Isaiah’s interest in political cabaret spanned several decades. The format – satirical songs and theatrical sketches inspired by the issues of the day – gave him an opportunity to write, direct, act, and collaborate with an array of other inspiring artists and to develop new material in response to rapidly changing political and social events.
Isaiah playing RIck Perry in The Thalia Follies, 2012
Watergate Classics program cover
Inside the Watergate Classics program
Ad for the Urban Blight cabaret
Ad for the DMZ cabaret
The first such cabaret was the DMZ, a collaboration with theatre critic Eric Bentley which ran for several months during the tumultuous year of 1968. Isaiah, then an assistant professor at Columbia Univesity’s School of the Arts, told the Columbia Spectator that the point of the DMZ was to “create a truly hard-hitting presentation of pointed political satire.” The show took on the presidential election, the CIA, the New York City police department, and, of course, the war in Vietnam. Performances coincided with and responded to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the student occupation of Columbia University buildings. A write-up in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town tells the DMZ story.
In the years that followed, Isaiah conceived and directed cabarets that poked fun at contemporary urban life (Urban Blight in 1970 and Late City Edition in 1981) and that continued to respond to the political and social issues of the time. As one of several writers for Watergate Classics, which ran at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven from November 1973 through January 1974 and chronicled the downfall of the Nixon presidency, Isaiah wrote a Wizard of Oz spoof featuring J. Gordon Liddy as the Scarecrow (“I’m the one who planned the capers/but they wouldn’t have made the papers/if I only had a brain”), John Mitchell as the Tin Man, Richard Nixon as the Cowardly Lion, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower as Dorothy.
Isaiah’s final and longest-running cabaret was The Thalia Follies, which closed after ten seasons in February 2013, not long after Isaiah’s death the previous November. Co-director Martin Sage and the ensemble cast paid tribute to Isaiah in the show’s finale. For years, the Follies had entertained and provoked New York’s Upper West Side audiences with songs and skits that ranged from goofy to unexpectedly moving.
Martin Sage has written about the process of working with Isaiah on the Follies: "It was 2004 — W. was running against John Kerry — and the two of us knew we had to do something. Magically, it sprung up like a geyser: we'll create a political cabaret. We'll raise consciousness. We'll change the world. We'll start all this by having lunch at the Nueva Victoria Restaurant and figure out just how we'd accomplish these things. For months we found every reason to have lunch. There was endless pre-Follies planning. Followed by during-Follies reshaping. Then post-Follies analyzing. … Sometimes during rehearsal Isaiah would look over at me and with a little smile let me know how happy he was with what he was seeing. It was the smile of one man in a dark theater but it lit up the room."
Here are some Follies classics in which Isaiah was writer or performer or both:
Reading Paul Krugman
Isaiah reacts to the New York Times Op-Ed Page
Isaiah, as Justice Scalia, explains Constitutional Law in the Spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan
Culinary satire with classically Isaiah rhymes and apologies to Paul McCartney
Borrowing one of the tunes from Yiddle with a Fiddle to showcase the female U.S. Supreme Court Justices
Isaiah’s “new translation” of a Heitor Villa-Lobos opera, performed by Leenya Rideout