A Class Act

Called by no less than The New York Times "the suavest of all male cabaret performers," Steve Ross is the personification of refined, romantic, elegant, and effervescent cabaret, and that makes him an ideal guest artist for the debut season of Austin Cabaret Theatre.

Steve Ross
Steve Ross

If the term cabaret conjures images of refinement and romance, elegance and effervescence, a grand piano in an intimate, darkened room, sipping cocktails and holding hands as nimble fingers glide across the ivories and a voice of velvet caresses the melodic treasures of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, then Steve Ross is the personification of cabaret.

This singer and pianist, who has been performing the great popular songs of the 20th century in New York for more than 25 years, has built a reputation in that center of cabaret -- and indeed, around the globe -- as a premier interpreter of the works of the Golden Age of Popular Song. From the early days of his career, building a following at Ted Hook's Backstage, a piano bar and restaurant in the Broadway theatre district, to his debut at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, where he was the first cabaret artist to perform after 40 years, to the present, achieving international renown through his appearances at London's Pizza on the Park, at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, the Perth Festival in Australia, the Spoleto Festival, and across the United States, including on and off-Broadway, Ross has been praised for his sensitivity to the luxurious melodies and clever lyrics of the popular standards, for bringing to them the warmth and wit and cosmopolitan style of an age of Deco nightclubs, frosty martinis, and white tie and tails. In the reviews of Ross' performances, one keeps coming across words like "sophisticated," "dashing," "debonair," "poised." In The New York Times, Stephen Holden called him "the suavest of all male cabaret performers." He is, in more than one sense of the phrase, a class act.

That being the case, Steve Ross makes an ideal guest artist for the debut season of Austin Cabaret Theatre. This venture by Stuart Moulton seeks to provide a permanent place for cabaret on the local scene, regularly presenting appearances by accomplished cabaret artists from elsewhere and producing shows by established and emerging Austin talents. The city has enjoyed some superb cabaret entertainment in the past -- the Cafe Manhattan team of Karen Kuykendall and Sterling Price-McKinney, Karen Kohler, Leslie Bonnell, Joe York -- but it's been a few seasons since Austin has had a place that cabaret could call its own. Moulton wants to renew the city's appreciation for cabaret as a form and how better to do that than to bring to town an artist who embodies what cabaret is?

In anticipation of Ross' upcoming engagement at the Scottish Rite Theatre, Friday and Saturday, January 4 and 5, the Chronicle spoke with him by phone about his long and intimate association with cabaret and his thoughts on it today.

Steve Ross: I'm here at the keyboard, ready to play a song or two for you. What would you like to hear today? "It's very clear our love is here to stay ..." I have these headset phones so I can underscore my comments.

Austin Chronicle: I wondered if you read Stephen Holden's piece on cabaret in The New York Times a few weeks ago.

SR: I did indeed. he spoke of the things that have been on many people's minds. I must say, I went through my own self-questioning about what I do. But I came up with a similar conclusion. I think music serves so many things for everybody, a lot of it is distraction. Distraction sounds trivial, but I think it's important to be distracted, to get a break from time to time. I was thinking, here I am singing these little show tunes and lighthearted things, but then I realized how important that is for that very reason. So then I started thinking about how cabarets or places where music is made are places where people can socialize and be with each other, they're also places where you can hope together and feel emotions together. But that's always been the cabaret function, but stronger now than before, perhaps. So I feel fine about doing what I do. For a while, I was saying, I should be doing something else. One does what one can and volunteers and gives blood, but I guess I'm part of the puzzle.

AC: I'm sure you have favorite songs, but are there any songs that you have come to a new appreciation for over the course of your career, ones that you didn't feel were special early on but that you've grown to enjoy through your performances of it?

SR: Good question, as the president always says. [laughs] He said, trying to hedge. Just the other day, I was looking at the stuff I've been singing. I've been singing some songs for 40 years, so that's a long time to sing songs. And when I go back to them I find new things in them, but I pretty much liked them in the beginning. I find new things in good, well-written songs, songs by people like Sondheim, who writes multilayered lyrics and those are always fun to sing. And it's fun to bring your life experience [to these songs]. If you're an artist, then you try to access everything that you've [experienced] up to that minute of your life. So to try to be an aware person is helpful to becoming a good singer.

AC: Do you see the repertoire of cabaret expanding beyond the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties?

SR: Well, there are people writing for cabaret. If you were to go to the MAC -- the Manhattan Association of Cabaret -- they have song sessions. I'd be lying if I said every one was a deathless gem -- it ain't true -- but some of them are good. There's already an older generation, as it were, who have been writing for cabaret for a long time: Craig Carnelia, John Bucchino. I like those guys. They really honor the reciprocity and rhyme and all that.

I am somewhat dismayed in that when cabaret first started coming back, as it were, about 20 years ago, people always would include a standard, but now they don't. Now they're having original material. They have directors now and continuity writers, and they're all like mini-stage productions. Sometimes the more elaborate the accouterments, the less I can expect from the artist. If I see a Web site and I see a CD and a director and a lighting designer -- this one guy, he had everything, you can't imagine how elaborate the press package was, he had every possible tugboat to get him out into the ocean and the act was not great. A friend of mine used to say, "Shut up and sing." Sing the songs and get the story out, and communicate, that's all. It gets a little elaborate, you know the way that people do, they run into this technological vacuum and think all these toys are going to make you a singer. It's not true. What makes you a singer is a talent, which you can't really quantity, and truth. Truth is the coin of exchange here, kid.

Steve Ross performs January 4-5, 8:30pm, at Scottish Rite Theatre, 18th and Lavaca. Tickets are $35. For information, call 462-2220.

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