CABARET LIFE NYC: Adam Shapiro's Hilarious 'Guide to the Perfect Breakup' is Also a Primer On Creating Great Cabaret Musical Comedy
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by Stephen Hanks
Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
If you're a cabaret performer thinking about staging a musical comedy theme show, or even if you're just a cabaret fan who appreciates a thoroughly entertaining show on multiple levels, you should try to squeeze yourself into The Duplex on Wednesday night (January 30) at 7 pm to see Adam Shapiro's encore performance of his Guide to the Perfect Breakup, which is also a textbook on how to create the almost perfect musical comedy cabaret show.
With the guidance and support of Director Peter Napolitano and Musical Director Barry Levitt (left to right in photo below), Shapiro has crafted a structurally intricate yet seamless show about the evolution of romantic relationships--no matter what your gender--which is also funny without being sarcastic, biting without being bitchy, and tender without being cloying. And it showcases the talents of a cuddly teddy bear of a performer, who possesses the kind of solid singing, acting, and comedic chops that make him a young, rising cabaret star.
"Breakups are messy and painful because people do them wrong," Shapiro begins, holding up a coffee-table sized book with the show title on the front and his photo on the back. "But breaking up is not so hard to do, and I'm here to help with my 10 rules. Before you break up you need a relationship." And with that Shapiro launches into what amounts to a cabaret show overture and a tour de force performance on a "Relationship Medley," featuring snippets of 21 songs that take the audience on a whirlwind musical journey from the first flirtation ("Some Enchanted Evening") to the depressing dumping ("Just One of Those Things"). Along the way this immensely clever opening bit included the songs "Two Lost Souls," "Getting to Know You," "Sweet Mystery of Life," "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," "La Vie Boheme," and "He's a Tramp." And amazingly, Shapiro sails through the whole medley without dropping one lyric.
From there the 10-step breakup primer for relationship dummies really takes off, as Shapiro proceeds to perform a one-man, mini-musical play for each of the 10 rules. After Levitt, serving as announcer, reads a rule, Shapiro amplifies it in song with sage advice. For Rule #1: "Be Direct," he sings Fred Barton's "Give My Best to the Blonde" with a sardonic edge. For Rule #2: "Be Sensitive and Tactful," Shapiro humorously offers Weird Al Yankovic's Elvis Costello style-song parody "I'm So Sick of You," like he's a middle-aged Italian guy from Brooklyn. As he sails through the rules (which, by the way, are not at all contrived) and cleverly connects an appropriate song to each, the conquering of this structurally challenging show conceit becomes even more impressive.
Shapiro actually came up with the idea about five years ago after watching other cabaret performers working the relationship angle with a more sad, regretful and angry take. "I would think, 'Isn't there another way to do this?', Shapiro told me recently when I asked how this show came about. "This led me to think about my own breakups and what had gone wrong and I thought that a list of 'dos and don'ts.' could be the premise of a funny show." So last year, Shapiro picked the experienced brains of multi-MAC Award winners Napolitano and Levitt, who have worked with him on his previous cabaret shows. Napolitano helped Shapiro transition the idea into a list of rules that would not only offer advice on how to negotiate a smooth breakup, but would also make for an entertaining show.
But it's one thing to come up with a list of sensible and believable breakup rules and another to find the songs--out of hundreds of possibilities--that would fit, let alone mixing the song styles and choosing the ones that would be just right for Shapiro's voice and personality. "We racked our brains thinking of songs to go with each rule, while also trying to keep the the comedic idea in mind," Shapiro explains. "Some were easy to find, others I've had in my repertoire [like "Hey, Let's Be Friends" by New York writers Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell, which was used for Rule #6: "Don't Use the F-Word"], and there were songs I've wanted to sing for a long time [like the Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager tune "I Still Believe in Love" which became the song for Rule #10: "Never Lose Hope"]. But Peter, Barry and I agreed that we should steer clear of doing similar songs consecutively and that we had to maintain the pacing. It was very important to me that the show take the audience on a musical journey." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Missions accomplished. For Rule #4: "Control Your Anger," Shapiro worked a short medley of Alanis Morissette's bitter breakup song "You Oughta Know" and Jeff Lynne's (of Electric Light Orchestra) "Evil Woman" around the Bruno Mars hit "F*** You" (and he tastefully and humorously tooted a toy horn for every F-word), then transitioned into the heartfelt ballad "Guess Who I Saw Today" (Murray Grand/Elisse Boyd). For Rule #7: "Be Careful With Whom You Seek Comfort," Shapiro offered a delightfully funny take on Bill Zeffiro's "My Kind of Guy (Line Up if Your a Loser)," which had been introduced earlier this year in Marissa Mulder's show Illusions, before starting slow and building in tempo on "If You Hadn't, But You Did" (Comden and Green) for Rule #8: "Avoid Physical Violence."
"That song was Peter's idea, which was great because I would never have thought of it for the 'violence rule,'" Shapiro admits. "Luckily, Peter brought a whole library of great song suggestions, many of which turned out to be perfect fits." Shapiro's acting of each number is one of the most impressive aspects of his show and he gives much of the credit for that to a strong collaboration with his director. "Peter helped me develop a character for each song, which prevented me from doing the same delivery over and over again," Shapiro says, "That was priceless to me in getting the show where I wanted it to be."
As if developing the idea, selecting songs, and singing and acting wasn't enough, Shapiro also wrote most of the arrangements and gives Levitt--a accomplished arranger himself--the credit for giving him the confidence to take on that role. "I knew that if the arrangements were good, Barry would play the hell out of them, and if they weren't he would show me why and fix them," Shapiro explains. "But Barry told me I had the 'arranger gene' and he didn't change much. You don't know how cool it is to have Barry 'Freaking' Levitt tell me he likes my stuff."
Everyone in the audience at his Duplex shows has liked Shapiro's stuff. When he arrived at Rule #10: "Never Lose Hope," the performer got personal and poignant. "I've been single for 12 years and I've been the dumper and the dumpee," he admitted. "But someone will come along and make these rules obsolete. It's inevitable that I will put down the Haagen Dazs and put on the hair product and get out there." But there was no way Adam Shapiro was going to let the crowd get out of The Duplex without a laugh and so he offered an addendum to the 10 Rules: "Tell your exes that being without a partner doesn't mean you have to be without," he advised, and then delivered Marilyn Miller and Cheryl Hardwick's ode to sexual self-gratification "Making Love Alone." It was a guide to a hilarious finale . . . and so typically Adam.
Adam Shapiro is giving an "encore performance" of Guide to the Perfect Breakup, Wednesday, January 30, 7pm at The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street, New York, New York. For reservations, call: 212-255-5438