Gourmands on a generous budget who take off for a dining tour of France will usually make the rounds of those few restaurants to which the renowned Guide Michelin has awarded its top honor, three stars. One food critic, however, has suggested they opt for the two-star dining spots. Not only are they superb, but their chefs are constantly trying to outdo themselves, striving for that third star. In the world of cabaret, Sue Matsuki, musing on her talents and her career, deems herself a two-star performer still working her way to the top. There are those who think she has either arrived or is very close.
Recently reviewers Barbara and Scott Siegel noted that Sue grows ever more popular, and “for good reason. Matsuki is a more polished and assured performer now and her ability to interpret a lyric is more readily apparent.” Other critics praise her “impeccable musicianship,” the “relaxed engaging alto that one could listen to for hours,” her comic gifts, and the “gems” that constitute each track of her CD.
The prizes Sue has garnered also indicate a top-rate cabaret performer. She has thrice been a MAC Award Nominee: once for her jazz CD, A New Take, in the category of Female Recording of the Year; once (with Marcus Simeone) in the category of Duo/Group; and this year for Special Production/Vocal Duo or Group. In 2002, Sue won the MAC Award for Female Jazz/Pop/R & B Vocalist. And in 2005 she became Julie Wilson’s choice for the first annual Julie Wilson Cabaret Performance Award bestowed by the Mabel Mercer Foundation.
Sue’s thinking of herself in--to continue our Michelin metaphor—the two-star category of cabaret performers can be explained in part by her life’s history. Meanwhile, as she speaks about her place in the cabaret community, balancing the enormous rewards she garners from it with a sometimes cynical notion of a “cabaret food chain,” she touches on a very critical issue concerning achievement in cabaret, especially in its capital, New York City.
Sue Matsuki grew up within an enormously complicated family. Her parents divorced when she was only seven; each remarried and had more children and there was a step-brother from an earlier marriage. It was, remarks Sue, a yours, mine, and ours situation.” All of her siblings were boys and they doted on their sister, one of them, for example, giving her the earnings from his paper route so that she could buy a fancy costume for solo parts in a ballet recital. Sue speaks generously of her family members. She says of her father, who died when he was only 50, that he “was a Harley riding harmonica player in a blues band so my earliest influence in music was the blues.” This was reinforced by her mother’s best friend who exposed Sue “to all the great ladies of jazz: Ella, Sarah, Peggy, Dakota, Carmen; this is where my love for that kind of music came from.” Sue’s mother coped with a difficult life by trying to fill her only daughter’s life with beauty and accomplishment. Sue became a fine ballerina, as she puts it, a “dancer who sang.” She tells an amusing anecdote about being entered into a baby beauty contest (which she won) at about the age of 6. Instead of singing The Boy I Love, which her mother had taught her, she “got up and belted out Love for Sale, to the horror of her mom but to the amusement of the judges.
Sue became the family’s “featured child,” but not only because she was the only girl. Even today, it would probably be difficult for her to know whether being the “good” child was a role she took upon herself or one subtly imposed on her. Either way, Sue not only helped by being effectively a second mother to her brothers, but also by never misbehaving and by earning consistently high grades in school. Looking back, she thinks that her scholarship to the University of Hartford prevented her from marrying a biker (like father and grandfather) and settling into a tedious domestic life. Psychologists have had a lot to say about the burdens on a child who deals with family conflict by striving to be perfect. It would therefore be hard to ascertain whether it was a message from her family or some voice within Sue that constantly made her fear that whatever her efforts, she was never quite good enough.
Whatever the source of that fear, certain events in her life seemed to confirm it or undercut her successes. When she was seventeen, she entered the Miss Waterbury (Connecticut) competition, an early step of the Miss America contest. Winning the talent segment after dancing a portion of Swan Lake as well as the personality segment (she was Miss Congeniality), Sue found her euphoria short-lived, a judge telling her that to be Miss Waterbury, she would have to lose some weight. Sure enough, she finished as first runner-up, a placement that began what for her became a pattern. “I sang and danced and won first runner up in every talent show I entered but I never actually won anything. I was ‘almost good enough.’” When she auditioned for the Hartford Ballet, Edward Villela looked at her voluptuous figure and told her she was more fit for burlesque than ballet. Even circumstances seemed to work against Sue, because after she was hired to perform at Arci’s and at another time the FireBird Cafe, those clubs closed.
Her MAC award should have put feelings of inadequacy to rest, but unfortunately she became aware of rumors that she had won not for her abilities but rather because she was well liked or volunteered to sell CDs at MAC tables. Years of feeling “not really good enough” came flooding back. That her MAC Award was attributed by some to popularity, as if all she could ever be was Miss Congeniality, was, for Sue, “hurtful, and it diminished my talent and my hard work.” Her beloved Julie Wilson “put her straight,” her reassurance the reason why Sue sang (No) Detour Ahead when she won the Julie Wilson award.
Understandably, Sue feels disappointed by the occasional backbiting in a performing community she usually praises for its cohesion and mutual support. She has obviously not shaken off her anxieties when she speaks of the aforementioned “Cabaret Food Chain” and a placement on it below where she wants to be. Putting aside for the moment Sue Matsuki’s personal psychology, in which actual achievement continues to conflict with old self-esteem issues, what she says about where she performs and, let us call it a ladder of success, highlights an unfortunate feature of New York cabaret.
There is a wide gap between the venues on 46th Street, for example, even what Sue calls the lovely supper club atmosphere of Helen’s Hideaway Room, and the—for want of a better word—posh cabaret rooms at the Algonquin, Carlyle, and Regency hotels. The latter represent an already-earned success for those who are booked there. They rarely offer the next rung on a ladder up which talented performers can climb. True, the Oak Room and Café Carlyle occasionally feature singers who began their careers in less renowned places; and Feinstein’s is beginning a Monday night series that offers performers without so-called “big names” a chance to appear and thus use the venue’s name on a resume. On the whole, however, New York cabaret performers are caught in a Catch-22 situation. One cannot ordinarily be booked into these rooms until one has earned that symbolic third star, and it is difficult to earn that third star until one is booked into them. For what these rooms require is that their performers be widely known and draw the affluent clientele that can afford their considerable cover and dining charges. A talented cabaret performer finds herself/himself like an able and hard-working executive in a large company, who discovers a top position has been filled by someone outside the firm. Sue Matsuki is particularly sensitive to this situation but remains undeterred: “I compete only with myself and every year I seem to raise my personal bar a little bit higher.”
As she reaches for that third star, Sue Matsuki thinks of her life as already very fulfilled. She has formed very close attachments because of cabaret. Carolyn Montgomery is not only a professional colleague but friend and confidant. And Sue feels enormous gratitude for the encouragement she received from Sidney Myer, “a loving, supportive and easy audience.” This year’s MAC nomination for Special Production celebrates her ten year working partnership with another, symbolic “brother,” Musical Director/Arranger Gregory Toroian, without whom, Sue insists, “I’d only be half the singer I am today.” But most of all there is what Sue calls her “gift from the universe,” her husband Kenro, who is her absolutely first priority. “We have an incredible marriage, together for twenty-three years.” They vacation in adventurous places such as the Galapagos Islands, Amazon jungles, and Patagonia, and are “gearing up to travel the rest of the world in the next few years.” With that happy prospect in view, Sue Matsuki continues to model herself on cabaret performers to whom she gives the highest honors both for talent and also for being wonderful human beings, and optimistically works hard to become a better and better performer.
Barbara Leavy, Cabaret Scenes Magazine