No doubt about it. We’re living in a vulgar, witless age. If you’re a cabaret performer, why bother to exercise wit—if you even have it to exercise—when you only need to insert “shit,” “pussy,” “cunt,” “fuck” or “motherfucker” into a remark and reap an instant howl from a primed audience.
The comic(?) tactic is so old, it’s a wonder that those employing it aren’t looking to find some new way to be creative—or vulgar, or shocking. Maybe they don’t bother because they’ve noticed they don’t have to do any more than they’re already doing. You can be lazy and still get ahead, perhaps even faster. Vulgarity, obscenity is the easy ticket in a society that’s learned you don’t have to try harder in order to succeed.
I’m bringing this up now, because after hearing a good deal about the cabaret singer Bridget Everett, I finally saw and heard her in Rock Bottom, the new show she’s doing at the Public—on, as it happens, the establishment’s New York Voices commission, which is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. (Apparently, a lot has changed since 1990 and the NEA Four, and, on balance, that’s a good thing.)
Having Everett’s show under my belt, as it were, I’m trying to remember what I expected to find. I’d heard unspecified praise about her from fans, and pointed criticism from detractors. On the way to the late Saturday night performance, I even ran into a friend who said he disliked her unabated raunchiness and, knowing my taste, predicted I’d dislike her as well and maybe even scram before she finished.
Guess what? I didn’t scram before she finished. As often (usually?) happens when I (or you, for that matter) see something about which much has already been written and said, the reaction is naturally personal. It doesn’t quite jibe with received information.
So let me tell you about the Bridget Everett I saw. To begin with, she has a glorious rock voice, and while she’s able to ripple the Joe’s Pub ceiling when she so desires, she can control those strong vocal cords exquisitely and thereby shift emotions from large and powerful to small and intimate.
She’s a tall, big-boned and full-figured woman, whom both Peter Paul Rubens and Lucian Freud would have been happy to paint. She has a beautiful face, a great smile and swinging blond hair she wears cut to just below her ears in a flattering manner. Were she to decide she’d like to be what is currently called a plus-size model, she’d have a good chance of going far on runways.
She is off-the-cuff funny, quick with the clever ad lib. When she chooses to be, she can be—yup—witty. The night I was there, she got some smart one-liners off as fast as Joan Rivers might have and Elayne Boosler still does. There was one about the recently ubiquitous ice bucket challenges that tickled me.
But yes, Everett is vulgar. She cultivates vulgarity. She has clearly developed a following that wants to see how extremely vulgar she can be. With the help of songwriters Scott Wittman (her intrepid director), Marc Shaiman, Matt Ray, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and herself, she generously gives the audience what she’s trained it to want. (She’s aided as well by a five-piece band, conducted from the piano by steel-fingered, blond Bette Sussman.)
Song titles tell the story, although they don’t suggest the comments she inserts between lyrics—the most blatant two items being “Tell Me (Does This Dick Make My Ass Look Too Big?)” and “Put Your Dick Away.”
The titles don’t indicate what she might be doing while delivering the sex-laden anthems. Was it during “Eat It” that one of her back-up singers handed her an instant whip can so she could coat the thigh she had positioned inches from a male patron’s mouth?
He obliged. Of course. This was Gary, whose name she’d requested earlier. And what’s a fellow to do when confronted with such a situation? Everett had manipulated him so that were he to turn down the thigh-licking offer, he’d look like a spoilsport. Who wants that? Steve, another victim whom she’d also sort of befriended, could do nothing but lie on the stage, when she’d brought him there, and allow her to sit on him and so forth. Good ol’ Steve.
A couple times during her hour-plus, partially NEA-backed program, Everett put her dick-and-clit jokes aside and sang a song sweetly. “Why Don’t You Kiss Me” she wrote with Ray, and had it been released in the 1950s, would have been a chart topper. Another success is her nominal closing song, “I’ll Take You Home” (Shaiman and Wittman her collaborators this time). Were it released right now, it could also show up on Top 40 lists.
About her wardrobe: It’s designed especially for her with calculation by Larry Krone for House of Larréon. She first appears (when I was there, anyway) in what looked like a black-and-silver horizontal-striped shower curtain. That number and a gown that harked back to the Greeks with its supporting band seemed to hold out the promise of an imminent wardrobe malfunction that never materialized. You have to hand it to Krone; like Everett, he knows exactly what he’s doing.
At one point, Everett says something about “waiting for cabaret to catch fire.” Cheers to her for admitting she’s working in cabaret, when others fudge the issue because they think the very word “cabaret” will end up limiting them.
On the other hand, it seems to me that if Everett is a cabaret performer, she’s arduously and industriously working the burlesque end of it. Any time she’d like to move towards the spectrum’s middle, she has the wherewithal to do so.
Also keep in mind that, although her celebrants welcome her as something new on the cabaret horizon—to some extent she is—at the same time she’s part of an established tradition of bawdy women entertainers. She’s not so much alt-cabaret as the 21st-century Sophie Tucker by way of Rusty Warren and Belle Barth and to a lesser degree Frances Faye and Ava Williams. She’s merely brought these predecessors up to date from a more sophisticated age to our vulgarian era.