Recently, in a cozy rehearsal room atop the Sherwood Conservatory of Music, Chicago cabaret crooner Scott Gryder was in mid-argument with his performance partner, Freddie. Gryder alleged, correctly, that their monthly cabaret revue is titled "Simply Scotty," while his scene-stealing cohort insisted on "Fun with Freddie." After some well-tempered reasoning on Gryder's part, Freddie finally conceded. The affable Gryder rolled his eyes.
Freddie, sporting purple hair and wide saucer eyes, is a puppet. He's also the latest addition to Gryder's self-titled show, joining in for a tune or two every set. "I've been told that I'm the only cabaret puppeteer in Chicago," Gryder said, grinning. "People are upset when he [ Freddie ] doesn't perform."
With a joie de vivre comparable to Glee's Kurt Hummel, Gryder was instantly disarming. Comfortably seated inches from a baby grand, his high tenor voice and winning smile gave an affect of genuine wholesomeness that is almost flabbergasting. However, any initial skepticism quickly evaporated upon discovery of one fact: this entertainer is one of a kind.
A former musical theater performer, Gryder made the switch to cabaret in 2008. He was working as a house manager at Victory Gardens theater when a coworker approached him with the idea of banding together to put on a show. While his Actors' Equity status barred him from any non-union musical performances, cabaret was fair game. The gang dubbed themselves "The Desperate House Managers" and whipped together a cabaret revue. "And I was like, 'Wow! That was so easy,'" said Gryder. "And it felt really good."
When asked why cabaret was a better fit, Gryder said, "I think in musical theater, there's a package that you have to open up. It's like playing a board game and these are the rules and the parts you play. But cabaret is just entertainment. So it can be anything."
Being bitten by the cabaret bug, Gryder went solo for his next project, "Not At My Audition: My Half-Latin Life On Stage So Far." He first conceived the one-man show in a diner with musical director and partner, Nick Sula. Gryder pitched the show as being "based on the bigger auditions I've had and it'll tell my life story through those auditions." Recalling how he sat down, wrote the script and put it together with Sula, Gryder pauses and smiles, "Of course the cabaret scene loves Nick."
Sula continues to accompany Gryder on piano for his current show, "Simply Scotty," although their two busy schedules leave little time for rehearsal. Their preparation begins with Gryder transposing sheet music into an appropriate key, followed by Sula's expert revisions. "And then, if we're lucky, we get to run that song before we get to 'Simply Scotty' but most of the time it's just off the cuff," Gryder said. The chemistry that allows them to excel with so little prep time astounds even Gryder. "It's unbelievable!" he told Windy City Times. "It was just fate."
Gryder discovered his next major cabaret companion, Freddie, years later, after three friends separately gave him puppet memorabilia for his birthday. Coincidence? Gryder said with a shrug, "People say that I'm like a living Muppet sometimes."
When asked how Freddie acquired his signature showbiz-loving personality, Gryder mused, "It's like when someone goes to a pet store to pick up cat food and they have no intention of buying another cat, but there's someone who has cats for sale so they pick one up and someone says what's it's name and you say 'Sally!' … So I had Freddie. There's no reason why he's Freddie. He's just Freddie."
The same can be said of Scott Gryder, an entertainment personality who'll be putting a fresh spin on cabaret for years to come. On his debut album, Pure Imagination, his zany, nightclub warbling brings a blend of humor and lightness to an art form oft equated with smoky stages and maudlin ballads. "I think cabaret has a bad rap," he said, proceeding to comically demonstrate an overwrought French caricature. "There's sort of a dark aura for cabaret, is what I think. Cabaret is so much more. It's communication and sharing and joy. It can be anything! That's the beauty and the curse of cabaret."
Gryder performs "Simply Scotty" the first Sunday of every month at 3160 Piano & Cabaret, 3160 N. Clark St., at 7 p.m. See www.thescottgryder.com for more information.
His album, Pure Imagination, is available on Gryder's website or iTunes.