|“A Stage for Stars and Fans Alike “|
|The Wall Street Journal By WILL FRIEDWALD Published: October 13, 2010It’s midnight on any given Monday at Birdland, one of the world’s most famous jazz club. Most of the headliners have already performed, but still to come are any number of aspiring ingénues with their renditions of “Summertime,” singer-songwriters wailing their own original tunes, wannabe crooners making like Frank or Tony, and precocious tweens (why are they up so late?) chirping the love theme from “Shrek.”They’re here for the weekly Cast Party, which Jim Caruso has hosted at Birdland since 2004, and which has been described as “extreme open-mic.” Open-microphone nights have been part of the New York scene for much longer than that, but Cast Party is by far the most visible. Yet while the Birdland series is probably the gold standard of open mic, it’s hardly the only game in town. New York at the turn of the new decade is home to a bustling scene of regular events where amateurs can perform on the stages made famous by their heroes—and maybe even share the stage with them.The “extreme” adjective is no exaggeration—the talent roster at Cast Party spans a perversely wide gamut. It’s the only open-mic event in town where Broadway superstars like Elaine Stritch or Liza Minnelli are likely to drop in. Every week, Mr. Caruso starts the show by stating, “Some of the best singers in the world will be on our stage.” He will then pause and add, diplomatically, “also, other people.”
“I’d love to have three hours of headliners, but that’s not what we’re about,” said Mr. Caruso, a veteran performer in his own right. “Sometimes it’s the delusional ones who make it worthwhile.”
Although Broadway and cabaret are usually the focus, there are also jazz singers (and occasional instrumentalists), folk singers, comedians, and whatever’s clever. Mr. Caruso starts collecting names at 9:15 p.m. Once called, volunteers need only bring their enthusiasm and sheet music for their selection. A recent Monday was highlighted by two jazz violinists (David Shenton and a 15 year-old prodigy named Jonathan Russell) as well as the agreeable belting of guest hostess Klea Blackhurst. The show is democratic to a fault: You pay your $10 cover and take your chances. For every exciting newcomer, there are a dozen karaoke-level amateurs who, with any luck, aren’t looking to quit their day jobs.
Ten blocks north, “Wednesday Nights at the Iguana,” at Iguana New York, is more focused on the cabaret community. Richard Skipper, who hosted the series for 18 months—he recently departed to concentrate on, among other things, his own career as the world’s foremost Carol Channing impersonator—said that performers are specifically invited. “Each show is painstakingly sequenced beforehand, so it’s a much more structured show,” he said.
The Wednesday series is like a Whitman Sampler: If you hear someone you like, chances are you’ll try to catch their entire act at the Metro or Mama’s. With Mr. Skipper’s departure, the series is now in the hands of his co-host, Dana Lorge, a risqué shpieler of the sort heard on old-fashioned “party” records. A recent night was dominated by blue-haired ladies blasting out 11 o’clock numbers from familiar scores.
Another local variation on the open-mic concept takes its origins from an informal series of gatherings in the lobby of the Hotel Alqonguin, where artists, mostly from the Broadway arena, would congregate semi-spontaneously around a piano. Gradually, these gatherings split off into two distinct series: Big Night Out, which ran at four different clubs during 2008 and 2009, and the Salon, which continues at Etc, Etc on Sunday evenings. Big Night Out was the brainchild of actress-singer Jennifer Wren and pianist-composer Bill Zeffiro, who continues to host a more traditional piano bar-style open-mic series Tuesdays at La Mediterranee.
“We started this thing called the ‘Featured Composer Series,’ and half the night was devoted to new, contemporary songwriters,” Ms. Wren said. “We were hooking aspiring singers up with emerging composers.”
The hosts at the Iguana, on the other hand, make a conscious effort to fill the house with civilians. “When you’re performing in front of a room full of other performers, it’s just a exercise in futility,” Mr. Skipper said. “It’s not going to get you anywhere.”
At the Salon, meanwhile, the emphasis is on artists performing for other artists. Indeed, each open-mic night has its idiosyncrasies. At Cast Party, ballads are taboo, because “the energy just drops whenever there’s a slow song,” Mr. Caruso said. But ballads proliferate at the Salon, which offers a more intimate experience. Each evening at the Salon has a specific theme; a recent Sunday featured “Songs of Regret”—there were no fewer than three chansons about Paris, apparently the saddest city in the world. Two middle-aged women also sang two entirely different comedy numbers griping about how all the unattached men in the city are gay.
In the spirit of the open-mic ethos, Mr. Caruso insists that it’s not just the performers who keep him going—it’s also the crowd. “The energy in the room is incredible. Once we had a guy with three teeth whose specialty was yodeling Elvis songs. Everybody cheered him like he was Liza Minnelli.”