Scott Wittman won a Tony, a Grammy and a Drama Desk Award for his lyrics to the Tony-winning musical hit Hairspray, and he and his partner, Marc Shaiman, are the duo behind the music for the NBC drama Smash. But before the lights of Broadway and TV beckoned, Wittman directed cabaret concerts for divas like Bette Midler, Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole and Dame Edna, and now the very busy music pro has returned to the concert scene as creative consultant for the hot Theater District nightclub 54 Below. In his essay below, Wittman discusses a time when cabaret was king, how 54 Below is rejuvenating the scene and why movie stars, Tony winners and NYC music lovers are heading below the old Studio 54 to be part of this nightclub renaissance.
I grew up in a cabaret. When I first came to New York in the mid ’70s, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a cabaret. I would spend most of my nights at Brothers & Sisters, The Grand Finale and Reno Sweeney’s, where I saw everyone from Nina Simone to Diane Keaton to Barbara Cook. I wish I had a time machine: I would go right back to Reno Sweeney’s because there was a real sense of New York in one room. You could sit at the bar if you had no money and watch a great act. Forty years later, Broadway has a new cabaret: 54 Below. It’s a place with an eclectic booking policy, where you can watch downtown artists and Broadway legends perform on back-to-back nights. And just like at Reno Sweeney’s, if you’re strapped for cash, you can sit at the bar and take it all in.
For me, the lure of cabaret as an art form comes from the fact that a broad spectrum of performers can put together very personal evenings. I started working on cabaret acts for people who were just starting out and would play gigs at Reno Sweeney’s and other clubs. A great cabaret act is like having dinner with someone, except they don’t eat off your plate. It’s an intimate experience because it's about having a conversation with song and storytelling; it’s like sitting across the table from someone you’d like to get to know. And when that someone is really good at it, like Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone and, back then, Bette Midler, it doesn’t get better.
I got involved with 54 Below as a result of my history with Hairspray producers Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Marc Routh and Steve Baruch. They approached me while they were still looking for a space because they knew I had directed Christine and Patti, and that I had relationships with these people, creatively and personally. They wanted my input in the new club. The wonderful thing about this team is that they produce 54 Below like they are producing a musical; it’s a collaborative effort on everyone’s part. So when they asked me to come in as creative consultant, I said, “Without question!”
At 54 Below, everyone is working on the top of their game, which makes for a good experience for the performer and the audience. There’s not a bad seat in the house, the sound is impeccable and the lights are great. More than anything, I think the city needed a room that could be a melting pot, where people from downtown, uptown and midtown all had a place to play, and I hope I bring that sensibility to it.
As for which performers should populate the new nightclub, Patti was the obvious choice to open Broadway’s living room, and so we put together a special show just for that. Since then, a wide range of performers have debuted new acts at 54 Below. I had a hand in Jenifer Lewis and Patti’s concerts, so I’m like a proud papa when they perform, but I get just as much of a thrill seeing Joe Iconis and Justin Vivian Bond because they should have a showcase in midtown. Victor Garber’s beautiful show the other night was filled with movie stars in the audience having a great time. I think there is has something for everyone.
I'm trying to lure people to 54 Below. My dream is to get Nathan Lane. There are people out there who have never done cabaret, but if it’s on your bucket list, this is the place to be.