How well I remember my first Cabaret Convention! Yes, of course, my nanny wheeled me there in my perambulator while Mater and Pater were off playing croquet with Averell Harriman, Kemal Atatürk, and Juan Trippe. Well, actually, it must have been the first or second year, when the annual convention was still situated in the Town Hall. I brought along a certain co-ed as my date, and while I couldn’t tell you exactly who I heard on that first time, I do remember that in those early years, Donald Smith, who founded the Mabel Mercer Foundation and produced and hosted the convention, tended to program each evening like a marathon. In fact, it felt something like what Cast Party at Birdland does today: there was a kind of rambling, all-inclusive, epic randomness to the four evenings. My date announced that she’d had enough by intermission, but I was hooked. Some performers were awesome, a few were awful, and maybe a couple were predictable, but there was always that thrill, that anticipation, of hearing something new, some new song, some young artist, some wonderful talent that you’d never heard before and that you'd be thinking about for days afterwards.
It’s a whole new convention these days – now that this venerable institution is turning 30 – and is now being run by the Foundation’s Madame Chairwoman, KT Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan and her occasional guest producer-hosts (like Deborah Grace Winer, Klea Blackhurst & John Fricke, Andrea Marcovicci & Jeff Harnar), who keep most of the evenings under two hours – long enough for any but the most patient and extreme devotees and aficionados. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that I still look forward to hearing some new talent, especially among from the much younger set.
To open the 30th Anniversary extravaganza, Ms. Winer hosts an evening dedicated to great female songwriters (and she should know, she wrote the book on Dorothy Fields, among the most imposing of all lyricists of either gender), on Monday October 28.
There’s always at least one composer-centric evening, and this year that’s Tuesday October 29, “Frank Loesser: Heart and Soul” (sometimes it seems like every Frank Loesser tribute is called “Heart and Soul,” which is somewhat ironic in that few people even realize that he actually wrote the lyrics to that song – or are even aware that there are lyrics) cohosted by Miss Marcovicci and Mr. Harnar.
The third night, “Judy: A Garland of Song,” jumps the gun on the Garland centennial in 2022, is co-hosted by Garland biographer John Fricke and the invaluable Klea Blackhurst, who is somehow playing "Panama Hattie" in the 1940 Cole Porter show of that title at the York Theater during this same week. (If I were a Frank Loesser character from Guys and Dolls, I would say, "Who wants to give me odds that Rene Zellweger will make a surprise appearance?")
Finally, this year, Madame Chairwoman herself, KT Sullivan, is hosting the final night rather than the first, but since it’s a look backwards at the first 30 years, that seems only appropriate.
Each show is a combination of old friends and regulars, like Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, Marilyn Maye, Liz Callaway, Mark Nadler, Karen Oberlin, and Steve Ross, but we also look forward to the debuts, some of which are veteran artists from other disciplines, like Broadway’s Emily Skinner and the pop star Debbie Boone (also the daughter-in-law of the great Rosemary Clooney), as well as the formidable mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who more customarily enchants audiences around the corner from Rose Hall at the Metropolitan Opera. And yet many of the most anticipated debuts are from talent competition winners, such as Anais Reno (15) and Hannah Jane Peterson (18), two remarkable young singers one should keep an eye on – whose parents hadn’t even reached the age of consent at the time of the first Mabel Mercer Convention in 1989.
To be honest, part of me misses those early, wild-and-woolly days, but I have to admit that, in my advanced middle age (don’t snicker!) I’m much more comfortable with the current policy, in which every artist has earned the explicit approval of Madame Chairwoman. And, I have to say, this approach is a lot more pleasing to my current guests.
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