St. Louis, MO. — “You are enough.”
That is the mantra that goes through my head as I am singing for Tony Award winner Faith Prince.
I am attending the St. Louis Cabaret Conference for the third consecutive summer. In the days leading up to this year’s conference I had asked myself, “what do I need to work on?” The answer hadn’t been forthcoming which meant I didn’t know.
Not that I didn’t need to work on anything. Far from it. But it’s really easy to miss the forest for the trees and obviously, I could see neither.
Cut to Faith Prince’s class on a Tuesday afternoon. If I had any doubt in my mind about what I needed to work on, those thoughts had all vanished.
At this moment, I am standing before a microphone in a freezing-cold classroom having just sung Jimmy Webb’s iconic song “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.” Faith doesn’t look upset but she doesn’t look happy either.
After a long pause, she says, “I’m not seeing you. I want to see Jay.”
The words come as no surprise. Being a Gemini I realize that I am prone to putting up walls. I tend to lead with the happy-go-lucky card which is why I’m here. I want to find a way to tear down those walls so I can share other sides of my personality with the audience.
Before I can respond, Faith continues.
“You’ve mentioned at past conferences that you sing opera but I’ve never seen that side of you in class. Not ever. Why is that?”
I’m a little taken aback. Opera is so far removed from cabaret. It’s a diﬀerent style of singing and the acting style is diﬀerent. It’s not a question I was expecting to be asked and for a moment I don’t want to answer.
I glance at the other students in the room and then over at music director Alex Rybeck, who is sitting at the piano waiting patiently.
“Well,” I begin, “I studied opera in school and I wanted to be a professional opera singer, but in spite of my best eﬀorts it always seemed that those doors never wanted to open.”
I suddenly well up. Not what I expected to happen. I brush away a tear or two and continue.
Not that I don’t work in the opera world now. I’m a member of the Dallas Opera chorus and I’m in the chorus union.” I let out a chuckle. “I guess the opera career happened, just not in the way I imagined it.”
An expression of “Ah-ha!” illuminates Faith’s face.
“Sing about that!”
Alex begins to play and this time the song has a new meaning for me. I feel more connected to the text and the song becomes an emotional experience.
As the song ends I see that Faith has a big smile on her face.
“There it is! Now THAT is a side of Jay I’ve never seen! Well done!”
And that is how my week at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference goes. Lessons in discovering how to tear down walls and reveal all the different sides of ourselves in song. It isn’t easy. It’s often frustrating. But, ultimately it’s deeply rewarding.
It is the hallmark of cabaret. From its beginnings in the saloons of Paris, to its incarnations in Germany, England, the United States and beyond, cabaret is about communication first. It is about you, the performer, and what you want to say through the songs you are singing.
Every year, performers from all walks of life make their way to St. Louis where they spend a week studying the intimate art of cabaret with some of the leading exponents of the art form.
As far back as the 1990’s local producing organizations were bringing out of town talent to St. Louis and presenting them to local audiences,” says Schall. “Having the chance to see performers such as Barbara Cook, Andrea Marcovicci, Ann Hampton Callaway, Amanda McBroom, Steve Ross and Jeff Harnar, that’s how I became interested.”
Tim Schall produced the first Conference back in 2006. Since that time, it has grown to feature a veritable “who’s who” of the cabaret world.
The legendary Marilyn Maye, Tony winner Faith Prince and award-winning music directors Alex Rybeck and Tedd Firth are ever-present, and for the past three years Peisha McPhee and Michael Orland have brought their experience working with contestants on FOX-TV’s American Idol. Faculty members have also included Jason Robert Brown, Christine Ebersole, Ann Hampton Callaway, Christopher Denny, Tony Desare, Jason Graae, Jeff Harnar, Natasha Hause, Lee Lessack, Karen Mason and Billy Stritch.
The conference features three specific “tracks” which address students’ needs, desires and prior experience: the Traditional Track, the Next Step Track and the Professional Track. Students of all levels work with Conference faculty and are featured in final showcase performances at the end of the week. Attention is given to song interpretation, career development and individual feedback.
All participants are invited to attend classes in marketing, creating effective promotional materials, social media, creating arrangements, working with directors and a “state of the industry” panel discussion with professionals working in cabaret.
Today there is a lively cabaret scene in St. Louis which Schall attributes to the Conference. “The conference, along with my own teaching, performing and directing, are the primary reasons why there is an active local cabaret community. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.”
Schall says that the success of the Conference is due to the exemplary faculty who have come to St. Louis to teach over the years. He also says that he wouldn’t be able to do it without his incredible support staff who makes what has become a very complicated event run smoothly.
But he says there would be no Conference were it not for the singers from around the country who are interested in this art form and serious about their training.
“They all have a desire to do the work of this wonderful performance art. And they all have asked themselves, consciously or subconsciously, “how can I better communicate my material and better connect to an audience?” That sounds very clinical, but it’s a very personal and creative need for singers. We all crave that. We all respond to it when we see it in performers we admire. It’s a very satisfying and inspiring process for singers.”
“The beauty of the St. Louis Cabaret Conference is that there is benevolence on the part of the experienced artists passing along their skills to less experienced artists who share the same passion for the art of song performance that they do. That’s the alchemy when it happens. It’s wonderful to be a part of that.”
» Jay Gardner and his partner, local music director James McQuillen, run the Dallas-based cabaret outfit Front Line Cabaret; and they also write a monthly column for TheaterJones, The Music Men, which reviews theatrical recordings.