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Everything you need to know about cabaret

As we reach the halfway point of the Hayes Cabaret Season, we thought we’d take this chance to have an “up close and personal” look at the “up close and personal” art form. We also answer a few burning questions you might have, starting with one pretty big one.


What is it?

Most of us instinctively know what cabaret is – when we see a cabaret, we know that the label fits – but how many of us could actually define the word if we were asked to? 

Cabaret has traditionally been defined by the venues in which it is performed. When cabaret first gained popularity in the early 20th century, it applied to mainly musical performances in small, dark bars with tables around which audience members would gather to eat or drink.

Of course, cabarets have now moved beyond those venues (largely by necessity), often into theatre spaces and occasionally even pop-ups and outdoor venues. So what are the factors that now hold these widely varied performances together under the cabaret umbrella?

Given the breadth of styles and content that can be considered cabaret, it’s pretty difficult to define. The beauty of cabaret is that it really can be whatever you want it to be – it can tell a story, it can link musical ideas together to riff on a theme, it can be introspective and gentle, or it can be envelope-pushing, bawdy and hilarious. As Barry Humphries has said time and again in promoting his Adelaide Cabaret Festival: there are no rules in cabaret.

Perhaps the best way to describe what a cabaret is right now – or at least a way to distinguish one from a concert – is as an intimate musical performance where there’s always some dramatic impetus or ideas to be explored. But in just a few years’ time, that might no longer be applicable.

Cabaret has had a scattered history, developing across the world in an ad hoc fashion (and in many cases as a form of political rebellion), which is perhaps why it sprawls so broadly and is so difficult to tame.


How did it develop?

The French word ‘cabaret’ evolved from the term camberete, which essentially means a chamber or small room, but the modern usage of the term developed in the 1880s in Paris. Bohemian venues like Le Chat Noir, Folies Bergereand of course the iconic Moulin Rougesprung up all across the city in the following decades. These were venues defined by their Bohemian spirit (even the upper class Folies Bergere); the content was adult and risqué.

While the French cabaret artists were reacting against a conservative society, German artists were reacting against the overwhelming social and political problems their nation was facing. The German word for cabaret, “kabarett”, is closely tied to the political satire that typified Weimar-era performances in the 1920s. The German cabaret of the period was subversive, dark and intensely critical of government and society.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi party set about breaking down the cabaret subculture and censoring overt criticisms (the famous Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret is largely about that movement). The period also saw many of the greatest German artists of the time, including Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, flee the country.

Soon after World War II ended, cabaret artists returned to their posts and German cabaret has remained distinctively political ever since.

In the United States, cabaret emerged out of the prohibition era of the 1920s, and was performed alongside jazz concerts in speakeasy clubs. The live entertainment was often just there as a distraction from the mobsters illegally dealing alcohol, but out of that scene developed a strong culture of cabaret, even if it was never as overtly political as European performances.

Cabaret dropped in popularity in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s, but Broadway has kept it kicking along in New York, as the intimate alternative to the big lights and gloss of Broadway musicals.


What’s the story of cabaret in Sydney?

Australia didn’t have the same rich cabaret traditions as Europe or the United States throughout most of the 20th century, but in the late 1980s and ‘90s, there was a surge of activity, largely driven by theatre and musical theatre performers working between shows. At the centre of this movement was Sydney’s famed Tilbury Hotel, which had a cabaret stage owned and managed by Michael Freundt and Geoffrey Williams from the mid-1980s to 1997.

The venue featured a broad range of Australian performers including Phil Scott, Drew Forsythe and Jonathan Biggins (of Three Men and a Baby Grand and later Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue), Tony Sheldon, Garry Scale and the grand dames of musical theatre, such as Geraldine Turner, Nancye Hayes and Judi Connelli. It even attracted visitors from international cabaret legends like Barbara Cook.

Genevieve Lemon is one such performer who spent many nights on stage and in the audience at the Tilbury, where you could buy a famously cheap show and meal combo for any performance.

“When Michael and Geoffrey opened the Tilbury, they had a piano bar that was definitely an ongoing part of the furniture,” Lemon recalls. “And then Garry Scale and Tony Harvey just approached them and said ‘why don’t we do some pantomime?’ They were Christmas season pantomimes like the British pantomimes, but definitely for an adult audience, and they were hilarious.”

Soon enough, the Tilbury had cabaret performances, of some variety, running most nights the whole year around. Lemon appeared in several hugely popular shows, such as The Amazing Browns, in which she co-starred with Max Lambert and Tony Sheldon as a family act, as well as her solo work, including Lemon, Live and Bitter and Lonestar Lemon.

Lemon says the cabaret scene developed out of Australia’s strong vaudeville tradition as well the Philip Street Revue of the 1950s and ‘60s and Sydney’s famous drag scene. Given those roots, Australian cabaret has always been eclectic with strong comedic roots.

“It was very much by the seat of your pants and hoping you could riff off the people on stage with you, even though you had a very clever script,” Lemon says. “But you’d encourage everybody to have a drink, because you’re much funnier if the audience has all had a drink.”

Off the back of that Sydney cabaret boom period came the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (the largest cabaret festival in the world, established in 2001), the Sydney Cabaret Convention, the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and a number of other festivals around the country. Those festivals have waxed and waned over the last two decades, as have the venues.

Lemon says that the health of Australia’s cabaret scene over that period has been largely connected to the consistency of support from those venues and festivals.

Cabaret in Sydney is, arguably, in another boom period with the Hayes Theatre Co’s annual cabaret season and “A Month of Sundays” series, as well as Slide Lounge’s program. Sydney Mardi Gras Festival regularly features cabaret and last year’s Sydney Festival included Blak Cabaret and French-Irish cabaret star Camille O’Sullivan.



Where to from here?


It’s really anybody’s guess where this versatile artform will travel to next, but it’s proven itself agile enough to adapt to any situation and continues to attract artists with something to say.

There are clear trends that can be pointed to right now, such as the prevalence of bio-cabarets, which tell the story of a well-known cultural figure. They’ve even overtaken the popularity of more personal, confessional cabarets which were in vogue during the late ‘90s. Narrative-based cabarets have become widely popular, but the ground that cabaret artists cover is extraordinarily broad.

It feels inevitable that cabaret will soon enough turn back to its early political aspirations, but there’s any number of roads it could take.