Cabaret is a form of entertainment that is more daring and less formal than the plays and musicals you would see on a typical Broadway stage. Cabaret in New York City has been popular for more than a century, but it did not begin there. Rather, cabaret has its roots in Europe. When it came to the United States, it involved in unique directions due to the sociopolitical climate during which it developed.
The early days of cabaret entertainment in France probably looked more like an open mic night or poetry slam than what we know as cabaret today. In fact, the word “cabaret” doesn’t actually have anything to do with music or entertainment at all. In the late 1800s, it merely denoted a business that served alcoholic beverages. Musicians and poets would gather at these places and give impromptu performances. Deciding that this was good for business, proprietors began to schedule specific acts to perform.
In 1889, the Moulin Rouge was first established in Paris. It is the quintessential example of what cabaret entertainment eventually became in France. Most Americans are familiar with it through the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec or the Baz Luhrman film that bears its name.
French-influenced cabarets began opening all over Europe at the turn of the century and became very popular in Germany. The stage Musical “Cabaret” and the film adaptation of it give a fairly accurate view of what German cabaret was like, albeit highly stylized. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was significant political and economic upheaval in Germany. Cabaret artists produced sharp satire of the politics of the day and sometimes faced retaliation for their frank criticisms of the burgeoning Nazi regime.
Cabarets have existed in New York since the 1910s. However, when the U.S. government prohibited the consumption of alcohol in 1919, cabaret entertainment went underground to secretive establishments called speakeasies. These drinking establishments were frequently operated by organized crime syndicates.
However, Prohibition did not last forever. It was repealed in 1933, and cabaret entertainment remained popular even during the economic hardship of the Great Depression. As a matter of fact, New York cabarets took on a glamorous aspect during this time. Patrons were expected to observe a dress code and servers wore tuxedoes to wait on guests. Cabarets provided a venue for vaudevillian performers looking for a way to keep performing and also served as a launching pad for rising stars.
Cabaret still exists in New York to this day. Though it has undergone several transformations, it still retains some of the subversive character of its roots. Because of the varied entertainment, cabaret offers something for everyone.