to define the artform beyond its existence in a particular space.
One factor is the structure of a cabaret show which often, though not always, vacillates between comic and serious songs.
Another consideration is the choice of a signature song which comes to define an artist and acts as a sort of calling card for him or her.
A third staple of many cabaret performances is an overarching theme. This helps to give a show shape and sends over a strong message, instead of being a meandering collection of songs, which would make the experience a concert rather than a cabaret. For example, a recent show I attended at the Rzazz Room by Andrea Marcovicci, focused exclusively on the composer Johnny Mercer. Meanwhile, a performance I saw by Carly Ozard took a more personal theme — the artist built her lighthearted “Bewitched Bothered and Bipolar” program around the highs and lows of being bipolar.
And another defining characteristic of cabaret is the artist’s rapport with the audience. Speaking is as important a feature of a performance as singing. The best artists can effortlessly riff with their audiences and find the perfect segues into and out of each song.
These days, cabaret seems to attract an older or gay crowd. It’s largely ignored by everyone else. This is a shame. There’s something so special and intimate about sharing a performance with a true cabaret artist. “Share” is the operative word here — I can’t think of another type of performance that enables the audience to be as closely entwined with the artist as does cabaret.