Two young debutants of the Cabaret Convention discuss the future of the genre



“A bastion of tradition,” “an exclusive country-club retreat for an older audience repelled by the abrasive tone of contemporary pop,” wrote Stephen Holden, a long-time music critic for The New York Times, of the Cabaret Convention four years ago. This month, the convention, produced by the not-for-profit Mabel Mercer Foundation, celebrates its 30th anniversary, with a pair of exceptionally young performers testing diametric approaches to cabaret with its future in mind. One is devoted to the traditions of the art, the other believes in transforming those traditions by embracing the contemporary.

The first of the two singers is Anais Reno, a 15-year-old junior at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.  The second is Hannah Jane Peterson, an 18-year old graduate of the Professional Performing Arts School. Both were invited to perform at this year’s convention after winning first and second prizes respectively, albeit in different years, at the high school competition organized by the foundation.

Music critic Will Friedwald, who has written for The Wall Street Journal and was the jazz and cabaret critic for The New York Sun, calls Reno his favorite young jazz singer and Peterson his favorite young Broadway-style singer.  “Diametrically opposed in their styles and personalities,” as described by their “cabaret mama” KT Sullivan, the artistic director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, the two young artists and close friends also hold different opinions about the prospects for the future of cabaret.

Peterson, who dreams of Broadway and is trying to balance her passion for cabaret with musical theatre, argues, “The only way we’re going to see cabaret grow is if we start to mix our music.” She is afraid cabaret will fail to build a younger audience if it doesn’t pick up on what’s new and popular. “You have to get them in with something that they know,” she says.

Bright and cheerful, Peterson says she likes to “keep people on their toes.” At the convention, she will be performing two songs by Judy Garland, whom the young songstress names as her main influence: “The Joint is Really Jumpin’ in Carnegie Hall” (Roger Edens, Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin) from Thousands Cheer and “Friendly Star” (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon) from Summer Stock. What Peterson can give a master class in, according to Alix Cohen, a critic for Cabaret Scenes magazine, is her ability to connect with the audience.

Reno, who, is strikingly calm and composed for her age, says, “It would be a shame to completely change [cabaret] in order to appeal to a younger audience.” She believes “there will always be enough people who appreciate it as it is.”

Called a musical prodigy by Michael Feinstein, the five-time Grammy award nominee and a founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation, Reno has been praised by authorities such as Feinstein and Friedwald for the depth and maturity of her singing. One of her first original songs, titled “Childhood,” reflects on how the adult surroundings influenced the artist on a personal and professional level.

Sullivan described Reno’s personality as “dark and sultry,” matching the contralto of her voice, and facetiously noticed that she suggested the singer does not perform her first song of choice “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” at the convention, because ”the audience might not believe she does have the right to sing the blues.”  Frank Dain, editor in chief of Cabaret Scenes, says Reno is “the most exciting find that’s come along in a while.”  Heavily influenced by jazz and blues, Reno will be performing “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So”, written by Duke Ellington and Mack David, on the closing night of the convention.

As young artists in the genre that’s traditionally attracted older performers and audience, both Peterson and Reno are struggling to fit in. “A lot of people don’t expect a young person to be singing old music, so there can be, not prejudice, but there can be a little bit of a tough way in sometimes,” says Reno. Peterson, who premiered her debut show at the Laurie Beechman Theater last year, adds that one of the challenges a young cabaret artist immediately faces is being able to sell out a show with no established name in the industry. That’s why it’s important, in her opinion, to open up the world of cabaret for a younger audience with the incorporation of modern styles. In the words of another debutant of the convention, 25-year-old Mark William, “Other styles and modern music have a welcome place in the genre. I think cabaret will always evolve. It’s such a wide-open art form that it allows for its practitioners to bring whatever kind of music and other entertainment they like.”

Holden, who had recently retired after covering the convention for decades, is not so optimistic about the readiness of the audience to embrace modernization of the genre. “They put up with it, but they’re not really tolerant.” Problems lay within the audience, in Holden’s view. “It’s a small little world unto itself. I think it’s holding up, but I don’t think it’s growing at all.”

Sullivan, who holds professional responsibility for the health of the field, professes confidence in its prospects. “I see a little turn in the last couple of years, and it’s not just me,” she says. “I think other people too. They see that upswing of cabaret, which is good to hear.”