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With venues reopening across New York, life is a cabaret once again

  • >> Elysa Gardner, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-07-07 12:12:00 BdST

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The audience at Feinstein’s 54 Below applauding George Lazarus and Joe Iconis in New York on June 22, 2021. The Great American Songbook, jazz, drag and more are returning to the small stages where intimacy and audience interaction are so key. (Justin J Wee/The New York Times)

“Thank you all for risking your lives by coming out tonight,” Joe Iconis quipped, welcoming a socially distanced crowd to the June reopening of the cabaret venue Feinstein’s/54 Below in Manhattan.

Iconis, a composer, lyricist and performer beloved among young musical theatre fans, was joking, but before diving into an alternately goofy and poignant set with actor and singer George Salazar — a star of Iconis’ first Broadway production, “Be More Chill” — he added, earnestly, “It’s the most incredible thing to be able to do this show for real human beings, not computer screens.”

Moist-eyed reunions between artists and fans have been taking place across the city as COVID-19 restrictions are gradually relaxing. “I hope you’re prepared for how emotional it will be when you’re onstage, because it will be emotional for us, supporting artists we love again,” a fan told the band Betty. In the intimate spaces that house these shows, interaction between artists and those who love them is integral to what the downtown fixture Sandra Bernhard called “the in-the-moment, visceral experience.”

Storied establishments like the jazz clubs Birdland and Blue Note, newer spots such as the Green Room 42 and City Winery at Hudson River Park (which both reopened in April), along with the East Village alt-cabaret oases Pangea and Club Cumming are once again offering food, drink and in-the-flesh entertainment, as cabaret veterans — along with other jazz and pop acts, and drag performers — return to the work that is their bread and butter.

“To see people physiologically responding to music again — toes tapping, heads bopping — that’s almost better than applause,” said pianist and singer Michael Garin, one of many who used social media to stay connected with fans during the pandemic, and among the first to resume performances for live audiences.

But, Garin noted, “It’s not like we’re flipping a switch and bringing everything back to normal.” Particularly in the spring, not everyone was ready to pick up where they left off. “There were some musicians who were ready to book as soon as possible, and others who said, ‘Let me see — I don’t know if I want to be in an indoor space right now,’” said Steven Bensusan, the president of Blue Note Entertainment Group.

Producer and host Scott Siegel, creator of the virtual “Scott Siegel’s Nightclub New York,” said that trepidation is still shared by some patrons: “Everybody’s hopeful, but I hear people say they’re nervous. There are also many who come in from outside the tri-state area, and it’s more of an effort to get in.”

With regulations still in flux, both vigilance and adaptability are key. Before Gov Andrew Cuomo’s mid-June announcement that the state could almost fully reopen, Birdland had planned to return at just 50% capacity on July 1. Instead, all 150 of its seats have been accessible from the start, with returning variety-show hosts Jim Caruso and Susie Mosher featuring theatre and cabaret luminaries such as Chita Rivera and Natalie Douglas in the first week back. (The club’s downstairs space, Birdland Theater, will remain closed until September.) The Blue Note, which reopened in mid-June at roughly two-thirds capacity, has since made all of its 250 seats available. Proof of vaccination against the coronavirus is not required at either club, though masks are recommended for the unvaccinated at Birdland.

By contrast, at 54 Below, where the plan is to build gradually back to a full crowd of about 150, proof of vaccination is necessary, as it is in the 60-seat cabaret room at Pangea, still limited to 80% capacity. Both venues were among those that developed streaming series while shuttered. “We originally got into it to remain active, but it became a way to pay staff, and expand the audience,” said Richard Frankel, one of the owners of 54 Below, which will kick off the new series “Live From Feinstein’s/54 Below,” offering live streams direct from the venue, on July 11. “Right now we’re focused on reopening live, but it’s definitely something to continue exploring after the dust settles.”

Ryan Paternite, director of programming at Birdland, has been similarly encouraged by the response to “Radio Free Birdland,” though he added, “My feeling is that people are pretty burned out on watching shows on their computer or phone — especially if they have to pay for tickets.”

Artists generally remain bullish on the opportunities posed by technology. “I’m very pro-streaming,” said Tony Award-nominated singer and actress Lilli Cooper, who is set to appear at 54 Below on July 28 and Aug 15. “It broadens the spectrum of who’s able to see things, and that’s so important.” Caruso plans to continue streaming his “Pajama Cast Party” weekly; he noted that the virtual program has allowed him to diversify both his audience (“It has become more colourful, literally and figuratively”) and his talent pool (“I’ve delved into TikTok and Instagram and discovered some thrilling new artists”).

Many are hopeful that diversity and inclusivity will be further emphasised in an art form that counts artists of colour like Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short as historical icons. “My art is often based on what I’ve gone through, and being a Black man is part of that,” said Broadway veteran Derrick Baskin, who packed R&B classics into his set list for recent dates at 54 Below.

Justin Vivian Bond, scheduled to reopen Joe’s Pub in October, said, “The brilliant thing about cabaret is that you can react, if you’re capable, to what’s going on in the world.” For Bond, the pandemic posed challenges as sobering, albeit in a different way, as those faced by the LGBTQ community during another plague: “When AIDS was happening, even when people were dying, you could be with them. What we’ve just been through was a very isolating trauma. I don’t know if I’ll have any brilliant insights about it, but hopefully what I’ll say will resonate with the audience.”

Bernhard, who will return to Joe’s Pub in December for the annual holiday engagement she had to skip in 2020, still isn’t sure what insights she’ll be offering. “The head space that I’m in, I don’t even know what the next two months are going to bring,” she said. “I just want to perform, like everybody else does right now.”

Performers and fans will be greeted with renovations at certain venues, and other enticements. Birdland has reduced its ticket price to 99 cents in July, the fee when the club originally opened in 1949. 54 Below is offering a new menu, created by “Top Chef” winner Harold Dieterle. The West Bank Café’s Laurie Beechman Theater is getting a “face-lift,” said its owner, Steve Olsen — fresh paint, new carpet and bar equipment, upgraded sound and lighting — in preparation for a reopening after Labor Day. The Triad Theater also used its forced downtime to “improve the furnishings, repaint and get new equipment,” said booking director Bernie Furshpan.

But it is the love of performing itself, and the perspective gained after a year of lost shows, that is driving many artists’ emotional responses to returning to the stage. Michael Feinstein, the multitasking American songbook champion and namesake for clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as New York, believes “that anyone who is a performer is coming out of this in a very different place, with a deeper sense of connection and joy and gratitude.”

“I cannot imagine any artist now taking any moment of what we do for granted,” he added.

© 2021 The New York Times Company