Perspectives on Tuesday’s MAC Awards Show
March 22, 2018
By Rob Lester for Cabaret Scenes
“Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day” Ira Gershwin rhymingly wrote to his brother George’s melody. For those hoping for the good news of winning a MAC Award in addition to the earlier good news of being nominated, the stakes may be high as the highest note in that song by the brothers, “The Man I Love.” The MAC Awards is its own lovely love-fest. I’m looking forward to a good night with good cabaret work honored by the good people in cabaret, sitting in B.B. King’s in Times Square, a giant room, applauding some of the giant talent. As we approach Tuesday’s annual wow and pow-wow, I thought it would be interesting to hear from some nominees with different perspectives. I’ve attended many of the ceremonies and been glad to add my cheers to worthy nominees and winners. And I’m glad to be a reviewer and thus to get to see more shows than most people. In predicting winners, I could have made some money if I were a betting man, but have also been surprised on occasion, and in the past I was pleased to be on MAC committees for eligibility and choosing nominees for outstanding songs and CDs and the non-competitive Hanson Award.
Ira Lee Collings
Speaking of the of that honor, let me start my collection of comments with last year’s Hanson Award winner. He is nominated in a competitive category this year, Musical Comedy, and is proudly the oldest nominee this time: octogenarian Ira Lee Collings. On the topic of these two award categories, he answered, “Going from a non-competitive status receiving the Hanson Award from MAC last year to being in a competitive class this year is, in a word from my late sister Elouise, ‘GEESU-PEETS!!’” I asked him for his perspective on the art form as someone who came to cabaret later in life, and has been making up for lost time by not only doing his fairly frequent fun solo nights, but participating in open mics and Don’t Tell Mama’s singing contest, and attending shows by other singers on a very regular basis. He enthused, “My current perspective on cabaret as a ‘Gay Geezer’ is: ‘Cabaret is alive and well!’ I love doing my own shows and I love sharing other cabaret performers’ shows. I would rather spend my money watching my friends perform than see a Broadway show!” Putting his money where his mouth is, he adds, “I’ve seen so many wonderful shows in the past few weeks.
“Top of my list is Sharon McNight! I’ve seen her last two shows at Don’t Tell Mama and she has two more on March 30th and 31st! I plan to be there!” And he adds this to his feelings and reasons for going back to catch that semi-wild woman who this year picks up a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from MAC: “Watching her is a Master Class in cabaret!” (For more on Sharon McNight, see the current issue of the print copy of Cabaret Scenes for a feature article on this vivacious veteran by our peripatetic publisher, Peter Leavy, a member of MAC’s Advisory Board, who met up with her in California.) Sharon shares the cover along with another Lifetime Achievement winner, Ruby Rims, also profiled in that March/April issue.) And MAC’s President Lennie Watts adds this comment: “I’m really excited about the awards this year! I love that we are honoring
Ruby Rims and Sharon McNight, both of whom won MAC Awards at the very first awards show 32 years ago! Now THAT is LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT!!” Mr. Watts is further known as a singer, teacher, former club booking manager, and creator/host of the singing contests MetroStar Talent Challenge and Mama’s Next BIG Act! (nominated this year in the Emcee category for that last-named summer competition). Six days after the MAC Awards, the tireless troubadour returns to performing himself, at Don’t Tell Mama, in a duo show with Brad Simmons. And his directing resumé includes the MAC Awards show itself, for some time as well as the acts of many artists, including such top talent repeat nominees from this year’s roster as Amy Wolk, Those Girls, and Joshua Lance Dixon (whose exhilarating Pack of One show was what came out of his winning Mama’s Next BIG Act!).
Lennie Watts’ immediate predecessor as President is the irrepressible Ricky Ritzel, a frequent MAC nominee and winner in many categories. Once again his ever-changing multi-performer revue series Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway (a past winner, too) is nominated. He’s been around cabaret as his comfort zone since its Paleozoic Era, and is known for his directness and spunk. I thought I’d ask for his long view, and I am not surprised that he’d focus on what makes a night for awards FUN. He chimed in, “As we venture forth into the reality of the 32nd MAC Awards Party, I think back to the first few years at the Village Gate when it was also a party. There were quite a number of years when the decision-makers thought the awards ceremony should be held in a theatrical or concert hall setting and the party afterward. Baloney! The whole evening should be held in a party atmosphere. The arrival, the table hopping, bad champagne, the kisses, the fights, and the ever-popular acceptance speech (or two) delivered under the complete and drama-inducing magic of 2 or 12 martinis. (Believe me, I write from experience!) No theatrical environment can match what a club setting can when we are worshiping at the altar, celebrating what we strive to serve with every performance we do, live entertainment in a glorious, cabaret.”
I was curious to get the point of view of someone relatively new to cabaret, so, naturally, I turned to one of the nominees in the Debut category. I knew that Kati Neiheisel, whose So Many Stars act was one I was particularly impressed with this year, had truly cut her cabaret teeth song by song at the nominated Open Mic series at the now-closed Metropolitan Room, where she got to know the supportive open mic’s savvy singing co-host Deb Berman, who became her director, and pianist Gregory Toroian, whom she took on as her musical director. I asked the newer cabaret chanteuse what lessons she took away from doing her first full solo act after testing the waters for some time. Her thoughtful reply was, “What I learned from my debut solo show was how much work it takes to create a show! There are so many pieces to the puzzle, and you can only learn by doing. And you certainly can’t do it alone! In addition to collaborating with my dream team musical director and director, I learned so much from so many generous cabaret colleagues over the past six years. Overall, my debut show experience has been a joy! I’ve become a more skilled and confident performer, but also a more grounded and empathic person for being part of the cabaret community.”
Somebody who has long been part of that cabaret community is Stearns Matthews. I vividly recall seeing his very early work at The Duplex and in the first year of the MetroStar contest.(Rewind your cabaret memories to 2008, if you can.) Now he has started directing and is on the MAC’s Board of Directors. He is a nominee this year for his CD of Maury Yeston’s song cycle, December Songs. Here’s his perspective: “The first year I was nominated, I was 24. I showed up to B.B. King with a whole entourage of friends and family and, even though I didn’t win, I walked the red carpet—there used to be one and Leon Hall was interviewing folks on it—hobnobbed with the fancy folks, and had a magical New York evening. Back then, I felt a bit like I was outside looking in—like I was lucky to be there, but not really one of those fancy folks. Nine years later, my perspective has shifted greatly; not that I think I’m fancy now, but I can look around and really appreciate all the pieces of the cabaret world, and own that I have a place in it.”
Also grateful and not seeing coming away with the trophy as the be-all and end-all is someone who’d been in cabaret in the past and then took years off to raise her two sons: Lisa Viggiano, now nominated for the second year in a row in the Female Vocalist field. She and all her co-nominees from last year combined forces and did a show featuring all of them. She reflected, “Of all the years to be nominated for the first time, I was blessed to have the opportunity to get to know the other 2017 nominees in the most intimate of ways—creating a show TOGETHER—pun intended—and then choosing charities to raise funds together. This has been a beautiful gift. For me, the word ‘competition’ translates into seeing all of nominees’ talents and hearts, and having great appreciation to be counted among such extraordinary artists.”
Photo: Takako Harkness
Nominated in three—count ’em, three—different categories is Tanya Moberly: She’s up for Major Artist for her own numerous solo shows; as director; and as producer of the themed open mic The Salon, where many (including this writer) see many of these nominees on Sunday nights at Etc. Etc., on West 44th Street, a few blocks from where the Awards will be handed out. She, too, is not about the competition part. As she puts it, “I find all of the ‘Award Stuff’ really fun and really inspiring. I’ve never been a competitive person, and I feel like there is enough to go around. And sometimes it takes time. I have always said, ‘The longer it takes, the better I get.’ There is so much talent in the New York cabaret community, and I am very lucky to be able to wear so many hats within it. I LOVE performing, but I also love directing and running Salon and judging Mama’s Next BIG Act!, because it allows me the opportunity to nurture other artists and to constantly learn and grow as an artist myself. Besides—it’s so much fun. Everything I do is ‘play’. It is especially thrilling to be nominated in these three different categories this year. I have been singing at Don’t Tell Mama for 20 years now, and it just reinforces the idea that if you love what you do, and you do it long enough, then perhaps it is what you were born to do. And this all feels like this is what I was born to do.”
Here’s a wish for a great night at the MAC Awards: full of fine entertainment by the winners and special guests…. and may a good time be had by all!
MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets) has its Awards show on Tuesday, March 27 at 7 PM. It is produced by the organization’s Vice President, Julie Miller. For a full list of nominees and special winners and other information on the organization, see www.MACnyc.com.
MAC Awards tickets are now on sale at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3328199
The venue, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, is at 237 West 42 Street in Manhattan.