What is Cabaret?

Even seasoned cabaret performers struggle to define their art: from burlesque or stand-up to vaudeville or tribute shows, cabaret can be hard to pin down.

Cabaret is an extraordinarily versatile, eclectic and evolving performance genre. It was born in French wine cellars in the 1800s (where the name meaning ‘tavern’ originated) as small groups of artists and bohemians would get together for creative impromptu performances among their peers.

The form soon grew from private to public with the opening of the famous cabaret venue Le Chat Noir in Paris in 1881, and interest in the intimate and intellectual nature of the performances (as opposed to more grandiose nineteenth-century theatre) increased dramatically.

The musical and spoken content for cabaret thus became more driven by social and political commentary, but still retained its aesthetic and creative integrity. Subsequently, it was embraced eagerly by Berlin at a time of national turmoil on the eve of World War I. Here it finally split into two more distinct branches: the political and edgy ‘Kabarett’ and the erotic strip-show ‘Cabaret’, though Liza Minelli’s 1972 movie Cabaret directed by Bob Fosse demonstrates how the two could originally be conflated.

Elsewhere in the world, however, cabaret was also blossoming into maturity with music hall and transplanted burlesque shows shocking and delighting London, stage spectaculars and showgirls dazzling Las Vegas, the great music theatre stars giving intimate late-night piano bars performances in New York, and innovative conceptual cabaret intriguing modern audiences in Melbourne.

Cabaret Today

In its most distilled and essential form therefore, cabaret is about intimacy and interaction. It breaks down the theatrical fourth wall definitively, and explores significant diversity in musical, emotional, and performance styles. Both the content of any cabaret and the cabaret genre itself is always an act of reinvention, whether it be remaking the performer’s signature style, reimagining a cliched old showtune for new effect, or even rethinking the actual boundaries of what we might call ‘cabaret’.

There are plenty of shows out there that dub themselves ‘cabaret’ because it’s a popular and appealing genre, but these are often simply musical theatre, revues or concerts. However, if the focus of a performance is on an intimate space and an artist connecting with an audience, upsetting their expectations, offering a new perspective on the world and its art, juggling boundaries between the poignant and the hysterical, and being constantly creative: this is what cabaret is all about.

Further reading:

  • Lisa Appignanesi, The Cabaret. Studio Vista, 1975
  • Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard Univ. Press, 1993
  • Lawrence Senelick, Ed. Cabaret Performance. 2 Vols. Johns Hopkins Press1993

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