Reports of Cabaret’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Cabaret has been integral to New York nightlife for more than a century, but every so often, reports of its death — however exaggerated — cause a stir. The singer and educator Natalie Douglas, who arrived from Los Angeles in 1988 and has performed steadily at the storied jazz club Birdland and other venues, figures the premature mourning started “at least 70 years ago — as soon as people moved from the cities to the suburbs and had room to entertain at home.”

Douglas (age: “Not as young as I look”) is noted for her tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and the great Stevies of pop (Wonder and Nicks). Recently on a brisk afternoon, she arrived at a loft in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, for a confab with four other veterans of the cabaret scene. Tammy Lang, 57 — who has earned a devoted following through her titular comedic persona as Tammy Faye Starlite, an evangelical country crooner, and through her homages to Marianne Faithfull and Nico — perched beside her on a sofa.

Jennifer Ashley Tepper, 37, the creative and programming director of 54 Below — a Midtown hot spot known for showcasing Broadway stars, cult heroes and aspirants — joined, along with Lance Horne, 46, an Emmy-winning composer, arranger, singer and music director whose collaborators include Liza Minnelli and Kylie Minogue. Horne holds court Mondays at the East Village’s Club Cumming, playing piano for singalongs that stretch into the wee hours. Such late revelry is less common than it used to be, pointed out Sidney Myer, 73, who, as longtime booking manager of Don’t Tell Mama near Times Square, has nurtured careers for decades and is a performer himself.

“I don’t appear onstage with all-white bands anymore because I can’t be the only Black person onstage, especially since my shows are so political,” Douglas said.Credit…Justin J Wee for The New York Times

Myer mused that when he got his start in cabaret, some 50 years ago, “the whole culture was different” in a few key ways. “People didn’t have a thousand channels at home; they didn’t have the world in their hands in the form of a phone.” And, he added, “They weren’t as health-conscious; there was smoking in all the rooms, and people weren’t watching their alcohol intake as much, or thinking about getting up to jog.”

Since originating in Europe, cabaret has accommodated both traditional and experimental artists; here it has encompassed comedy, drag and burlesque alongside curated American songbook compilations and more contemporary and quirkier musical fare. In New York, venues range from the tony Café Carlyle to downtown “alt-cabaret” spots such as Joe’s Pub and Pangea. At 54 Below, where Tepper programs some 700 shows a year, guests can catch rising composers and performers or the cast of a musical on its night off; Myer noted that award-winning stars were born at Don’t Tell Mama — “even a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

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