As a child dressing up in her grandmother’s vintage clothes, Diana Sheehan ’87 loved the music she heard on her father’s records, all those great old songs by Rodgers and Hart, Noël Coward and the Gershwins. Now, many years later, Sheehan is still singing those songs—and introducing them to a new generation—in her popular nightclub shows.
Crafting an award-winning career in cabaret took more than just loving the music, though. For Sheehan, it took a good grounding in the liberal arts and what Cole Porter might call moxie.
Smith College, with its classical-leaning music department, might seem an unlikely place to begin a career as a nightclub chanteuse, but Sheehan found the perfect mentor in Jane Bryden, Iva Dee Hiatt Professor of Music. “She was young and beautiful and hip and doing her thing,” Sheehan says, “the kind of mentor that everyone should have. She made it all seem possible.” Bryden would let her “slip in a few Sondheim songs” after duly performing her assigned arias. Sheehan graduated with a theatre major and art history minor, went on to study acting at Oxford and then worked in Boston, New York and San Francisco.
On the West Coast, Sheehan found her way to cabaret, a particular form of live nightclub entertainment.
“I realized that I loved to write and it gave me an incredible freedom to create my own material and explore the repertoire of songs I was really passionate about,” she says. “I spent months and months doing research and working with other musicians to create arrangements and find a way to tell a story that’s engaging—not like a lecture or recital.”
Sheehan now lives with her husband and two teenage children in the Dallas area, where her shows introduce more and more people to cabaret.
“By doing the work, you build an audience for the form,” she says. “I love singing these songs both for the people who know them and love them, as well as for the audiences who have never heard them before.”
She has received numerous accolades, including the DFW Theater Critics Forum Award and the Best of Loop from the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. In 2013, she completed Nobody’s Hart, the show she’s most proud of, which pays tribute to the lyrics of Lorenz Hart, who penned “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Manhattan,” among other songs.
“There’s an intimacy and directness in cabaret that is different than a theater or a concert hall,” Sheehan says. “Often, you’re in a very small space and the audience is right there in your lap. You see them. You can craft a show to be deeply personal and completely universal at the same time. I love to make people laugh and cry.”
Freelance journalist Lindsey Rowe Roberts ’06 writes for The Washington Post and Gray magazine, among other publications.
Spring ’15 SAQ