An Interview with Stephen Mosher and Robert Diamond
Broadway World Cabaret
By David Sabella
The mid-twentieth-century history of cabaret is filled with legendary performers who successfully made the transition from the small rooms of New York City to Broadway, television, and even movies. Future stars of that time like Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Barbara Cook, Kaye Ballard, Dorothy Louden, Phyllis Diller, Pearl Bailey, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Billy Holiday, Hal Holbrook, Joan Rivers, Johnny Mathis, Eartha Kitt, Mike Nichols and Elaine Maye, and even Woody Allen (to name just a few) all began their careers on small stages in some of New York’s most noted clubs. At one time the surest route to success in the performing arts, long before there were conservatory and university programs dedicated to musical theater and popular music, was through the now-historic rooms like the Blue Angel, the Bon Soir, Upstairs at the Downstairs (and Downstairs at the Upstairs), and even Don’t Tell Mama. Even in the 1980’s and 90’s the possibility existed for artists like Karen Mason and Nancy LaMott to build an audience as they developed their craft, which in turn increased their potential for a “break-out” moment, and true mainstream success. Nowadays however, being a star in today’s small rooms does not necessarily, or at all, guarantee the artist will crossover into the mainstream popular consciousness, let alone Broadway, TV, or movies.
So, what’s changed? Why is it so much harder today for a performing artist to gain any professional ground in the cabaret clubs, which still offer the same opportunities of being “on the boards” and gaining performance experience that otherwise would (and should) propel them on to the next level?
Some historians in this field blame the great migration to the suburbs, the advent of television, or even the industry shift in financial paradigm, (the “pay to play” structure now in place which was necessitated by both the migration and television). But the fact is, New York nightlife continues to flourish, clubs continue to enjoy healthy attendance (albeit with the artist’s individual fan base, friends and family) and talented (and determined) people, of all ages, now self-produce showcases for their art, hoping to attract the attention of a “Mr. Producer” who can help them realize their professional dreams.
In addition to these unavoidable changes there has been another very regrettable shift in the world of cabaret, the loss of mainstream media coverage. All of New York’s daily newspapers, have discontinued coverage of cabaret as a performance industry, not so much an artistic judgement, but rather a financial necessity as print media continues to diminish in favor of online publications. Even Backstage, once the champion of Cabaret and small venue performance, thanks to Bob Harrington’s Backstage Bistro Bits, has now eschewed cabaret, leaving only Cabaret Scenes magazine and a handful of small online platforms covering this dynamic art form, Theater Pizazz, Nightlife Exchange, Times Square Chronicles, and Cabaret Hotspot among them.
Recently however, an online media juggernaut of performance art as upped their game, in their cabaret and small venue performance coverage. BroadwayWorld.com has enlisted Mr. Stephen Mosher as their Cabaret and Small Venue Editor, and since his accepting of this position, in September of 2019, his presence has been undeniable. He is an indomitable and prolific force, who has (almost) singlehandedly turned the tide of cabaret and small venue entertainment coverage.
I recently spoke with Mosher, as well as Broadway World’s CEO/Editor in Chief, Mr. Robert Diamond about Broadway World’s increased cabaret coverage and the future of Broadway World Cabaret.
A Conversation with Robert Diamond:
DS: Robert, thank you so much for answering these few questions, and for your commitment to Cabaret and small venue performance coverage. Regarding BWW’s increased coverage of Cabaret, how and why did this first come about?
RD: Increasing Cabaret coverage has long been something on my personal to do list, and about 5 minutes after meeting Stephen, he had me believing both that it was possible and that he was the man to do it. The intersection between the Broadway world (pun semi-intended) and the Cabaret world has never been stronger, and parallel to that as both a fan and a supporter I’ve been pleased to see the increase in prominence of the form with new venues, more shows and more ways to experience cabarets. All credit goes to Stephen for leading the charge with passion, taste and a love for all things Cabaret.
What are your future plans for Cabaret coverage on BWW?
Continued growth is on the horizon. Stephen has built a great team here in New York City doing interviews, reviews and features. I’d love to expand on that in other markets, as well as continuing to help get the word out in New York about shows both big and small. The site has also recently added a free and easy way for performers to list themselves on our calendar, so we’re going to continue to explore those options as well.
Unfortunately, casting directors and producers are no longer seeking talent out of the small venues, as they once did in the mid-twentieth-century. Now, more often than not, their first contact with talent might be on YouTube and other online platforms. Do you think this change in paradigm stems from the regrettable decline of cabaret coverage in mainstream media, the rise of technology, or both? And, do you think that websites like Broadway World, Theater Pizazz, Nitelife Exchange and Cabaret Hotspot can help to encourage the casting and producing communities back into the small venues/cabaret rooms in search of talent?
The decline of arts coverage in print journalism has been one of the most surprising and depressing things to witness since I started BroadwayWorld back in 2003. That said, I think between sites like ours, other publications and social media that there’s more ways to connect artists to fans than there’s ever been before, which will be crucial to the next generations of the art form. As far as casting and producing committees, any opportunities for them to see the full range of a performer vs. 16 bars is sure to spark creativity.
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After this conversation I thought it was time to speak to the man himself, Stephen Mosher.
Stephen, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ve wanted to speak with you for a while about your boundless energy and commitment to the cabaret industry.
How did you first become involved in BWW’s cabaret coverage?
I was a blogger for a long time, but nobody read what I wrote so I stopped. I used to be very active on my social media but that came with a price, so I dialed it way back, preferring to post animal videos and occasional anecdotes about my life — I would share epic descriptive paragraphs of things I had seen around New York, and one of those times I wrote about a trip to the theater to see King Kong on Broadway. A man named Chuck Duncan read what I wrote and asked me to be a contributing writer to his entertainment website HOTCHKA, where I had a wonderful few months writing about Broadway, off-Broadway, cabaret, film and television. Years ago, I met Broadway World creator and CEO Robert Diamond at a Fourth of July party and we connected on the Facebook Machine. One day he emailed me, asking to meet for coffee, at which time he told me his cabaret editor was moving on to new and exciting work and he needed a head writer and editor for Broadway World Cabaret. My first reaction was to ask if he had read anything that I had written, because most people find me to be too voluble. He replied that he read everything I wrote, and that he really wanted me to do it. I told him that if I took the job the increased visibility of cabaret would be considerable, and on August 1st I joined the team as a writer, learning how to write about cabaret, learning how the Broadway World website system works, and one month later I stepped into the role of editor. For a long time I was working alone because I had no team, but now I have eight wonderful writers who work with me, though they freelance so I don’t get to have them with me all the time, which makes it necessary for me to continue to work as fervently as I always have.
Yes, you recently took over the editorship of this section. How did that come about? And what are your plans for growing the desk in the future?
I was always intended for the position, it was one of the conditions of my coming on board at Broadway World, and that transition happened in September; I love working with the writers we have. Each one of them has a particular interest in cabaret, though that isn’t absolute. Chris Struck is the writer most in love with jazz, though he reviews all the clubs we cover, Brady Schwind is quite high-brow, but he loves a good drag show. Bobby Patrick specializes in LGBTQ+ themes but he is passionate about all forms of storytelling. Rebecca Kaplan digs strong personalities with big messages, while Karis Rogerson is always on the lookout for a unique talent with a strong point of view. Chloe Rabinowitz loves the vocalists, but as a theater reviewer as well, it’s all about the storytelling. Amy Oestreicher focuses on doing interviews that will really connect the artists with the public. Helane Blumfield is our accomplished cabaret photojournalist, documenting every aspect of the art. And, Rob Lester is a true blessing because he loves to see all the different types of cabaret, and he reads everything we put out, so when a typo or grammatical error slips by my ambitious, overworked eyes, he emails me immediately to let me know I missed one, so I can go in and fix it.
As for growing the desk, I am always on the lookout for more correspondents, since all the writers have day jobs, personal lives, and other places where they freelance. They all know that I want to hear their ideas about expanding coverage, and Rob has recently brought us some new venues with his coverage of the 92nd Street Y, Brady brought us into the Lincoln Center American Songbook series, Amy wants to cover more comedy, and Bobby wants to look at more spoken word cabaret. We plan to begin a series on the Burlesque Clubs of New York – that will be helmed by Brady, another series is in the works about the piano bars of the city – that’s my baby; and I recently started a regular series of feature stories on cabaret artists who have caught our attention. There have been articles on Susie Mosher, Nicolas King and Ari Axelrod, and there are upcoming stories on The Drinkwater Brothers, Marissa Rosen, Gerrilyn Sohn, and Nora Palka. My intention is to use the platform and the opportunity I have been given to get as big a spotlight on the cabaret community as is possible.
I also know that you have done cabaret shows yourself, and with very good notices. I’d like to ask you a little bit about your performance background. Do you feel that your performance history helps you in your critique of this genre, and if so in what ways?
In fact, I am not a performer. As the child of a Hollywood family, in my youth I wanted to be a movie star, which grew into a desire to be a stage actor; but that ended when I was in my early twenties as I became aware that I lacked both the talent and the fortitude to make any kind of life for myself on the stage or on the screen. I was a good enough actor but very specific, as there were very few roles in the 1980’s for an effete Filipino, and I wanted more than just playing the gay best friend and Chino in West Side Story, which wasn’t likely to happen since my dance skills ranked as less than marginal and my singing skills were nil, according to everyone in my life, especially my college Musical Theater professor, Ed DeLatte. So, by the age of 24 I was no longer a performer and was working full-time as a photographer.
My history with cabaret has been a photographic one because in the 1990’s I was doing photos for Nancy LaMott, David Campbell, Baby Jane Dexter, Alix Korey, James Beaman and Karen Mason, along with several others. I only set foot on a cabaret stage in 2017 because I had a life-threatening trip to the hospital and a surgery that left me wanting to do things that scared me and challenged me; after being told, all my life, what a terrible singer I was, I challenged myself to sing in public. The result of that challenge was a one-night-only club act at Don’t Tell Mama titled “The Story Teller” which, mercifully, sold out. After a year of being told that I should do additional performances, I relented and did four more dates which, mercifully, sold out most of the time. When those four shows were finished, it was my intent to leave that all behind because I truly am not a performer and, having had the experience, I had achieved my intended goal. Shortly after that, Robert Diamond called on me, which closed the book, forever, on my ever setting foot on a nightclub stage again because I believe that, for me, it is a conflict of interests to be a cabaret journalist and a cabaret performer at the same time. I know that there are cabaret performers who also write, some of them even write for Broadway World, but it is not the right path for me – it is my personal choice, and I can only speak about my choices, nobody else’s — unless they are hurting someone, in which case I have plenty of opinions to share. As for my performance history helping me in my critique of the genre, I cannot say that it has any effect whatsoever on my writing as a cabaret journalist, though it does inform my administrative mission at Broadway World. When I did “The Story Teller” I followed all the rules and standards. I joined MAC and got the mailing list, I mailed everyone my postcard, I paid a consultant to learn how to write up a press release and I emailed every outlet, trying to get a mention anywhere, hoping to get an audience for my show. And nobody came except for people with whom I had a personal connection, even if it was no more than a Facebook friendship. For four performances at Don’t Tell Mama, I had the pleasure of performing for my friends and family, but nobody from the industry came, not even the high ranking MAC officials whom I had personally invited. The reviews that I got for “The Story Teller” were a complete surprise to me because I did not know that wonderful Sidney Myer had invited Bart Greenberg to see me, and I did not expect Bobby McGuire to write me up for Broadway World. When I read those reviews it made me feel visible, which is an experience every artist needs. So, when I took this job, I made a determination to see, to promote, to review as many debut acts as I possibly could. I go to see as many different shows as possible, from the debut artists to the shows that have been running for six years that need a reminder to the public that they are still there. I want to cover everything from the celebrities to the showcases. It is my ambition to give everyone a fair shot at an online presence for their art, be it one Broadway World review, one mention, one interview; and since there are only six days a week when I can be in a club, I am ashamed to admit that there are many shows and artists I haven’t gotten to yet – but I will.
In this very small world of cabaret, where everyone knows everyone else, how do you manage the perceived conflicts of interest, once you have come to know a performer more personally? Do you have a certain rule or code that you live by, for instance, not being able to review someone with whom you have “broken bread?” Or, do you think that that entire issue is a nonstarter, nothing that we should be concerned about in such an intimate and close-knit performance genre?
There isn’t a conflict of interests because I don’t review my friends unless I have to. If I can, I get another writer to cover those shows; and if no other reporter is available I can and will do the write-up because I’m a professional and know I can do it objectively. It helps that I only have about seven close friends who work in the industry, and they are people I knew before I got this job, people like Anita Gillette and Karen Mason, who I don’t have to worry about people assuming I have shown any favoritism in a review because these artists can’t make a wrong move on stage; besides, if I didn’t like something in their act I would tell them face to face before writing about it. During the last seven months I’ve had the chance to meet many people that I like very much, people with whom I’ve made good, honest, respectful, professional friendships; but I don’t spend time with them in my real life, unless it’s to have a cup of tea over which we discuss the industry, their work, and press options that will help promote that work. In my personal life, my close relationships are with people working outside of the cabaret industry, those are the people with whom I break bread. I do, though, think that the professional divide is an important one — the issue is not a nonstarter, and the professional boundaries that are set should be the responsibility of the journalist, who needs to know how to balance being a friend to the community without becoming a bestie to artists in such a way that would raise questions. If questions are raised in the minds of anyone scrutinizing my work and friendships, they are welcome to bring those questions directly to me – I would be more than happy to mollify anyone’s concerns about my integrity regarding this matter. I am convinced that people looking over my articles will find I am a rather equitable reporter.
I’d also like to know what you look for in a cabaret show. What are some hallmarks of a quality show, (for you). What are some “do’s” and “don’ts”?
I want to see all the shows. When Robert asked me to do this I told him I would be in a club six nights a week, that I wanted to cover singers, musicians, comedy, drag, spoken work, magic, even ventriloquists if I can find one. I love the art form, I love the intimacy, I love the connection that an audience member can get from a cabaret performer; and what I look for in a show is simple enough to be distilled to three questions. Is it authentic? Is it cohesive? Is it professional? If a club performer can get a yes out of those three questions, they can get a good write-up from me, because cabaret is an art that can take any form. Cabarets and concerts may not all follow a tangible storyline, but even the order in which the artist places their set list still tells a story. Rian Keating’s show “In This Traveling Heart” is structured in a way that is ALL about telling a story, while the jazz combo “Clearly Now” is a song cycle, but both shows have a cohesiveness that takes their audience on a journey – that makes them both shows worth seeing. For the professionalism factor it comes down to simple choices – have an idea (not even a theme perhaps, but at least some sort of vision), get a director to help keep your vision on track, and learn your lines. I have seen amateurs come out of the gate with a show that is more put together than some veterans who read their show off of their iPad, and anyone who has read any of what I write knows how I feel about people who read their shows off of anything. I certainly understand that there are times when a little assistance is needed, but the onstage iPad or music stand has become a standard that is out of control, and it needs to stop. People pay good money to see a show, and reading your show from your tablet is not only unprofessional, it’s rude, and the audience deserves a partial refund for it. Finally, authenticity is everything. Whether you are telling your life story in your act or performing a character in a musical comedy revue, it has to be honest, it has to be true to who you are presenting. Cabaret rooms tend toward the small and intimate and your audience will know if you’re being false with them, which is a turn off. Keep it real, keep it authentic, and they will follow you to the end of time… or at least to the end of your show. I’ve seen acts where it took all of my resolve to keep from going up to the first row of seats, sitting down and saying to the artist “Talk to me, sing to me, connect to me” because they were so petrified that they might miss one word of a song, or forget one sentence in their script, that they became a deer in headlights, staring at the back wall. The audience isn’t out to get you, they want you to be good, they are cheering for you. I was recently at the Pangea Jazz Brunch and one of the singers confessed she was a neophyte who was terribly nervous, and you could actually feel the room willing their love up to her, and when she was finished they all cheered and screamed for her, and she smiled. The audience is your friend, trust them. Trust the audience, trust your musical director, trust your director, trust yourself. Write a script, learn the script, throw out the script. Then go out there and have fun showing those people who trust you all the wonderful things you are, but honestly, without pretense, with only authenticity. If you do that, you’ll have a great show.
Lamenting the loss of cabaret coverage in print media, and longing for the days when the cabaret audience might have included industry professionals (agents, producers, etc) and/or simply the general audience member who read about the show and decided to check it out, do you think there is anything that can be done to entice the general and professional audience back into the cabaret rooms?
Yes: come into the present. Evolve. Stay young. Our Broadway World writer, Brady Schwind, was friends with Hal Prince and he told me that Hal surrounded himself with young people because it kept him on high alert about what was good, on what goes, and what was relevant. The days of print media are over — and this is coming from a longtime magazine whore who still has back issues of After Dark, Harpers’ Bazaar and Men’s Fitness around the house. Even the most venerated outlets like The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal have an online presence. There will be no going back to cabaret coverage in print media, and the artists and clubs need to accept that and come into the present.
Every artist and every club should have a social media handle and a social media manager. The Laurie Beechman has Helane Blumfield at every new show, taking photos and posting them online. Susie Mosher does her own social media for “The Lineup.” Your audience is online, so everybody needs to get on board and go get them. Furthermore, the ageism in the cabaret community has to stop. There are senior members of the community who don’t want to see things change – they want to sing The Great American Songbook for crowds who grew up listening to The Great American Songbook, and I want to be clear: I love The Great American Songbook and I love going into a nightclub and seeing people of advanced glamor who have made it out of the house and gone out to hear an evening of Cole Porter. Speaking personally, if my eighty-two-year-old mother got out of the house more and went to hear live music, she might not be sedentary and succumbing to dementia right now. There is a place in the cabaret theaters for the senior members of the artform and the audience. However, to quote the oft-derided musical “Coco,” the world belongs to the young; and we need to put the young in our cabaret rooms. That is why artists like Jeremy Jordan and Reeve Carney are so important to the art form. That is why we need people like Bonnie Milligan and Natalie Walker: the younger artists bring in the younger fan base. Young people have passion and they have (apparently) disposable income. Consider the young people who see Broadway shows ten and twenty times each. Now imagine those people populating cabaret rooms because Katharine McPhee and Jessica Vosk are playing there. The booking managers and club owners need to consider the place in their business model for the youth of each individual city where cabaret plays, just as the artists of the industry need to consider the place in their art for the youth coming into the industry. There are young people who want to sing cabaret who feel shut out by the senior members of the industry – I know because I’ve talked to them. I’ve seen them in their classrooms and talked to them after their workshops. They feel unwanted and shut out by people two generations ahead of them. Rather than alienate the young, people need to get wise and take these wonderful young people under their wings, offer them tutelage and a platform. I hear that Barbra Streisand is good friends with Ariana Grande. That says all I need to know. Nancy McGraw does a show with Mark Nadler. Sandy Stewart just did an act with Nicolas King. These are smart women who know what Hal Prince knew: bring in a talented young protege and enjoy their talent and their fanbase. Imagine a show in which Jeff Harnar and The Drinkwater Brothers sing Stephen Sondheim and Joe Kinosian. Think of an evening of Karen Mason and Hannah Jane Peterson singing the Kander & Ebb canon. Consider Marilyn Maye and Ari Axelrod exploring the differences between groundbreakers Rodgers & Hammerstein and Jason Robert Brown. Imagine if Sam Harris and Joseph C. Townsend did an evening called “Belting and Ballads.” These venerated artists of the industry will always sell tickets, they need never worry about that; but imagine how many more tickets, how many additional shows, how many new fans could be gained if they joined forces with the younger artists, passed on their experience and learned a little something new about what is happening in cabaret now. I can tell you this: Harnar, Harris, Mason and Maye are always interested in evolution, in keeping current and in growth, and that’s a mindset the rest of the various sects of cabaret should consider. If the artists – ALL of the artists – creating cabaret focus even just a little of their attention on the present, as well as the past, they can bring in a greater audience, even the jaded professionals who think they’ve already seen it all. It would be a game changer.
Mosher’s words ring with an undeniable truth which speaks to the future of cabaret as a performance art. His prescription for success, embracing the current online platforms and apps as the major means of self-promotion, and programming for, and welcoming in, the younger generation of both performers and audience, is prescient and a valuable lesson for all cabaret artists. I for one, can’t wait to see Marylin Maye and Ari Axelrod on stage together. Perhaps I’ll see you there?
Thank you to both Stephen Mosher and Robert Diamond, and Broadway World Cabaret, for their continued commitment to cabaret and small venue performance art.
Robert Diamond – Unknown
Stephen Mosher – David Cerame