by Gail M. Burns, July 2003

To see and be seen is very important in show business. Of course it takes talent to make it big, but if that talent is hidden under a bushel and never allowed to shine, there is little chance of being “discovered.”

And so every summer the WTF provides its equity and non-equity performers a chance to see and be seen at a series of cabaret evenings at 11 or 11:30 p.m., following the regular performances on the Main Stage and Nikos Stage. There are two more cabaret series this summer – from July 31-August 2 and August 14-16. For those six nights performers will display talents no one knew they had, or share those they are justifiably famous for, before an audience largely made up of other performers, theatrical agents and managers, and major donors and trustees of the WTF. Being seen on the stage in Goodrich Hall can lead to great things.

Over the years, the Cabaret has become the hot ticket in Williamstown. “We are the only venue at the Festival which regularly sells out, even before we get started here in June,” said James Sampliner, musical director of the WTF Cabaret who is here for his 7th season, “It’s not easy to get tickets, but it is definitely worth the wait because you never know who’s in town.”

Yes, surprise guests, big names who are just visiting Williamstown, not performing here, do pop up on the Cabaret stage. Sampliner promises one such special guest in July 31-August 2 Cabaret series. “One of the challenges is when we have a show rehearsed and ready to go and I get a call saying that a big name is coming to town and can I throw him or her into the show. It is fun to figure out how to do that and keep the arc of the evening consistent for the audience.”

Sampliner and his crew literally invent each Cabaret series from scratch, starting with seeing who is available and interested in performing, “I ask the equity folks first, then move on to the non-equity and apprentice crowd,” Sampliner explained, There is always an apprentice number. This is a great opportunity for those kids to show that they can do more than work, that they have talent too.” A heady experience indeed for an aspiring actor/singer to perform in a room filled with theatre luminaries, some of whom could make or break their careers.

Once he knows who will be performing, Sampliner pieces together each Cabaret in five days of rehearsal. Each performer gets to rehearse for half an hour to an hour with Sampliner. Tech rehearsals take place on Wednesday, and the show’s three-night run begins on the following night. “Of the 28 Cabarets I have done here, I have only had to change the running order on three or four. Occasionally you open a show and you know it doesn’t quite work and that changes have to be made.”

Every Cabaret is different. Musical styles range from county to folk to jazz to pop, with a healthy dose of songs from musical theatre included. Sometimes Sampliner picks the song for a performer, and sometimes performers come to him with ideas. Last year a young apprentice came to Sampliner with an idea for a send up of Williamstown to the title tune of the currently running hit musical “Urinetown.” “He was so inventive,” Sampliner said, “He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do and he had props and banners. It was really great.”

Sampliner has fond memories of working with big talents like Bebe Neuwirth, Stephen Collins, Blythe Danner, and James Naughton. He enjoys the big silly moments at the Cabaret, but also the quiet poignant moments when it becomes all about the lyrics and the acting of the performer.

When Sampliner arrived at the WTF the Cabaret’s were staged at the 1896 House. “Goodrich Hall is a better venue for us because no one has to drive there. Its more relaxing for the performers and folks from the festival to walk over after curtain.” Sampliner is pleased that this year he has gotten the scene shop involved in decorating the back wall of the Goodrich stage. “I was awfully tired of looking at those doors,” he said.

Sampliner, who makes his home in New York City, is a freelance musical director, accompanist, arranger and composer. This summer, in addition to his Cabaret duties, he was the musical director for “The Threepenny Opera” and supervised the musical moments in “Under Milkwood.” This fall he will be working as Associate Conductor on the musical “Never Gonna Dance” which begins previews at the Broadhurst Theatre in October.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003

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