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American comedy duo Jerry Lewis (left) and Dean Martin (right) with the English playwright and actor Noel Coward at an unknown location in 1953. Lewis and Martin were famous for their cabaret acts in the 1940s and 1950s.
American comedy duo Jerry Lewis (left) and Dean Martin (right) with the English playwright and actor Noel Coward at an unknown location in 1953. Lewis and Martin were famous for their cabaret acts in the 1940s and 1950s. R. Mitchell/Getty Images
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.
Courtesy of Murray Horwitz
Murray Horwitz is a former Ringling Brothers Circus clown. He was the founding director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md.
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.