With acts that can include singing, dancing, comedy, magic, cirque, comedy, burlesque, drag, and more, it’s tough to pin a singular label on what makes a cabaret. For veteran cabaret critic Stephen Mosher, it comes down to the connection that the artist has with their audience. “Cabaret rooms are not concert halls,” Mosher says. “And the exchange of energy is very different, more personal, making a memorable moment for each audience member to take home with them.”
Mosher knows a thing or two about cabaret. As a celebrity photographer, he’s been capturing legendary performances by cabaret luminaries since the early 1990s. As a writer, he’s covered a staggering 599 individual performances in New York City over the past four years as cabaret editor for BroadwayWorld. He credits Gotham itself for the wide assortment of acts that hit cabaret stages. “Because of the diversity of New York City, the cabaret scene has a wealth of variety to it,” Mosher notes. “You can get everything from famous celebrities to burlesque, from grunge rock to New Orleans jazz.”
But it’s not just the acts onstage that fuel memorable cabaret experiences, according to Mosher, it’s the rooms that contain those stages. “Successful clubs aren’t just random - they have a mission statement of what kind of work they want to present, and that makes up fifty percent of a venue’s personality,” he asserts. “The rest all comes down to what makes any home unique - the decor, the drinks, and the hosts.”
Let's talk about five of our favorites.
New York’s cabaret scene has no shortage of Broadway stars performing their acts on their nights off or in between runs. But no other club in the city can claim bragging rights décor by a Tony Award-winning design team. The theatrical pedigree of this venue, located in the basement of famed former disco Studio 54, is so great it won a 2022 Tony Awards Honor for Excellence in the Theater. But don’t mistake any of this for a stuffy, over-priced experience. In 2023, after 11 years in operation, 54 Below transitioned from a commercial institution to a non-profit organization with a focus on raising money to offer discounted tickets and subsidize artists’ production costs.
Like stepping into the lyrics of a Cole Porter song, few places in the city express the essence of vintage New York more than the Café Carlyle. Located inside the uber-classic Carlyle Hotel, this venue, with its iconic murals by Academy Award-winning designer Marcel Vertes, has been known for presenting incredible talents from legendary jazz artists and show singers to world-class actors since opening its doors in 1955. Perfect for very special occasions, the Café Carlyle maintains a strict dress code. Jackets are required and don’t even think about wearing athletic shoes.
Green Room 42
Opened in 2017 and located in the heart of the theater district, Green Room 42 bills itself as “Broadway's newest, most spacious, and funkiest cabaret club,” and the place makes good on that promise. Located inside a large room inside the hi-tech Yotel in Hell’s Kitchen, with graffitied banquets and modest ticket prices, Green Room offers a first-rate, non-pretentious experience for the budget-conscious cabaret lover.
Now in its third incarnation, the roster of talent that has graced legendary “jazz corner of the world” Birdland’s stages over the years has made it the Carnegie Hall of the nightclub world. In 2018, Birdland added a second more intimate stage, The Birdland Theater to the venue. True to its jazz DNA, Birdland primarily offers New York engagements of world-renowned jazz artists. However, if one name is synonymous with the club, it’s Jim Caruso whose weekly open mic for superstar celebrities and up-and-comers alike has packed the room on Monday nights for 20 years.
If cabaret is about variety, it would be hard to find a venue offering a wider programming variety each month than Joe’s Pub. One of several performing spaces inside The Public Theater complex on Lafayette Street in the East Village, Joe’s Pub has maintained true to its neighborhood’s edgier roots with unconventional artists whose performances push boundaries.
This article is just the tip of New York’s cabaret iceberg. This month there will be hundreds of performances at nightclubs Pangea, Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, Chelsea Table and Stage, The Slipper Room, The Secret Room, The Laurie Beechman Theater, The Paradise Club, House of Yes, Midnight Theater, Vivid Cabaret, Lucky Chengs, Lips, Club Cumming, The Box, Duane Park, Brandy’s. The Triad, and newcomer Red Eye. We encourage you to get out and check out a show at any of these venues. After all, what good is sitting alone in your room?