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While anticipating my month as DC Cabaret Network’s guest blogger, I imagined myself getting out more frequently to see and hear everything even remotely cabaretish the metro region has to offer. Well, this is not exactly the way things are sizing up but it is still early.
I have not been out to hear a singer, or musical show or concert, since the April 21 Open Mic, which, by the way, was a terrific night of musical performance. I won’t write about how busy I am, we all have jobs and obligations; nor about the dearth of choices vis-à-vis cabaret singers and venues. There is, after all, musical theater; comedy, jazz and pop abound; Millennium Stage, and Wolf Trap is in season, and more. There is always something to see. A good source for May-June listings is on Michael Miyazaki’s blog.
I did get lucky in late April when on my way to the Open Mic I caught half of a show (free, too!) at the National Portrait Gallery with Julia Nixon (recently of “Caroline or Change” at the Studio) playing Sarah Vaughan in “All That Sass!” Jewell Robinson, the museum’s public program director, narrated and produced this biographical sketch and introduced Nixon as Sarah, adding background notes between songs to make it a meaningful story about her life.
Years ago, I was a huge Sarah Vaughan fan and I know I copied her style early on when I first started singing solo before audiences. I remember singing “All Too Soon” at a jazz singers’ workshop I took where I was asked why I kept going into my head voice. I told them it was a rangy song and I had to, and that Sarah did that all the time. The instructor didn’t think it was right for a jazz singer. Well, Julia did it too, and the program noted that Julia’s four-octave range was similar to Sarah’s. I do not have that capability but why not use what you have no matter the idiom? Of course, whatever you use, it has to work.
The show’s musical-biographical approach to presenting a body of work or particular artist is a popular way to put up a show and audiences like it. It worked very well in the Arena Stage’s production of “Ella” with Tina Fabrique, whose rendition of Ella as a singer was excellent even with a very light bio-story to hold it together. I saw Ella perform at Carnegie Hall and remember not being a real fan when it started but I sure was when I left. She cooked; she worked; she was all about the music like an instrument. Not a lot of patter, just lots of singing and Fabrique captured that Ella very well. Even if you are not fond of scat singing you can’t help but wonder how they keep it going, and some of Ella’s ballads did offer a glimpse of a vulnerable and, to me, sad woman.
I am sorry that I missed the recent two-women show about Alberta Hunter, whose very existence offers me a ray of hope that one day, I will put up a full show. Of course, Alberta ‘s comeback at 82 was stunning and in performance she exuded enough sass and bawdiness to make you think getting old doesn’t matter at all.
Another recent show that I caught almost by accident was “Smokey Joe’s Café” at the Bethesda Theater. This show featured the songs of Leiber and Stoller, which include some big hits from the fifties and sixties like “Dance with Me,” “Searchin,” “Kansas City,” “Stand By Me,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Fools Fall in Love.” This last number was recorded by John Pizzarelli on his first album and that is how I came to know it and like it. The show had no story line and should have been billed as a Leiber and Stoller review. There were too many weak points but I was surprised to find myself liking some of the new arrangements to songs I knew (too oldie and not so goodie) and delighted to hear a few new songs, particularly a very sexy “Some Cats Know,” which I learned Peggy Lee once recorded. The young cast was really enthusiastic and talented and there were a few well choreographed moments.
What I am learning from seeing shows like these and others is that the sources for material are as endless as the styles and stories of performers. And I am always thrilled to hear someone do something new with an old song that I would never consider performing and might never listen to.
The lines are blurring between musical styles or catagories and that trend is likely to continue. Just take a look at the line-up for the New Orleans Jazz Festival: Sheryl Crow, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Buffet and Elvis Costello are not jazz artists but they do bring in large audiences who just might be introduced to someone new who could be a jazz-cabaret performer. And round and round it goes.
“It’s not gloomy, it’s profound.”
So sayeth Henrik Egerman, the aspiring clergyman of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” which enjoyed a great production (with an especially talented Henrik played by Josh Young) this month at CenterStage in Baltimore. After seeing the show and recently watching 16 Ingmar Bergman films, including the source material for “Night Music,” I have gloominess on my mind.
Cabaret is well known as a showcase for love lost, hopes shattered, and dreams forsaken. Cry me a river in stormy weather while gazing at the stars and the moon. Lead a lush life to forget the man that got away, or just stay at home with the portrait and the rose. Throw in a comic number or a sultry tune to mix things up, and you have an act.
In the case of gloomy and profound, I must plead guilty as charged. The Yenta of DC Cabaret (a.k.a. Michael Miyazaki) once grinned after I sang “Out of Love” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goodrich – a song about the depressingly endless minutiae of breaking off a romance. He announced: “That’s a perfect opening number. Everyone will know that there’s nowhere to go but up.”
The lure of the dark side is not merely an attempt to appear sophisticated (here, I will plead “no contest”), but also an act of rebellion against forced optimism. As children, we’re told to see the glass as half full after your older brother spills most of your milk – which you are not allowed to cry over. We’re told to clean our plates because children are starving in Africa, as though our refusal to eat our spinach has greater implications for global poverty than our country’s trade policies. As adults, it doesn’t get much better as we’re told to accept deadening work because singing sad songs won’t pay the bills, or to nod as failing CEOs get golden parachutes while outsourced workers get foreclosures and termination of their unemployment benefits. When we are told to smile even as the dice are loaded against us, creative outlets are an opportunity to subvert the rules of the game. Now we get to do the telling.
This only goes so far, though. Singing our frustrations doesn’t always necessarily mean we are telling the truth. You can sing just as falsely about heartbreak as you can about falling in love. I’m reminded of a short story I wrote in college – dark and urban and sexy but well outside of my small-town experience and probably stolen from a review of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The whole thing rang completely false, and I was chided by friends who knew me better. What even they didn’t understand was that I was so deeply closeted and conflicted in my sexuality that that the thought of physical contact with someone in real life was a nonstarter – promising either hell or self betrayal. Though my story little literary merit, the page was a safe place for me to explore feelings I had no courage to act upon.
I think performing allow us to do much the same thing, freeing us to be someone else for three or four minutes. The nice guy expresses his rage without upsetting his slacking coworkers, and the perfect mother turns into Ms. Byrd without cheating on her husband. Singing songs about love that didn’t work out reminds us that there was once love, even if there isn’t now. Yearning for dreams to come true reminds us of hope, when our lives contain only the dream of making it through the day. So maybe we sing depressing songs because it reminds us of our optimism when it is lacking. Maybe we sing them because they allow us to admit that even a mostly happy life carries many moments of sadness that must be honored.
It’s been a Bergman winter for me, but I’m looking forward to spring. Sometimes, it’s good to let go of both gloominess and profundity. On the Cabaret Yenta’s urging, I’m looking for a song of exuberance. For whatever reason, it’s a part of me I rarely show publicly, unless if you see me on Christmas morning or after an Audrey Tautou comedy….Anyway. I’m working on it, Michael. As always, a work in progress.
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.
The DC Cabaret Network celebrated Cabaret Month at the Arts Club of Washington on Sunday, March 2, 2008, with a showcase performance by the Board of Directors. Michael Miyazaki has published a write-up of the event on his Miyazaki Cabaret Update blog. Be sure and check it out.
And Matt Howe has graciously published his photos of the event over on Flickr! Be sure and go visit to see how Washington, D.C. cabaret singers and fans celebrated this wonderful event.