I met the lovely Jerome* Elliott when we were both participants at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference in 2007, and last summer Jerome participated in the Cabaret Conference at Yale. He went back to St. Louis again (24 students, teaching staff of Lina Koutrakos, Rick Jensen, Jason Graae, and Alex Rybeck) and was kind enough to send this report about the experience.
I’ve been back from St. Louis for nine days and just now am finding the thoughts about it starting to congeal.
First, it is amazing what Tim has accomplished in four years, or rather I should say in the two years since we did the second workshop. The Thursday night alumni concert, featuring nine St. Louisans who had done cabaret shows this past season, was packed with well over 100 people. (All events were at Jazz at the Bistro, a nice step up from the church two years ago.) I was delighted to see how people had progressed since I left them in 2007. Anna Blair, Ken Haller, Merry Keller, Bob Becherer, Katie McGrath, and Deborah Sharn, in particular, really commanded the stage, as did Jeff Wright from the 2006 workshop. Merry has climbed mountains in two years, she has a stunning stage presence. Katie is just pure humanity up there, you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Tim did an amazing new solo show on Friday night, directed by Lina, featuring music by male composers from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I would never have thought of Tim singing Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” or Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” but he handled them deftly and Rick provided killer arrangements. (Rick’s playing was stunning all weekend.) Tim’s concert was perhaps the most poorly attended, maybe 50 or 60 people. But everyone was quite enthusiastic about it.
Lina and Jason provided us with a thrilling double header on Saturday night, with a surprisingly low turnout as well. Lina opened. She did a mixed bag from her repertoire, including a selection of songs from “Torch” as well as one of her original songs. My favorite by far was her rendition of “My Favorite Year,” very tender and open. She surprised me by doing “Heart of the Matter” as her closer. Not the choice, but the arrangement seemed to be the one Rick set for Helene Rogers Smart in 2007! I remembered it because it had been one of my treasured highlights from our showcase. I joked about it with Tim afterwards and he winked at me. [Michael’s note — OK. My take on this is that Lina and Rick generously gave their long-developed ideas about the song to Helene to do when they were working with her.]
Our Sunday showcase was nothing short of the best time I have ever had on stage. Period. First, it was jammed to the rafters, easily over 150 people, with the entire balcony filled. Every one of the 23 students showed amazing progress over the course of the four days.
12 of us had done the training before, 11 were new, and naturally it was interesting to watch them go through their process over the four days. A few were of the “I hide behind my great voice” variety; others were unwilling to delve into emotions; and one was just flat out belligerent for three days until he finally got religion. He’s a young guy, maybe 30, who is a very talented musical theater actor, so of course all his songs were from shows and they were all very polished, but as characters, not as himself. He pouted all weekend, wouldn’t socialize with any of us in the club at night, and eventually ended up cornering Lina at lunch and breaking into tears. He just didn’t know that the workshop was going to be so emotionally demanding. I’ve had several emails from him since about what a watershed moment the training was for him.
I think that’s the one critique I have of all these workshops. If you’ve never done one — even at the Yale level there were people who hadn’t — the literature/promo materials do not prepare you for what can seem like really blistering criticism. For example, one of my Yale classmates had one of her voice students accepted at New Haven this year. She returned to L.A. two weeks ago in pieces. Apparently, Tovah ripped into her quite viciously at the very first immersion performance and she just didn’t feel safe the rest of the nine days. Having had that experience myself (half of the Yale faculty HATED my first song, Bill Finn’s “My Dog’s”), I could sympathize with her. However, I approached it with the POV “hey, Laurel Masse and Tex Arnold are criticizing me, how cool is that?!!!” and I ended up talking to both of them about it later and getting some insight as to why some people might be sensitive about that song. (But I still sing it.)
But I digress. Lina and Rick both remembered exactly where they had left me two years ago (amazing the details they had), and Alex and Jason knew where I had left off last summer. So they were very frank with me when they thought I was taking a step back, but also very wonderful in getting me to move three steps forward. Jason, in particular, helped me hone two comic songs to a fine polish. One of them, “Stupid Things That I Won’t Do,” was my showcase number, and he helped me to find levels that made it skyrocket. He also suggested I change one lyric in order to make it funnier in a cabaret setting. I did so, and then blew the next line. He said it didn’t matter, because he was happy that I got the laugh there. (Instead of “the only roles I want are roles where I’m performing live in person” he suggested “the only shows I want are shows where I perform in cabaret”, with a gesture to the room. The room loved it.)
Alex was his usual self, blunt and to the point. I appreciate that about him. At one point he might have thought he was being too hard on me and he said “I’m being this picky because you know what I’m talking about.” I got it.
I felt safe taking a lot of risks. I worked on Brel’s “Jackie” and “Marieke,” Finn’s “Anytime,” “Stupid Things,” and for the patter exercise I did “Marry Me A Little”. Lina was quick to point out re “Anytime” that “this song is trouble Jerome, it has six endings.” She, of course, is right. You have to find a different “there” for each “I am there.”
The Monday following the showcase I did a two-hour private session with Lina and Rick at Katie’s house. This was the place where I had the real sobbing thing that I have seen others experience in workshop but never quite achieved. Not that I was aiming for it, it just happened! The emotion came after they had helped me dig really deep into the song “Where I Want to Be” from “Chess” and Rick came up with a roller coaster of an arrangement. I then sat down and started crying. Lina said she thought she knew why, and when I told her she was correct: I just felt so comfortable standing there, in a room with those two, being totally unselfconcious and working on material. So for me, that was my real breakthrough, knowing that I have achieved a level of self-confidence I never thought possible.
They also suggested new directions for me, away from show tunes, which I’ve pretty much covered. Rick pointed out that I need to embrace my masculinity more; not that he thinks I am effeminate. On the contrary, he thinks I have a very strong masculine presence onstage but I like to choose a lot of songs identified with women. Over two hours they suggested a lot of new material for me — Harry Chapin (love him!), Billy Joel, Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, and more. I think it will be the impetus for my next show. Oh, and on the spot Rick began to write a song lyric and a melody about a little boy from Atlantic City (where I grew up), and tonight I’m going to transcribe it, add more thoughts, and then send it to him. New original song, how cool!
Sorry to have babbled so. They are such warm, generous people. I know they are getting paid, but I also know their profit margin is slim and that they teach out of genuine love for the art form. In many ways, St. Louis was more productive for me than Yale. There is something to be said for having a somewhat more laid-back pace, time to breathe a little, and of course, the total absence of image consultation!
I think next summer I will take a break from cabaret tourism and go lay on a beach somewhere with a drink that has an umbrella in it. Now there’s a thought: cabaret workshop in P-Town!
Jerome Elliott — www.JeromeElliott.com
* It says something about how deeply ingrained the Sondheim songbook is in me that even though it’s not his profession, every time I think of him, I mentally go, “That’s the lawyer, Jerome.”