An Open Letter to the New York Times
by Roy Sander
To the Editor:
At the close of his recent review of Brandon Cutrell (New York Times, July 10) Stephen Holden characterized Mr. Cutrell as “typical of the dozens of second-tier cabaret performers who, misled by fawning trade reviews and awards from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets [MAC], toil year after year, imagining they are on the verge of a breakthrough into the big-time that 99 times out of 100 will never come.” I take strong exception to these remarks.
I have been reviewing and commenting on cabaret since 1988, including over a decade spent writing for a prominent trade publication. There is an unwritten rule that critics do not criticize other critics; however, since Mr. Holden saw fit to disparage trade reviewers, I think I can dispense with this nicety. Besides, in this summer heat it’s so much more comfortable without the gloves.
It is important to note that I do not challenge Mr. Holden’s opinion of Mr. Cutrell’s performance, however much I may disagree with him; it is a critic’s obligation to voice his assessment of an artist’s work without regard for the views of others. I will not even comment on the mean-spiritedness of Mr. Holden’s review; it is each critic’s prerogative to set whatever tone suits him. I will stick to his closing allegations.
Mr. Holden knows precious little about the work done by these “second-tier” performers. How could it be otherwise since he’s seen only a small handful of their shows over the past several years? Because of the Times ‘s pre-eminent position on the New York cultural scene and the significance of a Times review, whenever Mr. Holden attends one of their shows, the cabaret community is all abuzz with the news. Accordingly, I am able to comment on his attendance record with a fair degree of certainty.
How can Mr. Holden claim to know what these performers “imagine” or what motivates any individual performer to “toil year after year”? Many put themselves out there simply for the joy and satisfaction of performing. Doubtless, some entertain visions of stardom—but what is wrong with having goals and dreams? Should songwriters not bother to write songs because so few become hits? Should a painter burn his easel because the chances of getting a solo show in a major gallery are slim? Should actors not continue to audition because more of their colleagues are working in restaurants than on stage?
And of course, some performers do make it. KT Sullivan, Karen Akers, Mark Nadler, Nancy LaMott, Ann Hampton Callaway, Sally Mayes, Judy Gold, Billy Stritch, John Fugelsang, Karen Mason, and Steve Ross are just a few examples of people who started out in smaller rooms—and nearly all of these artists were MAC Award winners or nominees early in their careers. Going back a bit we can add Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and Bobby Short, among many, many others. Happily for all of us, these artists were not daunted by the odds Mr. Holden reminds us of.
To be sure, many performers playing the less prestigious clubs have only modest gifts—but many others are wonderfully talented. Indeed, several are every bit as good as the headliners in the major venues. The fact that only a small percentage of them will make it into the “big time” in no way diminishes their worthiness. Finding them, celebrating their gifts, and bringing them to the attention of the public are among a critic’s chief (and personally most gratifying) functions. But doing this takes time, dedication, and passion—qualities that perhaps Mr. Holden lacks.
What’s more, I’ve no doubt that the odds of success would not be so unfavorable if the Times gave more coverage to the smaller rooms. New York is unique in the English-speaking world in the diversity, abundance, and quality of work being done on its cabaret stages. It is regrettable that the Times all but ignores this scene. Not only does this neglect hurt the city’s artists and club owners, it is a disservice to the Times ‘s readers, who are missing out on some extraordinary entertainment.