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What is Cabaret Anyway?

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Cabaret has come a long way from its roots in the chanson of Paris at the turn of the last century. Contrary to the images the musical “Cabaret” conjures, modern cabaret has evolved into something new and distinct. It is its own, identifiable art form, separate from musical theatre, lounge singing, or concert and recital music, and it needs to be experienced to be fully understood.

It is an all-encompassing performance genre and can include singing styles from Broadway to jazz to folk music and everything in between. Unlike traditional musical theatre, Cabaret performers address the audience, rather than each other, during monologues There is no chronological narrative to follow as performers seamlessly transition between storytelling and song and back again. These transitions make it possible to include a vast array of musical selections, from the humorous to the heartfelt, into one show without any of them seeming out of place.

Accompanied by live piano, cabaret performers fully embrace the role of storyteller, embodying the varied themes and emotions of each song and story. There’s no decorated set, high-lifted stage, or elaborate costumes; but this simplified approach to performance art removes the barrier between the audience and the performers. You aren't required to suspend any disbelief. Anyone can connect to the stories, songs, and performers on a personal level; listening, laughing, or even shedding a tear as the music moves them.

From cabaret great Andrea Marcovicci in the New York Times, 1994:

“Part stand-up comic, part balladeer, part evangelist, today’s performer often has a theme that unifies the evening (either the work of a single composer, an era like World War II or a genre like theater) and a strong dramatic sense of beginning, middle and end. They also tend to know a great deal about the music they’re singing... they are generous enough to share that information in witty and inventive ways.

“But the real art of the cabaret performer lies in the juxtaposition of songs, putting two or three songs together in such a way that new and deeper meanings come to light, the resonance of one song lingering to change the color of the next. At its best, cabaret can amuse, entertain, and inform… it can dazzle you, catch you unawares and make you weep. It is not television. The audience participates in a direct, emotional conversation with the artist and leaves feeling contacted and personally touched…

“One of the most important things about cabaret is the world it conjures up. It is a world of elegance, grace and sophistication–cocktails and conversation… and the perfect retort. But the world we’re stuck with today is so overproduced. Broadway’s gone bombastic; movies are all special effects and car chases; pop music is mostly brassy belt or rhythm and anger. Where to go for tenderness, a clever turn of phrase, a moving melody? Cabaret.”

While bringing audience and performer together, cabaret preserves the great songs of the past, rescues hidden gems from obscurity, and is one of the few outlets for the new music of today’s lyricists and composers. As such, it is one of the few places an 80-year-old and an 18-year-old can sit together enjoying the same musical experience. Very few musical forms can boast that.


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