At 10:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening, most of the lights were out along Josephine Street. Liberty Bar and the Josephine Street Café were busy, as always, but you had to drive a few blocks to encounter more signs of life. Near the North St. Mary’s Street intersection, the blazing marquee in front of the Josephine Theatre was beckoning people in to hear Ryan Bonn and “Unexpected Song.”
The title for this freeform — and free — cabaret comes from a number in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, a musical that didn’t make money on Broadway despite a score that boasted a few pretty tunes. In its way, it reflects the music you’ll encounter inside the theater, a mix of singer-friendly pop songs from the likes of Billy Joel and Elton John, and show tunes, all performed by whoever wants to get up on stage, with Bonn providing piano accompaniment as needed.
“This is San Antonio’s cast party,” Bonn said. “It’s people from all theaters, all entertainers, all people who do what I do.”
There is no set list, though Bonn has a multi-page listing of selections from musicals that people can choose from. The titles number in the hundreds and range from the familiar (“Bill” from Showboat, “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line) to obscure selections from such flopsicals as I Had a Ball and The Nervous Set. Rags played for all of four performances in 1986, but it produced the stirring “Children of the Wind,” which Bonn sang especially for frequent guest Jillian Cox on that Saturday night. A few songs later, Cox, who recently portrayed Aldonza in Man of La Mancha, responded with “He Played the Violin” from 1776. Together they offered up “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors.
One of the few non-theater songs to be heard one evening was a ditzy, sweet version of the Nancy Sinatra classic “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” It didn’t matter that the singer was a bit lost, lyrically speaking. Bonn and the audience were there to help her with the words. Bonn needed a little help himself before launching into a request for “When There Is No One” from the fabled flop Carrie, which he performed from memory. “Do you remember all the words?” he asked the audience. “Can somebody help me with the words?” He started playing, only to realize: “This is my 1994 key. I can’t transpose the key and remember the words.” Yet he managed to do both, and capture the emotion of the song despite notes in the higher end of his range.
The low-key camaraderie of the evening is just what Tommy Miller, owner of the Josephine Theatre, hopes to foster with the Saturday shows. He’d love to see actors come in to rehearse an audition piece they may be working on, as well as people who just want to hear some good singing late in the evening. “There’s no contest, no prize, no fee at the door,” he said.
Bonn’s payment comes from tips placed in a large jar on his baby grand. He’s glad to accompany most anyone singing “whatever they’re into,” he says. His career started when he was in his teens and he appeared in shows at what is now the San Pedro Playhouse. “I remember, about 30 years ago, it being a tighter-knit community,” he said of the theater scene. “There was a certain unspoken loyalty that people do shows only in certain theaters. I want to unify the talent pool.”
The San Antonio native spent a number of years in New York studying acting and music. During that time, he landed gigs playing at various piano bars and cabarets, including Don’t Tell Mama. When he returned home, he realized San Antonio “really didn’t have any New York-style cabaret,” he said. So, he’s trying to change that at Miller’s theater.
Bonn has found a big admirer in Miller. At the keyboard, Bonn “cooks at melody lines, using all these filagrees. He sees it as a piece of art and he shows you all the colors,” Miller said.
Toward the end of the evening, Jason Mosher stopped by after a performance elsewhere to sing “Anthem” from Chess. With a longneck in one hand, he let his rendition build slowly to an emotional finish that drew hearty applause. Mosher also lived in New York for a while — “I probably sang in some of the same clubs Ryan played in,” he said — before returning to San Antonio. He can’t make it every Saturday night to the Josephine Theater. “I have a 4-year-old, and I have a wife,” he said. “I like to keep them happy. But I come as often as I can. I really enjoy it. You get to sing stuff you don’t get to do.” •
Unexpected Song is on a brief hiatus while Bonn recovers from unspecified injuries. Clap like it’s Tinkerbell’s last breath, and phone in a little support to the Josephine. We could use a Marie’s Crisis ’round these parts.