A native of New Jersey, Charles Cermele (pronounced "sir-MEH-lee") often describes himself as being a cross between Michael Feinstein and John Gotti. In reality, Charles is something of a rarity in the world of cabaret. Not only is he a male performer in a genre usually known for its female stars, but he is also a baritone in a field where most male performers are (or at least try to be) tenors. And what a baritone he is! Time Out/New York recently called him "One of the smoothest, most beautiful baritones in cabaret." His debut CD, Look in My Eyes, was the winner of the 1996 Bistro Award for the Outstanding Record of the Year and was chosen as a "Critic's Choice" by Billboard.
Charles and I recently met at Joe Allen in New York City to talk about his views on cabaret, and about his new CD, Ask Me Again.
Jonathan Frank: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Charles.
Charles Cermele: Thank you. It's great to be here.
JF: Now you didn't start out doing cabaret, or even musical theater. You were originally trained as a 'serious' actor, with a degree in theater from Tufts University.
CC: I thought I was going to be a serious actor, but then I discovered that Shakespeare didn't write "The Pizza Boy, He Delivers." It was really about casting. It was a funny idea that I was going to be a great classical actor, when I look like a 'mug.' And they don't hire 'mugs.'
JF: So that's how you ended up in Jerry Zak's Guys and Dolls, touring with Lorna Luft.
CC: They hired mugs. I was on the road for two years, 717 performances. And it was two years in which I had incredible music to sing with an amazing company. We really challenged each other subconsciously to be the best we could be. Nobody was able to slough off because you would listen to the guy next to you, and realize "He's singing his guts out, so I better sing mine out too." Everybody was such a pro on that tour, that it challenged you to be your best.
JF: What did part did you play in Guys and Dolls?
CC: I was the third hat on the left in the back. I was in the chorus and was the only speaking chorus boy. I had one line, so I actually got paid to say ... I don't know ... I had to remember it every night, and I was afraid I was going to forget it because it was only one line. "I hear that Sky Masterson is coming," or something like that. And I got listed in the program as "Angie the Ox." I also understudied Benny Southstreet, Harry the Horse, and Rusty Charlie.
JF: I wish I had seen it when it passed through Seattle. It sounds like it was a lot of fun.
CC: The tour was a great experience and it really confirmed my belief in doing cabaret for two reasons. First, I had never been in a show for that long. I had worked in theater off and on all of my life but I had never done a show for that length of time. And once I got a taste of it, I realized that it was not what I wanted to do. I realized that I liked working on small projects. I certainly liked doing theater for short term things, but I discovered that I didn't like the idea of doing a show for a really long time, which is what we all aspire to. We hope to get a good job and stay in a hit show. And to find that it wasn't something that I really wanted to do was good thing to discover. Because then I wasn't about to come back to New York and kill myself to get into Phantom and be in it for the next ten years. I can imagine myself doing any of the shows currently on Broadway for six months. But that is not what they are looking for when they hire people; they are looking for people to be in their shows for a year at least. And also, in modern musicals, you had better hit your mark and say your line in exactly the same amount of time every night or somebody is going to have their head chopped off by a piece of scenery that is supposed to move on cue. And that isn't fun to me. And that is why cabaret is so fulfilling, because it is supposed to be different every night.
JF: So how did you get involved in cabaret?
CC: What happened is that I had lost interest in the contemporary musical theater scene on Broadway. When I got to New York, they were doing things like "Ten thousand years of Rock and Roll." And then the English invasion happened. It didn't capture my interest, and it didn't capture the sound of my voice. It wasn't something that my sound was appropriate for, since I don't have a pop-theater sound. I figured that I could either change my voice or I could change what I was doing. So I started working in the performance art scene, which was very director driven and not particularly actor driven. I started working with a poet friend of mine and we did theatrical settings of his poetry. We started including some music, and then I started doing some writing of my own and it turned into "Well, I think I'll sing some old songs, and then I'll write some interesting stuff for in between" and I thought "Hmm ... I wonder where I should be doing this."
JF: Because you have just described the archetypical cabaret show.
CC: I didn't know that, though, because I had never been to one. Actually, I had been to see Sharon McNight and I loved it. But I never really equated cabaret with what I was doing until somebody said "what you are doing is cabaret." So it was very naive of me, but it was a nice way to get into it. I wasn't doing cabaret to get a theater job, I wasn't doing it to keep myself busy between theater work, which a lot of people do for good reasons. It was more like discovering that cabaret is a venue for the art that I am trying to make and that it was the most appropriate venue for it. If I had stayed in the church basement of P.S. 122 it probably wouldn't be called cabaret. It would be called "Solo Performance Art."
JF: Have you done any theater since Guys and Dolls?
CC: No. I was in the backer's audition for Side Show. It was very early in the process. It was great, because it was fun to learn all this wonderful music. But it was quite clear that I wasn't freaky enough.
JF: Did you play the part filled by another cabaret performer, Phillip Officer?
CC: He wasn't in it then. He was in the first workshop and then he did the third one and the show. But it was thrilling because the music was so great. But generally I have been booking myself across the country and getting the word out about what I do and about my albums. Because, as you know, we're not just selling ourselves, we're also selling a genre of music. We are fighting for space in the press, and very often people have no idea what we are talking about. In a lot of the country, 'cabaret' is a place where you go to get a lap dance.
JF: Or it's an old movie with Liza.
JF: But there seems to be a hunger for this kind of music in middle America, where the Michaels Crawford and Feinstein do very well selling their CDs and finding a concert base.
CC: That was another thing I learned doing Guys and Dolls. I was put in charge of all the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefits we did around the country. We put on some really great shows in places where I wasn't sure how they would react to the material. I directed the shows, and pushed people not to do their usual audition material, but to put together a show with great music: some standards, some new songs, a few novelty numbers. And people came out of the woodwork with great material, and the audiences just went crazy. And it reminded me that there was an audience for all of this music everywhere. I also found that to be true when I started playing around the county with my own shows. People would tell me "Oh, you have to do the standards, you can't do Sondheim." And it's such a lie, because everywhere you go, people would know songs that would surprise me. I was doing a show which included some songs by Sondheim and two songs by my music director, Chris Marlowe, one of which was written for me and one which was written for Nancy LaMott. And at the end of the show, people would invariably ask me about the Sondheim song and one of the new songs, not the Gershwin songs.
JF: It seems strange that there are so few break-out artists in this genre of music, and that we get so little air play on the radio. Because the audience seems to be there.
CC: Before I recorded my first CD, I went around to some of the major companies and spoke to some people. They were very nice, but they looked at me as if I was out of my mind. "You are going to record what and you expect us to do what with it?" And one guy from BMG, who does all their cast albums, gave me a very good piece of advice. He said, "You know Charles, the record industry doesn't even have a department for this kind of music any more. There are no A&R people for 'American Popular Standards.' But they do record personalities who record this music." So there are the Harry Connicks and Natalie Coles that they have picked up. And they will record whatever the music is that those singers are recording. And when those people happen to be recording pop standards, whether new pop standards or old pop standards, they get recorded. But the minute those people change the kind of music that they are recording, those record companies will continue to record those people and what they are recording. They are not going to go out and find new people to take their place. If Harry Connick becomes a funk musician, which he kind of is, they will record that. It's not about the music. It is, in terms of the quality of the recording, but it's not about a style.
JF: And if you were to label yourself, you would prefer to call yourself ...
CC: I call myself a cabaret singer. Whether I am singing in a club of fifty or in a room for 1500 in a concert setting, I believe I am a cabaret singer. Because it's how I approach the music, as well the kind of music that I do and why I do it.
JF: And what is your definition of a "cabaret singer?"
CC: I think it's someone who is dealing mainly with the lyrics of a song; telling the story of a song, whether the song is a new song or an old song. It's really all about their personal connection to the story that the song tells. It's not about vocal embellishment, unless that embellishment furthers the story of the song. If you add embellishment for no reason, it becomes jazz. But if you just sing a song straight, you are a cabaret singer. Rosemary Clooney is a cabaret singer. Tony Bennett is, to me, a cabaret singer. They aren't jazz singers; they don't embellish at all. Even Shirley Horn is close to being a cabaret singer. In the record store we are under 'Pop Vocals.'
JF: Or 'Easy Listening'
CC: Whatever that means. Is the rest of the store 'Uneasy Listening?'
JF: Quite often it is! You know that your first CD, Look in My Eyes, is one of my favorites and that it is one of the most romantic CDs I own. And I am looking forward to hearing your new CD, Ask Me Again. What drove you to do this second CD?
CC: The need to build my career. It's one thing to have one CD, it's another thing to have two. And to have something new to talk about, in order to get my story out personally. And also to talk about the music I am singing. It's not interesting enough that I happen to be showing up with an all-Gershwin show.
JF: Is that mainly what you do? Create shows centered around a single songwriter?
CC: I never used to. But I found, and I hate to sound so cynical about it, but it's really all about finding ways to educate the audience about what you are doing and about the music that you are doing.
JF: What's so cynical about that?
CC: Well, some people would say that I am a press hound, or something like that. But everything I do, my first thought is, "What is it about this show that is going to be an interesting story to tell to people? How can this get into the newspapers, into magazines, onto radio, or God forbid, can I get onto TV with it?" Luckily, people discovered my first album, because I was literally starting from nowhere. It really was early for me to be doing an album in terms of my career in New York, because it was like "Why is he doing an album? Who is he?" And a lot of people got to know me through the album. And that album, even though it was two or three years old, would continually get picked up by the press as a debut album, and with it I had a story to tell. And so when I am putting shows together now, my first thought is, "Is it enough that it is just me and an evening of songs?" So now that I have a new album out, that's enough; that's the story to tell. For instance, when I recently did a tour of Chicago, San Francisco, LA and all that, it was important to show up with a show that was larger than just 'me.' So if I created an evening of songs by Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen, that's the story to sell. It doesn't matter that when my picture appeared in the San Francisco paper it said I was singing the songs of George Gershwin. I don't care. At least they ran it!
JF: I'm not sure it's all that cynical. It sounds more along the lines of your being realistic to the business side of 'show biz.'
CC: A couple of years ago, Wesla Whitfield was playing at the Algonquin and gave one of my favorite theme shows. She named the show Teach Me Tonight: The Songs of Sammy Cahn and Others. Well, that was the only Sammy Cahn song in the whole show. It was so fabulous. It was a wonderful show, with all sorts of music by different songwriters. And afterwards I was thinking "and others indeed!" But it wasn't enough to say that Wesla Whitfield was going to be at the Algonquin. You needed to be able to get a Sammy Cahn fan to think "I don't know who Wesla Whitfield is, but since I love Sammy Cahn, I think I will go see her." And it also gives the people who don't know Wesla an idea of what genre she represents. Or, for instance, when John Pizzarelli performs, hopefully people know who he is and what he does. But they may not. So they may then say "Oh! It's an evening of Beatles music at the Algonquin." Well having Beatles music at the Algonquin means that it is not going to be a classic show. And maybe I don't know what it is going to be, but I will definitely show up to find out."
JF: Percentage-wise, how much of your income is derived from your music?
CC: I would say that at this point, it's about half.
JF: That's very good, since cabaret usually ends up costing a lot more than what you make.
CC: Right now, cabaret is my part time job, and luckily I have another part time job that keeps it going. But it's changing and growing, hopefully and happily.
JF: Which is why you weren't nominated for the 'Major Male Vocalist' award this year at the MAC Awards: you weren't making enough money!
CC: Actually, I'd be making even less money if I were playing any of those major rooms, because they are that much more expensive to perform at.
JF: Last year you won the MAC Award for 'Male Vocalist.' Did winning the award do anything for your career?
CC: Yes. It raises people's awareness of what you do and it's another part of the story to tell. And when I'm playing out of town and sending postcards advertising the performances or promoting my CDs, it means something. I think it's meaning more and more, and the quality of what the MAC Award means is growing in value.
JF: And you were nominated again this year for the 'Male Vocalist' award.
CC: I was proud of the category I was in this year. I think that both of the other guys were really good. I would have loved to have won again this year, but it was fine that I didn't.
JF: It was Tom Andersen who won this year, and the other nominee was ...
CC: Scott Coulter. He won best debut last year. It was Tom's second win in that category; he won two years ago.
JF: Where do you see yourself in five years?
CC: Pretty much doing the same thing. Just traveling more, playing in larger venues. I think that where cabaret is going to go, in terms of venues, is much more into concert halls. Because the club thing ... I thought at one time that I was going to be somebody who was going to open new clubs and start new venues both here and around the country, but I can't. It's for somebody else to do. So for me, I need to find places to sing. And a lot of towns don't have places that are appropriate for what I do. A lot of the things that I get invited to do across the country are more concert-type performances. Small theaters that are doing cabaret series within a concert setting. Because a lot of people don't like going out and drinking and smoking. But the music is still vital wherever you perform it.
JF: Are you pleased with how your new CD turned out?
CC: I'm proud of the album. It's close to what I wanted it to be. I feel that it is vocally stronger than the first album. Because I wasn't singing as much when I recorded the first album as I am now. So this is a bit stronger. "Blues in the Night" is my favorite track on the CD, because the musicians are so great. And when we recorded the scratch track, it became the final take. And everybody talks about "Come On-a My House." And what's really nice is that I haven't officially released the CD yet, in terms of getting it out to the press. But the press people who have come to the show in February have already started reviewing the album and there have been already some nice reviews.
JF: Where can one get the CD?
CC: It's on the books at all major record stores, so it can be ordered. It's on Amazon.com. It's also available at Tower, Virgin, and Borders online. It should be in the stores as well.
JF: Well, thank you for your time and for joining us here at Talkin' Broadway. I wish you the best of fates on your new CD and continued success with your career.
CC: Thank you.
For more information on Charles Cermele and upcoming concert dates, visit his website at http://www.charlescermele.com/main.html.