A Latte Conversation with Cabaret Star Seth Sikes
By Amy Sapp
How do you take your coffee?
These days, I only drink decaf because caffeine, I realized after many, many cups a day, made me very anxious. I drink decaf because I like the taste of coffee!
As a cabaret performer, I am sure you don’t need the extra caffeine or energy.
Absolutely not! Putting together your own act is almost as involved as putting on your own production, as far as the details - especially if you have a full band like I do. You have to promote it yourself. It takes up all of your time; you are anxious enough. So, if I had caffeine added to that anxiety? Forget it.
What are your cabaret roots?
It’s interesting to me that I am suddenly a cabaret performer because I never had any real interest in the art form. I barely went to them. I have seen several of them; I have seen Marilyn Maye’s, very inspiring, and I saw Chita Rivera’s. I am a theater person; I was a theater director and assistant director for a long time. I just happened to one night get the nerve to get up and do my own show. It wasn’t supposed to be the beginning of my cabaret career. It was all an accident!
Where did you receive your theatrical training?
Right across the street in the basement of the Circle in the Square. I went there right out of high school when I was 19 or 20 to be a musical theater performer. Right after school, I was in an Off-Broadway show, Fame on 42nd Street, which closed quickly. Then I decided soon after that I did not want to be a performer; I did not want to be an actor. It was not for me.
Auditioning was soul crushing. The other part was I wasn’t a great actor, and there weren’t many parts for me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t take it anymore, but I didn’t want to leave the theater. So, everyone said I should become a director, and then instead of going back to college to study it – which maybe I should have done – some really smart people told me that I should be an assistant director in theater and assist the best directors in the business.
Who did you first work with along that directing journey?
Lonny Price was an early one and Jack O’Brien. Lately, I have been assisting David Cromer a lot.
How did you break open those doors to the directing side of the industry?
I said, “I want to do this,” and I asked people, “How do I do this?” And then I thought, well, the first thing to do is get into the room and observe. I started as a PA. So, I was a production assistant on Young Frankenstein, and then I started assisting Lonny and became a second assistant for concerts, the big Sondheim 80th birthday concert. I was a PA for a while, and then I think Lonny gave me a play and then a reading. That then turned into a production. Then, Jack O’Brien did Broadway. Then, I started working on shows that didn’t quite make it to Broadway. I did that for about ten years.
Are you still assistant directing?
I was really fed with assisting, and I also decided I didn’t think I wanted to become a director because of a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t think I could do it as well as the people I was assisting. Two, I thought the anxiety was going to kill me. I am not a crazily anxious person, but it is an anxious business. I just thought, maybe I would like something more stable. So, I became a cabaret singer. [Laughs]
Right, much more stable.
I was sort of doing my farewell to theater. I didn’t have an actual plan, but the idea was I was going to do one last crazy hurray before I leave. And I am going to invite all of my friends to come hear me sing Judy Garland songs at Feinstein’s/54 Below. I had a friend say, “Okay, I’ll back it.” I was able to have this seven piece band and do all of this Judy Garland [music]. So, to answer your question, I have been trying to get out of the creative side of the business for a while, but the show caught on. Now, I am a singer suddenly.
Are you finding fulfillment now out of this new side of theater?
Oh, yeah. For starters, I can sing whatever I want. I did a Judy Garland revue. I did a Liza [Minnelli] revue. Now, I am doing a Bernadette Peters revue. I can’t sing pop songs. I don’t fit into contemporary pop. I would always sing these pop auditions for musicals and not fit in at all. I get to sing the music that makes sense to me. I don’t have to play a character. I get to tell my own stories. It’s a lot more rewarding than if I had been an actor.
You mentioned Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, and Bernadette Peters. How do you decide which artist to cover in a cabaret revue?
The Judy thing was that she and her music were my obsession since I was a little boy. That led me to musical theater, to New York. Her songs got me through despair, through excitement. Her music was always “it” for me. I had a real connection to those songs. I wrote this show through those songs and what those songs meant to me then. After I had done several of those at Feinstein’s/54 Below, it was time to do something new. I thought, “Well, I have this sort of niche thing that people know I sing Judy. What if I sing Liza?” I also happened to have loved Liza since I was little. So, I did a show and debuted that on Liza’s 70th birthday. Then, I did three more of those at Feinstein’s/54 Below. While I think now is not the time to brand myself as the boy who sings diva songs, it is working! [Laughs] Right after I graduated, Gypsy starring Bernadette was running. One of my first jobs was selling merchandise at Gypsy. I got to watch the show whenever I wanted, every night. It was so overwhelming as an eighteen year-old. The greatest musical ever written. I would come in sometimes and just watch “Rose’s Turn” at the end of the night. I think people probably would have expected me to do Streisand next.
I like to take the songs seriously, but I like to give them context from my life, whether that means through a medley or interrupting the songs with stories. Usually a story emerges.
What are some of the challenges of your cabaret performances?
I am trying to remind myself that I need to write less banter; I like to write scripts and make it like a show. I always write too much dialogue, and I get so mad at myself!
I worry about the expectation that I won’t sound as good as the artists themselves. You have to prepare yourself for that disappoint.
What arrangements do you use when you perform?
The unique show that I do is that I use their arrangements, but if you come and hear Judy’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” you want to hear her version, not some silly one that I have made up. Occasionally, because I like it to fit my narrative, I’ll change it a little bit, but I like it to be true to what they do.
What can you share about your upcoming show at Feinstein’s/54 Below on February 25?
One thing that people like when they come see my show is that I am a big, unapologetic belter. Every time we get reviews, it sounds like they compare me to Barbra Streisand. I am not saying that is what I sound like, but I am saying that I have this big sound. And Bernadette does that in more of a contained way, so I am actually taking two of her songs, and we are re-arranging them in almost a Judy way. I am adding my own style. What I am not doing is taking it and making it into some ballad.
Do you have any show that you draw inspiration from creatively?
I just assisted a show called The Band’s Visit Off-Broadway. It’s really excellent. A small piece about two cultures listening to one another. David Cromer directed it. David Yazbeck wrote this gorgeous score. It’s this tiny little thing, and it got insane reviews. No one could get in for the last couple weeks, and it is moving to Broadway in the fall. I told you I sort of retired from directing, but when I read the material, I thought, I have to work on this.
Who is one performer to whom you look for inspiration?
I am going to say Marilyn Maye. She is a master of this art form, cabaret. A legend. I obviously like old broads. She just approached everything with a seriousness, with an honesty.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to break into cabaret?
Find a backer. Don’t expect to make any money. Treat it seriously. Sometimes, I see people who are schticky, and I think that ship sails. I think if you do something with honesty and truth, people will respond.
Rapid fire questions to end. Sugar or Splenda?
Neither. Black coffee.
Coffee or tea?
Milk or creamer?
Half and half.