Opera Philadelphia

Cabaret is an art form of now

By Sally Ollove

By Sally Ollove | Dramaturg, ANDY: A Popera

Cabaret is an art form of now.

“Now” because in a world where we are more likely to correspond via email and Facebook than face-to-face, cabaret feeds a hunger for communal experience. Cabaret insists on its liveness—performers talk directly to you, they sit on your lap, they share your drinks. Its 'liveness' goes beyond the thrill of the smashing of the fourth wall, beyond the invasion of the traditional audience space by performers, beyond the meta-theatrical. It becomes a gesture of healing. The performers speak in the language of the audience, there is an intimacy and informality which at times dismantles the divide between audience and artist. When a cabaret performer poses a question to the audience, it isn’t rhetorical, the audience is invited to respond. In fact, the audience must respond—the art form relies on it. The oversize personas of its performers, the readily available alcohol, the musical underscoring, the bad puns and dumb props, and carefully crafted questions are all designed to lower the audience’s inhibition, so that they are empowered to insert themselves into the show when invited. In cabaret, there are moments in which performers are the audience and audience is the performer. 

ANDY: A Popera
Scott McPheeters as Candy Darling in ANDY: A Popera Credit: Dominic M. Mercier

Cabaret is an art form of now because in an age in which economic disparity between the rich and poor in this country is increasing, cabaret is a conversation between high and low art. A cabaret allows for a conversation that subverts class. Historically, the art has its root in the cabarets of France and Germany, when members of the aristocracy would come to the poorer neighborhoods of Paris and Berlin to watch cabaret performers make fun of them. In these topsy-turvy worlds, poor artists could satirize the ruling classes, and actually be applauded by the very people they were skewering. Not that the lower classes were off the hook either—rather cabaret is a place that equalizes by casting a critical eye on everyone and therefore no one. The pleasure of the low brow comedy and popular music allowed the artists to introduce bold political statements that might otherwise be tough to swallow. “Under the cover of an evening’s relaxing entertainment, cabaret, like nothing else, suddenly dispenses a poison cookie,” wrote Weimar era composer Friedrich Hollaender, “Suggestively administered and hastily swallowed, its effect reaches far beyond the harmless evening to make otherwise placid blood boil and inspire a sluggish brain to think.” 

ANDY: A Popera
Kristen Bailey as Edie and Mary Tuomanen as Andrei, singing atop cabaret tables in ANDY: A Popera Credit: Dominic M. Mercier

Cabaret is an art form of now because of its queerness. Perhaps because cabaret has traditionally been a welcoming space for those who don’t conform to societal norms, cabaret developed as place of in-betweens. It is often performed in places that aren’t quite restaurants and aren’t quite theatres. Its artists are dancers, comedians, singers, poets. Its music and references are appropriated from popular culture and the avant-garde and repurposed to fit the needs of the performer. It trades on nostalgia in pursuit of something that both reflects the artist and triggers memories and associations in the audience.

Andy Warhol is now. Andy: A Popera is not a biopic. The Bearded Ladies use the cultural nostalgia of Warhol and his art to explore his legacy now, in 2015. We are only interested in the Warhol of then in so much as he reveals to us the Warhol of now.  Think about the iPhone: how you can press a button and nine squares appear with your photo in nine different colors. Think about Instagram: how one must take a picture of an experience in order to preserve it. We are turning our everyday lives into art by putting frames around it. Like the famous Soup Cans, anything can be art if you treat it like art. But if everything is art, then what is art?

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