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Tue February 7, 2012
Opinion

Cabaret Wanes As The Oak Room Is Felled

Originally published on Tue February 7, 2012 6:13 pm

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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

One of New York City's most famous cabaret clubs, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, is closing. The general manager cited dwindling audiences, saying the beloved supper club will become a lounge for Marriott Reward Elite Guests.

At least one person will feel the loss, Murray Horwitz. He's the author of two Broadway musicals, as well as numerous cabaret acts. He has this reflection on what the loss of the Oak Room means to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR ME AND MY GAL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The bells are ringing for me and my gal.

MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: I know what you're thinking, but this is not about nostalgia for lost glamour. Like those movies from the '30s, women and men in gowns and tuxedos, they sip 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 evening 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. And from the opening number to the finale, the audience knows: We're all in this together. No fireworks, no smoke machines, no giant TV screens - just some people in a room, having a good time.

For the person on stage, 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."

(Singing) It's a wink and a wiggle and a giggle on the grass, and I'll trip the light fandango.

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 is deeper. You can still see something like cabaret. Often, it's in surprising places: college campuses, bookstores, community centers and even church basements. But in the same way that the Broadway theater holds up a professional standard for others to emulate, it's important to have some brilliant venues at the top - something to shoot for.

New York nightspots 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. Your songs and comedy can't be phony even for a split second. It all has to feel real, like it's coming from your own experience. And cabaret audiences tend to do their part, too, kind of pulling for the artists, wanting to have a good time.

I know it's hard to get up off the sofa, 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 disappear, American entertainment will sink further into impersonal diversion. And we won't have nearly as much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The joke is over, George. Wake up. Come on. That I'm the guy. George, enough already, will you?

SIEGEL: Murray Horwitz is co-author of the Tony Award-winning musical "Ain't Misbehavin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY DIDN'T BELIEVE ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) They'll never believe me that from this great big world you have chosen me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MACK THE KNIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Well, now, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, and he shows them pearly white.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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