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Life is a Cabaret

Judy ButterfieldIt’s a typical Tuesday for Judy Butterfield: Ballet class in the morning. A subway ride down to 14th Street for three hours of cabaret rehearsal with her accompanist. Then back to Barnard for an afternoon psychology class.

Butterfield happily, if sometimes frenetically, leads two lives. In one, she’s a first-year in jeans learning her way around campus. In the other, she’s a cabaret singer in a shimmering strapless gown wowing audiences around the country.

The juggling act comes easy to this San Francisco native, who’s been performing since her first year of high school. She became hooked on cabaret in eighth grade, when she researched and sang a presentation about Jerome Kern. By age 15, the soprano was starring in “Judy Sings Judy: Songs of a Young Garland” at San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room.

Butterfield, 19, savors her role as translator, interpreter, and storyteller of heartfelt lyrics. “What you want to be is a blank slate for everyone else’s images, so when you sing a song about yearning for love, the audience remembers and plays out their own little movie in their head while you take them on a journey,” she says. “Because it’s so intimate, you kind of all come together. It’s not just about a performer singing to you. We’re all in the same boat.”

In her current show, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, she features Great American Songbook standards like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” as well as a slow, almost pleading rendition of The Beatles’ “If I Fell in Love With You” and Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”

She’s been refining her act with pianist Christopher Denney, accompanist for cabaret legend Julie Wilson. “He is very attentive to the truthfulness in a song,” Butterfield says, “and that’s what I’m all about too.” Being able to hop the subway to his studio is one of the perks of living in New York.

Barnard was a logical choice for college, though Butterfield strongly considered Stanford, her parents’ alma mater. Barnard won out “because I love the small intimate community within Columbia, and New York was the only place I could continue my career. That was the kicker.”

Her location proved a plus when she landed a gig to sing Sunday brunch in January and February at the Algonquin Hotel. She was also honored last fall at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center as an up-and-coming performer.

Despite her rising-star status and movie-star looks, Butterfield has no interest in recording a crossover pop hit or testing her talent on American Idol. “I don’t want to sing music I don’t love,” she says. “I don’t know what the point of that would be.”

She’s politely declined opportunities that would require her to leave school, notes her director, Clifford Bell (no relation to the writer). “She’s always making the decision to have a real life, which I’m sure will serve her well,” says Bell, a Los Angeles-based cabaret producer. “She’s not desperate at all, which I see a lot of in show business.” He explains, “A lot of people pursue show business for their ego. Judy doesn’t. She pursues show business out of creativity. That’s a good place to be.”

-June Bell, photograph by Raquel Krelle