After 20 years as a theatre producer, Harold Sanditen decided to move into performing cabaret.Sanditen now hosts the long-running Open Mic Night at London’s The Crazy Coqs. As well as hosting, Sanditen has an extensive cabaret career of his own, and his latest show, Flyin’ High, has now been captured on CD.
Here Sanditen talks to Glen Pearce about cabaret, his career and his move from being an investment banker to first a theatre producer and then cabaret performer.
You’ve made quite an unusual career switch from investment banking into theatre and cabaret. Has that business background helped?
Well, it certainly helped in theatre because producing theatre is really about finance and administration but the switch from there to cabaret was really quite easy, because everything I had to do to produce a play you have to do as a performer to produce yourself. So in many ways, all of that really was a good background to becoming a Diva!
So what made you switch from the producing to the performing side?
Well, there was a moment where I said I’ve had enough of producing. I think it was about 20 years in, and I’d just had enough of the admin. I was a small one-man-band more or less and didn’t outsource much of anything, so I got sick of doing the VAT returns and all the accounts and everything. It has just run its course. A woman that I’d done my MBA with was sitting in a cabaret show in New York that she put together when I was over there producing Celia Imrie in a show that I commissioned for her. So I went to see my friend and then she told me about a cabaret performance workshop in Tuscany. I joined her there and the rest is history! I got bit by the bug and I’m still bit!
Had you done any performing prior to that?
In high school I was in high school musicals and things like that but nothing between high school and the age of 52, no.
So quite a culture shock, quite a career change?
Well, yeah, I guess it was. But in many ways, it’s still entertainment and I was involved in entertainment one way or another for 20 years. It’s just taking a different approach.
Cabaret itself is getting quite a bit of resurgence and increasing popularity. Why do you think that is?
From an audience standpoint, I’m not so sure, all I can say to you is that for a man of a certain age or anybody of a certain age, cabaret feels natural to me. You have a life behind you, you have a lot of experiences and when you’re a cabaret performer it’s song as a monologue. It tells a story and it tells that story from the perspective that you want to give to the song. So I really can’t say why there’s a resurgence in it and you know in the UK, cabaret is huge. It encompasses a huge spectrum, it encompasses burlesque and stripping and comedy and all kinds of stuff whereas in America it’s really just the craft of singing, putting a show together, which is all musically based. I think audience members like to hear people’s stories and it brings a personal resonance to their lives. We all experience the same things, our emotions are the same, and I think when you hear someone singing a song it always strikes a chord with you.
You’ve worked in both New York and in London. You mentioned the difference between the London and American cabaret scene.
Well I think in the world of American cabaret, they do have things like burlesque but they aren’t under the umbrella of cabaret; whereas, here, there’s is a huge alternative cabaret scene as well as the more – I hesitate to use the word mainstream, that’s not fair – but the more music-based shows.
The other thing I would point out, in terms of what cabaret is about, is connecting with your audience and to some extent any singer, whether you’re a cabaret singer, a jazz singer or a pop rock – whatever you are, the ability to connect with your audience while you’re onstage is crucial. Oftentimes you see people on stage with their eyes closed singing beautifully but basically to themselves in their head or sometimes they may think it emoting or it’s very intense but it’s not all that engaging for the audience because you might as well just go home and listen to the CD as opposed to being in the presence.
Picking up on that performing side, you were Vice Chair on the Board of LAMDA. Do you think drama schools teach those skills for performing in cabaret or is it still perhaps looked down upon from mainstream theatre?
Well, drama schools teach acting and a song is a form of monologue so I think anybody who goes to drama school should have the ability to sell a song. LAMDA didn’t have a specific music or musical theatre department, but every year they did a musical and once they did a workshop with some cabaret performers from the States that I organised for them. I went along to it and it was really interesting to sit in and watch. What I found then was these 20-year-olds were singing songs about dead babies, with the song from Ragtime. You know a 20-year-old doesn’t have that experience and wouldn’t have gone through that experience. So I just think that age really has a lot to do with your ability to interpret songs and the experiences that come from that.
You host Crazy Coq’s longest running show – the open mic night. What is the appeal for you of those nights?
I love the surprise. There are regulars who come, so I know what the voices are like and I know what they’re capable of doing and I can put them in my own, subjective, pecking order but what I really love is when some young person comes through the door and the most unlikely looking person gets up and belt out a song that would really blow you away. We had a guy who came in and he didn’t bring music and he wanted to sing something like one of those Paul Robeson type songs for a really deep bass voice. As he didn’t bring the music with him so I had to figure out how we’re going to do it as he didn’t even know his key. But then he got up on stage and the audience stopped breathing while he was singing and he has never come back. He’s not on Facebook, is not somebody that I can find for social media, we have to wait for him to show up again to see him. It is moments like that that are really so exciting for me.
You’ve also a new CD out this month (Flyin’ High) What should we expect from that?
Fun! Lots and lot of fun – I had fun with that. I’m a very adventurous traveller and the show is called Flyin’ High because it’s anecdotes from my trips with songs that come from the emotions that I’m talking about and most of it is fun. I mean there are some ballads on it and I hope people will get a weep or two but after the first part of that CD was meant to be just a lot of good fun. You might have a cry with In My Life. I think that’s one of the wisest the most beautiful songs ever written and it was written by the Beatles when they were in their 20s. So here I’m talking about age and experience but it’s a really beautiful song.
You said the CD is inspired by your travels. What was the process of putting the songs together, was there a long list to choose from?
Oh, the list is enormous but what I decided with this show was to decide which anecdotes I wanted to tell and that was where the song came from. So even though the list of songs that I want to sing might be enormous, much of it has to do with what you’re talking about at the time.
You’ve worked with all kinds of people across your career. Is there still a performer on your wish list that you’d like to perform in cabaret with?
Oh gosh, so many people! I can’t I really can’t answer that question, there’re so many people I really adore and would love to sing with.
Cabaret is often moving from bigger to bigger rooms, is there a danger that it loses something when it moves to larger rooms.
Well there always is but you know the show I’ve done with the biggest audience was in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and there were probably 450 people in the room and that was a stretch for me because I’m used to performing in rooms no more than 80 people, but I do feel that I connected with that audience. I think it’s a function of how you really approach the audience. For me, I love working in the Crazy Coqs and the reason I like that room, in particular, is because you’re performing in the round, which means that everybody is within your sight line. At The Pheasantry, which is another room I play a lot, it’s a less easy room to connect with people because there are different levels, there’s a staircase on the right of the stage, there are people over your left shoulder when you’re standing on stage, so you’re working at 100 maybe 230 degrees angle, which is difficult to feel that you’re connecting with those people. So to some extent, smaller rooms are definitely better but I think we need to learn to connect with people in the bigger spaces.
Leading on from that desire to connect with people, what would be your advice for anyone thinking of taking a slot on one of your open mic nights as a first step into the world of cabaret?
The thing about our Open Mic Night is I make a point of making people feel welcome and feel calm cool and collected and if I can see that they’re really nervous I try and calm their nerves. It is a very warm, very nurturing environment and people are there to support you not judge you. The whole point of an open mike is to try out new material if you’re a singer, to get it in front of an audience and see if it works. So I think for the open mike I just make sure that people feel warm and comfortable there, that the best way to work otherwise people get up with nerves. That’s not fun for them and we don’t want to watch somebody who is shaking from nerves, which we feel worried for.
For more information visit www.haroldsanditen.com