Is Life Still A Carabet?

“Come to the cabaret!” belted Liza Minnelli in the famous musical. But she forgot to say “please.”

Gotham cabarets – and the buoyant singers who perform in them – are becoming a hard sell.

With admission and drink minimums at New York niteries adding up to nearly as much as a Broadway ducat, audiences are getting scarcer – and more finicky. Spiraling production costs and fewer papers and critics are making the cabaret keylight a less enviable spot. Club owners are straining to stay in the black, and many performers are beginning to wonder if it’s worth the trouble.

“In the early ’70s, you got up and did some songs, and that was it,” says the performer Lee Roy Reams. Now, he says, “audiences expect almost a theatrical event from a cabaret act.”

That takes money – more than ever, thanks in part to union pay scales for musicians and less willingness on the part of club owners to help foot the bill.

“In the late ’50s and ’60s, clubs gave you more fringe benefits,” says veteran chanteuse Julie Wilson. “Any good venue had its own band. You just brought in your charts and worked with them. And many times they were nonunion.”

Now, most performers pick up the music tab themselves. Union scale varies from club to club, but a side musician at Michael’s Pub costs at least $500 a week, with the best players commanding much more. Anyone hiring a musician also must contribute to the union’s health and pension funds.

Add to the bill the cost of a musical director, arrangements and publicity, and a cabaret engagement becomes a major investment. Longtime nitery star Sylvia Syms spent $10,000 to produce her recent show at Michael’s Pub – not counting running expenses of $6,000 a week.

For her gig at the 175-seat Ballroom two years ago, Claiborne Cary spent close to $12,000. “But that engagement got me cast in an Off Broadway play and later in the Goodspeed Opera production of ‘Arthur, The Musical,'” she notes.

More often, a performer’s efforts go unnoticed. In 1960, New York City had seven major dailies covering the cabaret scene; today there are only four newspapers, counting the ailing Daily News.

Not surprisingly, 30 years ago “there were many more rooms around,” says Wilson. “You could run from one to another and build your following. Now, the choice is limited.”

Forced to connect

At stake is more than the art form itself; most cabaret performers say the grueling work provides a vital training ground for the legit stage. “Cabaret performing is so difficult because it’s so ephemeral and personal,” says David Staller, a legit actor who was seen on Broadway last year in the revival of “Cabaret.” “It forces a performer to connect with each person in the room.”

Partly for that reason, the cabaret beat goes on, in one form or another. “If you’re not in a show, then cabaret is the place to be,” says 26-year-old singer Marieann Meringolo. “You don’t make any money, but you learn your craft, build up an audience and a mailing list, and maybe get seen by agents and people who can make a difference.”

No built-in auds

But these days, she adds, “cabarets don’t have built-in audiences. You really have to hustle to build up a following.”

Reams, who was featured for over seven years in the Broadway production of “42nd Street,” candidly admits that “I’d starve if I depended on cabaret for a living.” He says it costs about $1,000 to arrange and copy a song. “If you want 15 new arrangements, well, you figure the arithmetic.”

An established name like Marilyn Sokol can at least break even for most engagements but relies on legit stages to turn a profit. Sokol has taken her new one-woman show, “Guilt Without Sex,” to the Off Broadway Theater Arielle. She’s managed to profit by making seats available through the reduced-price structure of Theater Development Fund and by selling tickets in the 75-seat house for $8.50. “It’s a small nut,” she says. “If the reviews are good, maybe we’ll move it.”

Besides four bare walls, clubs generally provide only a sound and light man. New acts can expect at best a percentage of the music cover; some venues, like J’s, pay performers guarantees of about $500 per night. “I’m here to encourage artists,” says owner Judy Barnett, who is also a performer.

“We’ll never be millionaires,” says Eighty-Eight’s owner Erv Raible, a former Cincinnati school teacher who moved to New York 12 years ago and has opened four clubs in that time. He provides performers with inhouse press and pays them the door, less $1 per admission. “It’s a good system,” he says. “If the artist fills the house, they can rack up. If not, the club doesn’t lose.”

A similar system is used by Rick Panson, owner of the Duplex, a 55-seat club once owned by Raible. Panson is considering making performers responsible for a minimum number of drinks. If that guarantee is not met, the difference comes out of the artists’ door take. Most of Panson’s profits come from the active piano bar on the venue’s first floor. “I have to remember that this is a business,” he says.

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