Tanya Moberly should be exhausted. She isn’t but she should be. With directing jobs all around her and a full time position booking talent into Don’t Tell Mama, as well as a part-time job away from the arts, she should take all her spare time to rest and relax. But she doesn’t – she uses that time to produce the weekly open mic series SALON at Don’t Tell Mama, and she has started a residency in the famed midtown Manhattan club — and it’s a really interesting residency. MOBERLY AT MAMA’S MONTHLY is a one-show-a-month gig and for those shows Moberly will perform the music of different composers and musical artists while being musical directed by different musicians. Her January/February shows are with Sean Harkness, and the March/April shows will be alongside Ritt Henn; Moberly’s May/June performances are planned with Ian Herman, while her July/August acts will be music directed by Mark Janas. The last shows of the year will be September/October with Steven Ray Watkins at the piano and November/December, when Tanya Moberly will bring it home with Jon Weber. It’s a challenging and exciting residency and her fans are already booking out time to see each iteration of the series.
Wondering how she does it all and still keeps her sanity, I got on the phone with Tanya for an informal chat about wearing a lot of hats in cabaret, staying happy at this age and stage, and what it is that makes her so driven.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Hi Tanya, thanks for talking to me today. I’m very interested in your new residency at Don’t Tell Mama‘s. So how did you have the idea for the residency that you’re doing? It has a great twist to it.
I’ve done many shows, I’ve been singing at Mama’s for 22 years… and I love having a band but it’s very expensive. So I had an idea to do one musician at a time. I did a series called “Songs I Feel Like Singing” — four different shows with four different music directors — in 2015. I loved that so much that I did another four-show series the next year with four different musicians, after that I did a six-show series. I also really love working with all these different guys, they’re all incredibly different. Sean is a guitarist, Ritt is a bass player, and the rest of them are piano players. They’re all geniuses and they all have special genres of music that they do well. I really love singing a lot of different songs. So it kind of started out of economics because it costs a fortune to do cabaret stuff. I mean, eventually, if you can get people to come and see you, you make your money back; and quite honestly, I really don’t care – I don’t care about money, I just love what I do. But it’s nice to pay rent, you know? It’s polite. I generally pay my musicians before I pay rent. I just feel like I keep doing what I’m doing and work shows up. In the process, I’ve ended up being a producer at Salon and being a director, and now I’m a booking manager – and other hats have come in that make me money. I still have a part-time job. So it was a combination of that. It’s just very, very expensive. So it was a little easier. On top of that, I’m able to build repertoire with the guys.
When you started picking the artists that you were going to cover in each of these shows, did you go to each of your musical directors and say “This is who I want to do” or did you guys come up with the ideas together?
No, I’m kind of a dictator. I have the ideas and I say play and they say yes.
At least you know you’re a dictator.
Oh no, I know. They put up with me. I’ll tell you something – the very first time I worked with Mark Janas, I gave him my book of music and he said, “Oh, you just need me to play the piano.” And I said “uh-huh.” If I need their help. I certainly ask their opinions, I ask them to arrange things and all that kind of stuff. But I generally have very strong ideas about what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it. I’m organized — when I show up to that first rehearsal the show is set, the music is there. I might need them to make some charts but I do as much work as I can to make use of that time. I pretty much put it all together. And then I bring them in.
So as a strong woman, you’ve just called yourself a dictator. As a strong woman, don’t you think that it’s your obligation to protect yourself that way, in a patriarchal society?
One of the reasons I love cabaret is I’m the boss. I pay the bills, and I say that to my directing clients. Musical directors and directors are here to guide you, but you have veto power. You write the checks. So because of that, I’m in charge. And luckily because of cabaret, and listen: I love musical theater but I used to always have to audition. I always had to wait to be hired. This is an art form that I can do whatever the f*ck I want to do on that stage, I just have to pay the bills. So I reach out to my guys and I say, “These are the songwriters I want to do, are you available these dates” and they know what’s coming. It’s not like I put them in chains and tie them up, they say yes, and I think they all really enjoy working with me. I really try to find material that suits them and I also really love to show off their talent.
You mentioned that you used to do musical theater. How did you make the transition from musical theater into nightclub performing?
I was auditioning, auditioning and auditioning and not getting hired. I was coming in at nine in the morning, which is not my time of day, and the people behind the table are like, “Wow, what do I do with you?” Because I’ve been waiting to be in my fifties and I’m finally in my fifties because those are my roles, you know? And literally, when I was in that time period of auditioning, there was another blonde friend of mine, Susan Hackett, she and I had done Grease together in Connecticut and we were not getting hired together. So one day we just said let’s just do it, let’s just do a cabaret show for BCEFA. And I said let’s call it The Blonde Leading The Blonde. And that’s how that was born – that’s how I came into cabaret. We did that show for five years, then she went off and had a baby and got married and moved to Mars, you know, AKA Northern Connecticut. I just continued to do solo work because I discovered how much I love this art form. I just felt like it got me to my heart. Another piece of that was I read The Artist’s Way at the time. I was focused on those 16 bars and building those notes and what do they want to hear from me? I was like: let me get back to my heart. So I stopped auditioning for a while and I got down to the music that I really love and I absolutely love it. I will get back to theater. I will cross back over. But quite honestly, doing theater and wanting to be on Broadway means traveling. And I’ve done it. I’ve done regional theater, I’ve done theaterworks tours, I toured this country and it’s really fun. But at this particular moment in my life, I really dig being in New York City. I like the directing, I love the booking — Don’t Tell Mama is my home. So being a booking manager is just like a dream come true that I didn’t even know I had. I love Salon, so I really kind of like being here right now. The theater thing, I’m sure it will happen. Listen, the last book musical that I did was The Mystery of Edwin Drood and they hired me for that cause they came in and saw the Blonde Show and saw me sing Black Dog by Led Zeppelin — and they hired me to do Drood, and that was back in 2001, so I kind of feel like that crossover back into theater will probably happen.
You just mentioned Led Zeppelin, and one of the things that I love about Moberly at Mama’s Monthly is that you’re doing a lot of rock music and pop music. You’ve got one date where you’re doing Sondheim and Schwartz and everything else is rock music. Do you think that rock music is becoming the new standard for cabaret?
I don’t know, I mean, I sort of… When I wanted to direct cabaret I picked Lennie Watts‘s brain and Lennie is one of the people that kind of brought pop music into cabaret, although even before him there was Karen Mason — there’s a lot of people that have done pop and I love musical theater, but I also really love the fact that cabaret has expanded. People always thought that cabaret is show tunes and standards. There’s just a lot more out there, and all the music that I love, it’s just music that calls to me. And in a cabaret setting, even the show I did last week, people were like, “Oh, I’ve never heard the lyrics to Diamond Girl. I’ve never paid attention to the words in these pop songs.” And I get that a lot. It’s a lovely compliment that people heard the words for the first time. I just love bringing that to that more intimate setting and really delivering the song. I just love the songwriter.
Do you find more benefit to sitting down and writing out a script and working from that script, or from speaking extemporaneously during your shows?
I’m kind of notoriously allergic to patter. I don’t talk a lot. I’ll sing a couple of songs, I’ll say hello and because I’m talking about these songwriters, I give a little history about the songwriter and then I sing 15 songs and say thank you. I really don’t talk a lot. Talking is… if it makes sense, like with my direct clients are meant to be talking, depending on the show. But I kind of let the songs speak for themselves. I have an hour, if you want to talk to me, I’ll talk to you in the bar outside afterwards. I just kind of feel like while I’m on stage I want to deliver the material. So that’s what I do. I do have that little opening monologue where I say hi and I explain things and all that kind of stuff. But then I kind of do songs back to back.
How did you come to find that you could do more things than just go out and sing? How did you tap into your directing and the booking and all that other work that you do?
I’ve always had a director’s constitution. I’ve always loved the idea of directing. I actually worked for a company called True Colors, which was a California based company that did team building that would go into schools and corporations. That’s kind of how I cut my teeth as a director ’cause I got to hire my own actors and direct them. And it was basically four different color characters and they would do monologues and they were married to their opposite characters and then they would all have conflicts and then we could go do workshops and break down and involve all the people that we were working with. I did that for about 10 years and that was really sort of my introduction to being able to direct. I wanted to direct cabaret and I picked Lennie’s brain and had my first client back in 2011. And I’ve just continued. I love a puzzle. I like figuring stuff out and I think that I’m really good at storyline. I know how to do a beginning, middle and end. I also think that I know how this works as far as — I start with the song, and every client is different and every show is different — but I know that that’s how it starts. Like I announced all of these shows but I don’t really know exactly what I’m doing. I announced the shows to motivate me to create the show because if I don’t do it, I just won’t do it. So when I chose “Seals and Croft, Cat Stevens, Crosby Stills Nash and Young” — I just sat down and wrote a list of the songs that they did that I love and then the songs fight it out. Once the songs are chosen and I put the line of it together.. you guys may not know what the story is that I’m telling, but I’m telling my story, I’m always telling my story through the songs. And quite often an audience knows that I’m saying something, because I’m so deeply connected to what I’m saying, but for me, it all ends up making sense. I allow the process to take the process’s time if that makes sense.
How are you enjoying your work as a booking agent?
I love it. Don’t Tell Mama is my home. I love Sydney Meyer. He is beyond this world. He’s the reason I’ve been here that long. So it was a lovely surprise when Manuel, the GM at the time, saw me and he pulled me aside one day and he just said, “Sidney’s been doing this for almost like forty years and it’s a lot. I don’t know how he has done this without help all this time.” So when I was approached, I said yes. And basically I’ve come in to fortify Sydney and to help him. And it’s overwhelming. The job is intense, it never stops. All I do is work, you know? But I love it. I absolutely love it. I’ve been there for about a year now and I’ve gotten sort of acclimated to the daily life of it. I’m on straight commission, so I only get paid for the shows that I book, but I see the bigger picture here. I’m really good at taking care of people and I really understand performers. So I’m having a ball, I really am. And I’m just excited about building a future here. And the fact that we were able to move Salon to Don’t Tell Mama, it’s all so amazing.
Because that sort of gives you a home base. You don’t have to do any of the traveling around the city that everybody else has to do.
Right! I mean, I’ve directed at other venues and I go to shows in other venues, but Don’t Tell Mama is my one-stop shopping right now. And I get to play nightclub. I get to put my shows on the calendar, I get to go directly to the calendar. I get to put my directing clients there, and I get to help Sydney! I love Sydney, and he is overworked and overwhelmed and I think he’s been better since I’ve been there. I’ve always had sort of this dream or this idea that I would manage or own or have something to do with a club, and then boom, here it is! I have this role here! And we have a terrific team right now. It’s an amazing group of people. It’s a family. It’s a community. I mean the entire staff, the piano bar staff, the restaurant staff, the cabaret staff, the tech staff, the kitchen staff. They’re all really hardworking, really great people. And Mike and Leah, they’re terrific people! The owners, they are really good, fine people. So that’s a nice feeling to have a home like this.
How are you enjoying being back on stage?
Oh, I’m so happy! I’m so happy, and I’m happy to be back in The Original Room cause I went to the Brick Room for a year and a half; but I’m back in my original room. And I was hoping people would show up and I had over 30 people in my first house, which I was just very happy about. Because, you know what happens a lot of time is like, “She’s doing a million shows, I’ll see the next one.” But people actually showed up and the show was great. A lot of this because of Salon. I don’t really get super nervous, I know what I’m doing – I’ve been doing this for a while, but that regularity of performing at Salon has really helped me with my chops. And I have to also say the sound in The Original Room at Mama’s is probably the best sound out there.
You must be really excited about this time in your life.
I am. I’m digging my fifties — my body’s falling apart, but other than that, I love being in my fifties! I accepted my Bistro Award last year for directing – it was the day before my birthday and I said, I’m turning 53 tomorrow and I hope I live to be 106 because I am having the best f*cking time! I love my life and I’m glad I’m single and I have no kids and no husband. I wake up naked and dancing! I’m so happy. I have a great apartment. You know, I have a lot of love in my life. It’s wonderful!
Tanya, I hope you live to be 106 too.
Thank you, honey!