Crooning for Cabaret

A sultry musical genre finally makes its mark in Detroit

Detroit is nothing if not a highly emotional city, constantly grappling with the past and the future, the good, the bad, and the ugly in all things life, politics, and art.

For other great cities with regeneration in their blood — think Berlin and Paris in the early 20th century — the musical genre known as cabaret seemed to flourish and serve as an outlet for the prevailing emotions of the day: unrest, passion, and change.

It’s a curious question, then, why cabaret has never been systematically represented in Detroit, a city so familiar with inspiration and turmoil as well as its own diverse musical heritage.

Two local cabaret lovers who are committed to Detroit’s resurgence embarked on an experiment last year to fill the gap, and with their nonprofit organization Cabaret313, they’re finally bringing this unique art form to the city.

Sandi Reitelman and Allan Nachman pulled off their venture big time in December when they managed to attract Ute Lemper, arguably one of the world’s greatest living cabaret singers. A native of Germany, the blond, statuesque Lemper mesmerized her audience at the Jazz Café at Music Hall with her performance Last Tango in Berlin.

The show was a welcome departure from the typical holiday extravaganza, but also the epitome of cabaret. Lemper intimately connected with the small crowd in the dimly lit venue as they sipped cocktails and champagne. She told stories of love and desire with her songs. And she enticed her audience to feel touched by her voice.

“Cabaret can be loosely defined,” says Reitelman. “There’s no tight set of rules. But it’s always that connection with the audience that runs through every performance.”

Reitelman is a lifelong music patron (she’s done marketing in the past for the DSO) who has always been attracted to the edgy, sultry — and intelligent — performances by the likes of Lemper and others who can provoke thought through song. Nachman, an attorney and Detroit native, grew up being inspired by the “American songbook” of artists like George Gershwin and Cole Porter, developing a keen appreciation for their words set to music.

But Nachman always had to get his cabaret fix in New York. So when he met Reitelman a few years ago while working on another nonprofit project and learned about her similar passion for the genre, he says they were “serendipitously on the same page.”

Connecting later on the same subject, they decided to join forces to raise the money they would need to bring the kind of world-class cabaret to Detroit that has inspired them both throughout their lives. The “313” in their organization’s name, they say, is definitely meant to send the message that their artistic venture is as much about Detroit as the music.

“We talked a lot about how cabaret had always been successful in cities with a developing creative class, and in cities undergoing a process of change,” Reitelman says. “The appropriateness — the fit — of bringing this to Detroit was right.”

Cabaret313 started to gauge interest last spring by holding “salon soiree” fundraisers (one of them was in the home of Ethan Davidson, the musician and philanthropist son of late Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson) to introduce people to the world of cabaret. The response was overwhelming, Reitelman says, and she and Nachman got a very clear sense that their idea for cabaret could work.

The business partners speculate that the current public curiosity of Detroit’s evolution may be on Cabaret313’s side, too. Reitelman boldly emailed Lemper directly asking her to come to Detroit. It was a long shot — she’d never performed here, but is downright famous on a global scale.

For whatever reason, Lemper responded right away, Reitelman says, despite the singer’s normal shows that can attract as many as 1,000 people. As Lemper charmed about 100 people at her December show at Music Hall, Reitelman and Nachman clearly were star-struck and in awe of the romantic electricity that Lemper effortlessly conducted among the small crowd on a snowy night.

“To be that close to [Lemper] was a really special experience,” Nachman says.

Cabaret313’s 2014 lineup is equally impressive. On March 14, Norm Lewis, a cast member of the ABC show Scandal and an acclaimed performer on Broadway, will perform his show at the Marlene Boll Theater at the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit. Diverse acts will follow throughout the year at other Detroit venues, which should make for an interesting tour of little-known performance venues throughout the city as well.

“I think if we continue what we’re doing, maybe we’ll find a [permanent] venue that can showcase cabaret in Detroit,” Nachman says. “But for now, we’ve got the best of both worlds.”

That would be their beloved cabaret budding at their feet — and the perfect backdrop that is Detroit.