Cabaret has always enjoyed ties with the counterculture, from its bawdy Parisian roots to its present-day revival and reinvention alongside such antiquated styles as burlesque. Maybe it's appropriate then that vocalist Deb Mullins' upcoming show at the Theatre on the Square is titled Love is a Many Splintered Thing. Her idea of love is a little too complicated for the Hallmark Channel, but just right for the kind of sophisticated and well-traveled worldview that informs the cabaret repertoire.
"I didn't mean that necessarily to be a negative," said Mullins, explaining the title. "It's more the idea that there's not just one kind of love. It permeates all the different facets of our lives, whether it be romantic, spiritual or through friendship. It's kind of built up on that theme of different experiences that most, or hopefully everybody, has at least once or twice."
Mullins, the leader of an R&B group and jazz trio as well as an adjunct professor at IUPUI teaching music and technology, wrote and arranged songs for Many Splintered Thing with the help of collaborator Lynn Lupold. Most of the pieces are original to the cabaret, and will be supplemented by a smattering of standards. The production is the first by Red Boat Productions, a production company recently created by Mullins, Lupold, American Cabaret Theatre assistant director Shannon Forsell and Lafayette Music Productions' Eric Van Cleave.
As Mullins suggests, she and Lupold have composed songs that explore the many sides of love. Some are optimistic. "Taking a Chance on Love" encourages the audience to do just that. But there are also songs like "Ask Me Now," which is "a bit of a fevered song about a relationship that didn't go so well," Mullins said.
The cabaret allows a singer to try on a number of different personae; Mullins can be both the heartbroken and the heartbreaker, and for her this is part of the appeal. "It's the storytelling of it, and that's the thing I really like about it. It's being able to share common experiences, or to remind people of what they've had. I enjoy that energy that can be exchanged between a performance and the audience," Mullins said.
Mullins also enjoys interacting with the audience at a cabaret.
"There are a lot of people that enjoy going out and hearing a good melody and being entertained in a comfortable, relaxed kind of venue to hear some beautiful and fun music, and actually feel like they've been a part of that evening," Mullins said. "Audience feedback is always important to an artist, but with cabaret there's a little bit more of that exchange. There's a connection of the emotion, and the energy of the song itself, and also the storytelling of it. I've chosen songs that can speak to their heart, good or bad."
Mullins and Lupold began working on the show more than a year ago.
"I wrote and produced a show of all original music. Deb and Shannon Forsell were the singers. I had been around Deb as a musician but never really worked with her. After last year we decided that joining forces and developing another show would be a great project," said Lupold, who is also quick to redirect attention to the show's star. "Deb is the only singer in the show, so it rests firmly on her shoulders."
In addition to Mullins' vocals, Love is a Many Splintered Thing will feature a number of veteran musicians, including drummer Harry Goodloe, bassist Bill Myers, pianist Manny de la Rosa and guitarist Steve Weakley.
Like Mullins, Lupold sees cabaret as a growing form, thanks in large part to the intimacy it fosters with its audience. "Even in New York, where the Broadway shows are closing down, the cabaret theaters are selling out. It is also a much more intimate setting and connecting with the performers is usually part of the challenge in any production so the smaller, more intimate setting provides a great connection. Personally I think it's great and we may be seeing more of this format in our own city emerging," Lupold said.
If it does, it won't be by accident. Red Boat Productions has plans to continue promoting the form. While Love is a Many Splintered Thing is their first show open to the general public, it was the excitement of past, private shows that spurred them on to the show at TOTS.
"After doing the last show, of course it excited us, and we started talking more about the rise again or new interest in cabaret, and in being a part of that. We had all the players there and the skills to put the show together, so we wanted to see what we could do. We want to do what we can to promote the idea and comeback of cabaret theater," Mullins said.
Lupold shared this excitement for the idea of revival. "To have music become personal is important. The setting provides that personal connection in both proximity and in relaying the meaning of the music. When a performer can actually see their audience and look them in the eye, there has to be more of a connection and more meaning being transferred. I also like the idea of songs that can tell fun stories and people can relate to them. Cabaret is a more open opportunity for programming tunes. It isn't so set in a format or style. Anything goes," Lupold said.