Seth Sikes appears to be having a moment. And by all accounts, the 36-year-old crooner appears poised to be in it for the long haul. Having earned rave reviews from veteran critics like Rex Reed and Liz Smith for his sold-out cabaret performances at Feinstein’s/54 Below, the New York Arts Review went all in, anointing him “one of the saviors of the Great American Songbook as we head into the 21st century.” Like Feinstein did in his day, Sikes’ unabashed exuberance and pristine vocals dust off these golden oldies for a new generation. While the tendency was to change the pronouns to avoid the appearance of impropriety when Feinstein first came to prominence in the ‘80s, Sikes is completely at ease taking on the songs of Judy Garland and Liza without changing the pronouns and infusing these torch songs with a gay sensibility.
His self-produced gay-centric music videos are equal parts goofy and infectious.
While most of us have been getting our Zoom on or packing on the COVID-19 from stress-induced bingeing during a pandemic with no end in sight, Sikes has been busy creating videos which showcase his vocals and his nostalgia for an era that is well before his time. The videos are of the homegrown, shoestring budget variety. The first, borne out of crushing isolation and shot in his NYC studio apartment, features a slightly inebriated but vocally on-point performance of “A Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid.” Extra points for the alluring onesie which prompted his mother to ask if that was meant to be sexy. Another features Sikes in a multicolored mask set to – wait for it – “A Mask of Many Colors” from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” His most ambitious to date features Seth driving a tractor around Fire Island as a loving send-up of his idol Judy Garland’s song “Howdy Neighbor” from the 1950 movie “Summer Stock.”
While the budget may be meager, the pedigree is not. Collaborating with Tony-winning lyricist Lisa Lambert (The Drowsy Chaperone), Sikes credits Lambert with elevating his game. “She [Lambert] loves writing parody songs and I do too. My lyrics are very clunky, and she always polishes them off in a really smart way.” Sikes says it typically takes about 10 days to knock out the lyrics. “I usually send her the idea of the draft, with some jokes and some lyrics laid out and highlight lines like “I’m not sure this is working.” And she’ll send them back and they’re always so much better.”
Life is a (gay) Cabaret
Many of Sikes’ concert performances can be found on the internet, with Sikes dressed dapperly, backed by a seven-piece band, belting out standards like “Stormy Weather,” “The Man that Got Away,” “Broadway Baby,” “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby” and “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart.” Sikes confesses he has always been drawn to the standards of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. I remember singing “I Got Rhythm” on the playground when I was in kindergarten or 1st grade. Close your eyes and you might think you are listening to an old phonograph from the 1920s. While Sikes wryly acknowledges that this voice is not for everyone, citing an eye-opening trip down the internet rabbit hole to datalounge.com which seemed intent on taking the rising star down a peg or two. “They call it [datalounge.com] a gay bitch-fest and they’re just nasty. Someone had posted my “Fire Island Ferry” video and there are 87 comments… how my face is “disappointing”, and my voice sounds so shrill that they would be fine if they never heard it again. How it [the video] is not nearly as amusing as I think it is. The most vicious… I will not even repeat some of the things they wrote. You know, dirty, filthy, scandalous things.”
From Paris to Broadway
To understand Sikes’ shock at the depravity of anonymous online chatter, one need only go back to his Midwestern roots. Sikes was raised a Southern Baptist in ultra conservative Paris, Texas, not quite the ideal place to fly your rainbow flag. Though Seth recalls a happy childhood, he realized early on that he needed to heed the call of Broadway. “My dad’s a high school baseball coach and my mom is a middle school guidance counselor. They were great parents. They were young and had not met gay people before. My mom did not know exactly how to handle it, but she came around.” Sikes credits his Aunt Stacey for introducing him to Judy Garland movies at an early age. And as they say, the dye was cast. “I wanted to move to New York because I wanted to go where Broadway was. I also wanted to be where the gay people were, y’know. I was ready to get out of Texas. So, I found a school in New York that we could afford. Circle in the Square Theater School… conservatory. And moved there when I was 18 and went there to school for two years and never left.”
Metrosource: Were your eyes just like saucers?
Sikes: Oh yeah.
Metrosource: From Kansas to Oz.
Sikes: Exactly. It was like that. Looking back, I don’t know how I had the courage to do that at age 18. We were not living on campus or anything. We lived in an apartment in Astoria and I commuted to the city. I’m impressed with myself for having done that at that age.
The boy from Paris, Texas would find there were some detours along the Yellow Brick Road. After graduating from college, Sikes landed a part in an off-Broadway show called “Fame on 42nd Street.” He thought he was on his way. But the show closed after 2 weeks. “I was 20 years old, had my Equity card. I was not a very good actor. And I realized quickly, I would say six months to a year, that the auditioning life was not for me. I was not good at it. I did not want to do it. It was a mourning process to give that up. But I loved the theater, and people had always said I should be a director. I was going to go back to school to study it or thinking about it. But Stephen Sondheim told me, ‘if you’re going to direct, don’t go to school. Just get in the room with the best directors in the business and assist them and learn from them, hands on.’ And I thought it was really good advice.” Naturally, I had to stop Seth right then and there to pursue his rather nonchalant dropping of Sondheim’s name as if it were perfectly ordinary. I pressed him for details and Seth obliged, “I was a huge fan [of Sondheim], and he’s famous for returning his fan letters. He returned mine and we, with mutual friends, all had drinks and we became really good friends for several years.” While I grappled with that for a moment, Seth continued, “Yeah, he’s an amazing person.” Naturally, I had to ask if Sondheim has followed his success as a singer. “He has never been to a show, but I send him clips sometimes and I did send him these recent videos and he called and said that he liked them. So that made me happy.” The Sondheim connection explained, we got back on Seth’s behind-the-scenes trajectory. “I slowly worked my way from production assistant to assistant director regionally to assistant director on Broadway, off-Broadway. And I worked with some great directors. Jack O’Brien, Lonny Price, and then my main longtime relationship as an assistant director was with David Cromer, who eventually directed ‘The Band’s Visit.’”
From the Tony’s to the Piano Bars
Seth was part of the production team behind “The Band’s Visit” which swept the Tony Awards in 2018, claiming a total of 10 Tony Awards. The experience was undoubtedly thrilling. But 10 years on the sidelines watching others shine left him longing to flex his own creative muscle. “So, after doing that for 10 years and not performing at all, I found myself, too many nights a week, at piano bars, late into the evening, just because I needed this outlet to sing. And at that time, when I was singing at the piano bars, I started singing all these Judy Garland songs, I realized that I could – and I didn’t know this before. When I was in high school, and college, I was singing like pop songs, you know, like pop musical theater songs. And I am not a pop singer. It just did not sound right. But when I started singing “The Man That Got Away” or “Stormy Weather” or “Get Happy” – I was like, ‘oh my god, these are the kind of songs I can sing.’ So, I found a whole different tone to my voice and got excited about it. And that is when I got the nerve to somehow do a show at 54 Below. It was supposed to be a one-night-only concert with full band, just for my friends. And that was it. It was just one night only. And I had so much fun doing it, and it was so scary, but it was so fun. And it sold out, so they asked me to come back. And they just kept asking me to come back. I got press, I got an agent, I got a press agent, I got reviews… and I guess word of mouth. So suddenly, I had performed like 13 or 14 times.”
Ninny Knows Best
During those years Seth worked in theater behind the scenes, it was his Grandma Ninny who kept after him to use his God-given talent. “She’s the one who always encouraged me to sing. She is very Southern Baptist and she would say [slipping into a delicate Southern accent], ‘now Seth, if you don’t use the gift that God gave you, He’ll take it away.’” To his credit, Seth made good on that promise and saw to it that Ninny was there on that first one-night-only performance that launched him.
What about Barbra?
Seth has been mulling recording an album, though he acknowledges the cost might be a roadblock. Having done live tributes to Judy, Liza and Bernadette, Sikes acknowledges that a Barbra concert is probably inevitable, given his trajectory. But Seth explains it might not be the loving tribute you would expect. “I’ve thought a lot about doing a Barbra show. I have done a Judy show, I have done a Bernadette Peters show. Those were easy because they are my idols. And then a Liza show – another idol. I have a complicated relationship with Barbra, so I am not sure it would be a completely loving tribute. But I think I’ll end up doing a Barbra show at some point.” Did he just throw shade at Streisand? “I just find her to be a little… smug.” Sikes was quick to emphasize his appreciation for her early recordings, that he’s just not crazy about what he deems her schmaltzier recordings from the ‘70s and beyond. “I just don’t have the passion for her that I have for the other ladies. So, it might be a slightly cynical tribute.”
You can follow Seth on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @sethsikes.
Photo: Victor Jeffreys II
Last modified: October 6, 2020