Cabaret star Steve Ross and actress Frances Sternhagen recently drew 200 people to a fundraiser to restore a Westchester church. The performers' dedication epitomizes cabaret's nature and its unique value as a fundraising mechanism.
In a variety of settings, where fundraisers pin their hopes on making the best possible impression with a target audience in order to motivate them, even the most sophisticated group can be touched by the delicate humor, musical memories, and emotional impact of cabaret. In fact, while the notion of cabaret as a powerful fundraising vehicle would seem to turn the definition of the art form on its ear, its very intimacy may be the thing that gives cabaret its greatest strength and influence with event producers.
The faithful 200 who saw Ross and Sternhagen paid $60 a head to attend the benefit dinner and performance on Sun., Feb. 28 at the Davenport Beach Club in New Rochelle. The benefit was intended to help restore the unique stained glass at St. Gabriel's Church. Ross, who was born in New Rochelle, was sensitive to "the cause" as he described it. A long-time New Rochelle resident, Sternhagen performed readings.
Ross told Back Stage that he does events like these fairly frequently, as do other recognized cabaret stars that he mentioned, such as Andrea Marcovicci, Ann Hampton Callaway, and Michael Feinstein.
"In cabaret, the strength is in the intimacy and personal nature of the event," Ross said. "If the rapport with the audience is right, all of a sudden you can be pleasantly surprised. The music is pleasant and can help make it a personal experience with memories and emotions. Rather than a rock artist or a belting singer, the cabaret artist is often at his or her best as a storyteller."
Ross added that he just did a benefit at the Helen Hayes Hospital in Nyack, and that he tries to accommodate requests despite a busy schedule.
"You do try if it's a cause," Ross said, "and all causes are good. But I can't donate my services to everyone who asks, because it is my livelihood, after all."
To get around this, Ross said, artists work with event producers who often consider the star's publicity value in addition to his or her creative talent.
"A lot of the time they'll wrap a given fundraiser around the artist if the artist is well known," Ross said. "The artist gets a given fee, the date is secured, and they just wrap around that, with invitations and all sorts of things. The artist can also do interviews. I'm doing a fundraiser this April in Tucson with Karen Akers. The theme is "April in Paris' and we'll be interviewed, and there's a raffle, and they can do ancillary events to make it interesting for the people.
"Those of us who do fundraisers have to do things to make it work, like interviews," he added with a laugh. "You have to kiss some babies."
Ross acknowledges that New York is considered the "acme of sophistication," but says there is a growing audience for cabaret because people appreciate the relaxing and fun nature of the genre.
"If everything is positioned right," Ross said, "the people in the audience like the feeling of intimacy, of a person singing right to them. People don't usually have that kind of entertainment offered to them."
Ultimately, he adds, cabaret is good for the bottom line because it's simple.
"You just need a piano and a person," Ross said.