The multiple award-winning (MAC Award, Major Artist Male 2019 and Bistro Award for Unique Artistry, 2019) Sidney Myer is a true icon of the New York City cabaret world– and I never use the term “icon” lightly! His work on stage as a performer and behind the scenes as a booker has been praised, profiled, and reviewed with so many adjectives that it keeps journalists like me overworking Thesaurus.com to keep finding new ones. As an artist, Myer has delighted audiences in both his native New York and beyond with his patently personal mix of song, humor, and storytelling. One writer described Myer as, “an engagingly mischievous dispenser of musical repartee”. Another praised his “unique kind of wry humor and deft tenderness”. As the man responsible for booking the talent at the iconic cabaret haven Don’t Tell Mama, Myer has shown to have a keen eye and ear for the next big star waiting to shine. Yet another theater journalist was not exaggerating when he called Sidney Myer “the heart of the cabaret community.”
But back to the performing part… Myer has recently triumphed in a series of sold-out shows at one of Manhattan’s newest performance hotspots, the supper club Pangea. The downtown venue has been praised for its intimate yet lively vibe, and the wide variety of unique and talented performers who have graced the stage. Pangea and Sidney Myer have teamed up for 2019’s biggest night of celebration: December 31st. Myer will headline Pangea’s New Year’s Eve festivities in back-to-back shows at 8PM and 10:30PM. “Sidney Myer Live!” will feature an array of standards and speciaties, offering a loving mix of both respect for the past and a clear-eyed vision for the future of cabaret. “Sidney Myer Live!” boasts musical direction and piano by Tracy Stark and Matt Scharfglass on bass.
Sidney Myer took the time to speak to me about his upcoming show and his 20/20 vision for the new year!
JR: Hi, Sidney! Thank you so much for speaking with me. Congratulations on the upcoming New Year’s Eve show! New Year’s Eve is one of my favorite holidays. I think it’s EVERYBODY’S favorite holiday. If it’s not, it should be! There’s no agenda. It’s not political. It’s not religious. It’s just an excuse for everybody all over the world to have fun!
SM: That’s very true. I agree with you. I also think that for many of us, it’s a reminder that there could be new beginnings at any age!
JR: Yes! How true!
SM: Speaking personally, I do have a runner-up holiday that I feel is equally enjoyable– and that’s the sweet Thanksgiving, when all we have to do is eat, drink and be merry. I’m all down for that!
JR: Yes, I totally agree. You know, some people have issues if they have to deal with family and that kind of thing, but you’re right: It’s a reason to be thankful for everything we’ve had all year long– and yes, also to eat, drink and be merry. What could be more fun than that?
SM: Yes! Family and things can affect it, whereas on New Year’s Eve you don’t have that obligation. But as you said, I agree that the aspect of gratitude should be something that we remember.
JR: No doubt! So… without giving too much away, what surprises can potential audience members expect on New Year’s Eve?
SM: I’ve such a wonderful ride at Pangea. It’s been such a blast. Ironically, I’ve known Stephen Shanaghan, the owner, through his husband for many years. His husband is also named Stephen.
JR: (Laughs) Do they both spell it the same way?
SM: Yes! I think they save on monogramed towels that way.
SM: I’m thrilled that they’ve had such success there. Over the last year and a half, I’ve done quite a number of shows and they’ve all been sold out. They treat me beautifully– and I just think it’s a very warm, intimate space. It reminds me of what people used to do years ago, when they would have people over to their parlor, and somebody would play the piano, and they would sing or do poetry. It’s like you’re in everybody’s lap. So, it’s just a magical space. There used to be many more of those type things in the Village. But I’m so glad that Pangea exists. As I always do, I’m going to really “hit the positive” in songs about love and happiness and new beginnings– because I think we need it now more than ever.
JR: Oh yes, we certainly do! Now, Pangea is a relatively new space, but people have wonderful things to say about it. What makes Pangea the perfect venue for your show?
SM: Well. here’s a little bit of a sidebar: As I told you, I’ve known the Stephens for years. Are you familiar with The Mabel Mercer Foundation? They have a cabaret convention that’s in town every year. It used to be for many years at Town Hall, seven days a week, and now it’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Frederick P. Rose Hall, for four nights. It’s like a smorgasbord of cabaret every year. Just as a friend, every year I would give the Stephens two tickets to see the show on the night I was on the roster. They’d come every year, and the Convention nights would go for three or four hours, and they’d see a plethora of people. They’d always say, “Oh, it was wonderful. We’ve done our Convention, we’ve done our cabaret now for a whole year!” That would be their official night to go to cabaret– and I gave that to him as a gift for years. While I had known of Pangea and Stephen Shanaghan’s restaurant, I had never been there. And one night– I guess it was over four years ago– they said they wanted to talk to me about something, so they invited me to dinner there. We were right in the front window, and we must’ve sat there for three or four hours, and they kept bringing one fabulous Italian dish after another– which is indeed a way to my heart!
JR: (Laughs) Same here!
SM: They were asking me about the possibility of this back room, which they had used as a party room from time to time… and occasionally for a private music show thing. And so, I sat there for four hours and gave them every idea of why they should go forward with making it a cabaret– as well as all the things to AVOID! I’ve had a history in New York cabaret as a booking manager. I’ve done it for four decades, the last three at Don’t Tell Mama. I suggested all these things, and I didn’t know if they’d go forward– but they just celebrated, I believe, their fourth anniversary! They always say that I was one of the people that was instrumental in making them go forward with the idea of turning this party space into a cabaret room. And then. about a year ago, they asked me to come down and play there, and I thought. “Well, I’ll do one night. Why not? You know, I have a hand in all this.” And then it turned into all these shows– and it’s been a blast. It’s a fun location. The whole vibe of it is– well, there can never be enough music or laughter! As I said, once upon a time, there were many spots like that in The Village, but not so much anymore. So I hope that their Pangea flag gets to wave a long time!
JR: Well, let’s all wish them continued success! In addition to Pangea, you have performed at a lot of other spaces as well. I’ve read the reviews. You’ve been described by so many people in the cabaret world so often that I think that they’ve run out of adjectives to describe you, because you’re such a diverse performer. But one of the more interesting things I read called you a “singer-raconteur” because you do like to talk to the audience and tell stories throughout the performance. One story involved a certain legend known as… Judy Garland.
SM: Well, yes! I think that when anyone lives to a certain time in your life, you have a lot to tell. Cabaret has always been my destination of choice to perform, mainly because it was always an open door. Even though the world is changing as we speak, one thing has remained constant in show business through the years: Whenever anyone arrives on these Manhattan shores, whether it’s from Peoria or Paris or Palisades Park, the first door open to you is cabaret. Meaning: Before anyone knows you, to put you in a show, you put YOURSELF in a show. If you go back far enough in so many careers– movie stars, songwriters, Broadway performers– you’ll often find that they got their first New York stage exposure in cabaret. That’s often how they progressed. People saw them, and then they wound up on the world stage. I’ve witnessed this countless times. That tradition remains!
JR: Wow! Have you had a moment like that recently? A moment where you were like, “Whoa, I’m witnessing history in the making right now!”
SM: I like to say I have the gift of time!
JR: (Laughs) I’m jealous.
SM: You’ll get there soon enough, believe me! There have been so many people who I’ve booked through the years. There was Panache, a club I was at for seven and a half years before Don’t Tell Mama. You know how, in those old movies, the way they note the passage of time when the pages fly off the calendar? Well, if you fast forward five, 10, 20, 30 years, and if I’m watching the Grammys or the Oscars or the Emmys and I see artists winning these awards and getting all this recognition, I can’t help but flash back to when I was sitting there in a room with them, and there were maybe six people in the audience. I have many talents, but I’m not psychic. I do not know how life will unfold for anyone. But I often do think about how if the stars align, how this person could really skyrocket to the top. And we could be here all day if I told you all the different ones. But I will tell you one or two…
SM: It was circa 1990, something like that. This young man who was still in college came in and started performing. I don’t even know if it was legal back then, but he came in and he started doing shows, and he was just fantastic. He was still in school. And then he graduated, and went on to become the $100,000 Grand Prize Winner on Star Search, which was huge back then. And then he wound up in Broadway shows, and then 20+ years later, he’s winning the Tony award for Kinky Boots and now the Emmy for Pose. And that was Billy Porter. He was a fixture at Don’t Tell Mama. I can close my eyes and see the Tony Award Winner Alice Ripley’s first show there. It is a music venue, but it’s not only limited to singers. Several comedians who are now completely world famous– Lea DeLaria, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari— all did many of their early shows at Don’t Tell Mama. And then you get into songwriters, such as the late Jonathan Larson who won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for Rent, and the Tony Winner Jason Robert Brown. There are so many of them that would be doing their shows and singing songs from the plays that they were writing with the hope that they would have a destination on Broadway. And then, it happened.
JR: Yes! It’s interesting that you mentioned Billy Porter, because over a decade ago I used to coordinate this LGBTQ open mic, and a lot of independent artists would come and perform. Most of them wrote their own music, and most of them had their own independently-produced CD, and they just took every single opportunity that they could to show their talent. I remember that Billy Porter was among them. He was one of many talented singers trying to hit it big. He’s the one that I bring up to people when I tell them, “If you have the talent and the commitment and the drive, just keep plugging away and keep planting your seeds– because they will eventually take sprout.” So, I’m glad you brought him up!
SM: I agree with you. But even when you plant your seeds, not every season is summer. You’ll have some rocky times too. In Billy’s case, it wasn’t always “coming up roses”. But in addition to his fabulous talent, he really defines perseverance, which is very necessary if you’re going to sustain a career of any length– because tastes change and things happen. He keeps redefining himself. The Billy Porter that was on Star Search is not the Billy Porter that is on Pose. He grew up! I’m very fortunate in the sense that I’m sort of rare– not only in that what I do on stage is rare, but also because I book talent. Most of the time, the owner books the talent, like at Birdland. They are only a few places where they have a booking manager. I served in this role for decades and I’ve had the joy of having all of these people cross my path just because I’m in this seat. And I do try to always be an open door and let people begin. Ahhh! I just flashed on somebody else who did their very first show of that. Do you know Miss Coco Peru?
JR: Oh, of course.
SM: I booked his first shows before he was Coco Peru– when he was Clinton Leupp— and he was just amazing. If we are talking about that world, so is Steven Brinberg as “Simply Barbara”, and Tommy Femia. So many of them may not have been the finished, polished diamond that we see today, but I’ve always favored giving anyone that comes in the benefit of the doubt. I’ve always been pleased to see them rise to the occasion. I think there’s such a world full of “No!” out there– and I think that one of the reasons people are fond of me is in that capacity is because I was a “Yes!” It’s hard– especially when you’re beginning– to always hear “No, thank you.” or “We’ll call you.” or something like that, you know? So, I have this unique relationship with countless artists, because when they came knocking, I did open the door– and I’m happy about that.
JR: I’m sure the artists are happy about that too! So, you’re name is so closely associated with Don’t Tell Mama. As you said before, a lot of venues in New York City have disappeared over the last few years. At best it can get you very nostalgic, or at worst it can make you downright depressed if you let it. What makes Don’t Tell Mama such an enduring hotpsot in a city that changes every day?
SM: You’re right about that! Almost every club I ever attended or performed in is gone. It’s like my resume is an obituary of New York nightlife! There were rooms large and small: Jan Wallman’s, 88’s, The Ballroom, Rainbow and Stars, Danny’s, The Oak Room of the Algonquin, The Copa, Latin Quarter, Bon Soir… all these places that were celebrated. They’re all gone. People often ask me why Don’t Tell Mama has endured. It’s like the Coke formula. It’s under lock and key somewhere. If you ever have the pleasure of reading Intimate Nights, the book about cabaret– there were two volumes– by James Gavin, you’ll learn that every New York club forever has been hanging by a thread. It’s just the realities of life and business and rents in New York. I think there’s sort of a confluence of things that make Don’t Tell Mama a success. It’s on Restaurant Row. It’s in the Theater District. It’s a fun place. It’s not the Taj Mahal, but it never presented itself like it’s this glorious showroom like The Metropolitan Room— another great space that’s gone– used to. But I think, personally, that there’s more fun per square inch. Every day, there are people that come to town from everywhere, from Hawaii to Iceland to Texas to Australia. They come in and say “We love this place and we wish there was a place like this where we lived.” With all due respect, it’s not karaoke. It’s all live performing, with a live piano bar and two cabaret rooms. But what puts it over the top, I think, is the level of performers. In our piano bar, there are people who have been on Broadway and on television. There’s a gal that works in our piano bar that did the role of Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray on Broadway 400 times. There’s a guy that’s been on Broadway and on the TV show Gotham— meaning, these artists need jobs in the meantime, but there’s a level of singing and performing talent that people are walking in to see. That, for the most part, only exists in Manhattan. There’s no dearth of talent– and so many of them in the meantime, as their careers are taking hold, are singing in piano bars and doing their cabaret acts. It’s a thrill to see them before they’re at Madison Square Garden.
JR: Yes! And that’s why when people are visiting from outside of New York and they want to go to a place where they can have fun, Don’t Tell Mama is one of the places I tell them about. I know that you can go there and it doesn’t really matter if you’re into the particular genre of music or if you’ve never heard of the artist. You will have a good time there. As you said before, there are a lot of talented, wonderful people in our town– but Don’t Tell Mama is one of those places where just when you think that you’ve seen the last talented artist or think that you can no longer be impressed, you’ll be surprised.
SM: Yeah, we’re very lucky. Things do keep changing, but every day we open the door, and there are people here that are amazing and refreshing and exciting, with that dream and that hope and the talent to back it up. Another thing about Don’t Tell Mama– and I hope that this is always the case– is that it’s popularly priced. For instance, there’s no cover at our piano bar every night from nine until four in the morning. Two drink minimum. Where else through the years could you have seen an endless stream of people like Liza Minnelli, Rosie O’Donnell, Lea DeLaria, Marilyn Maye… I can’t guarantee a celebrity sighting every night. (Laughs) They just show up. When James Corden hosted the Tony Awards for the first time, he came to Don’t Tell Mama and got up and sang. It was the front page of the Sunday Arts section. They did a big story on him and how he was hosting the Tonys. The first line was. “When James Corden gets up to sing at Don’t Tell Mama…”, because the crew came and they photographed them in the piano bar. I mean, what are the odds that you’d see somebody like that? Many people have just come in on a lark, jumped up, and SANG! I guess it’s the equivalent through the years of those comedy clubs where Jerry Seinfeld or Robin Williams would just pop over on an evening of new talent, and get up and wow the audience. It’s just that sort of equation. I often describe it as a cross between a German beer hall, Irish pub, and New Year’s Eve every night of the week. It’s a blast. And that’s why when people were in town on conventions, every year they come back and back– because it’s just fun and the price is right!
JR: Yes, it sure is! Now, I know that you’re a multidimensional entertainer. You sing, you tell stories, you do some comedy. Sometimes it’s a combination of all three. I have to ask: As a performer, especially as we’re on the verge of 2020, is there any material that you would consider “off limits”? For example, some performers don’t talk about politics, some don’t talk about religion, some don’t talk about sex– or if they do, there might be some naughty double entendres, but they don’t get R-rated. Is there anything that you consider “off limits” as a performer?
SM: Well, it’s very funny. I do mainly speak about myself. I think through the songs and the stories I tell, if anyone connected the dots, they would, they would make conclusions on some of those subjects you said. Everyone approaches it their own way, and that’s one of the many beauties of art: that freedom to do it YOUR way. But I’ve always thought of myself as a “one size fits all” entertainer. I don’t necessarily have an “agenda” that’s in anyone’s face, if you know what I mean. When I was performing early in my life and I would go see the celebrated men of the time– and you know, they would be at The Oak Room or somewhere– they’d be singing Maria: ♫ I’ve just met a girl named Maria…♫ and I’d be thinking, “Wait a minute: I think he just met a guy named Maurice!” Back then, if people wanted a career of any sort in major rooms or television or cruise ships, we didn’t have the luxury of being who we truly were. But that was never an option for me! Unlike Jeanne Crain in Pinky, I could never pass! It wasn’t necessarily that I was so courageous or brave, but I never sang songs or anything that was not who I truly was. You know what I mean? So, I have been always myself and who I am. Now I know, of course, there are many fabulous talents walking the earth today. I know that. I don’t just have both feet in the past. But I was so fortunate to see so many of the greatest stars of the 20th century live and in person. And I do know that we have videos, CD’s, recordings, and television that preserve those great artists of yesterday’s talent. Those are precious treasures. That’s truly the way I got to know most of them also. But I still believe that there is nothing that can replicate the in-person, live experience of seeing somebody in a cabaret nightclub, theater, or concert hall with no degree of separation. In my life, these people that I saw live– from Josephine Baker to Marlene Dietrich to Bing Crosby to Ethel Merman to Peggy Lee to Judy Garland and on and on… to me, their ability to entertain and their style is my sort of the beacon, because I love their ability to embrace an audience and to bring people together in music and happiness. They weren’t separating the crowd in any way. That’s what I like to do for those moments that people are with me.
JR: Yes, exactly. And that’s also the reason why those particular icons that you mentioned really transcend generation. It’s obvious that you aim to do that in your show too.
SM: Yes! I sing a lot of obscure novelty songs and ballads, and people are always at a loss as to what most of my material is. It’s truly because there are so many superb practitioners of the Great American Songbook who can sing Some Enchanted Evening or Tonight or other songs gloriously, let alone the people that have introduced them to begin with. I don’t think they need Sydney Myer for that! There are many roads to Rome. I find material that is not as well-traveled– so that when I do these songs, people don’t hear echoes of the great people that have done them before. I’m not up for comparison that way.
JR: Oh, I know what you mean. The Great American Songbook endures– so when a performer puts a fresh or a funny or a heartwarming or a provocative take on it, people will never tire of hearing that. And that’s a great thing. But it’s always great when an artist gives us an unearthed musical gem that we haven’t heard yet!
SM: Yes. And I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon– but I often think about whether much of the music of today will be sung fifty or a hundred years from now. But we do know that the music from almost a hundred years ago– Gershwin, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer— HAS lasted and endured: the melodies, the rhymes, the sentiment…We’ll see if things today have that shelf life also.
JR: I’ll be optimistic!
SM: That’s the only way to be!
JR: Well, you know, I don’t think either of us will be around in a hundred years, but yeah, I’ll be optimistic anyway! (Laughs)
SM: Well, they’re doing wonderful things every day with medicine.
JR: (Laughs) How true! So, lastly I have to ask: Does Sidney Myer have any New Year’s resolutions for 2020?
SM: Oh, my stars! Resolutions… Yes, I think there’s something to be said for them. If I had a nickel for every one I broke… I could fill a book with them. Well, I admire people with resolutions. I think it’s empowering to think that there’s hope that we can change, that we can grow, and that and it puts the ball squarely in our court. So, in most every area I can say, yes, I could come up with numerous resolutions that would all be beneficial. The challenge is to make them materialize and come to pass. It’s up to us, right? We know what has to be done and uphold a resolution or a goal or whatever…, but, I think all of us have something that at least we know has to be pursued!
JR: True! So… anything else you want to tell the masses… besides, obviously, to buy tickets for your show on New Year’s Eve at Pangea?
SM: Just one thing: Let’s wish for everything wonderful for everyone in the New Year!
JR: Sounds good to me. Thank you for speaking with me, Sidney!
“Sidney Myer Live!” will take place at Pangea Restaurant and Bar, 178 2nd Avenue, New York City. Tickets are $135 for the 8PM show and $165 for the10:30PM show. The evening includes, in both shows, a three course dinner and a half-bottle of Prosecco per person. Tax and gratuity are inclusive. For tickets and more information, visit here.