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July 13, 2000 03:14pm
Learning Cabaret by the Book
Source: Backstage.com

If approached with savvy, perseverance, and the right sense of fun, cabaret can be unbelievably rewarding, whether you're a performer or sitting in the audience. Cabaret has a magic that is unique in the entertainment world.

Just what is cabaret? What makes it so unique? And how does one approach it as a participant in the art form? The answers to these questions, among others, are all found in a new, definitive book on the subject, called "The Cabaret Artist's Handbook," which contains the writings and musings of the late "Bistro Bits" columnist Bob Harrington, deftly edited by Back Stage Editor-in-Chief Sherry Eaker.

Through dedication, discipline, and a labor of love, Sherry has produced a valentine to cabaret and a loving homage to one of cabaret's greatest champions. Too, she has compiled an invaluable resource on which aspiring as well as experienced performers can rely when putting an act together. This plethora of informative articles brims with advice and guidelines on every subject, including structure, selecting the right songs, using themes, choosing collaborators, building an audience, dealing with cover charges, and deciding what to wear.

Sherry has produced the book with the same passion that Bob Harrington put into all his writings about cabaret and the performers he so loved. The book is as much a testament to cabaret and its magic as it is to the man who wrote about the milieu with such conviction and dedication.

Bob Harrington died in October 1992. After his memorial tribute at The Ballroom in December 1992, respected critic Jerry Talmer, writing in the New York Post, referred to him as "cabaret's greatest champion." He also described Bob as "cabaret's most ardent, penetrating and generous writer about cabaret-for the Post, Back Stage, and other publications right up until his death from AIDS at 42."

Many great quotes from Harrington's writings appear in the book. For instance, on Nov. 2, 1984, the first anniversary of the "Bistro Bits" column, Bob Harrington wrote: "I have tried to make 'Bistro Bits' your column, to afford performers in cabaret the same treatment stars on stage and screen get in the major dailies." And that he did. Often, his writings contained whimsical advice that made perfect sense. For instance, writing about "stiff patter," he once said, "Lighten up! You're there to have fun, and so is the audience. Don't make it sound like the Gettysburg Address."

No stranger to controversy, he created a bit of a stir when he listed his "hall of infamy," a personal hit parade of overdone songs, each definitively identified with one famous artist.

Bob was also a great champion of the talent to be found in the piano bars. Unlike most critics, he was as loyal to those niteries as he was to cabaret. One of the book's most interesting sections is called "Piano Bars as Entry Points." In it Bob points out, "It amazes me that so few aspiring cabaret performers capitalize on the potential of the piano bars."

"Bistro Bits," the weekly column that Bob created, first appeared in Back Stage in May 1984. In it, he probably covered more important information, reviews, and facts than any other critic before or after him on the subject of cabaret. His critiques were, in fact, valentines to an art form he loved and wanted to preserve--an art form that he knew was delicate and in need of help. His astute common sense, wisdom, and sheer knowledge of what to do and how to make it right for an intimate audience was astounding.

Bob Harrington was one of a kind. To performers he was an inspiration. In one of the more memorable articles which Sherry has included in the "Handbook," Bob wrote, "...I see some performer who galvanizes me with his or her energy or devotion to song or comedy and my batteries are recharged... the one thing I am absolutely sure of is the irrepressible spirit of cabaret performers. It is a field dominated by people who are trying to do what they do as well as it can be done, with all considerations of fame and wealth being secondary. And that makes it almost unique as an art form."

Through his numerous reviews over the years, Bob exposed many brand-new faces on the scene who would go on to achieve great recognition. While he made no secret of loving divas, Bob's dedication to bringing unusual, unique, and sometimes bizarre acts to the general public was ingenious. His enthusiasm and understanding of Clinton Leupp's brilliant and profoundly poignant and funny cabaret act brought thousands to a small club to see "Miss Coco: My Goddamn Cabaret."

No one could fill a room like Bob Harrington.

The most important part of the "Handbook" comprises the many constructive reviews and "how-to" articles that Bob wrote. Practically every one of his articles or reviews became mini-lessons in the art of cabaret or in how an artist can stretch himself. As Sherry Eaker puts it, "The same qualities that he looked for in a performance-honesty and openness-came through in his own reviews."

In the 1980s, Bob became an indispensable part of the cabaret community and was largely responsible for its resurgence during that period. "The Cabaret Artist's Handbook" compiles columns and articles written by him from 1984 until his passing. All of these writings appeared in Back Stage--the national weekly trade newspaper geared to performing artists.

An easy read, the "Handbook" is not in any chronological order. "I've assembled it in a step-by-step way of what you need to successfully put an act together," says Sherry Eaker. "Each review is like a priceless lesson capturing the very quintessence of what live performing is all about in an intimate space," she adds. "The Cabaret Artist's Handbook" is the only volume of its kind ever written. It skillfully succeeds on all levels. Through Bob's writings, the book clarifies the elements that go into creating a good cabaret act, and delineates the business skills necessary to promote and market yourself as an aspiring cabaret artist.

Incidentally, the "Bistro Bits" column had an unusual start. Attending a Drama Desk event at the Rainbow Room, Sherry found the perfect swing-dance partner in Bob. They danced all night and talked and talked. The idea for a column about the world of cabaret was actually born that evening. The Rainbow Room under the stars...a perfect beginning.

Perhaps the most important thing about this handbook is that it introduces the performer to the many opportunities that exist within the confines of a cabaret room. This book is an invaluable tool for cabaret performers. Putting together a club act begins with commitment and common sense. Through careful research and editing of Harrington's writings, Sherry Eaker has gathered all you will need to know, from the writings of a shepherd who truly cared about his flock.

As Julie Wilson writes in her forward, "He knew what it was like to get up in front of an audience and expose your life through song. His criticism was always constructive, positive, and written in good will. We felt safe with him. With his knowledge of contemporary artists and their lives, he set a standard for other critics. He was one of our greatest supporters, encouraging people to go to cabaret at a time when many thought of it as a waning art form. Everyone loved him for that. He was a prince from Long Island."

Important: Former Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement recipient Portia Nelson will be honored at the next MAC/ASCAP Songwriters' Showcase and Comedy Too, Tues., July 18, at 6 pm, at The Lighthouse, 111 E. 59th St. (between Park and Lexington avenues). General admission is $10 and $5 for MAC and ASCAP members. For more information, call the MAC Hotline: (212) 465-2662.

ACTORS: Check out Backstage.com's casting notices.
Read more at Backstage.com

Are you TOUGH ENOUGH for Joanna Angel?


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