Archive for April, 2011

Danny Cohen

In this modern age of the Webseries and broadcasting oneself, only a mere handful really rise to the top and gain a quickly-growing following with seemingly no fanfare (these include Jack in a Box and Submissions Only). To this group must be added FastFilms, a series of short black-and-white movies released with a speedy vocal synchronization that are grabbing YouTube viewers right and left. The brainchild of creator and star Danny Cohen, an openly-gay and devoutly-Jewish standup comedian of some renown, who copped a 2010 MAC Award besides other honors throughout his impressive career, usually find the gentleman as a textbook sad-sack thrust into hilarious situations, most often at the mercy of others, be they a woman who leaves him at the altar, a car full of Mafioso, a pimp out for blood, a mean boss at a bakery, and, of course, his cloying and hateful mother. In point of fact, Cohen emerges as rather a Buster Keaton for the new age. A core group of standup comedians and actors round out the cast and in guest appearances, including Shecky Beagleman, Jodie Wasserman, Danny McWilliams, Gary Michaels, Yamaneika Saunders, Kelley Lynn, Ted Alexandro and Marion Grodin, and all appear to be having the best time imaginable in the process. At least two new FastFilms are already in the can although as yet unreleased, namely The Funeral and Mafia Two (a sequel to The Mafia One) and are scheduled for a premiere at Planet Hollywood in Midtown at a mid-May date TBA. And this humble writer couldn’t be more honored to get the buzz.

Shecky Beagleman

The first and most obvious question is, how did the whole idea of FastFilms come about? “It was right before I got fired from my waiting job,” Cohen tells me, “which was a first firing for me. I had never been fired in my life, and I was very upset with the way things went down at work. While collecting unemployment, I decided I was going to take advantage of this free time to learn everything I could about iMovie. I had discovered how to speed up videos, and I started making little thirty-second videos and speeding them up. And I loved it! I thought these fast videos would be great in scenarios in which I was always beaten up or abused. So it all started from there,” he finishes.

Is there a specific process to the scriptwriting? “Well, no,” Cohen says, “because the

Yamaneika Saunders

first four FastFilms weren’t scripted. That was Sakaroosi, Please Don’t Take My Baby, Is Danny There? and The Artist. But by the time I shot The Artist, my casts were growing and I realized I would have to script these FastFilms in order to have a more organized shoot. So now, I write the scripts and then send them out to the cast and crew. The stories come very easily to me; I write them in an hour or so and dwell on them in order to fine tune them. And I like to write in noisy places, places were there are people. To be honest, I generally write at Starbucks.”

And Cohen explains that casting is never a particularly difficult issue. “Most of the cast members are my friends, comedians and actors I already knew. A few were acquaintances, and a couple I brought on because of their FastFilm enthusiasm. I really like to work with people who love the work. Because if they love FastFilms, then I know they’ll bring it to the shoot.” It’s at this point that other members of the company speak up, first and foremost Shecky Beagleman, who often plays Danny’s clutch-purse-wielding tornado of a mother. “I was a FastFilms fan already,” she says, “so when Danny asked me to be his mother in Once You Go Black, I was very excited.” Yamaneika Saunders agrees. “I ran into Danny at a show at ‘Eastville’ Comedy Club a year or two ago. He was on the show after I had already gone on, and I remember watching him and saying, ‘He reminds me of my aunt Cheryl. I like him.’ He was incredible funny, but there was a kindred spirit there as well. Flash forward about six months after that; I was watching a FastFilm that had two of my favorite comics in it (Jodie Wasserman

Ted Alexandro

and Greer Barnes) and I was overjoyed that Danny was involved. A few days after that, I got a call to be a part of their next project!” And Ted Alexandro concludes, “I was aware of Danny’s FastFilms because I’d seen a few of them on Facebook, and loved them. I love Danny, and I’ve known him for basically my whole comedy career. So I was excited to be part of his creations. Danny is such a funny guy, with a unique sensibility. I was willing to do whatever he asked.”

One of the supposed difficulties of shooting a project like FastFilms is making sure that the actors keep to a slow rhythm and a low vocal pitch while shooting. “I always have to slow down my actors and remind them to keep it that way, especially right before we shoot,” Cohen says. “We’ll rehearse two or three times, and then we shoot two or three times. And since I like to shoot in one continuous shot without cutting, the actors have to remember to speak slowly from beginning to end. Also, my girls usually have to speak in a lower register, or otherwise they sound too mousy, and it’s hard to understand them.” This, however, isn’t a problem for everybody. Saunders explains, “I’ve studied acting since I was a child; I was a member of the Workshop Theater in South Carolina, and I graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the

Kelley Lynn

Arts. I am used to having to adjust my voice. It’s a part of the job to be able to transition. I’m also fortunate that I was a singer in a gospel choir that only had a few members, so I would have to switch between soprano and tenor all the time.” Alexandro adds, “It’s definitely something I had to adjust to and keep in mind throughout. It’s not difficult, but it’s different. So you have to be mindful of what will play well when it’s sped up.”

Actor-cinematographers Shauna Lane and Eddie Marini, besides photography director Brian Friedman, are the team behind which Cohen’s cinematic vision is most often brought to life with FastFilms. “When I asked Shauna if she would like to be my camera girl, she loved the idea,” Cohen tells me. “I’ve known Shauna for years, and we get along great. She’s just so easy to work with, and she’s always available for me. I couldn’t have done all of this without her; she’s been a hero for FastFilms. When I wanted Shauna to play certain parts on screen, Eddie Marini (he

Gary Michaels

plays one of the boxers in The Janitor) fills in as my video guy, and has also shot two videos, namely Clown and Sisters.” But several members of the company are the first to defend the fact that it’s Cohen and only Cohen who could possibly make this happen in so brilliant and expedient an artistic manner. “Danny is a great director, he really is,” Beagleman says. “I am in awe of him every time I watch him work. First of all, he writes the scripts. Second, he stars in them. Third, he directs them. And not necessarily in that order. I don’t know how he does it. He’s so calm and focused, I can’t even remember my two lines half the time, and he’s acting, remembering his and everybody else’s lines. Then he’s telling everybody where to go (literally), plus he’s directing Shauna Lane or Eddie Marini on camera! He knows exactly what he wants to capture, and he’s very thorough. He always goes the the location beforehand, so he can get a clear idea of the shots he wants. Oh, and he also is very specific about everybody’s hair, makeup and wardrobe. If people don’t have what he needs in the shoot, like a 1960s platinum blonde

Marion Grodin

bouffant wig (and who wouldn’t have that? You’d be surprised!), he goes out and gets it, baby! He’s not foolin’ around!” She continues, “So, yeah, I love watching that man throw down, because he really does. But he does it in a very calm, yet frenetic, way, which only Danny Cohen can. When you’re in a FastFilm, you are a very integral part of the ensemble environment that Danny creates. No matter how how much camera time you might have, Danny makes sure everybody gets their moment. It’s so much fun. It’s controlled chaos, and his scenarios are nuts. Everybody wants to be in a FastFilm, and that’s a testament to Mr. Cohen. If he were a rotten bastard and his films stunk, or if he never bathed but yet his films were still passable, I don’t think they would be as popular as they were in the earlier part of the decade.” Saunders adds, “What I love about Danny and Fast Films, is that Danny is Fast Films. He takes control, he writes, he directs, he develops. He makes the production very comfortable and fun, and he is always open to letting the actors

Danny McWilliams

run with their instinct, but also very committed to his vision for the film. He is an amazing talent, person, and friend. And,” she adds, “its fun just being around other comics and trying to one up each other. I love when Marion Grodin is on the project, because she is always interjecting and being very ‘Method Acting’ with the films. And you’re looking at her like, ‘Marion, come the hell on.’ But she is always on point and super-hysterical. I love Jodie, because she’s ultra-relaxed and cool, and we can talk between takes about anything and then get right back in there and work. I love everyone, the entire cast! It’s just fun! Its so much fun, and you don’t mind. I love Shecky, and her wigs, and what she is doing and how she always has a different character. Of course, Danny, I love him and watching him switch hats from actor to director. It’s always a good time, and its amazing how many people love and want to be a part of projects with Danny; it shows what an amazing person he is.”

Jodie Wasserman

Does the cast have any particular aspirations for where they’d like FastFilms to be five years from now? Alexandro replies, “I would like for FastFilms to be legendary. I want whatever Danny wants for FastFilms. They are all precious little gems.” Saunders says with a chuckle, “In five years, the only Fast I want to be associated with when it comes to films is Fast and Furious VII. In all seriousness, though, I would like to see Danny to have a lot of success with FastFilms, I would love to see it go as far and beyond Danny’s wildest imaginations. And I hope that I’m so busy with my own career that I’m not available when it calls me!” Beagleman finishes, “I would really like to see, and I know FastFilms should and will, get produced on a larger scale. They would be great as “bumpers” as lead-ins and outs for television shows. Also, corporations should pick up on them and have Danny write, act in and direct FastFilms for product promos, or anything along that line. I think they should evolve into the next step for Danny in his writing, directing, acting and stand-up comedy career. As long as I’m still in them beating the hell out of him with my clutch purse,” she finishes with a grin.

But it’s Cohen himself who offers the clearest prophecy and ambition for FastFilms, of course.”Now that I shot The Funeral, I have completed twenty FastFilms that run between two and four minutes long, I want to sell them as a Web series. To a Website, or to find some sort of home for them. I have hundreds of storylines in my head.”

Whatever the future may hold, Danny Cohen and the FastFilms company have carved themselves a place as an online presence rarely achieved; they’ve brought art back to comedy and comedy back to art. This writer is certain that we all await their next offerings amidst succulent anticipation.

By now it’s no secret that cabaret goddess Sharon McNight always has another show to do somewhere; this weekend, audiences in Los Angeles will be treated to her latest one-woman offering A Night With McNight at the M Bar, 1253 Vine Street at the corner of Fountain Avenue, on Friday the 29th and Saturday the 30th at 8 PM. Those further north can enjoy her appearance in Divas and Dames, a benefit concert for the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco, 609 Sutter Street at 7:30 PM, where she’ll make what is sure to be a stellar appearance alongside such personalities as Valarie Pettiford, LaToya London and Lisa Vroman. And this is but three nights out of three-hundred-sixty-five within this year alone, in which she’ll have a chance to delight audiences as only she can.

More notable than this, however, is the most recent appearance she made at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in late winter. McNight, who has been a longtime reigning empress for innovative theme shows, chose for this performance to go completely against the grain and unleash what she referred to as, “strictly variety…there ain’t no theme,”  and was a combination of her very greatest hits as well as a bit of uncharted territory. And not once, either for longtime fans or those just getting to know her work, did any moment not work to the hilt.

Oh, sure, certain Sharonesque elements were in place as always; there was her customary entrance from the back of the house sans microphone, this time on the captivating “Chloe.” And Ian Herman once again assumed his divine and rightful place at the ivories. But by the time she tore into the second number, a rendering of  “In the Meantime” that could very possibly only be rivaled by such an artist as Lotte Lenya, the small but powerful crowd (including Julie Wilson, Miles Phillips, Bobbie Horowitz and Dana Lorge) were eating out of the palm of her lovely hand. An exquisite version of Amanda McBroom’s “One of Those Days” is somehow miraculously trumped with “Put the Light Out” by Joe Cocker, proving that she’s as always at the very top of her game with a ballad of any genre. And a moment barely passes before she swings the pendulum back to comedy with the marvelous “Elf Song.”

Mary Liz McNamara’s “Christmas in Michigan” is nothing less than a thrill for spectators who’ve never heard the song before, and after a delicious “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble,” McNight pulls a comfortable rabbit out of her formidable magic hat with an ever-excellent rendition of Craig Carnelia’s “Just a Housewife,” in a version as always virtually unequaled by any other vocalist in the history of the song. She starts to wind up the evening with the chestnut “My Simple Christmas Wish” by David Friedman, performed so effortlessly as to make it apropos for any time of year, and then slam-dunks the crowd one last time with her now-famous Oz medley, always a delight for those familiar and a true laugh-riot for those uninitiated.

The simple truth is, the lady will always be unstoppable. Those reading these words in the great state of California MUST make it their business to catch Sharon McNight this weekend. And failing that, well, mark the words of this writer that there will be another opportunity very, very soon.

By the time it closed in 1975, the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel had featured a luminous roster of stars on its stage over the decades; these included Liberace, Carol Channing, Burl Ives, Eddy Duchin, Kitty Carlisle, the Mills Brothers, Bob Fosse, Victor Borge, Marge and Gower Champion, Eddie Fisher, Xavier Cugat, the McGuire Sisters, Dinah Shore, Vic Damone, Bob Hope, Robert Goulet, Frankie Laine, Ethel Merman, Eartha Kitt, Henny Youngman,  Liza Minnelli,  Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, Kay Thompson, Vikki Carr, Julie Wilson, Diahann Carroll, Hildegarde, Lisa Kirk, Celeste Holm, and the first and only club act by Elsa Lanchester, among others. Since that time, it has metamorphosed into the world-famous Rose Club, a perfectly elegant space identified by the marble staircase leading to it from the lobby and the plush couches upon which to enjoy a cocktail or a nibble. As such, the spirits of entertainers and performances past linger throughout the space. Which, as it happens, only serves bandsinger Kat Gang in greater stead as she appears there every Wednesday night at 9 PM for an open-ended run, even though she hardly needs any assistance to shine as a nightlife standout.

In her show, entitled An Evening of Elegance, the stately and nearly-heartbreakingly-beautiful Ms. Gang is joined by the jazzy trio of Joe Young on guitar, Julian Smith on upright bass and Shawn Balthazor on drums, and never once does the group disappoint for an instant. After the combo sets a musical tone for the evening with a very impressive rendition of “I Remember You,” Gang assumes her rightful place at the microphone and bewitches the crowd with “Cheek to Cheek,” and the dazzling lilt possessed by her vocal pipes is never anything less than utterly enchanting. She proves equally impressive with two Gershwin numbers performed back to back, namely “They Can’t Take That Away” and “Embraceable You,” and when she tears into Arlen and Mercer’s classic “That Old Black Magic,” she clearly establishes herself as one of the finds of the season. There are moments where she’s oddly reminiscent of Sylvia Tosun, a cabaret chanteuse of similar physicality who scored a triumph at Eighty Eight’s in the mid-1990s, but Gang seems to have more than that, namely an indescribable charisma. She only serves to top herself further with “Sway” by Pablo Bertran Ruiz and a scat-laden “All of Me,” and by the time she’s extricating herself from the stage with “My Baby Just Cares” by Walter Donaldson, it’s clear that the audience (which that night included Jamie deRoy, Terese Genecco, Roy Sander and Ward Morehouse III) know as one that they’ve just witnessed the breakout performance of a serious contender.

Kat Gang and An Evening of Elegance seem to have no plan to vacate the Rose Club anytime soon. A more pleasant diversion from life’s hardships couldn’t possibly be had (or so thoroughly savored) by anyone in the New York area.

The opus of Dusty Springfield has always occupied a special place in the cabaret arena; Heidi Mollenhauer was known for her exquisite rendering of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” while a staple of Joel Silberman’s act was the original Italian, “Io Che Non Vivo.” Even this past season, chanteuse Kim Grogg executed an evening of Springfield songs and garnered a MAC nomination for Best Female Debut in the process. But easily trumping them all, and firmly pushing any other interpreters of the lady’s work far from the collective memory, is Kirsten Holly Smith. Her shows in March, at both Joe’s Pub in the East Village and Bob Egan’s New Hope in Bucks County, PA, were absolute smashes, and she has the chance to re-create that success this evening at 8:30 and again on May 3rd, in Dinner with Dusty, at the tony eatery Duane Park in Lower Manhattan, 157 Duane Street between West Broadway and Hudson Street.

Smith professes such an affinity for Dusty Springfield that she even put together a one-woman show with theatrical aspirations, entitled Forever Dusty! The show is angling for a run in a professional house, and seems a sure-fire winner, as much for the timelessness of the material as her uncanny physical and vocal resemblances to the late pop icon. Until that time, the club act more than suffices. Suffusing the packed house with energy just from the word go, Smith grabs the audience by the collective throat while warbling “Just a Little Lovin'” by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, followed by the Top Ten hit “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” “Tell Him” is a bit of a surprise, and evokes shades of the old Motor Town Revues of the early 1960s, and she truly hits her stride with a flawless rendition of “Breakfast in Bed.” The highlight of the evening comes in the form of Tony Joe White’s funky story-song “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” and of course “Son of a Preacher Man” is never anything less than supreme. And by the time Smith winds up the evening with the high-powered “Don’t Forget About Me” by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the audience is hers forevermore. A top-notch quartet provides deft musical support, headed by the marvelous Michael Thomas Murray, and Smith couldn’t possibly have chosen two finer backup vocalists, namely Lindsey Holloway and Sasha Sloan.

Until Forever Dusty! finds its way to an Off-Broadway theatre at the very least, it couldn’t be more highly recommended to visit Duane Park this evening to catch Kirsten Holly Smith and Dinner with Dusty. There’s no cover, but dinner reservations are recommended, and can be had by calling 212-732-5555. You will ‘only want to be with her.’

Since I’m only just finding my way again in terms of self-publishing, and realizing that while it’s not necessarily important to keep to a stringent schedule at the beginning as opposed to simply grinding out as much content as I can that’s important to my sense of personal expression, the thought grabbed me to start doing a feature called Drew’s Friendship Folio. This will not be on a strict timeline; I’d rather just do it when the mood takes me, and in which I write a short profile of a dear friend. And not all of these will be about people in the arts because, to be honest, I probably know more people in more walks of life than I ever thought possible. But it’s important to me to do this when the mood strikes. I also don’t want to give anybody any indication of when their turn might be next; I’d rather just let my guts guide me on this and have them be surprised. And as such, I’d like to do the first one about my very, very dear longtime pal Annie Hughes.

Annie and I first met in November of 1989. For the previous year, she had taken cabaret by storm when one night she happened upon the now-defunct Broadway Baby on Amsterdam Avenue, where she sang “Glitter and Be Gay” and was the talk of cabaret by the next morning. I was not there that night, nor at any of the shows she subsequently performed over the next ten months, so even though I knew of her as an established entity, I hadn’t laid eyes or ears upon her glorious person. To be honest, having not seen a photo of her, my immediate mental image (which I almost always get wrong anyway, because it’s one of my shortcomings) was of a short overweight dark-Irish brunette with long hair, only because that’s what my mind paired off with someone named something like Annie Hughes. It was my extreme surprise when, upon walking into the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center Library for one of the very first ASCAP/MAC Showcases (they were still held there then, under the auspices of Jamie deRoy and Michael Kerker) she was announced, and a tall, lithe, blonde creature with one of the most incredible voices I’d ever heard strolled onto the stage to sing a song by her then-husband, composer Wayne Abravanel. I wasn’t even a journalist yet; I had a day job in the area, but I’d been on the cabaret scene since 1986 and figured my attendance would be worthwhile. I went up and introduced myself after the concert, and said that now I understood why she’d become such a topic of conversation so quickly in cabaret circles. She was perfectly charming, saying how much she appreciated what I had to say and that she hoped I’d attend one of her shows sometime soon. We pecked on the cheek as a goodbye, and that might very well have been the end of it. Except…

In February of ’90, my now-late friend Jeff Matson informed me that he had it on good authority that That New Magazine, Inc., the wonderful folks who brought us the New York Native newspaper and TheaterWeek among others, would officially be starting a companion publication called CabaretWeek and that they were looking for writers. Clearly I needed no bidding, because I REALLY thought that my writing about cabaret was a natural fit, and even though I hadn’t (and still haven’t) given up my own dreams of being a performer, I could probably do very well as a cabaret reviewer. So I dashed off a few samples, including one about the ASCAP/MAC Showcase, and FAXed them over to John Hammond, who was the Managing Editor at That New Magazine. He read them and seemed to enjoy them, because the next thing I knew, he took me out for coffee at Tiffany’s Diner in the West Village when I got off work one day, and informed me that there was no CabaretWeek planned but there was a magazine called Night & Day that was just starting, rarely had he seen a style like mine in someone so young, and that they didn’t pay much, and that they had certain editorial guidelines, but if I was OK with all of that, he’d love for me to review Peggy Lee at the Ballroom for my first assignment. Which I accepted happily. For the next three weeks, I quickly settled in to reviewing and also writing feature articles and interviews, hardly believing that I was in a position at my tender age where I would be walked into a club, shown to the best seat in the house and invited to bring a friend, encouraged to eat and drink anything I liked, then sit through a concert and write about it and get PAID for it. And then came my opportunity to review Annie’s show at Eighty Eight’s, which had been running there for months.

Well, among other things, one of the things I said about her show in print was, “People are talking about Annie Hughes. And why? Her high notes are gloriously stratospheric, and her low notes are as delectably rich as creme brulee.” To be honest, I didn’t think much of it; it was just another review I’d written. The surprise came when I stopped at a newsstand on the way to work that Monday to buy a copy (they always gave me a free copy, but I also liked to buy one just so I could read it before I trekked downtown on my lunch hour to pick up my free copy and my paycheck at the magazine office) and alongside a big cover story they’d done about someone, was a huge caption on the left side of the cover with the words, “Annie Hughes: Why Everybody’s Talking About Her.” I looked at this and said, “What???” Sure enough, I flipped through the magazine to my reviews and there wasn’t just my review, but a full-page photo of Annie I’d submitted, with no idea it would go to a full page. After work that day, I took the subway downtown to the Village, walked into Eighty Eight’s and asked, “Does Annie Hughes happen to be around?” They said no, but she’d be in after nine o’clock. So I killed some time, then went back there at about 9:30, only to walk in the door and be immediately greeted by Annie throwing her arms around me and saying, “I love you I love you I LOVE YOU!!!!!”

Such an auspicious greeting could only turn into not merely friendship but unrequited love. In time, as we became better and better friends, we told each other of our pasts (hers in Southern New Jersey, mine in Central Queens), our various hangups, relationships gone bad and relationships gone good that crashed and burned, and professional frustrations on every level. I saw her through understudying such musicals as Closer Than Ever and A My Name is Still Alice. She saw me through both the launch and the demise of CaB Magazine. She directed the CaB Magazine Awards two years in a row, and brilliantly. And somehow, even with the occasional nasty argument that hallmarks a deep relationship between two people not romantically involved, we continued to endure. There was something else, too, in a conversation she and I once had in her apartment, after an evening of a lot of laughs and good times; as most people know, I can sing and carry a show and I’ve even won awards for it, but I’ll never make the history books as a singer the way she has. In one of the most meaningful conversations I ever had with anyone, I turned to her and said, “I once asked Barbara Cook this and she didn’t know how to respond, so maybe you can make it more clear. What goes through your head when you open your mouth and this spectacular voice comes out of your throat?” She thought for a second and said, “It doesn’t enter my head, it enters my soul. It’s a feeling. I can’t think anything about it, because there’s nothing to think. It’s just what is. All I can tell you is that it makes me feel wonderful, and I like to see that it makes the people listening feel almost as wonderful as I do. Don’t you feel the same way when you write something and you know you’ve nailed it?” Which put it into amazing perspective for me, and I think that was the night a piece of me fell in love with her. And then…

We lost contact. And it was killing me. I did manage to see her once at Judys* Chelsea when she was doing a show there in ’99 (which was brilliant, and she and I and her publicist hung out all night tossing back a couple and having a lot of laughs), but a couple of years after that I’d left her a few messages which were never returned (this was during my marriage, and I so wanted my now-ex to meet her). But in 2002, when I was writing for New England Entertainment Digest as their NYC cabaret correspondent-at-large, I had a reason to review Blossom Dearie at Danny’s Skylight Room and ran into a colleague, who asked me, “Isn’t it great about what happened to Annie?” I asked if he meant Annie Hughes. He said, “Of course. She moved to Wisconsin. She’s got a huge house by herself and she’s breeding dogs when she’s not singing. Haven’t you seen her website?” I confessed that I hadn’t, and he gave me the URL, which I promptly looked up and got her phone number. Called her, left a message, she returned the call immediately, and we’ve been fast friends again ever since. In fact, for New Year’s Day ’09, she happened to be in New York housesitting for a friend, so she invited me over for an evening with our old gang, including Tammy Quinn, Arthur Bicknell, Rachel Hockett, Siobhan Weiss, Sally Flynn, Ray Marsilio and so many others, for a couple of rounds of Celebrity (great game, and Rachel and I won the first round as a team) and some incredible pizza.

Annie, to me, is proof positive that some people were simply meant to not only be friends but to always belong to a mutual admiration society. I’m the charter president of her fan club, she’s the charter president of my fan club, and with a little bit of luck, so it shall always be. And I couldn’t be happier.

It’s uncanny, and also somewhat surrealistically sad, to think that cabaret legend Claiborne Cary has been gone from the earthly plane for over a year. After shuffling off her mortal coil in March of 2010 at the age of seventy-eight, following complications from Parkinson’s disease, she is still one of the most sorely missed among the greatest luminaries of the art form, and has deservedly been carved into the annals of cabaret history for time immemorial.

Born Claiborne C. Leachman in the Iowa suburb of Lone Tree on February 17th, 1932, and subsequently raised in the city of Des Moines (where her father owned a leading lumber company and her older sister would eventually become the internationally-acclaimed actress Cloris Leachman), she attended both the University of Iowa and Northwestern University before leaving school altogether, to high-tail it to Broadway for her first job, as a dancer in Silk Stockings in 1956.  The show took her on the road for its First National Tour before she landed back in little ol’ New York for New Girl in Town in 1957, starring Thelma Ritter at the Rialto Theatre. 1960 saw her in a strong role in the regrettably short-lived Beg, Borrow or Steal alongside Eddie Bracken and Betty Garrett, and the remainder of her mainstage theatre career for the next two decades was most largely centered Off-Broadway; there, she had the chance to star in such productions as Sheldon Harnick’s Smiling The Boy Fell Dead with Phil Leeds, Gino Conforti and Dodo Denney. It was then she began wetting her feet in the cabaret arena and became an instant favorite of Duplex manager Jan Wallman, but at that point, cabaret was very much overshadowed by the British invasion of rock’n’roll, and she couldn’t quite manage to net the stardom she felt she was so rightly due.

For the remainder of the 1960s, Cary mostly subsisted on income from television commercials, very quickly becoming one of the most visible faces in that particular area for any number of products. And she continued to work not only in cabaret (with her ever-loyal following proceeding to grow and grow, and especially in her first performance at the Ballroom), but also to make her 1971 dramatic debut on television in “The Sporting Club,” with an even juicier role in “Young Dr. Kildare” later that season. By the 1980s, with cabaret at the height of its renaissance and Cary having conquered so many areas of the arts, it made sense that it was the time when she’d fully come into her own as a giantess, regardless of how diminutive her physical stature.

And, of course, it must be noted that she was, if nothing else, a character. A certain renowned jazz pianist with whom she was great friends once told this writer, “When Clai came along, they didn’t just break the mold, they threw out the recipe for how to make the mold, because the planet wasn’t ready for another one of her.” Her volatile love-hate relationship with sister Cloris is the stuff of legend, of course, including many late-night phone calls between each to their middle sister Mary, asking to convey requests to return clothes they had supposedly stolen from one another as children. Many was also the time she’d invite a houseguest to spend the night, only to wake them an hour later by loudly rattling pots in the kitchen (“I’m just scrambling an egg, dammit,” as she’d shout by way of excuse) or running her vacuum cleaner at four in the morning (“When the hell else am I supposed to clean this place?”).  The truth is, every ounce of it was part of her charm; she was a gracious hostess, who really loved to cook even though she had an extremely limited repertoire, and she absolutely adored visiting museums. And when she became a friend, she was arguably more loyal than almost anyone ever knew how to be.

An afternoon memorial service was held for her at Don’t Tell Mama on February 21st, and not only featured breathtaking and oft-hilarious speeches by the likes of her dear friends Janet Fanale, Steven Brinberg, Ricky Ritzel, Jay Rogers, the great theatre star Harvey Evans and others, but the audience included all of her very best friends through the years, including KT Sullivan, the aforementioned Jan Wallman, Bobbie Horowitz and Rob Lester. One of the most special highlights included a video presentation of her television commercials in the 1960s, and it was beyond a treat to see our Clai in glorious black-and-white hawking the virtues of Ivory Snow and Swanson frozen dinners. It was quite clear that if anyone in that room was laughing the loudest, it was the spirit of Clai, looking over our collective shoulders and being thrilled that we were all having such a good time.

In closing, it can’t be stressed more highly how important it is to collect the few memories of her that exist on recordings. The first, which is regrettably no longer available for commercial purchase, is Miss Claiborne Cary Live, released in early 2000 after a ’99 taping at the now-defunct Danny’s Skylight Room. But the recording is so vibrant as to completely evoke the sensation of watching her perform there or anywhere else. The second, Claiborne Cary Now and Then, is still very much available at Amazon and CDUniverse, and may actually be the superlative of the two. In any case, either or both are worth collecting if one doesn’t already possess copies.

And so, thirteen months later, it’s clear that Claiborne Cary remains one of cabaret’s most cherished treasures. And she’d probably be the first to tell you that she deserves every blessed minute of it. Because she does.

OK, look. Last year I was writing for a certain website and I happened to float the suggestion of my doing a little article of a prediction piece about the MAC Awards, i.e. who would win and why. I wrote it, it was published, and it caused this enormous controversy over nothing. But on the brighter side, it got that particular website a LOT of hits because a lot of people were suddenly paying attention, both to me and to the site itself.  So, when the 2011 nominations were announced two weeks ago, and I suddenly found myself having to go out on my own and get my reviews published somewhere besides my weekly radio broadcast, an immediate question was whether or not I’d write something similar for this season. I didn’t want to. I mean, I REALLY didn’t want to.  So I flipped a coin. It came up heads. So here we go. And please bear in mind that I’ve not seen every single artist on this list or heard their CDs, and that I’m not a psychic, but I’ve made it a point to research as much as I could find on YouTube and through the reviews of my peers and colleagues, besides good old-fashioned snooping around. I’m rating this strictly on what I know of how cabaret works and the popularity factor, and which I’ve come to know very well in over two decades. If I happen to be invited that night so that I can talk about it on my weekly broadcast on WPAT radio, it will be very nice to congratulate the winners whether or not I was correct.


Deb Berman, All in Good Time
Metropolitan Room, Don’t Tell Mama

Carole J. Bufford, Carole J. Bufford Sings Randy Newman; intro; A Christmas Carol…with an E!
Don’t Tell Mama, Metropolitan Room, Urban Stages

Jackie Fornatale, Get Ready – Jackie Fornatale Sings Motown
Don’t Tell Mama, Laurie Beechman

Gretchen Reinhagen, Gretchen Sings Janis Joplin’s “Pearl”
Don’t Tell Mama

Sarah Rice, Screen Gems: Songs of Old Hollywood
Laurie Beechman

Who will win? Carole J. Bufford. Anyone who saw her at this year’s Cabaret Convention and had never seen her before was absolutely electrified.

Sarah Rice

Who should win? Sarah Rice. Screen Gems is an absolute phenomenon as is the lady herself.


Kevin Dozier, Take Me to the World
Feinstein’s, Laurie Beechman, Don’t Tell Mama

Stearns Matthews, this will be…; I’ll Be Stearns for Christmas
Laurie Beechman

Tony Middleton, Memories of Nat; untitled shows
Kitano, Iridium, La Mediterranée, Black Duck

Todd Murray, Croon
Feinstein’s, Metropolitan Room

Who will win? Stearns Matthews. The kid’s got the world on a string.

Who should win? Tony Middleton. The guy’s a musical legend.


Eric Comstock & Barbara Fasano, This Thing Called Love; Eric Comstock & Barbara Fasano in Concert
Oak Room at the Algonquin, The Royal Room at the Colony (Palm Beach), Cooperstown Music Festival, El Morro Theater (Gallup, NM), Café Sabarsky

Eric Michael Gillett, Hooray for Love: Gillett Sings Arlen
Laurie Beechman, Feinstein’s

Karen Oberlin, Heart & Soul – A Centenary Celebration of Frank Loesser; A Wish: Songs of Hope, Heart and Humor for the New Year
Oak Room at the Algonquin, The Royal Room at the Colony (Palm Beach); Feinstein’s

Julie Reyburn, Live at Feinstein’s; Summer Night; So Many People…a Sondheim Show
Feinstein’s, Laurie Beechman, Urban Stages

Who will win? Tough call, but probably Comstock & Fasano. They’re a perpetual audience favorite, gorgeously polished, and right now they’re at the absolute height of their dual powers.

Who should win? Eric Michael Gillett. Hooray for Love was an evening of genius as only the gentleman could offer.


Karen Mason, Karen Mason in Concert 2010
Metropolitan Room, Iridium, Backstage Dopo Teatro, Ryles Jazz Club (Boston), Drake Hotel (San Francisco), Metropolis (Chicago)

Marilyn Maye

Marilyn Maye, Her Own Kind of Broadway; The Merriest; In Love Again
Metropolitan Room, Feinstein’s

Sharon McNight, The First 30 Years: From Moose Hall to Carnegie Hall
Metropolitan Room; Yale Cabaret Series

KT Sullivan & Mark Nadler, Gershwin…Here to Stay
Oak Room at the Algonquin

Who will win? Marilyn Maye. For one, she rarely loses. For two, Her Own Kind of Broadway couldn’t possibly be more splendid for those seeking an absolutely perfect evening at the peak of cabaret sophistication.

Who should win? Sharon McNight. In a career that has seen this lady absolutely work like a dog from the first to last second of every single production, she completely outdid herself with Moose Hall and should be rewarded accordingly.


Liz Lark Brown, Tarnished
Metropolitan Room

Kim Grogg, Kim Grogg Sings Dusty Springfield: Stay Awhile; Kim Grogg is Feelin’ Groovy
Don’t Tell Mama

Nikki MacCallum, Matchmaker Matchmaker I’m Willing to Settle! A Musical Guide to Internet Dating
Laurie Beechman, Duplex

Liz Lark Brown

Who will win? Liz Lark Brown. It would be so, so very nice to say that Nikki would grab it, because her show was superb not just for her dynamic stage presence but the multimedia elements involved. But Liz has got the edge for a number of reasons, and this is definitely her season.

Who should win? Liz Lark Brown. See above.


Cornelius Bates, My Brazilian Romance – A Tribute to the Music from Brazil
Metropolitan Room

Sean Harkness
Metropolitan Room, Top of the Rock

Eddie Peterson, Greetings from America – The Songs of Randy Newman
Don’t Tell Mama

Who will win? Sean Harkness. No question; he’s got it sewn up not just for being such a dynamite supporting musician for the finest of the cabaret crop, but his abilities as a solo showman are absolutely astonishing.

Who should win? Cornelius Bates. Not to take anything away from Eddie Peterson, because it’s no secret that he worked his voice and persona to the quick on what was a masterful debut, but Bates was so very clearly “working for heat,” as used to be a popular phrase at the Lee Strasberg school, and that heat poured forth in abundance.


Mary Dimino
Broadway Comedy Club, Don’t Tell Mama, Stand-Up New York

Colleen McHugh, Calendar Girl

Amy Wolk, Amy Wolk Sings Divine Madness
Don’t Tell Mama

Who will win? Mary Dimino. Yes, she’ll pull it off two years in a row. If, for nothing else, the fact that her Fringe show Scared Skinny was one of the finest offerings anywhere in Manhattan throughout the whole of the season.

Who should win? Mary Dimino. Because, the Fringe notwithstanding, she’s still one of the freshest breaths of comedy air in any club throughout the country.


Adelmo Guidarelli, Operation Adelmo – The Clown Prince of Opera; The Adelmo Guidarelli Christmas Special
Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama, Triad, Brook Arts Center

Justin Sayre, The Meeting
Duplex, Le Poisson Rouge

Oron Stenesh, The Big 3-0

Who will win? Adelmo Guidarelli. Clown? Prince? Opera? Christmas? Come on; cabaret always knows a winning formula when it sees one.

Who should win? Justin Sayre. In a season fraught with so wondrous a resurgence of burlesque-related entertainment, this guy gave and he gave good.


Scott Coulter, Steven Ray Watkins, Lennie Watts, 3Play The 70s
Don’t Tell Mama

Marquee Five, 8-Track Throwback
Don’t Tell Mama

Uptown Express, Point It Home; New Year’s Eve with Uptown Express
Tim McLoone’s (Asbury Park), Laurie Beechman, Bob Egan’s New Hope

Who will win? This is another tough call. Probably Coulter, Watkins and Watts. It was beautifully organized and executed, and it pretty much stands to reason that almost anything with Watts’ name on it spells a winning formula, not to mention the brilliance of Coulter and Watkins.

Who should win? Uptown Express. If, for nothing else, the chance to accept an award posthumously for our late lamented David Gurland.


Cabaret Cares, Produced by Joseph Macchia
Laurie Beechman

Sondheim Unplugged, Written, produced, directed, and hosted by Phil Geoffrey Bond
Laurie Beechman, Don’t Tell Mama

Wednesday Night at the Iguana, Produced and hosted by Dana Lorge

Who will win? Wednesday Night at the Iguana. If last year was more than they ever could have hoped to accomplish when both Dana Lorge and Richard Skipper were running it together, Dana has put even more pedal to the medal while flying it solo.

Who should win? Sondheim Unplugged. Phil Geoffrey Bond has never put together a better season of this year’s production, with more Sondheimian stars than there are in the heavens.


Mostly Sondheim, Programmed by Brian Nash, Emily McNamara, Ben Cameron

Our Way, Your Way, Broadway (aka Show Tune Room), Produced and hosted by Michael Kirk Lane
Don’t Tell Mama

Salon, Created and hosted by Mark Janas, produced by Tanya Moberly
Etcetera Etcetera

Who will win? Salon. From the very beginning when the show was at the Algonquin, the show had the marks of a winner all over its gilded self. But this season, both Mark Janas and Tanya Moberly managed to formulate an evening that can’t help but win the prize.

Who should win? Salon. Same reason.


Raissa Katona Bennett, The Concerts at Tudor City Greens
Tudor City Greens

Phil Geoffrey Bond, Sondheim Unplugged
Laurie Beechman, Don’t Tell Mama

Mark Janas, Salon
Etcetera Etcetera

Dana Lorge, Wednesday Night at the Iguana

Who will win? Sondheim Unplugged. It has a much better shot in this category than Recurring Series.

Who should win? The Concerts at Tudor City Greens. Raissa has managed, every season since this wonderful bunch of concerts began, to make them better and better with every passing year, and it would be thoroughly lovely to see her work awarded this way at long last. And if this isn’t the year, it won’t be long now.


Faye Lane’s Beauty Shop Stories, Created and performed by Faye Lane, directed by Jay Rogers, produced by Adam Magazine
La Mama ETC, Huron Club at Soho Playhouse

My Queer Youth, Written and performed by Phil Geoffrey Bond, directed by Michele Pawk
Laurie Beechman

Scared Skinny, Written and performed by Mary Dimino
Paradise Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Source

Who will win? This might well be the toughest race of the whole shootin’ match, because all three are absolutely spectacular. The gut says My Queer Youth, partly because it was the only one of the three to run exclusively in cabaret as opposed to a theatrical venue.

Who should win? Faye Lane’s Beauty Shop Stories. It is a great and glorious thing when a combination of script, storyteller and director manage to spring forth a presentation that every single person in an audience, regardless of background or personal experience, can simply dive into and swim as though consumed by a glorious rush of banana-marshmallow creme.


Liz Lark Brown
Don’t Tell Mama

Anne Steele
Don’t Tell Mama, Brandy’s

Kristine Zbornik
Don’t Tell Mama

Who will win? Good question. This could easily end up a tie between Liz Lark Brown and Anne Steele. Neither one, whether in piano bar or elsewhere, have ever given anything less that their absolute utmost on a stage anywhere this season.

Who should win? Kristine Zbornik. It was absolutely joyous to see her return to a genre of nightlife where she’s been so sorely missed, and nobody can sling a cocktail along with a song like this gal ever could.


Nate Buccieri
Don’t Tell Mama, Brandy’s

Gerry Dieffenbach
Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama

Jerry Scott

Who will win? Nate Buccieri. No question. Because it is a rare thing indeed when an accompanist so relatively new against such long-timers as Gerry and Jerry are so completely revered by their peers and colleagues.

Who should win? Nate Buccieri. Because it is a rare thing indeed when an accompanist so relatively new against such long-timers as Gerry and Jerry are so completely revered by their peers and colleagues. (Yes, I meant to say it twice).


Sean Harkness
Deb Berman (Metropolitan Room, Don’t Tell Mama), Terese Genecco Sings Elvis (Don’t Tell Mama, Triad, Rrazz Room)

Mark Janas
Julie Reyburn (Feinstein’s, Laurie Beechman, Urban Stages), Kevin McMullan (Laurie Beechman), Tanya Moberly (Don’t Tell Mama), Len Cariou (Ripley Greer)

Alex Rybeck
Liz & Ann Hampton Callaway: Boom! (Town Hall), Todd Murray (Feinstein’s, Metropolitan Room), Kevin Dozier (Feinstein’s, Laurie Beechman, Don’t Tell Mama), Liz Callaway: New Year’s Eve (Metropolitan Room), Donna McKechnie (Laurie Beechman), Faith Prince (Caramoor)

Tracy Stark
2010 MAC Awards (B.B. King), Marcus Simeone: Haunted (Metropolitan Room), Gretchen Reinhagen (Don’t Tell Mama)

Who will win? Tracy Stark. Her work this season was more outstanding than arguably any she’s had in a past of many outstanding seasons, and she deserves it wholeheartedly.

Who should win? Hard to say. Probably Alex Rybeck, just for Boom! if nothing else. His work this year was just splendid.


Eric Michael Gillett
Karen Akers (Oak Room at the Algonquin), Karen Oberlin (Oak Room at the Algonquin), Jarrod Spector (Metropolitan Room, Oak Room at the Plaza)

Peter Napolitano
Janice Hall (Metropolitan Room, Urban Stages), Barbara Porteus (Feinstein’s), Helena Grenot (Don’t Tell Mama), Adam Shapiro (Duplex)

Lennie Watts
Julie Reyburn (Feinstein’s, Laurie Beechman), Kevin Dozier (Feinstein’s, Laurie Beechman, Don’t Tell Mama), Liz Lark Brown (Metropolitan Room), Jackie Fornatale (Don’t Tell Mama, Laurie Beechman)

Who will win? Lennie Watts. This is hardly a surprise; it doesn’t really matter anymore who directs what in this town. He is the master and none of us are possibly in the dark about such a thing.

Who should win? Your humble reporter will go out on a limb and suggest Peter Napolitano strictly for effort; the work he did with Adam Shapiro at the very least will always serve as a beacon of accomplishment.


Denise Andersen
Ricky Ritzel & Spider Saloff; Lennie Watts, Steven Ray Watkins, Scott Coulter; Stephen Wallem & Edie Falco (Don’t Tell Mama)

David Colbert
Karen Finley, Sarah Rice, Coco Peru (Laurie Beechman)

Randy Lester
Steven Brinberg: Simply Barbra, Marquee Five, Eric Michael Gillett Presents Cookie Stark (Don’t Tell Mama)

Who will win? David Colbert. His experience by now speaks for itself, and continues to shine brightly (excuse the pun) on whomever he might be working with that evening.

Who should win? Randy Lester. It can be argued that absolutely nobody on this scene in the last season, from either side of the service bar, made more serious strides towards being accepted as a legitimate technical artist.


“After Hours”
Music by Derek Gregor, Lyrics by Sam Carner

“And I’m Leaving Today”
Music by Alex Rybeck, Lyrics by Todd Murray

“Don’t Break My Heart on New Year’s Eve”
Music by Brian Cimmet, Lyrics by Amanda Yesnowitz

Music by Tracy Stark, Lyrics by Marcus Simeone

“More Than I Am”
Music by Hyeyoung Kim, Lyrics by Michael L. Cooper

What will win? “Haunted.” By now it’s no secret that Marcus Simeone could stand on stage and sing the label of a tube of toothpaste and still make it sound like the greatest song on earth, and Tracy (already known as a breathtaking songwriter) wrote a number that is a winner on all counts.

What should win? “And I’m Leaving Today.” Rarely has an original song for cabaret, and a collaboration at that, embodied all of the best elements of a composer/lyricist like Manilow while remaining completely unique. It is EVERYthing a ballad should be.


“All of My Friends”
Music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola

“Christmas in Michigan”
Music and lyrics by Mary Liz McNamara

“Just Adjust Your Dreams”
Music and lyrics by Michael Hadge

“Sing, But Don’t Tell”
Music by Derek Gregor, Lyrics by Sam Carner

“We Are the Meek”
Music and lyrics by Garry Novikoff

What will win? “We Are the Meek.” Garry Novikoff proved a constant surprise when he wrote this one, especially after so much gay-themed material both humorous (“I Like Men”) and heartwrenching (“Lenny”).  It works as either a solo or a group number, and is delicious enough to eat.

What should win? “We Are the Meek” for the same reasons.


Annie Kozuch
“Here With You”

Karen Oberlin
“Live at the Algonquin – The Songs of Frank Loesser”

Anne Steele
“Strings Attached”

Uptown Express
“Take You There”

Julian Yeo

What will win? Uptown Express, for the same reason mentioned above RE: poor Gurland, aside from the fact that it’s a gorgeously-produced disc.

What should win? Karen Oberlin. It is a SEAMLESS recording besides being a splendiferous mingling of the right singer, the right material, and the right room.

And so, maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong. And so we’ll see. In the meantime, your humble writer offers the very best of luck to all the nominees, as always.

When Broadway personality Rosemary Loar first chose to descend upon cabaret in the late 1980s, it was clear that the two were a match made in heaven. At the time, she was appearing in the original Broadway cast of Chess, not long after brilliantly understudying actresses Maureen Anderman and Carol Androsky in the classic Kaufman and Hart comedy You Can’t Take It With You. And with her sleek black pageboy hairstyle, definitive presence and other-wordly vocal prowess, it was clear that the clubs had a new contender with which to reckon.

After years of consistently coming up swinging within the arena in a variety of shows (and somewhat reinventing her look), Loar may very well have topped herself with Sting! Stang! Stung! Rosemary Loar Swinging the Music of Sting, at the Metropolitan Room. The show has closed at the time of this writing (although crowds are fervently hoping for a return engagement), and since then she’s made her usual notable appearances around town, especially in the recent Art of Warr benefit at the Daryl Roth Theatre’s D-Lounge. In fact, this evening (4/22/11) at 7:30, she’ll be making an appearance at Don’t Tell Mama in a Songwriter’s Roundtable showcase alongside Meg Flather, Jennie Litt and others. But it is with her tribute to the pop mega-group The Police that Loar has truly reached a new plateau and, very possibly, paved the way for many other singers to begin exploring similar avenues to infuse cabaret with exciting material previously unexplored.

Supported musically by Vito Lesczak on percussion, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Frank Ponzio both on piano and flawless arrangements (additional arrangements were provided by the resplendent Daryl Kojak and the equally-marvelous John DiPinto besides the lady herself), Loar is, in a word, tantalizing.  “Brand New Day” marvelously sets the tone for the evening before she tears into “Englishman in New York” (completely with surprising scat section), and in the one portion where a composer other than Sting is employed, she mashes “Mad About You” with Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy.”

Whether the sophisticated audience immediately recognizes such songs as “Heavy Cloud No Rain,” “He’s Too Good For Me,” “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” “Tomorrow We’ll See,” and “Never Coming Home,” as opposed to such Top Ten compositions as “Message In a Bottle,” “Roxanne,” and a coupling of “Every Breath You Take” with “Set Them Free,” it is simply impossible not to thrill to what Loar brings to every single moment. And by the time she winds up the evening with a marvelous rendition of  “Fields of Gold,” those in the crowd previously unfamiliar with her work have been converted to fervent worshipers, while those already her stalwart fans are left to marvel at the fact that she managed to hit it out of the park yet again. In addition, Ted Stafford provides scrumptious technical direction at every turn.

A just world will always find Rosemary Loar continuing to delight the senses. Whether or not it’s in the cards for Sting! Stang! Stung! to return in the immediate future, it’s pointedly clear that any outing in which she chooses to engage will be savored by audiences like a rich dessert. And your humble writer, for one, will be first on line at the buffet.

Many people think they know or know of Marilyn Michaels. They truly and honestly think they do know or know of  her. They DO know that she was really launched upon the public as Fanny Brice in the first national tour of Funny Girl, and they know that the bulk of her career has been built upon impersonations of other celebrities. They may also know that her mother was the great Yiddish entertainer Fraydele Oysher, and that her uncle was Moishe Oysher (arguably the single finest cantorial artist the world has ever known or will ever know), as well as that her father was Harold Sternberg of the Metropolitan Opera. They may even know of her current marriage to retired lawyer/judge Steven Portnoff, which seems to be absolutely made in heaven and clearly meant to last forever. Or they might know of the writings and musical talent of her son, the prodigious Mark Wilk.

But, they don’t really know Marilyn. I REALLY know Marilyn, and I’d like to talk about her here in light of her upcoming appearance at the May 7th gala fundraiser at The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, New Jersey at 7:30 PM that night, which will feature her incredible artwork.

My life has been inextricably linked to Marilyn’s since before I was born. My late lamented grandfather, Louis Z. Siegler, was the second tenor in a seven-member cantorial choir called Kadima (the name comes from “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem), and they frequently would provide background vocals for Moishe Oysher at such locations as the Stone Avenue Synagogue in Brooklyn as well as on Oysher’s many studio recordings. As such, my mother (who herself was a featured variety entertainer on television throughout her childhood and adolescence in the 1940s and 50s) was one of the few who was privileged from the inside out to watch Marilyn’s meteoric rise to stardom in the 1960s. One thing that many don’t know about Marilyn is that her career as a vocal impressionist was actually something of an afterthought; initially, she set her sights on a career as a singer and recording artist, and at the age of seventeen, in 1960, garnered a Top Twenty hit in the United Kingdom with the song “Tell Tommy I Miss Him,” a companion record to Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” which was also recorded by Skeeter Davis to great acclaim. Of course, by 1964 she was not only headlining as an impersonator on such television shows as The Hollywood Palace and Ed Sullivan’s show, but preparing to star in the aforementioned first national tour of Funny Girl, in which she proved a smash hit all over America. By 1972 she was a household name as a co-star of The ABC Comedy Hour Presents The Copycats, alongside such other celebrity impressionists as Rich Little, George Kirby, Charlie Callas and Fred Travalena, but a few years earlier, in 1968, she scored a moderate hit with a recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s pop tune “Don’t Count The Days.” The early 1990s saw Marilyn make her debut in the acclaimed Catskills on Broadway with Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence and Dick Capri, and she basically hasn’t stopped working before or since. Another facet, of which many might not know, is that she’s a brilliant studio artist and an exquisite needlecrafter. She doesn’t profess to be an accomplished chef, although when she prepared her one chicken dish on TV with Robin Leach some years ago, it was absolutely spectacular. The occasional parties she throws at her home are the place to be, because she’s an impeccable hostess. And it’s clear that nobody on earth should ever have any qualms about working with Marilyn, once they’ve experienced her intense intelligence and endless charm.

I personally only met her for the first time in ’93, soon after she’d finished Catskills; I’d made arrangements to interview her for my then-magazine at her home on the Upper West Side. It wasn’t merely the amazing detail of her immense apartment that caught the eye, it was that every single inch of the space showed a little bit of her, from the movie-star portraits she’d drawn and the large painting of Ted Nugent, to the hand-sewn needlepoint pillows and the astonishing gallery of photos with various celebrities she’s known. She herself wasn’t present when I arrived, for being held up at a recording studio, so I was greeted by the marvelous then-housekeeper Linda, who couldn’t have possibly been more gracious in offering me fruit and cookies and a soft drink. Marilyn finally did arrive, carrying an antique table she’d purchased at auction on the way back home, and we settled into what was one of the greatest interviews of my career. I also met Mark for the first time, who was then just nine years old. And as expected, the two hours I spent with her were fraught with laughter, but her deep insights turned out to be an unexpected delight. And we’ve been friends ever since.

And so, if the question, “Do you know Marilyn Michaels?” enters a conversation, unless you really do know her, simply say, “Yes, but I also know I have a lot more to learn about her.”

The very first unofficial “Web series” was produced in 1995, by a company called Bullseye Art; three years later they scored a nearly-overnight success with the animated program Miss Muffy and the Muf Mob. The Internet was still brand-new at the time, and the idea of YouTube as a means to broadcast oneself was merely a gleam in technology’s collective eye. Since then, Webisodes of all genres have gathered glittering success, from the most amateurish to the most polished and professional, and some have indeed garnered worldwide attraction with thousands of regular viewers. One, however, which has taken the Internet in general, and New York’s theatre community in particular, by storm in the last three seasons, is the comedy Jack in a Box.

The brainchild of creator and star, Michael Cyril Creighton, tells the often side-splitting story of Jack. He’s a chunky, bespectacled, fuzzy-faced and horribly-unhappy gay actor, forced to spend his nine-to-five workday trapped in a TicketMaster-ish cage. Jack can always be found fielding such questions on the phone as, “Do you have any tickets left for Cats?” while providing snappy answers to the callers, fending off anyone who’ll disturb him while eating bagels or cupcakes or taking a much-needed ciggie break, getting into hilarious situations with co-workers, and dealing with his cloying mother Bernice and drunken Aunt Heidi (portrayed respectively and brilliantly in recurring roles by Broadway personalities Mary Testa and Alison Fraser) as well as a lecherous female agent (embodied to the hilt by actress Lusia Strus). The show has also featured guest-star appearances by such personalities as theatre star Julie Halston and Queer as Folk co-star Randy Harrison, and a poignant performance in the Season One finale by veteran actress Marylouise Burke as the elderly Prudence. And the show proves so engaging, and so addictive, that it’s pointedly clear why it won awards at the 2010 New York Television Festival. Comedy fans love it for its script; theatrefolk love it for its recognizable situations; full-figured people (gay or otherwise) love it because they see themselves in Jack’s daily struggle, and people of all types love it simply for the delicious escape it provides. It should be noted that the show has also popularized the term “Squeezies!” as a synonym for “Hugs and kisses!” upon saying goodbye to a friend or relative. The series just unleashed its twentieth episode (arguably the best yet, entitled The Surprise), and will release three more after a hiatus in May before getting geared up for next season.  (Those interested can catch it on YouTube, Google, or on the show’s official website,

In real life, however, Creighton is a very nice, almost-unnaturally polite, actor and writer of thirty-two who hails from a loving family on Long Island (where mother Denise, a schoolteacher, recently won an award from the Long Island Press as Educator of the Year), graduated from Emerson College, and is ensconced in a blissful domestic partnership. Given this dichotomy between on-screen character and the person who brought and brings him to life, The Andrew Martin Report was thrilled for the chance to interview Creighton, and really try to understand the brain behind Jack’s business, so to speak:

AM: Where did you get the concept for the show?
MCC: I knew I wanted to make something for the Web. For a few years I had been doing video podcasts for VH1’s Best Week Ever blog, which was a blast. The Web has always been very good to me, as far as a tool for getting my face/writing out there. So when that project ended, I started writing a short film about a guy who worked in a box office. Then I decided to shoot the first episode (which was just me), which was originally just going to be a teaser for something I’d make later (I’m a procrastinator). But the response was overwhelming…so I just kept making episodes.

AM: Why is everything shot with hand-held cameras instead of stationary ones? Was that a creative decision, was it budgetary, or both, or neither?

MCC: I give a lot of credit for this to Marcie Hume, who shot and edited the first two episodes and the fourth episode. I told her I wanted it to look sort of like a documentary, and have the camera work accentuate the awkwardness of the episodes. When she moved to London, I started working with the amazingly-talented Jim Turner, who’s taken on the role of co-producer and co-director. He picked right up where Marcie left off, and brought his own unique style to it as well. I’m very lucky to have both of them on my side. I do not know how to use a camera…so I’d say things like, “Make it look zoomy and jump-cutty?” and they’d know what I’m talking about. They also got me over my pathological fear of being shot from my left side. “Get over it.” And I did.

AM: Do you do all the casting yourself, both for the supporting characters and the guest stars? Are they friends of yours? Are they just people you’ve admired and wanted to work with? Are they people you’d worked with before, or knew from Emerson?

MCC: I do all the casting. Most of the cast were friends first, and if they weren’t, we’ve become friends since shooting. Some are people I’ve done plays with. Some are people I know from the stand-up world when I used to dabble in that. Quite a few are alums of the NY Neo-Futurists, of which I was a founding member. All of them are people I’ve admired, and continue to admire. I know some people steer clear of this, but I always like to write with someone in mind. So I’m pretty lucky to have a lot of muses in my life. Funny ones. I feel very honored to have worked with every single one of my guests and co-stars.

AM: So, you didn’t initially have any aspirations to get it onto network/cable?

MCC: This was always intended to be a Web series. When I first started making it, I was still figuring out my voice as a writer and my persona on screen. And the Web is a great place to try that stuff out. Sure, I’d love to turn this into a traditional TV show, but right now I’m satisfied with how it’s going on the Web. I don’t feel like the Web is a consolation prize, if that makes sense.

AM: What is the process for writing the scripts?

MCC: Here’s an example. In play format:

Michael: Hey, Lusia! When do you leave for LA?
Lusia (takes an inhale of a cigarette): In a week, honey.
Michael: Can we shoot something this week, then?
Lusia: Sure, honey, but I’m subletting my apartment.
Michael: OK. I’ll write a different apartment into the episode.
Lusia: What’s it about?
Michael: I have no idea. But it’s gonna be vulgar. And you have to wear a mini-dress.
Lusia: Perfect.

Sometimes it’s fast and furious, like that. Sometimes I spend a lot of time thinking about an idea, taking notes, and then when I finally sit down to write an episode, it goes real quick. I try to write two at a time and have an outline for the episodes that will come after it. Things change, though. Whole ideas get thrown out. There are definitely episodes I have written that never got made, and were replaced with ones I wrote really quickly, to work around an actor’s schedule and/or my facial hair. The Buzz Cut episodes in Season Two came about because I knew I was going to have to buzz my head and have a mustache for a play I was doing with The Debate Society, Buddy Cop 2. So I planned accordingly. Luckily, I worked shooting around the mustache, because I had little interest in Jack looking like a Village Person. But, yeah, I have no rules, when it comes to writing. I just try to write bold characters, who say off-but-believable things.

AM: Where did the term “Squeezies!” come from?

MCC: That’s secret.

AM: And how does your family feel about the show? In particular, how does your mom feel about the character of Bernice?

MCC: My family is, and always has been, very supportive. The MOTHER is not based on my real mother, although there are definitely parts of her that are inspired by my real-life mom. For example, that character makes me laugh. So does my mom. The age difference between me & my real mom is not very significant, so I wanted to make sure to cast appropriately. Her singing into the phone IS based on my grandmother. She does that often, or will just hold the phone up to the radio if one of “our songs” is on. That’s always comforting, to be stressed out at work, get a call on my cell and hear “You Are My Sunshine” blaring, all distorted, on the other end. Some of the characters are composites of many people in my life, rolled into one. A lot of them are purely from my imagination.

AM: Other than your guest stars in recurring roles (Mary Testa, Alison Fraser, etc), who have been some of your favorite one-timers?

(from left): Mary Testa, Julie Halston, Alison Fraser, in S. 3 Ep. 20, "The Surprise"

MCC: Everyone is my favorite! Seriously! However, I have to say that Marylouise Burke’s performance in the Season One finale is one that is very special to me. It’s always been important to me to mix Jack’s hard and cynical side with some real depth and sensitivity, and that particular episode was really hard to write. I was very nervous about shooting it, because it meant so much to me. There are times in my real life when I’ll be having a horrible day, and it just takes one sweet older lady to melt my cold, cold heart and make me smile. Marylouise brought so much to that role. A really beautiful, gentle performance. She also happens to be incredibly funny, so that helped, too. I’m crazy about her…and the character of Prudence.

AM: What are the differences between you and Jack?

MCC: For the most part…I am happy. So that’s a difference. And I’m not that crazy about cupcakes. Oh, and I just got new glasses. So. We are totally different.

It can only be said that both Michael Cyril Creighton, and Jack in a Box, are a golden-frosted cupcake in the bakery of life. If you’re unfamiliar, tune in. And if you’re already a devout fan as are so many, continue to savor the sweet cream icing.