There are a lot of different worlds to be found inside the theatre, and the world of cabaret is one of the most exotic. It's one that Matt Berman knows well, having built a career as the leading lighting designer in New York cabaret. Berman, a Chicago native, had his New York epiphany at the age of 15 when, in New York on a visit, "I woke up and saw the Citicorp building shining the first thing in the morning and it was like, this is where I'm gonna live. So the rest of high school was geared to moving out here."
After college, at Drew University and Arizona State, Berman came to New York and started hanging out at the famous Greenwich Village piano bar/cabaret, the Duplex. He became friendly with owner Larry Schumel. "He remembered that I had studied tech theatre," says Berman, "and a position opened in cabaret. I knew nothing about cabaret at the time; I had never even seen a cabaret show in New York."
So Berman went upstairs to the Duplex cabaret space, and, he says, "started watching shows." When the Duplex's full-time LD left New York, Berman took over, working there for four years. He also got involved at other well-known spots like Don't Tell Mama, Rose's Turn, and The New Duplex (basically the old Duplex in a new location).
By this time, Berman was working steadily at Eighty Eights, a venue that features two or three acts a night, seven days a week. The turnover is enormous, making an LD's life very, very busy. How did he do it? "We'd set up a tech. In a two-hour time, we'd sit down and have a mini-production meeting--I'd find out where they were going to be onstage, how many instruments--and I'd patch in all the sound [yes, he does sound, too], focus all the lights, and we'd do a full run of an hour-long show. All in two hours. And they were out and another act comes in."
A few years of this certainly teaches you a lot about lighting design, although, as Berman acknowledges, "It just gets insane after a while; it becomes like a show factory." He got out when he began working exclusively for the late singer Nancy LaMott, then took on additional clients like the gay a cappella group The Flirtations, and Miss Coco Peru, a drag performer.
These days, Berman also works with Cybill Shepherd, who does club dates while on summer hiatus from her TV series. Other cabaret clients include Maureen McGovern, Karen Mason, Hildegarde, Margaret Whiting, Julie Wilson, Ann Hampton Callaway, Karen Akers, and comedienne Julie Halston at major venues like Tavern on the Green and Rainbow and Stars, atop Rockefeller Center.
Although Berman loves his work, he's begun to cross over into the theatre. To this end, he's designed Off Broadway productions such as Tovah Feldshuh's one-woman show, Tovah: Out of Her Mind, and Beat, a one-person show by former subway cop John Diresta that has enjoyed sleeper status this season. He's also worked with La Gran Scena Opera Company, the troupe of drag performers that spoofs the mannerisms of the great opera divas. He also worked with director-lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., whom he considers a mentor, on the development of the revue Closer Than Ever.
In the meantime, Berman's life is still pretty hectic. "I'm going to Australia with The Flirtations for two and a half weeks this month," he says. "Then I come back for three and a half weeks, and go back there for nine days with La Gran Scena." At the time of this interview he was contemplating designing shows for Julie Wilson, Karen Mason, and possibly Kaye Ballard, all set to open on the same day: "I'll tech Julie from 12 to 3 [at the Algonquin], then we'll do a sound check with Karen from 4 to 6:30. We'll then wait for it to get dark [Mason was booked into Rainbow and Stars, with its wraparound windows], and do the lighting for Karen.
"The other advantage of having done this for so long is that I know, I would say, almost every song written before 1950," he says, noting that he's even designed shows long-distance for singers in other cities. The key in all cases, he says, is tailoring the number to the singer's personality, whether it is Shepherd's wacky high-society playgirl persona, Julie Wilson's world-weary sophisticate, or LaMott's penetrating sincerity. He adds, laughing, "It was really hard when I was working cabaret and I'd have six people in one week sing 'Somewhere Out There.' One night, I had three people sing 'The Wind Beneath My Wings' three shows in a row."
Still, he exudes enthusiasm for his work and the artists he supports. Speaking of the cabaret business, he says, laughing, "It's a strange netherworld." And it seems very likely that, no matter where his career takes him next, there will always be room for another club date in Matt Berman's schedule.