Carla Goes to Summer Camp
When it comes to the art of cabaret, I can’t get enough of it. I enjoy wearing multiple cabaret hats: singer, songwriter, lyricist, and reviewer. I also feel as if I can never learn enough about it. Thus, I was pleased to have passed the audition to attend the Professional Cabaret Workshop offered at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. After speaking several times with the camp’s director, June Lindenmayer, who offered to transport me and my fellow attendees from nearby Hayden Airport, I sensed how accommodating the Perry-Mansfield community can be.
The half hour drive from Hayden to Perry-Mansfield is a joy of green mountains and blue skies. Camp residents include horses and (we will discover) a mama bear with two frisky cubs. Mark Fifer, a New York based musical director, who managed the myriad details of the Professional Cabaret Workshop, dropped each of us at our respective cabins. (Due to an old ankle problem, I had trouble walking on the mountainside; Mark showed up in a golf cart each morning to get me down the hill. It showed the spirit of this program; how it is truly committed to everyone’s success. I’m so grateful I’d like to name a street after Mark.)
Another delightful surprise at Perry-Mansfield is the food. The thought of “camp food” conjures images of stuff on a shingle. Happily, Chef Josh Webster’s London broil with portobella sauce had no trace of shingle whatsoever. The brioche French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fresh berries was another standout.
Participants and faculty arrived throughout the day on Monday. Following dinner, the evening’s agenda was that each participant briefly introduce him/herself and sing one song.
I was surprised and delighted by how different each participant was, as well as by the participants’ collective talents. It was a pleasure to reunite with my friend Susan Winter whom I met last year at Cabaret Conference at Yale. Winter is a long-time band singer, with luscious smooth delivery. Yet she has a way with a lyric and in 2006, when she sang Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” it stayed with me for a long time. Pam Peterson, my award winning colleague from Chicago’s busy cabaret community has a huge vocal range and brings powerful physicality to music. Her opening demonstration was an original comedy tune about middle age. (If I am nice to her, maybe she’ll let me mooch it one day.) I found Kelly Houston quite remarkable. If you said that one singer could embody the essence of Billy Eckstine one moment then Paul Robeson the next, I would be a skeptic. Nevertheless, Houston manages it with honest, effective phrasing to boot. Colorado resident, Eve Ilsen who is married to a noted Judaic scholar has a rich alto and connects beautifully with the story telling aspect of cabaret.
Amy Alvarez has a lilting voice and crystal diction. This mom-to-be also has a lovely face and sings with depth and heart. Everyone asks her about New Orleans. Hillary Hogan is another promising cabaret artist. Trained in opera and dance, Hogan looks like a Modgliani painting and warbles like a lark. Kate Watson is a fascinating cabaret personality; she looks and talks like a grown up southern belle, but brings a sly wit. Skie Ocasio has movie star looks and a gorgeous tenor voice. Although young, he has a compelling stage presence. My cabin mate is Jennifer Blades from the Baltimore area. She is classically trained vocally and her energy is lovely. This mother of two has great curves and a glorious mane of red hair. Then there’s Diana Vytell, a psychotherapist from Connecticut. When she asks Alfie what it’s all about, she really wants to know. Vytell is elegant. Richard Malavet has star quality. This handsome baritone sings in English and Spanish. He is a fine singer, yet with an engaging humility. His fans are bound to swoon. California based Nicole Dillenberg (being from Chicago, I mispronounced it Dillinger) is planning show featuring music associated with World War I. She states that her mission is to be funny in cabaret. She has a gentle way and I can’t wait to discuss vintage music with my new pal.
Before leaving Chicago, I sought advice from Beckie Menzie, a former Perry-Mansfield attendee (and musical director for my upcoming Davenport’s show, The Brice Is Right – A Salute to Fanny Brice). Beckie advised that my “demonstration” be something that “really shows who you are.” I choose my original, inspirational ballad, “The Voice in Your Heart.” I had worked on the lyric for a long time and changed some words after the World Trade Center events. I introduced it by saying how it takes courage to stand up and sing before a group of colleague performers, but that we sing because the voice in our hearts tells us that we must. I finish the song and hear the word “Brava” waft across the pavilion: it’s Andrea Marcovicci complementing my song. (She asked for a chart …. Be still my heart.)
The Professional Cabaret Workshop faculty is even more remarkable. Participants rotate among three distinct faculty teams, each promulgating a unique cabaret philosophy. The team of Andrea Marcovicci and her long time musical director Shelly Markham focuses on lyric text. “If a lyric is well written,” says Marcovicci, “the cabaret singer’s job is to interpret the text.” Those words reflect my personal philosophy of cabaret as well. I sang Frank Loesser’s “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” for this class and still revel in team Marcovicci and Markham’s positive comments after.
Team Karen Mason and (musical director) Christopher Denny place a greater emphasis on subtext. They worked with each singer to explore the internal layers of text and the “character” in the song. Team Mason and Denny’s approach is to go deep. Denny also reminded participants of the importance of full vocal charts, personalized arrangements and the ability to transpose.
I looked forward to working again with Barry Kleinbort after taking his class in Chicago. With help from musical director, Norma Curley, I took advantage of Kleinbort’s reputation as an expert on special material. I tried my parody of “Purple People Eater,” (original version by Sheb Wooley) in which the extra terrestrial wants to sing cabaret. It got good laughs, but Kleinbort suggested that the outro verse would close better by bringing the narrator back into the story along with the People Eater’s impact on the singer. Kleinbort’s advice is spot on. Kleinbort and Curley also provided me with sage advice on a medley of “What’ll I Do” (by Irving Berlin) and “Where Do You Start” (music by Michel Le Grand and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman). “Be careful with songs that can be construed as self-pity,” Kleinbort advises. In an instant, Norma Curley suggested a cut of a few bars that gave the medley a more optimistic feel.
Norma Curley led daily morning vocal warmups in a way that was particularly suited to cabaret. Classical vocal music emphasizes vowels, while lyric-driven cabaret requires precise consonants. Curley’s warmups were very effective. Many of us took them home like prized recipies.
Faculty members are good diagnosticians and provide each singer with constructive recommendations. The opera trained singers face the unique challenge of relying on lyric rather than voice. The musical theater crowd is challenged to find the intimacy of cabaret. Others are challenged to project. While there is no browbeating in classes, the quality bar is set high.
Evening seminars explored marketing and publicity, arrangements, and a host of topics with meaning to rising cabaret artists.
The participant program includes a cabaret concert that is open to the public. The faculty collectively structures the show, assigning each participant one particular tune. Usually, when I have the opportunity to sing only one song in a showcase, I prefer to sing something I wrote (to strut my songwriter chops, of course). However, I was happy to be asked to sing “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” by Jack Yellen and Milton Ager which was commissioned in 1929 by my muse, Sophie Tucker. It’s a funny number, and I was glad to fill one of the few comedy spots. Following my turn, it was great to introduce Nicole Dillenberg and link our mutual interest in vintage tunes. Dillenberg presented a pairing of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (lyrics by Lena Ford and music by the prolific Ivor Novello) and an unusually wistful interpretation of “K-K-Katie” with which the audience was eager to sing along in order to “bring Jimmy home.”
The participant show had a lovely arc, beginning with Hillary Hogan singing “Take Me To The World” (by Stephen Sondheim from the musical Evening Primrose) and ending with Pam Peterson’s powerhouse rendition of “Defying Gravity”(from the musical Wicked with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz). Amy Alvarez’ rendition of “It’s Amazing the Things that Float” about optimism in the face of the loss of post-Katrina damage remains with me weeks later. Each vocalist’s presentation showed meaningful growth after a mere week of study. While the concert ended with a communal rendition of the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” none among us could face the prospect of the Rockies crumbling. But we knew our sense of fellowship was to last a “long, long while.”
The last day of the workshop is devoted to debriefing. The morning is a group session in which both participants and faculty reflect on the week and on the previous night’s concert. It is an emotional sharing of gratitude. I, for one, felt that the Professional Cabaret Workshop well honored my treasured art .
The afternoon session allows for short one-on-one one participant conferences with each faculty member. (That Mark Fifer put together the scheduling tells me he can handle the Invasion of Normandy.) . It was tough to say goodbye to Norma Curley for whom I felt a particular affection. It was a thrill to have fellow Chicagoan Shelly Markham gently and generously dissect a lyric idea I brought to him. The opportunity to examine songwriting craft with Markham was a privilege.
I could have spent the whole day with Andrea Marcovicci discussing the American Songbook, music research, vintage music, and the state of the art. Marcovicci recommended that I put together a program of vintage music from the 1920s and before, citing that it is an underserved area of American music in the cabaret vein. I plan to do just that.
One last pleasure happened on my walk back from debriefing when I saw two bear cubs scamper between some trees. Not the Chicago Cubs …. these are the real deal.
Most sessions in which all participants took part were held in a glass-walled pavilion with views of the mountains dressed in rich summer greenery. All found sweet music and fellowship there. Much of the time, a tiny hummingbird buzzed in the rafters. It called to my mind the old humming bird riddle. It was clear to me that why this humming bird was hanging out with us was, yes, he wanted to learn the words.
THE PERRY-MANSFIELD PERFORMING ARTS SCHOOL & CAMP can be reached at 40755 RCR 36 Steamboat Springs, CO – 970-879-7125 – http://www.perry-mansfield.org/ad_cab.html
Entire Article Copyright, 2007 by Carla Gordon