Seven Artists Discuss Performing in Cabaret and in Musical Theatre

May 17, 2021 | By

What Are the Differences? Do They Prefer One Over the Other? Does Each Serve the Artist in Different Ways?

Some cabaret-cum-musical theatre performers equivocate, but most, at least among those I interviewed, suggest that any performer who does cabaret can do musical theatre whereas the reverse may not true. In fact, cabaret hones your acting chops they maintain.

Luba Mason

“Cabaret is much more difficult,” says Luba Mason whose Broadway credits include Girl From the North Country (slated to return this fall), The Capeman, and Jekyll & Hyde. “In cabaret you’re naked and stripped down. Cabaret helps you get in touch with your true self, and that, in turn, helps you find yourself in a fictional character. Cabaret has changed my approach to a role.”

Mason spent 15 years in theatre before venturing onto a cabaret stage, and the challenges, she recalls, were daunting, especially early on—from forging the story line, themes, song selection, patter to, most pointedly, learning how to bare her soul on stage. “In theatre, you have the chance to hide behind a character. You have a hundred percent permission to be whatever the character allows. In cabaret, you have to be comfortable as yourself, revealing your authentic self.”

Liz Callaway (Photo: Bill Westmoreland)

You also have to be comfortable up close and personal with your audience. “One of the hardest things in cabaret is seeing people’s faces,” says cabaret performer Liz Callaway, whose musical theatre credits include Miss Saigon, Baby, Cats, and Merrily We Roll Along. “When you’re in a theatrical production the spotlight is on you and the audience is in blackness. When I did my first cabaret show with my sister [Anne Hampton Callaway], I remember saying to her, ‘You mean we have to look at people?’ Now I’ll say ‘Turn the house lights up a bit.’ So much about cabaret is communication with your audience. I’d like the audience to feel they’ve had dinner with me and known me on a good day.”  

Tony Award-winning actor André De Shields (Hadestown, The Full Monty, Play On!Ain’t Misbehavin’), and an iconic name in cabaret, says cabaret’s reason for being is the performer’s need to share something with the audience that it won’t get anywhere else. There’s an element of secrecy and love-making.  “When you are performing in a cabaret room, every person in the audience must feel you are making love to him or her. The audience has come to see the journey through your prism, though, if at the end you are talking about yourself, you have failed. If you’re talking to everybody you’ve succeeded. You start through the particular and expand into the universal. That’s where the audience connects.” 

De Shields maintains that cabaret—and indeed good theatre—must have a political overlay. “I’m talking about  a moral lesson the performer shares with the audience.” 

With its roots in late 19th century France—think Moulin Rouge–the ever-evolving cabaret has had many incarnations—from the can-can girls of 1880s Paris, to the political and satiric cabaret of Germany in the ’20s and ’30s, to variety shows here in the States, housed in night clubs. In the  ’60s, cabaret fell into disfavor due to the popularity of TV, rock concerts, and comedy clubs. But, in more recent decades, cabaret has enjoyed a comeback, though for some it was viewed as a stepchild to “serious” theatre.

Sally Mayes  (Photo: Bill Westmoreland)

There was an onus to doing cabaret in the 70s,” recalls Sally Mayes, another dual cabaret-theatre talent (Urban Cowboy, She Loves MeWelcome to the Club). “It was assumed if you do cabaret you can’t do legitimate theatre,” she recalls.

All the interviewees agree that today cabaret is a widely respected art form in and of itself. Consider the awards cabaret performers now receive in yearly rituals awash in glitz and glam, not least the Bistro Awards launched in 1985. Creating a high-profile, highly respected cabaret piece is prestigious. Equally relevant it’s not uncommon for singing-acting talents to move from legit productions to cabaret shows and back again. Fluidity is the name of the game.

Perhaps, not coincidentally, the line between cabaret and theatre, is growing thinner. Cabaret shows are as much about storytelling and acting as they are about singing. More than one theatre piece has been launched in cabaret, all our artists point out.

De Shields says that his Tony Award-winning spin as Hermes, the narrator in Hadestown, had the underpinnings of a cabaret performance. Likewise his most recent solo show, Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory performed on Flushing Town Hall’s virtual platform this past February, was, contrary to received wisdom, a cabaret. He was recounting the life of the great abolitionist through the lens of André De Shields, narrator, teacher, moral guide. The story was rooted in history and, simultaneously, very present. Music—familiar and original–created the framework, and one new song, detailing the experience of breathlessness (being unable to breathe), referenced a contemporary horror without spelling it out.  There it was: the political overlay.

André De Shields as Frederick Douglass (Photo: Lia Chang)

For De Shields, cabaret and legit theatre inform each other in the best performances, including King Lear, his next gig. Still, he is the first to admit there are challenges and adjustments to be made in moving between genres.

He and the others contend that cabaret is an intimate form of theatre; it’s a small space, requiring a comparatively low-keyed performance. That does not negate intensity. Honesty and authenticity are the passwords, perhaps more so than in any other theatrical medium. In cabaret the fourth wall is broken (ad-libbing is de rigueur) and the encounter between the performer and the audience is, well, personal. Cabaret-goers, individually and collectively, become the scene partner. One singer likened the relationship to a tennis match.

Most central, they all agree that in cabaret, you are recalling your journey. Even, if you’re doing an evening of Sondheim songs, for example, the odds are you’re expressing something about yourself at the very moment you’re playing the character. Cabaret is often an amalgam with a self-exposing through-line.

Consider Luba Mason’s last cabaret show, Luba Mason 5’10” (which played The Green Room and Feinstein’s/54 Below). Through song and patter she recounts her journey in the business, performing her early audition songs as her 22-year-old self, musical numbers in shows she starred in, and musical numbers in shows she did not land and wished she had. These she played in character. But in each instance, she was “digging deeper” into who she was at that time she says.

T Oliver Reid (Photo: Curtis Holbrook/Curtis & Cort)

The big joy and challenge of cabaret is that “you are creating a show from scratch,” says T. Oliver Reid, whose Broadway performances include Once on This Island, Sunset Boulevard, After Midnight, and Sister Act. 

“In cabaret you also have the chance to let the lyrics lead so that the audience can really hear them, sometimes in a brand new way,” he continues. “I may gravitate to songs identified with women. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” changes when it’s sung by a man. Performing in cabaret makes you a better listener on stage in a theatrical production. In cabaret, you have to take your time with each sentence, wait for the audience’s response, and then move on. That experience helps you listen to—and hear—what another actor says before you respond when you’re back in a legit show.”

On the flip side, cabaret can spoil you for legit theatre says Mayes. “Performing in a cabaret is different each night depending on your personal interaction with the audience. That keeps it fresh. When you’re in a theatrical production it’s challenging to keep it fresh night after night. You become that much more aware of it if you’ve spent a lot of time doing cabaret.”

Veteran cabaret and musical theatre performer Lorna Dallas who has a major reputation on both sides of the pond (in the UK Show Boat, Hello, Dolly! The King and I), says that cabaret is a “divine” art form and that, unlike musical theatre, or straight theatre for that matter, you cannot be trained for it in a classroom. 

Lorna Dallas (Photo: Kevin Alvey)

“It’s the experiences of life that trains you for cabaret,” she asserts. It’s no wonder so many terrific musical theatre performers find the freedom afforded in cabaret downright intimidating she says. 

On a legitimate stage, the actor’s role is dictated by the author, lyricist, composer and fellow actors, she continues. The costume designer dictates the way the actor moves and stands. So does the set designer and theatre architect. You move differently on a thrust stage as opposed to theatre in the round. 

“If you’re on a raked stage you’re pitched forward on your toes,” she says. “The discipline of theatre might inhibit some performers from doing cabaret where you’re responsible for everything, from creating the show to putting your stamp on the songs—feeling free to change its arrangement, its rhythms, and its key.” 

That said, appearing in a musical production goes into the “life experience” hopper, and like all life experiences, it has application on the cabaret stage, she adds. It also boosts self-esteem and stamina, especially if the actor is performing eight shows a week. The challenge in a cabaret perfomance is ramping up the energy and concentration to do one or two performances over the course of seven days without the benefit of five or six previous performances she points out.

Karen Mason (Photo: Bill Westmoreland)

Karen Mason, a staple on the cabaret scene, whose appearances on the legit stage include Wonderland, Hairspray, Mamma Mia! and  Sunset Boulevard) talks about the economic challenges of cabaret. “When you’re in a Broadway show you know ahead of time what salary you’ll be getting,” she says. “The union determines that and it’s based on scale. In cabaret, your payment is a flat fee or you get a percentage of tickets sold and that’s all dependent on butts in the seats. And you are responsible for butts in the seats.”

On that front, doing cabaret is inherently more anxiety-producing than appearing in a legit show, she notes. In addition to carrying the piece and baring your soul—Mason is quite comfortable with the latter—the performer is responsible for renting rehearsal space and paying a director and/or pianist and/or musical arranger for their time. Rehearsals are a luxury in cabaret, she explains. 

But that, too, has its upside in preparing the actor for musical theatre, especially if they are a standby or swing, gigs that are defined by lots of observing and few, if any, rehearsals, Mason adds.

“In cabaret, you become a self-starter, so much of the work you do is on your own,” she says. “When I was a standby for Norma Desmond and suddenly called in to play her, I had six weeks of watching, not rehearsing. But because of my cabaret background, I was able to jump right in and do it.”

Unlike the others, Karen Mason found playing a fictional role in a theatrical production more challenging than starring as herself in a cabaret set. “I always felt that acting was somehow outside of me,” she admits. “Yet because of my work in cabaret, where I’m exploring me, I was now able to find those aspects of me in the fictional character. And being able to do that made me stronger. And if I can do Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and the audiences don’t run out of the theatre, well, that confidence rolls onto the next thing.”

Who can argue?


Here’s where you can catch upcoming appearances of some of the cabarets artists mentioned in this article:

  • Karen Mason: Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, Penn., Thursday, May 20, Friday, May 21 at 8 pm.  Tickets: here.
  • Liz Callaway: with sister Ann Hampton Callaway, The Callaway Sisters: Side by Side Sunday, May 23 at 7 pm EDT. Tickets: here.
  • Sally Mayes: Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope, Penn., Thursday, May 27 at 7:30 pm  and Friday, May 28 at 8 pm. Tickets: here.
  • Luba Mason: One Night with Luba Mason featuring Sean Harkness (guitar0 and Samuel Torres (percussion), Wednesday, June 2 from 8 to 9 pm. Pay what you will:
  • André De Shields: King Lear at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.  More info here.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary

About the Author ()

Simi Horwitz is an award-winning feature writer/film reviewer who has been honored by The Newswomen’s Club of New York, The Los Angeles Press Club, The Society for Feature Journalism, the American Jewish Press Association, and the New York Press Club (among others), most recently winning a first place award in the SoCal Journalism Awards (Los Angeles Press Club) for her "Forward" story on the image of Gloria Steinem in film, TV, and onstage, “Gloria Steinem is Having a Moment.” She also received an Honorable Mention from Folio: Eddie and Ozzie Awards for her two drag stories (May 22, 2020, August 4, 2020) published here on BistroAwards. She is also a finalist for a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award (Los Angeles Press Club) for the same articles. The publications that have printed her work include "The Hollywood Reporter," "Film Journal International," and "American Theatre."  She was an on-staff feature writer at "Backstage" for fifteen years (1997-2012).   

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