This week in Broadway Bound, guest columnist Jonathan Frank
investigates the history and current state of the performance medium known
as cabaret. Broadway Bound itself will return February 14 with the debut
of Broadway Bound: Book Two.
With Sally Bowles urging us nightly to "come to the Cabaret," and an increasing number of performers from The Great White Way crossing over with Cabaret shows of their own, the art form of Cabaret has been getting a great deal of notice lately. As the resident Cabaret performer on Talkin' Broadway, I thought I could provide some information on this often misunderstood performance medium, and explain why we should heed Sally's advice and explore the world of Cabaret.
First off, I want to set the stage and give you some background on Cabaret and its evolution and history. As its name implies, Cabaret got its start in France, with the chansons of turn of the century Paris and the cafes of the 20s and 30s. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the word "cabaret" comes from the French word for "liquor store," which probably helps to explain why it is hard to imagine Cabaret existing without some form of alcohol present (as well as explaining the origin of the fabled "two drink minimum" at all Cabaret shows.) French Cabaret is typified by a chanteuse, such as Edith Piaf, simply singing songs which contain equal parts angst, lyricism and worldliness, frequently written by either Jacques Brel or Charles Aznavour (right). To get a taste of French Cabaret, see Charles Aznavour in concert, or get any CD by him, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, or Karen Aker's CD, Under a Paris Sky.
The most popular vision we have of Cabaret is that of German Cabaret, as portrayed by Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (left) in the film version of Cabaret, or the current evening of debauchery which is the revival at the old Studio 54. While these images are not too far off, Cabaret in pre WWII Berlin was not nearly as hedonistic or political. German Cabaret hit its heights during the Weimar Republic years of 1918-1933, when stage censorship was abolished. The shows were largely revues, with skits, songs, and the ubiquitous kick line of beautiful women. Nudity was finally allowed on the stage, and Cabaret made the most of it. As a result, Cabaret in Germany split into two forms and spellings. What we think of as Cabaret became "Kabarrett," and the word "Cabaret" was reserved for tawdry sex shows. (This differentiation still exists. Do a search on Yahoo! for "cabaret" and see how many German "gentlemen cabaret" clubs you come up with.) The hot topics for Kabarrett songs and skits were, in order of increasing importance, politics, cultural fads, fashion and sex. Marlene Dietrich got her start in the German Kabarrett, with numbers like "Wenn die beste Freundin," (When the Special Girlfriend) which explored the special relationship between two women bored with their boyfriends. Ute Lemper recently recorded that number, as well as other Kabarrett songs (some of which are, scarily enough, as socially relevant today as they were in the years leading up to World War II) on her CD, Berlin Cabaret Songs, which has been issued in a German and an English language edition. For more information on Cabaret in Germany, including how Cabaret existed in concentration camps, pick up a copy of Peter Jelavich's book, Berlin Cabaret .
And what of Cabaret in England? Surely the land that brought us Noel Coward and the music halls had to have a grand tradition of Cabaret as well? Sadly, Cabaret is only recently making its comeback to London, where it has been missing since World War II. Cabaret spaces and nightclubs were shut down after a shameful incident which occurred during one of the blitzes. A popular night spot was hit by a bomb, and contrary to the image we have of the English acting in a dignified manner during the blitzes, this time there was looting of the victims, instead of help rescuing them. This caused the closure of many night spots, and only recently have new Cabaret clubs been opening. One of these, the curiously named Pizza on the Park, is considered to be one of the finest in the world. Incidentally, the blitz event I mentioned was used as the backdrop for Matthew Bourne's adaptation of the Cinderella ballet.
We have a rich history of Cabaret here in the United States, where Cabaret has been "a fabulous invalid" whose death has been prophesied more than Broadway's. For a look at our early years, check out James Gavin's book, Intimate Nights, or CDs by Mabel Mercer and Julie Wilson, or catch Ms. Wilson live, as she still performs on a regular basis.
By now, some of you may be wondering what Cabaret is, and how it relates to the images we have received through movies starring Marlene Deitrich and Liza Minnelli. Let me start by telling you what Cabaret is not; it is not a style of music, like jazz, rock, country or "easy listening." Instead, it is a type of live performance which encompasses all those styles and more. It can be a solo performer exploring the songs by a single writer or era, or it can be a review, such as Forbidden Broadway, Capitol Steps, or An Evening with Jerry Herman. And above all, it should never be confused with its cousin, "lounge," for it is not meant to be background music.
It is, instead, one of the most intimate of art forms, whose strength largely rests on the connection between the performer(s) and the audience. Cabaret, in its best and purest form, takes place in small, intimate performing spaces. With the audience literally at arms length, it is impossible to have any sort of fourth wall. The performer receives instantaneous feedback as to how he or she is doing, and can see the tears or yawns of the audience. As the audience is close enough to see through any performing tricks, absolute honesty is required on the part of the performer. This facilitates an incredible sense of intimacy and communication between audience and performer, as well as a large degree of spontaneity. A cabaret performer has to be equal parts historian, stand-up comic, balladeer, and revival evangelist in order to put together and perform an effective evening of Cabaret.
So why would anybody want to subject themselves to this scrutiny, especially since there is little hope of making a living from it? (Cabaret performers usually receive only a percentage of the cover charge. Subtract from that the room fee, costs for publicity, pianist, arrangements, et al, and you can guess how little the performer actually makes, if anything). And why would anybody want to do Cabaret after making it big on Broadway? Quite simply, Cabaret is the purest form of self expression that I can think of, and one of the greatest challenges a performer can face. Putting together a show involves putting a lot of oneself into it; since the material is chosen by you, and the performance is basically just you out there, it provides an incredible learning experience (and can be quite the humbling one, at that). It provides many performers, especially those in a long run or in small parts, the chance to stretch unused performing muscles, as well as the chance to show off different aspects of their talent.
And why should you go see Cabaret shows? First of all, it is one of the best entertainment bargains in any city. Most major metropolitan cities have at least one Cabaret club, and provide the chance to see performers from all over the world. To see a Cabaret show costs a fraction of seeing a Theatre show, and for the price of the cover charge (usually $10 to $20) - and the ever popular two drink minimum - you get an hour's worth of entertainment, sometimes with one of your favorite stage performers: Barbara Cook (left), Davis Gaines, Alice Ripley, Brian d'Arcy James, Betty Buckley, Marcia Lewis, Karen Akers, Susan Egan - the list goes on. It is also a great way to catch one of tomorrow's stars. With the decline of new shows being done on and off Broadway, Cabaret has become the training ground for performers, as well as songwriters. It's a great way to find new material by some of today's best songwriters, some of whom find their way eventually to Broadway, like Jason Robert Brown. It is also one of the few places left where you can hear songs from the old masters, and in the process, may just discover some new gems you never knew existed.
Most importantly, Cabaret is one of the last places you can go for a romantic evening. In an era where most songs are sung at you instead of to you, where popular music is lacking any sense of lyrical language, and where most Broadway shows are as overamplified as a rock concert, it is a refuge in which you can find somebody who will simply sing a song, and make it seem like he or she is singing it only to you.
For more information on Cabaret and listings, check out Cabaret Scenes magazine (888-802-2227). Cabaret Hotline provides links for all things Cabaret related, as well as a regular e-mail newsletter on Cabaret all over the country. In Theatre provides Cabaret listings for New York City, as well as reviews of shows and CDs. Backstage not only has reviews of shows and CDs, but often has features on how to survive as a Cabaret performer.
Some suggestions if you are in the market for Cabaret CDs: If you like light jazz with excellent vocals, anything by Wesla Whitfield. If you like a rougher, bluesy singer, try Baby Jane Dexter's I Got Thunder or Big, Bad and Blue. For songs by new songwriters, Andrea Marcovicci's New Worlds. For a nostalgia fix, Andrea Marcovicci's I'll be Seeing You, Love songs of World War II or Always Irving Berlin. If you want romance, try Charles Cermele's Look in My Eyes. For a guide on how to put together a show, try the "live" concert CDs by Karen Akers, Amanda McBroom, or Barbara Cook. For something completely different, try Maria Friedman's self-titled CD, Alix Korey's Gifts of Love, or John Wallowitch's My Manhattan. This list is by no means complete, and no Cabaret collection would be complete without CDs by Nancy LaMott, David Campbell, Laurie Beechman, KT Sullivan, Eartha Kitt (right), Mabel Mercer or Blossom Dearie. To order cabaret CDs, call Lisa Popa at The Cabaret Connection (888-666-DIVA) or check out her website at www.cabaretmusic.com.
Jonathan Frank will be performing at The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street, New York, (212) 255-5438, Wednesday, April 7 at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 10 at 6 p.m., Wednesday, April 14 at 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 17 at 6 p.m. For more information, and to sample his debut CD Sleeping in the Arms of Love, visit his website: www.concentric.net/~jfrank22