Cabaret's Carol O'Shaughnessy is 'Singin' Happy' at Club Café

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 19, 2019

For the past four decades, the cabaret scene in the Boston area has waxed and waned, with entertainers coming and going, but the one constant through all that time has been Carol O'Shaughnessy, actress, singer, comedienne and entertainer. She has graced every stage you can think of, from North Shore Music Theater, to New York City's Town Hall, from Scullers Jazz Club and the Regattabar to Club Café's various performance spaces. She has opened for The Platters, and for Joan Rivers, who once quipped O'Shaughnessy was "the best singer in her price range." For over 20 years, O'Shaughnessy was a headlining entertainer on RSVP Cruises around the world. In 2018, CabaretFest! Provincetown granted O'Shaughnessy a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In spite of the classy boîtes and elegant rooms in which O'Shaughnessy has performed, she has never been too proud to hold court in any number of dives as well, as long as she had a place where she can sit and entertain a crowd. Because that is what is most important to O'Shaughnessy: to entertain. The Boston Globe noted of O'Shaughnessy, "powerful voice... she knows how to engage a crowd," while the Boston Herald declared, "whether you see her for laughs or for songs, there isn't another entertainer who can power her way through a ballad... and then wipe your tears away with guffaws." But the New York Post said it best, describing her as "a funny lady with delicious abandon, relating truths... yet she's also a powerhouse singer." O' Shaughnessy will perform her new show, "Singin' Happy" with the Tom LaMark Orchestra on Saturday, November 23 in the Moonshine Room at The Club Café.

For tickets and more information, visit the Club Café website.

Getting her start in 1978 as a singing waitress at Romie's in Danvers, O'Shaughnessy was singing three shows a night, piecing together a repertoire and building an audience. Dragged by a friend shortly thereafter to sing at the Male Box, a gay bar in Worcester, O'Shaughnessy, with her Judy Garland-esque belt, and outgoing personality became an instant solo sensation, offered gigs on the spot, and began a cabaret career that would span 40 years. In 1981, she began performing entire summer seasons at Provincetown's original Pilgrim House, alongside such other cabaret luminaries as Sharon McNight, Karen Mason, Lea DeLaria and Sandra Bernhard, a run that lasted 10 seasons, which O'Shaughnessy documented with bittersweet retrospection in her 2004 show "Stuff In The Box... Provincetown, The Early Years."

At 77, O'Shaughnessy has gotten even more reflective, both about life, but also about the material she sings. EDGE spoke with the Arlington native from her home recently about her upcoming show, and how the material she has performed for decades resonates differently with the passage of time.

Not business, but art

EDGE: Do you see any differences between audiences of today versus 30 or 40 years ago?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: The audiences are slimmer and older. Where is the young audience? But when the young audience does show up, they like it. I feel bad for those [performers] who are starting out in cabaret. How do they hone their skills doing one or two shows a year? Back 30 years ago, we were doing shows six nights a week, year-round.

Cabaret was hot in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s. But some people, including the likes of Ellie Boswell and Penny Hamilton, once told me, that when "Thriller" came out, what you are going to be seeing is a lot of video, and lights, and overstimulation, which would alter audience expectations dramatically. But that isn't cabaret. The beauty of cabaret is the piano and the singer, and the audience.

Also, the instrumentalists aren't working as much, neither. The sidemen — they aren't working as much as they used to. These guys enjoy working with me because I'm fun and the check doesn't bounce (laughs). I feed them, too. You have to take care of the people you work with.

This is not so much a business as it is an art. You do it for the love of music, the love of the audience and for yourself, because you have to do it.

EDGE: What is your show called?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: "Singin' Happy." That's all I have left is to be happy. It's a little new stuff, and some comfortable shoe stuff. A little of this and a little of that. I'm always about humor. I'll be doing a couple from of songs from "Cabaret," but not the standard ones. I'm not going to be political, but those "Cabaret" songs are all about today. The comfortable shoes include: "All That Jazz," "When You're Good to Mama," and "Broadway Baby."

'Happy' songs

EDGE: Are you introducing any new songs?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: "Something Big." Also, a bunch of little "happy" songs. Then there's the other side of happy, such as "Everything Happens to Me." I'll be doing a song Liza [Minnelli] and Charles Aznavour did many years ago. Mama Scugliaci [one of O'Shaughnessy's characters] will be singing it, or maybe it will be sung as me.

EDGE: Are there songs in your repertoire that resonate with you now in ways they didn't ten and twenty years ago?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: Oh my God, of course. A lot of songs that I'm doing, like the character songs that I've done, like Fraulein Schneider from "Cabaret," if I were able to do it again, I would do it differently than when I did it in my 60s at University of Connecticut. You have to sing stuff that is age appropriate. I have a standard that everyone does, and I don't do it very often, but I will be doing it differently than I sang it back then. The passage of time, I'm going to be 77, and I'm not Marilyn Maye, who still is doing it at 90, she's friggin' amazing. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.
I'm going to sing "I Only Wanna Laugh." I used this song when I was auditioning years ago in New York. I had a broken ankle. I was with Ken Stanton then. Ken took me to the bus stop in crutches. I took the train and a cab in crutches to audition for U-Conn — I've done a lot of work with them — and I threw the crutches to the floor and sang. And I got the job.

Right work-life balance

EDGE: You raised three children while also being a full time performer. How did you achieve the right work-life balance?

I don't have a regret about this, but I've always led two lives, like the practical side, taking care of my kids, so I've had regular jobs and I've had musical jobs. If I didn't have a family, I would have pushed toward Broadway. The best I did was regional theater, and I did a lot of it. But after regional, there's only Broadway and I couldn't afford it. I did the best I could for the situation I was in, and I love that I have children. And my Broadway is my family: my three children and what they have given me, which is my in-law family and my seven grandkids. I'm amazed that I do have this, and that I've had some kind of success in the cabaret world. I've had a good life. I don't have a lot of money and I'm living in a basement (big laugh). But otherwise, it's good. And I'm eating chili while I'm talking to you (laughs).

EDGE: Cabaret is one entertainment field where age and maturity is valued and enables a performer to plumb emotional depths with greater conviction. How has your own journey through time influenced you as a performer?

Carol O'Shaughnessy: As you grow older, with all of the interesting ups and downs that you have, being happy is the most important thing, and you can choose that. You have to decide how you want to handle getting older. I handle it with a glass of wine every night, performing as much as I can, and enjoying my family and my friends. That is as important as performing as you grow older. I've mellowed a little. One tends to mellow as you grow older, even though I still feel 16 in my heart. I had a good basis of love and support from my parents growing up, and that stayed with me my whole life. I hope I gave some of that to my kids.

I love what I do. I really enjoy it. How many times will I go up on my lyrics? A lot. (laughs) Get over it. Sit back relax and enjoy, and hopefully I won't fall off the stage.

Carol O'Shaughnessy will perform "Singin' Happy" on Saturday, November 23, 2019, 7 PM at the Moonshine Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. Tickets: $25. For reservations call 617.536.0966 or visit the Club Café website.

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

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