New York pianist Lance Horne loves being part of Sydney's ''great international family'' of cabaret performers.
He's performed with Alan Cumming at the Opera House and composed and arranged for Amanda Palmer and Australia's own (though she refuses to confirm it) Meow Meow.
Horne says Sydney is an ''amazing platform for the arts, and cabaret in particular''. Much of this he credits to Virginia Hyam, the former Opera House head of contemporary culture, who was programming such acts there when cabaret was less fashionable at many other venues.
Trevor Ashley has donned sequins and ribbons as Liza Minnelli in Liza on an E, as Natalie Portman (Portly) in Fat Swan, Shirley Bassey in Diamonds Are for Trevor and the little orphan in trAshley. He hosts the all-star cabaret Showqueen, running Sundays through February at Ginger's at the Oxford Hotel. His guests on Sunday February 24 are Marika Aubrey and Amanda Harrison (Elphaba from Wicked). Photo taken 24/01/12. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Now the city is experiencing a cabaret renaissance in venues such as Slide, Ginger's at the Oxford Hotel in Darlinghurst, The Standard in Surry Hills, the Bordello Theatre in Kings Cross and the Factory Theatre in Marrickville.
And Horne's assessment of the local scene carries heft. Next month he will perform with Cumming and Liza Minnelli at the Town Hall Theatre in New York.
Before that, however, Horne is musical director for LOVE ME, an all-star cabaret at The Standard, presented in association with ACON and Sydney Mardi Gras, with a line-up including Tom Sharah, Elana Stone and Steve Smyth.
Riches don't always follow a passion for cabaret: a few years back, Horne had to use budget accommodation in a hotel on Pitt Street. Sleepless, he got up and wrote a song called January, which Meow Meow recorded: I overlook the McDonald's/Lest it overlook me …
''Audiences love cabaret because it returns them to a natural state of interaction with a performer,'' says Horne, who has brought to Sydney a video of an Alan Cumming performance to which performer Courtney Act will duet on Sunday.
But Sydney cabaret chanteuse Christa Hughes, another star of LOVE ME, says cabaret's appeal is more about artifice.
''What I like about cabaret is that it's not natural,'' says Hughes, wearing a fez, long lashes and hot pink lycra. ''I think everybody wants to escape reality TV.''
Phil Scott, the Wharf Revue writer and pianist, recently filled in at Ginger's as host of Sunday night cabaret Showqueen in Darlinghurst for regular host performer Trevor Ashley. Last Sunday, Scott duetted with special guest iOTA.
''The cabaret stage is where you work out what makes you unique, and different from everyone else,'' says Scott, who doesn't include burlesque in his definition of cabaret. ''Cabaret is about paring back to an innate truth - even when it's comic - whereas burlesque is about commenting on and through performance, and adding an ironic perspective to it.''
Performer Maeve Marsden, artistic director of Blackcat Productions, which programs cabaret at different venues, agrees there has been a renaissance of cabaret in Sydney.
''But it's hard to promote cabaret in Sydney, with media and audience often not knowing whether to expect burlesque or musical theatre,'' she says. ''Fortunately, Sydneysiders are finally starting to realise that cabaret is both and neither.''
It is a ''fusion of music and story and politics and sex and silliness''.
New Zealand-born ''demi-drag'' cabaret artist Spanky - whose characters include Candice McQueen and whose day drag name is Rhys Morgan - spent seven years performing a London residency and has given private concerts to Elton John and Alexander McQueen.
''A lot of bars are putting on cabaret performers as a way of drawing people back into the bars,'' he says, noting that big-production musicals are expensive to see. He is about to do his first Sydney show, Nasty, at Slide on Oxford Street on February 28.
''Don't get me wrong, I love seeing a great big show, but the scope and even the political aspects that can come through in cabaret, there's nothing like it. I love that cabaret is so intimate. You're so close. I can literally reach out and touch people.''
Performer and pianist Jeremy Brennan, who also programs cabaret acts at Slide on Oxford Street, says that for musical theatre stars, ''it's part of the thrill to break out of character and take to the stage without the artifice of production''.
LOVE ME, The Standard, Surry Hills, February 24; Nasty, Slide, Darlinghurst, February 28; Meow Meow performs with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Opera House, from April 23.