Cabaret, A View from Lake Wobegon

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by Lonny Smith, March 2008 Guest Blogger

One of the odd compensations for moving far away from your roots is the fine-tuning of your party banter. Those of us who never before took pride in being from Minnesota (or Mississippi , or Canada , or Texas ) quickly assemble an amusing elevator speech illustrating the peculiar charms of our regional identity. Hometown small talk may not get you a job or a date, but it can set you out from the crowd and least change the subject from sports, the weather, and the never-ending horror show of the Bush Administration.

Two of my own most well-trodden hometown stories involve the movie “Fargo” and Broadway singer Linda Eder. Mentioning “Fargo,” a Coen Brothers film whose most grisly scenes unfold in my city of Brainerd, MN, never fails to lead to a rollicking chat about Midwestern accents, ice fishing, and lutefisk. All of this is fascinating gristle for the mill, but barring the eruption of genuine conversation, I usually shift to a splashier diva of my hometown than Chief of Police Marge Gunderson. In 1987, Brainerd native Linda Eder (who had been a student in my dad’s math class) won “Star Search” (the beta version of “American Idol”) and began a long journey to become a Broadway star. My father acknowledged her talent (“she’s pretty good”) and enjoyed her visits back home, but he insisted that $15 was WAY too much to pay for a ticket to one of her hometown concerts at the junior high auditorium. If time and the flow of conversation permits, this can lead to a string of other stories, all demonstrating my father’s unending befuddlement with the crazy world in which the rest of us live.

Such is the baggage I bring to the world of performance. Lured by the glow of the spotlight, I nevertheless find the sequins and make-up to be a little preposterous. We Midwesterners don’t believe in losing ourselves or in celebrating ourselves — that’s for the Baptists, and we all know about the fate awaiting them. The Linda Eders are urged to sing, but usually within the confines of a church service, school gathering, or the hockey game. Like Marge Gunderson, we know it’s best to speak plainly, dress plainly, and plainly eschew the frivolity of narcissism and self-indulgent frippery.

Of course, we’re total hypocrites. At any Fourth of July parade, potluck dinner in the church basements, or Pinewood Derby, the competitive spirit trumps Minnesotan modesty. Even the most stolid Norwegian will drop the facade when armed with gold spray paint, washers, or elbow macaroni. Like the grass growing out of the cracks in a sidewalk, creativity seeps out of the harshest environment, sometimes with an extravagance that remains unacknowledged. In my family, my father would mock me practicing scales as he secreted off to his work room, spending hours meticulously building furniture while I built vowels and breath control. It never crossed his mind that we were doing much the same thing.

Such is the baggage I bring to the world of cabaret. Without the safe guise of a character or a plot or some meaningful social commentary, there is only an individual performing on a stage. How could this not be utterly decadent, self-absorbed, and silly? What is the purpose of cabaret but to simply entertain and amuse? Is this art form, with its suspiciously French name, merely a parade of self absorption?

If we’re honest, I don’t think there is any answer other than “yes.” Yet, isn’t this one of the most valuable qualities cabaret can offer? Rather than hiding behind socially significance or existential dilemmas, cabaret is content to simply let the individual open up, joke around, dig deep, and show off. No more, no less. With no small amount of courage, we assemble our talent, our life story, and our music. As with a hometown elevator speech, we may rehearse and refine our shtick, but the purpose remains the same: we’re just trying to tell others where we came from and who we really are.

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2 Responses to “Cabaret, A View from Lake Wobegon”

  1. cabaretdc Says:

    Insightful as always!!! And I think that you’re right that there’s a commonality in the human spirit where everyone wants the world to recognize their particular gift. And I think the best artists share that gift with the audience in such a way that they achieve a symbiosis so that the audience is participating in the gift, not just witnessing it.

  2. Emily Everson Says:

    Lonny! Thanks for this terrific article. Each cabaret performance I’m lucky to witness reminds me of how much audiences enjoy just sitting down to watch and hear someone else sing. There is such magic in it. And, just like that show where someone throws a dart at a map, visits that place then randomly picks a number from the phone book to find out that person’s fascinating life story, the magic of cabaret is in hearing the captivatingly unique stories and experiences each performer shares through patter and music.


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