Late on a Tuesday night in March, at a cabaret club in the heart of the theater district, a pack of giddy musical theater students are reveling in the kind of post-performance bliss that only comes from playing a packed room, obsessing over the woman with whom they’re sharing a greenroom.
“Chita Rivera was up here,” says Jessie Brownie, a senior at Elon University in North Carolina. “She jumped in the group photo with us! It just confirms that all the greats perform here, and it’s just so cool to be doing it right alongside them.”
Here is Feinstein’s/54 Below, a cabaret supper club in the basement of Studio 54 — the infamous late-1970s nightclub turned Broadway theater. Founded in June of 2012 by a team of bold-faced Broadway producers, 54 Below has become the center of theater’s flourishing cabaret scene.
54 Below is far from the only space in New York offering Broadway stars a stage for cabaret — Café Carlyle, Joe’s Pub and The Birdland Jazz Club rank among the popular, too.
But in the variety and volume of Broadway-centric programming it offers, 54 Below is unlike any of its peers.
“You can go to 54 Below, and you can see Laura Benanti and her mom, and then you can see Norm Lewis, and then you can see some singer-songwriter who is still an undergrad at some college you’ve never heard of, do a night of her songs,” says Joe Iconis, a composer and lyricist, and one of 54 Below’s regular performers.
In other words, there aren’t many venues at which a group of college students could legitimately proclaim that Chita Rivera was their opening act.
For those unfamiliar with New York’s cabaret scene — or with the theater world at all — it might be helpful to think of 54 Below’s Hollywood equivalent.
“Broadway performers have joked that it’s like being on ‘Law & Order,’” says Jennifer Tepper, 54 Below’s programming director. “Everyone on Broadway has done it.”
And “everyone” is no joke. From Lin-Manuel Miranda to Laura Benanti, there are few marquee names who have yet to set foot on 54 Below’s small stage.
In 2012, the club’s founders — Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel and Steve Baruch — planned on opening a traditional venue where famous Broadway performers would drift in and out, attracting a steady stream of New York theater fans.
A different philosophy — one focused on variety and volume — saved 54 Below from becoming the flop that all producers fear. Now, instead of a few weekly headliners, the club produces between 15 and 18 shows every week.
A typical week at 54 Below might include a classic cabaret by a Broadway legend, a slate of young performers paying tribute to The Beatles or Gwen Stefani, and a reunion concert of a gone-too-soon musical like “Heathers” or “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Tepper, who was brought into the fold in 2013, is hailed by some as the mastermind behind this successful new approach. Though she denies sole credit, Tepper’s enthusiasm for her work matches that of a theater-loving kid taking her first bows in the fifth-grade play.
“The good thing is, there’s no drought of Broadway performers,” she says. “There are always new shows opening, new writers writing new material. As long as Broadway keeps going, there’s always new stuff for us to do. We won’t run out.”
Ticket prices at 54 Below usually range from $30 — $100, depending on the act. Still, a $30 ticket (plus $25 food and drink minimum) isn’t exactly cheap. That’s where YouTube comes in.
This spring, Joe Iconis performed a series of shows at 54 Below with George Salazar, an actor from his musical, “Be More Chill,” which centers around high school misfits, and which has become inexplicably popular in the last year — its album being streamed over 90 million times, despite the show only ever having a month-long regional production in 2015. (That popularity, however, will bring the show Off-Broadway this July).
At one of Iconis and Salazar’s March shows, 54 Below was packed, mostly with teenagers and their parents, some of whom actually had flown out for the event. Immediately as the show began, phones went up and started recording. The next day, video of each song from the performance was up on YouTube in multiples.
“I call YouTube ‘Tin Pan Alley’ of the future,” Tepper says. “That’s how you get your songs known.”
And not just known, but interpreted by other performers. “When you’re looking for a new song, you think, ‘what have people been performing at 54 Below?’” says Elon student Grant Paylor.
That’s what Michael Schimmele was thinking when deciding what to sing for the Elon senior showcase. After browsing YouTube, the song Schimmele chose for his 54 Below debut was “Michael in the Bathroom,” a stand-out hit from “Be More Chill.”
Schimmele’s version now has nearly 4,000 views on YouTube, where the next generation of theater kids can find him singing it on 54 Below’s hallowed stage.