Cabaret keeps the American Songbook alive

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 28, 2001 at 12:45 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- For a new generation that has difficulty identifying Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter -- or recognizing their music -- the entertainment world must increasingly rely on cabaret to keep the great popular classics alive for performers and audiences of the future.

Collectively called the Great American Songbook, these classics have been described by Michael Feinstein, a leading exponent of the art of cabaret, as "songs and music with an emphasis on craft, melody, and gracious harmony" with romantic love as a common denominator.

He worries that they may be lost in a world that has become so technologically interconnected that the public has access to an overwhelming variety of music.

"There are so many performers who interpret these popular classics in new and exciting ways, as well as great writers of contemporary music that continue the tradition, that I feel there is a lineage to the past that is important to acknowledge," said Feinstein, who is presenting his annual holiday show at Feinstein's at the Regency, believed to be the only club in the world named for a cabaret performer.

He is introducing to New York club audiences a new voice, Maude Maggart, a young performer he discovered in Los Angeles, in the firmly held belief that that promoting a new generation of cabaret singers is important in keeping the tradition alive.

Feinstein is one of a small but growing number of cabaret artists, such as Andrea Marcovicci who is singing at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, who have been fortunate enough to make a viable career of cabaret and CD recording in an era when most cabaret singers have to take other jobs in the entertainment field to make ends meet.

Feinstein has numerous soap and prime time television credits, and Marcovicci has had a second career as a film actress. Harry Connick Jr. moved into big band recordings, film acting and composing after a fling at cabaret. Singer KT Sullivan is carving out a career for herself as an off-Broadway musical review artist.

Donald Smith, a cabaret impresario who has been promoting cabaret artists for four decades, established in 1989 the New York Cabaret Convention, a weeklong presentation of nearly 100 cabaret singers at Town Hall. It is sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, named for a great international cabaret star who introduced songs by the Gershwins, Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.

"Over the years convention has hosted more than 1,000 performers, all of whom are working in their own ways to keep the tradition of cabaret performance alive in this country and abroad," Smith told UPI, adding that similar cabaret conventions are planned for Chicago in 2002, Palm Springs, Calif., in 2003, and possibly Sarasota, Fla., in 2004. The New York convention drew audience members from 27 states last October.

Smith says reports of the demise of cabaret are exaggerated. He said there are about 2,000 CDs on the market that qualify as cabaret music but that record shops do little to promote sales, failing to create a section for cabaret as they do for other categories of music and to inform their clerks about cabaret music and singers.

His litany of roadblocks to the growth of cabaret music appreciation is a long one. Owners of rooms where cabaret is performed spend little on publicity and advertising and generally give performers engagements of two weeks or less, hardly enough time to build an audience. One famous room in New York requires its singers to have their own press agents to cut the room's overhead.

Talent coordinators for TV shows rarely come to the rooms to audit singers as they did in the days of the Ed Sullivan Show, which helped give cabaret talent a national audience. He noted that when CBS television did a profile on Barbara Carroll when she was appearing at the bar of the Carlyle Hotel, which also is home to Bobby Short, her audience picked up dramatically.

There are no radio stations in the country that play music from the Great American Songbook, Smith said, so that listeners have little chance to get acquainted with the music of Broadway and the movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that is still the backbone of cabaret repertory.

"The electronic sound, the new sound, has made inroads so quickly," he observed. "And people lead their lives differently, too, not going out at night and having a wonderful, dress-up time of it as they used to. The high prices at the clubrooms with cabaret -- sometimes $100 just to sit down -- have shut out a lot of people."

Venues for cabaret artists, aside from the vanity performers with enough money to rent their own hall and band, are very limited. New York is the cabaret capital of the world with at least a dozen established club rooms and 50 other more intimate rooms used occasionally for cabaret entertainment.

The established rooms outside New York are the Plush Room at the York Hotel in San Francisco, the Gardenia in Los Angeles, Odette's in Bucks County, Pa., Sculler's in Boston, Blues Alley in Washington and Libby's in Atlanta.

Strangely enough, there are none in New Orleans, where the French Quarter would seem like a perfect setting for cabaret. Las Vegas is trying for a cabaret comeback at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. London has only one cabaret room, Pizza on the Park, and Paris, which has lots of jazz clubs, has not one cabaret venue. Cabaret plays a part in the annual Edinburgh Festival, but at no other time of the year.

"If you don't have a passion for this kind of music, it's not a field to go into for a career," said Smith. "But it offers a longer career than any other singing career. There are a number of septuagenarians and beyond who still are active in cabaret. Julie Wilson is 77, and they still cheer her because she puts on a good show, not because she's a survivor. Once you establish yourself, you can go on as long as you deliver the goods."

Smith is full of advice for a successful cabaret career.

He says singers should be wise enough to introduce new songs by new writers (and not just Stephen Sondheim) as a way of keeping their material fresh. Don't try to recreate the singing styles of the past, but present material in a straightforward way while giving it new life that says something about the singer's own personality. Having just a pretty voice will not hold an audience for 90 minutes.

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