In New York City, Broadway is where the big names, familiar play titles and jukebox musicals about Cher and Carole King are produced, whereas off- and off-off-Broadway are for more adventurous and dangerous offerings, at significantly lower prices.
New York is also home to a lot of establishment cabaret, such as Broadway performers singing show tunes at Feinstein’s/54 Below and golden oldies like Judy Collins and Mary Wilson crooning standards at Café Carlyle. So alternative cabaret has popped up to give a less expensive but bolder take on performance art. It’s the off-Broadway of cabaret.
‘Alt-cabaret’ venues attract offbeat and daring people, many of them LGBT, who don’t fit into standard formats and who celebrate their ‘otherness’ while exploring different routes of expression from the usual tourist-aimed stuff. They’re the new guard of the avant-garde.
In 1998, the Public Theater opened Joe’s Pub at 425 Lafayette Street on Manhattan. It was perfect that a landmark off-Broadway theatre complex should start an alt-cabaret space and one with a healthy-sized stage on which artists could entertain a house full of customers seated at tables, where they drank, noshed and absorbed. The place has since been renovated and become pretty slick looking and sounding, but the acts have stayed edgy and the admission prices have remained more affordable than uptown.
One of the regulars at Joe’s Pub is Murray Hill, ‘the hardest-working middle-aged man in show business’ and the hilarious creation of Busby Murray Gallagher. Starting out in the neo-burlesque boom on the Lower East Side in the 1990s (which popped up as an alternative to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s sanitisation of the city and squelching of its nightlife), Murray wears a suit, sings slightly off-key ditties and trots out dirty remarks and self-deprecating jokes such as ‘I just want to come up in the second page of my Google search’. The last time I saw him at Joe’s, his show Murray Hill: About to Break – directed by Scott Wittman, who co-wrote the score for Hairspray – was a riot, with Murray relaying various show-biz horror stories he’s been the butt of. He was once told to audition, strictly as a formality, for a TV show that had based a character on him, so he did so, only to be told that he wasn’t right for the part. But the show also strove for real poignancy, with Murray singing an introspective song in between some racy audience interaction (alt-cabaret stars break the fourth wall all the time, so beware), punctuated by giddy emissions of his catch phrase ‘show biz!’.
‘Mur’ has performed around the world with stripper/showgirl Dita Von Teese and in his shows he introduces his own wonderfully loony musical guests for a variety-show feeling that mocks show-biz clichés while simultaneously embracing them. He’s sort of Jackie Gleason meets James Corden via the new surge in trans visibility.
One of Murray’s regular guests is Bridget Everett, a fiery, Kansas-born entertainer with a full-throttle rock-and-roll voice and an unselfconscious knack for gleefully provoking her audience. Bridget had been burning up the scene for years when she got the attention of stand-up comedian Amy Schumer, who put her on her TV show and in the movie Trainwreck. In 2017, when Bridget scored in another film, Patti Cake$, and it looked as if she was about to nab an Amazon series, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon booked her as a guest and she got a standing ovation for belting out the Janis Joplin hit ‘Piece of My Heart’ with every fibre of her being. The series didn’t happen, but Bridget has; her fleshy wonder is always outrageously worth catching. On the TV show Theater Talk in 2017, she told me: “I always wanted to go to New York and be a singer, but not a Broadway star. When I met people like Murray, I knew that this is what I want to be doing.”
More dry and sardonic than rambunctious, Justin Vivian Bond is another alt-cabaret favourite who’s here for the duration. The trans diva has performed with Kenny Mellman as Kiki and Herb (with Justin as a sloshed, over-the-hill entertainer), but Mx Bond is also terrific in a solo act and as comfortable with a sultry Weimar ballad as a deadpan monologue about murderous 1960s sexpot Claudine Longet.
And the talent keeps coming at Joe’s Pub, whether it be comic singer Angela Di Carlo, who has great pipes and jazzy caftans, or Lady Rizo, who could easily be the next Lady Gaga. Rizo – birth name Amelia Zirin-Brown – fuses various genres for an offbeat and heady act that it’s impossible to turn away from. Not surprisingly, she’s been picked up for collaborations with Moby (she’s on his ‘Pale Horses’ song) and gender-fluid playwright/actor Taylor Mac cast her in The Lily’s Revenge at HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue), where mixtures of dance, theatre and multimedia reign. If she ends up remaking a Barbra Streisand film, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Also adding theatrics to music, Kenyon Phillips performs a sensuous, edgy act of original rock confessionals, backed by his all-female The Ladies in Waiting band and studded with gifted guest stars.
Going for pure laughs, Ryan Raftery does shows spoofing the dark ambitions of icons from Anna Wintour to TV producer Andy Cohen, while the comedy group Unitard (Nora Burns, David Ilku and Mike Albo) satirises the neediness of trendies and wannabes who are always so vocal about their desire to be fabulous. In one Unitard show at Joe’s Pub, Burns played an airhead who knows everyone but can’t remember how; Ilku portrayed an absurd designer flamboyantly hawking his wares on TV; and Albo was a multi-disciplinary artist who fled New York for Berlin and couldn’t stop bragging about how supposedly great that city is. All three joined forces for a hilarious send-up of the trendy grocery-store craze (‘We’re Whole Foods hookers’) and also a sketch in which they were haemorrhoids dangling from Donald Trump’s ass and dodging all the detritus from the unhealthy foods the Prez was downing (hatred of Trump and his phobic actions permeates the scene, especially since he doesn’t care for the arts in the least – not surprisingly.
In the same vein as HERE Arts Center is Performance Space New York (150 1st Avenue), an emerging-artists showcase where Penny Arcade recently brought back her landmark show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, a meditation on sex, AIDS, porn and censorship, performed with multi-gender gogo dancing and audience participation. And there’s another showcase called Dixon Place (161A Chrystie Street), where the performers are generally as much works in progress as the shows they’re presenting – which is the very thrill of it all.
All around town, you can also catch performers such as Joey Arias, who does Billie Holiday so well you’d think she was channelling Joey; Raven O, who sings and rocks with panache; Amanda Lepore, the trans diva who comes out half naked and coos ‘I Wanna Be Loved by You’; and Darlinda Just Darlinda, a hard-working gal who’s game for any kind of show, as long as it involves spunk and pizzazz.
While drag queens do elaborate lip-sync numbers in gay bars all through Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village, down at Club Cumming, Alan Cumming and Daniel Nardicio’s mixed-crowd place at 505 East 6th Street, things are looser and goosier. The intimate cabaret space, where 100 people can fit if they don’t breathe out, is like the Carlyle meets the old punk haven CBGB’s, with no pretensions but plenty of unbridled talent working out their craft.
Often seen there, singer/comedian Amber Martin has a fabulous voice and great comic chops, combining them for crowd-pleasing shows, where she plays Bette Midler, Reba McEntire and Laura Nyro. Best of all is when she plays herself. Having skyrocketed from the club scene to residencies in New Orleans and Australia, Amber seems one signature away from stardom.
Another up-and-comer at Club Cumming is Catherine Cohen, who does an enjoyably neurotic act, entering as she sings ‘boys never wanted to kiss me, so now I do comedy’, then being so funny about her complicated exploits that she emerges as quite lovable. Like all the alt-cabaret stars, Martin and Cohen admire the show-biz legends but dice up the clichés and create fresh recipes for success as they whip up legends of their own.
But the ultimate shrine to alt cabaret is Brooklyn, the borough that started exploding with nightlife over a decade ago, as Manhattan’s rents and operating costs became untenable for most entrepreneurs. In Brooklyn neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg and Bushwick, performers get to erupt in even more daring ways than their Manhattan counterparts because the scene there feels newer and more open to interpretation. There’s more room to experiment, so the drag queens that perform in Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns revue at National Sawdust (80 North 6th Street) are – like the exquisite Velour herself, a RuPaul’s Drag Race winner – eccentric and arty, not just rote lip-syncers.
At House of Yes (2 Wyckoff Avenue), a former warehouse that’s become a must-attend dance club and performance space, all sorts of circusy happenings take things to the limit. Dance, burlesque, drag and aerial acts make the place regularly rock. And it’s no wonder – Eric Schmalenberger describes himself as House of Yes’s ‘clown, queer, janitor, lawyer and backstage grandmother’. Also a producer, performer, MC, booker and ambassador, Schmalenberger specialises in edgy spectacles perfect for the Yes crowd’s hunger for reference-filled pageants.
At another Brooklyn venue in 2013, I sang a Nick Cave song in his show The Dead Dream Machine and witnessed the eye-popping musical from the wings and centre stage. It was an experience that wouldn’t necessarily have been green-lighted over the bridge in Manhattan (which is alt, while Brooklyn is alt-alt).
Schmalenberger grew up in Houston, moved to New York in 2000 and five years later worked at Deitch Projects, a then-gallery and project space.
“Before long,” he says, “I was mostly naked and covered in glitter, dancing around an East Village bookstore with the Dazzle Dancers in one of Machine Dazzle’s fashion shows.”
At House of Yes, he does an out-there variety show called Blunderland and a risky burlesque review called Extra. He explains why he loves the scene: “No idea has ever seemed too far fetched and, if done with intelligence, no topic ever seemed untouchable. It is a community of fearless talents who use their skills to make you look at the world in a new way, while at the same time being incredibly entertaining. It’s so human, but glamorous, and anything goes. Our resident artists at House of Yes are an incredibly talented group of performers, clowns and dancers that work intimately with the space.”
There’s pole dancer Blaine Petrovia, surrealist clown Allegra Meshuggah, singer/actor Kat Cunning, aerial duo Raven and up-and-coming drag queens like Madame Vivien V. Perhaps the most memorable are Marika Spins and Punch Boy, who have a fisting act that Schmalenberger describes as ‘hysterical’.
“Getting to put an act like that in front of a mixed crowd is really special,” he says.
It certainly redefines the phrase ‘give them a hand’. As someone who flourished for many years at an alternative weekly (The Village Voice, which is now defunct), I thrill to alternative anything – especially cabaret, where ‘right this way, your table is waiting’.
As Schmalenberger puts it: “The folks that really shine in this community are razor sharp, but still punk enough to proudly show their unfinished and very human edges.”
Michael Musto is a columnist for NewNowNext.com and a longtime nightlife chronicler who has penned four books and appears regularly on TV channels as a cultural commentator. This article first appeared in OutThere magazine’s Monumental NYC Issue. For more luxury and experiential journeys for men of distinction, visit outthere.travel.