Trevor Ashley has always loved cabaret, and has long dreamed of running a festival. In just over a week he will do just that when the curtain rises on the inaugural Sydney Cabaret Festival, with Ashley at the helm as Artistic Director.

“Basically, I’ve been wanting to do something of this ilk in Sydney for ages and it was sort of serendipity in a way,” he says when asked how it came about. “I bumped into [business man, theatre lover and regular arts patron] Stephen Fitzgerald in a theatre foyer after a show and he said, ‘have you ever thought about a cabaret festival for Sydney?’ and I said ‘Yes! Of course I have!’” recalls Ashley.

Trevor Ashley in cabaret mode. All photographs supplied

“He said ‘look, I really want to get behind starting one’ and so we got together and he made an enormous donation of a quarter of a million dollars to get it started and I sort of took it from there and ran, and basically put the whole concept and the way that it worked together. It was great because Stephen really loves cabaret most out of everything. He’s always been a huge supporter of the arts but he definitely wanted to begin something that would have a legacy, and would continue on, so that’s what we’re attempting to do.” Fitzgerald is Chairman of the Festival.

Ashley has a long relationship with cabaret as both a performer and a producer. In 1998, he made his professional debut at the Sydney Cabaret Convention, then in its second year, an event which ran annually at Sydney Town Hall until 2004. His performance was lauded by the judges, audience and critics and kick-started his career.

He has since performed many of his own cabaret shows including Liza’s Back! (is Broken), Liza (on an E), Diamonds Are For Trevor and I’m Every Woman, some of which he has taken to London and New York. In 2009, he ran a program called Civic Cabaret at Sydney’s Civic Hotel, and for many years he has run a cabaret showcase called Showqueen at Ginger’s in Sydney’s Oxford Street.

Kim David Smith

“I guess I’d always wanted to do musical theatre and I ended up not doing my first musical until I was 26 so when I came out of school and was desperate to do something, cabaret was the thing I did, and I found a real inspiration there, and in the artists I saw. Going out and seeing Geraldine Turner and Margi de Ferranti and these wonderful performers who do such incredible cabaret… When the cabaret convention was happening, [that’s] where I first made my professional debut as such in front of this audience of industry people and the public as well. But certainly I think it made the industry sit up and go, ‘ooh, who’s this guy?’ That was kind of where it started, and how I met everybody was from doing cabaret really. They would come to my shows and I’d go to their shows and it was just a wonderful way to start my foray into theatre and into the biz here. I’m glad that it happened that way, I’d always thought musicals was how I’d do it, but I just wasn’t right for anything for years so to have something like cabaret was amazing.”

The program he has put together for the Sydney Cabaret Festival has Jennifer Holliday, who created the role of Effie in the musical Dreamgirls, as its headline act. The line-up also includes, among others, Alison Jiear in a celebration of Ella Fitzgerald, New York downtown favourite Natalie Joy Johnson, Phil Scott and Jonathan Biggins in No Cabaret for Old Men, Tim Draxl in his new show Love is a Drag, UK duo Frisky and Mannish, and New York-based Kim David Smith singing Kylie songs. There’s also a circus and variety show from Brunswick Heads called Cheeky Cabaret, created by the team behind La Soirée and Club Swizzle, and from London Solve-Along-A-Murder-She-Wrote. Ashley himself will host the All-Star Gala, and the Grand Final of the Sydney Cabaret Competition, which will take place as part of the Festival, replacing the now defunct Sydney Cabaret Showcase.

Cheeky Cabaret

Cabaret is a broad church these days. Asked if he had a clear idea of the kind of shows he wanted, Ashley says: “I guess I really love pure cabaret in terms of a singer and audience and a show that is usually musical. But I wanted to make sure that there were some other offerings that were slightly different so that’s where I wanted to program Solve-Along-A-Murder-She-Wrote because I thought that was going to be a fantastic, fun experience for people and very camp of course. Also with Cheeky Cabaret, La Soirée and Club Swizzle are I think two of the best circus and variety burlesque cabaret shows in the world and so to get those guys to put together a show for us was really exciting. Apart from that, I basically picked my favourite acts from around the world who I thought would make a great first year because they’re all so extraordinary in their own way and I guess that’s where I came from in my head. I don’t know whether I limited myself but I guess my taste in cabaret is very pure I think so I feel like you could go and see anything in this festival and you’d love it as a cabaret show.”

Jennifer Holliday

Asked how he managed to secure Jennifer Holliday as the star act, he laughs. “Well, look, her Musical Director [Brian Nash] is a very good friend of mine and I’d seen her on an Atlantis Cruise which is a big, gay cruise company, so I basically said to Brian, ‘how do I get in touch with Jennifer? She’s never been to Australia, this will be so exciting for audiences, to bring a Grammy and Tony Award-winning star. She was so excited, that was just a bonus, and her show is just really fantastic, I can’t stress enough how brilliant she is in concert. She knocks your socks off. That voice is unbelievable and it’s not just ‘the song’ [And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going] that everyone loves. Her other material, the Etta James stuff, the Aretha Franklin stuff that she sings, plus all the Broadway that she sings, is pretty amazing. She’s got backing vocalists, brass and everything, she’s really pulling it out.”

Nash will be coming as her Musical Director (and will perform his own show, The Art of the Mashup), but the other musicians will be Australian. “I’m really excited about her working with all of our fantastic musicians here,” says Ashley.

The Festival Hub will be at the Seymour Centre where the different venues will be used, with Holliday’s performances taking place at Sydney Town Hall and the opening All-Star Gala at City Recital Hall. “I wanted to make sure that we were across the city but I also wanted a strong hub,” says Ashley. “I think one of the strongest things about Adelaide Cabaret Festival is that you can go down to Adelaide and go and see two, three, four shows in the night and I love the fact that you just run around all the venues within the Festival Centre.”

Tim Draxl

“For us, I wanted to find somewhere that was equivalent and it’s very hard in Sydney because there aren’t many places like that, so I’m really excited that we’re at the Seymour because you can come in and do two, three shows a night and hang around for the Piano Bar afterwards so that’s the hope, that people will do that,” says Ashley.

“But I also wanted a presence across Sydney. This is obviously year one so I didn’t want to push it too hard but definitely being at the City Recital Hall, I love that venue, it’s such a beautiful place to be for a gala opening, so that was exciting, and then to get Town Hall for Jennifer Holliday was exciting too. And then every other show is at the Seymour in the four different theatres so it made it a great choice for me to be able to be there, to have smaller shows of people you may not know or have never seen before from America and from England, and then other more established shows in the bigger theatre, so I’m really pleased with how it’s worked out.”

The Sydney Cabaret Festival runs July 5 – 14