Cabaret

Interview with
Lennie Watts

by Jonathan Frank

Lennie Watts is the proverbial 'man with many hats' in the cabaret community. A multiple MAC and Bistro Award winner as both a performer and a director, he has recently added another chapeau to his collection by becoming the booking manager at the newest cabaret room to open in New York, Mama Rose's. Lennie was kind enough to make a free moment during the last frantic days leading up to Mama Rose's opening to talk about his plans for the room, as well as for MAC, given his recent promotion to Vice President of the organization.

Jonathan:  Congratulation on your new job as booking manager for Mama Rose's.

Lennie:  Thanks! I've been booking people for two months now, so it will be great to have the place open on Monday [September 15, 2003].

JF:   What is the schedule for Mama Rose's?

LW:  We will be doing shows seven days a week. Monday through Friday we'll have two shows: 7pm and 9:30pm. On Saturday and Sunday we will be having shows at 4pm, 7pm and 9:30pm.

JF:   Mama Rose's is owned by the same people who own Rose's Turn and Don't Tell Mama, correct?

LW:  Yes, the Pham family; it's named Mama Rose's after Rosie Pham. Plus, we wanted to establish a connection between Rose's Turn and Don't Tell Mama.

JF:   The space is quite striking. Has it ever been used as a performance venue before?

I Can Love Again - Lennie Watts
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"I Can Love Again"
by Lennie Watts and Peter Calo
In RealAudio

LW:  Not since the current owners have had it. Somebody stopped in yesterday and said the space used to be quite the hot spot and mentioned all these great jazz musicians and old time rock musicians who played here. I keep trying to do research on the place but nobody seems to know anything for certain. I've heard all sorts of things, like it used to be one of the Astor's residences, a synagogue, a restaurant ... there's a kitchen downstairs that we're not using. Once things settle down I'll do more research.

JF:  What place in the hierarchy of New York rooms are you planning the room to occupy?

LW:  We're hoping to fill the void left by 88's when it closed. What was so great about that room was that it featured beginners as well as established cabaret and Broadway performers.

JF:  True. With the loss of 88's, Arci's, and the Rainbow Room, we've lost most of the intimate mid-level rooms. And it's quite the leap from The Duplex or Don't Tell Mama to the Algonquin.

LW:  Exactly. And I think Mama Rose's is going to be a great mid-level spot.

JF:  Who are some of the people you have lined up so far?

LW:  Mark Nadler and K. T. Sullivan will be inaugurating the space with a two-day run of their Irving Berlin show. Also in September, Ed Alstrom from Acid Cabaret will be coming in for two nights. We're also having a series of 'one night stands,' featuring performers revisiting their old shows or doing a conglomeration from past shows. Patrick DeGennaro has put together a musical revue called Breaking Standards. There's going to be a debut show by Courtney Morris that I directed.

And October is packed! Sharon McNight is coming in with a new show. Other performers will include Helen Baldassari, Steven Ray Watkins, Pinky Winters ... and those are only a few of October's performers.

JF:  What's the range of cover charges for the shows?

LW:  Covers will range from $10 to $35, which will be only for the really big names. Of course, there will always be exceptions, but .... we really want to keep it reasonable because I think that's why all these big rooms didn't survive: nobody would go because it was too expensive!

JF:  It sounds like the position of booking manager is a natural fit for you, given the fact that you have a lot of connections and insights into the cabaret community since you are not only a performer, but an accomplished director, as well as being the MAC Member at Large.

LW:   Actually, I've just been promoted to Vice President of MAC [of which there are two, with Peter Haas being the other].

JF:  Congratulations - I hadn't heard! What does being Vice President entail?

LW:  To be honest, I made my own job as Member at Large ... the organization wasn't structured too efficiently when I came in and people pretty much made their own jobs. This is in the process of being changed since we now have a great board that wants to make changes and become a more credible organization. As a result, we're in the process of rethinking and restructuring job responsibilities. The chief thing we have to do right now is get rid of the debt that accumulated over the last couple of years. I have to say that this year's MAC Awards, which I directed, was the first one in a few years that did not lose money.

JF:  And you did an incredible job directing it, by the way.

LW:  Thank you. It accomplished everything that I wanted to have happen. I wanted to bring a sense of community to the proceedings by showcasing all aspects of cabaret, not just the big names. We really didn't have anyone other than Ben Vereen who was a major name outside of New York theater and cabaret, and he was there for the Stephen Schwartz tribute. I wanted the show to be entertaining and showcase people who are working in the rooms. And I especially loved putting together the whole 'diva' number [which featured Sharon McNight, Lina Koutrakos, Ann Hampton Callaway and Karen Mason performing the "Diva" number from Starmites], which had been a big fantasy of mine. The four women are among my favorites and they were so excited to do it because nobody ever asks them to do anything fun - they just get asked to do their old stuff. They had a blast!

I did get some backlash from people who wanted to see more of a focus on the nominees, but what people don't realize is that there were more nominees who performed this year than ever before. We just didn't put them in a group; we spread them out throughout the evening. But you can't make everybody happy.

JF:  What are some changes or ideas you have in mind for MAC?

LW:  When I got involved in MAC, I did so because I felt the organization needed to either change or disband because it had basically become an excuse for people to win awards. The current board is very active and wants to add a lot of new things to MAC, but things don't happen overnight; it's going to take us a while, because we have a lot of restructuring to do. So everybody please be patient! (laughs)

One of the reasons I got involved in MAC is because whenever I mentioned to people that I was involved in cabaret, they would roll their eyes! So I really want to bring some credibility back to the art form of cabaret. More people have seen a bad cabaret show than have seen a good one, so we really need to change people's perceptions about the art form. I really want to explore what we can do to expand the audience base beyond the same people seeing every show, or performers playing the 'you come to my show, I'll come to your show' game.

One of the frustrating things is that people in the cabaret community are always complaining that there is nothing out there to help foster and improve cabaret; but when you do put something out there, they don't take advantage of it. When Lina Koutrakos and I did the evening seminars this summer, we had very few people from the cabaret community come. We would have people like Dick Gallagher, Karen Mason, and Sally Mayes doing a round table discussion and the only people in the audience would be our students. Or we would have an evening featuring some of the best musical directors in the business - Alex Rybeck, Steven Ray Watkins, Jay Bradley, Dick Gallagher - giving what amounts to hundreds of dollars of advice, and have fifteen people show up.

JF:  That's right ... you also are a teacher. You and Lina Koutrakos taught a cabaret seminar this past June.

LW:  Yes, the two of us teach a series called Summer in the City. We also teach separately: Lina teaches classes throughout the year and I teach a series called Cab Lab, which is an eight week session that mixes beginners and more established performers together. I like to mix it up because the beginners learn by watching the more advanced performers who, in turn, watch the beginners and recognize quirks in their own performing styles. I just started a session a few weeks ago, which will have its showcase in October.

JF:  How can people contact you for more information on joining your classes?

LW:  They can go to my website, www.lenniewatts.com, and contact me there.

Summer in the City has been a great collaborative venture. We work towards a 15-minute set, and a lot of people use it as a springboard to creating a full-length show. Lina and I are looking into teaching classes out of state in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington D. C., where we will come in and do a weekend seminar.

JF:  I know people who took the Summer in the City sessions you and Lina taught and the classes sounded great.

LW:  It was a blast! The teaching we do is one thing ... we have a blast doing it and people seem to get a lot out of it ... but the nighttime seminars were simply amazing and it is a shame more people didn't attend them. We had one evening that featured six songwriters showcasing their new material. Another evening focused on arranging, and featured various music directors playing the same song, which is unbelievably instructive to hear. You don't usually think of how important it is to find a music director who shares your sensibilities until you have had one who doesn't. And usually people blame it on a lousy music director when the truth of the matter is that not every music director is suited for every performer. So it's important to do some research to find the perfect fit.

JF:  In your experience, what does a director bring to a cabaret show?

LW:  Basically, I act as a third eye to observe and offer suggestions. Given the amount of time I have been working in cabaret clubs, I think it's safe to say that I have seen more cabaret, both good and dreadful, than any other director out there. And what I do for a show depends on what that person is looking for. I have some people for whom I have to hold their hand throughout the entire process; I help them pick out music, develop patter and post card design ... the works. Others will come to me and say, "I have this idea, can you help me structure it?" And some will come to me with a show that they put together and need someone fine-tune it. I've had people come with five songs and ask me to build them a show, which isn't going to happen - it's your show and you have to come up with the lion's share of the work and material. If I wanted to create a full-blown show from scratch I would do so for myself.

But I do love the creative process that direction entails; it's almost more satisfying than performing. I love watching my ideas being filtered through another person who puts his or her spin on it and makes it work. I love sitting in the back of the house and watching the audience's reaction to something I helped create; it's an experience unlike anything one gets as a performer.

JF:  What is the most common flaw you see in people's shows?

LW:  There's an overwhelming tendency for performers to put together a show where 9 out of the 12 songs are the same song, something they won't see until it is brought to their attention.

JF:  Are you focusing more on directing and teaching than on performing now?

LW:  I have no focus ... that's my problem! (Laughs)

JF:  And now you've added booking manager into the mix.

LW:  I know! I love to perform. Every time I do something on stage, even if it's a guest spot in somebody else's show, I realize how much I love it and miss it and think, "I don't want to direct anymore ... I want to perform!" Then I'll direct somebody's show and it will get a great response and I'll want to strictly direct! (Laughs). I am in severe need of focus.

JF:   My first exposure to you was as a performer, in your incredible show Give My Regards to Broadway, which was honestly one of my favorite shows of last year.

LW:  I love that show. It was my riskiest, too ... I had never done a show that focused on that kind of music. I moved to New York to be a theater person but most of my cabaret shows were pop oriented, with a band and back-up singers ...

JF:  But Lennie, you squeezed more musicians and back-up singers on the stage at Don't Tell Mama than I have ever seen anywhere else ...

LW:  Well, I like a big production! (Laughs) I wanted it to be theatrical and have a variety of levels. Plus, I'm so familiar with the space at Don't Tell Mama that I knew what we could get away with.

JF:  Are you going to be doing any performing at Mama Rose's?

LW:   I'm a little busy right now, but Scott Coulter and I are going to be doing our Christmas show here in December. I'm also working on a new show with David Maiocco.

JF:   How many awards have you won as a performer and as a director?

LW:  I have two MAC Awards and a Bistro award for director, and two MAC Awards, one Bistro Award and a Nightlife Award for performing. But it's all happened in the last three years. I'm sure that everybody is sick of me, since they think I'm an overnight success, but I've been working in cabaret since 1989! Everything is just hitting all at once.

I keep telling people that if they stick it out long enough, lightning will finally strike. I've seen so many people who jump into the cabaret community and if they don't instantly get a good review or a MAC Award, they disappear. They put together a show, play the game of going to everybody's show to promote their own show, and then disappear. You can't do that! It takes a while to get recognized and to develop an audience.

JF:  Out of curiosity ... are you from Rhode Island?

LW:  No, I'm from St. Louis.

JF:  Ah! Your resume has an overwhelming amount of credits from Rhode Island theaters so ...

LW:  I was very lucky. A few years back I started acting in shows at Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island. Then they gave me my first directing job, which was Godspell. An offshoot of the company even produced my CD, I Want ... You Want. They saw me when I was on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, which surprised them since they hadn't heard me sing in that style before ... they were used to me doing comic Broadway stuff. So they offered to produce my CD, which was great. And I did a few national tours that were associated with their company. Because of them I didn't have to audition for a nice chunk of time!

JF:  Tell me more about your Rosie O'Donnell experience ...

LW:  On Rosie's first season, she had a feature called "Untapped Talent." The producer, Judy Gold, called me early on a Thursday morning saying that they were looking for a guy who could do a 'Star Search' rendition of a Christmas carol and that my name kept coming up. They asked if I had one in my repertoire, and of course I said, "YES!" hung up, rushed to Colony Records, bought four pieces of music and rushed over to the audition. I decided to do "O Holy Night," as it was the one I knew best. John McDaniel asked me how I usually did it, and I replied, "Ummm ... gospelly?" And he asked, "What key?" and I said, "Ummm ... E flat is usually good!" So he started playing and I started singing. At the end of the audition, Judy Gold came up to me and said, "Lennie, we would like to give you the spot. A limo will be at your house at 7:30 tomorrow morning to pick you up."

People ask me if I was nervous, but I wasn't ... I didn't have time! If I had another day to think about it I would have been a wreck! I didn't even get to call people ... I called five friends and told them to tell everybody because it was when they were broadcasting the show live. It was three years ago and people still come up to me to tell me that they saw me on the show. More people saw me in those three minutes than will ever see me in cabaret! I got all these e-mail responses ... more than anybody else in the series, which was great. Of course, I thought they were going to be along the lines of "Who are you and what were you doing on the show???" but they were overwhelmingly positive, which was a great thing for me because it was the first time that I realized there was a world outside of the cabaret community that likes this style of music. You work so hard to get accepted in the cabaret community and to reach a certain level with its 'in crowd,' and then you do something like this and realize that most people have no idea who those 'in' people are!

JF:  I heard that you are starting a performing series called 'The MAC Festival.' When is it happening and what exactly is it going to be?

LW:  Well, I think MAC should be the number one source of news and events for cabaret and that isn't happening. The Cabaret Convention, which is arguably the most high profile event in cabaret, has nothing to do with MAC. And although Donald Smith is a wonderful person and supporter of the arts, the convention really doesn't have that much to do with cabaret as it exists in a day-to-day format; most of the people who are on the front lines doing cabaret are not involved in the Convention. What I wanted to do was develop something that would be MAC's way of showcasing those performers.

The festival will run Wednesday, November 5th, through Sunday, November 9th at various clubs around Manhattan. The first night will be here at Mama Rose's and will feature 'The New Faces of 2003,' people who will be up for consideration for the MAC Debut Award. Thursday will be at Dillon's and the theme will 'Viva Variety,' which will feature the comics and drag performers and musical comedy people - the stuff that most of the MAC voters don't usually go out and see. Friday night will be at The West Bank and is the CD night, because this year the people who won the Award for Best CD weren't given the time to give speeches. While I enjoyed the way it was handled this year at the MAC Awards because it gave more publicity and exposure to all the nominees, this night will give the people that won a chance to perform and give their thank yous. That's assuming that all of the people who won this year are available that night [Scott Coulter, Ann Hampton Callaway, Klea Blackhurst, Jerry Scott and Friends]. We'll also flesh it out with some performers who have new CDs this year.

Saturday night we're going to do two shows. The first will be at Don't Tell Mama and will feature international performers. The second show will be at The West Bank and is the one I'm most excited about. It's going to be called 'The Lottery' and it will feature the male, female and jazz nominees from last year who had picked a Beatles song and a music director from out of a hat and had two weeks to prepare it. Sunday, back here at Mama Rose's for 'MAC Goes to the Movies.'

JF:  What will be the charge for these events?

LW:  I think we're charging $20, $15 for MAC Members. People can go to the MAC website, www.macnyc.com, for more details.

JF:  Sounds like you have a lot on your plate! I wish you the best of fates on all of your ventures.

LW:  Thanks!

For more information on Mama Rose's and upcoming events there, visit their website: www.mamaroses.net.


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