Sally Bowles’ claim that “life is a cabaret, old chum” would be difficult to substantiate in the nation’s capital. Unlike other major American metropolises, Washington no longer has a venue where cabaret artists regularly perform. A decade ago, Charlie’s in Georgetown offered a mix of jazz groups and cabaret singers (Bobby Short, the late Sylvia Syms), and, more recently, the Ritz-Carlton and Anton’s featured Julie Wilson, Ann Hampton Callaway, Michael Feinstein, and Margaret Whiting. Since those rooms folded, nationally recognized supper-club performers who work the New York-Chicago-San Francisco-Los Angeles circuit have been out of luck in D.C. A few hometown vocalists occasionally find gigs in local restaurants and hotel lounges. (Last month, Capitol Hill’s 2 Quail presented Joseph Perna’s one-man cabaret show on weekends.) But apart from invitational fund-raisers, private parties, and rare one-shot concerts at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center, there’s no opportunity to hear Mary Cleere Haran, Baby Jane Dexter, Audrey Morris, or other artists whose work is being lauded elsewhere.
An endangered art since the beginning of the rock era, cabaret has made a tentative comeback in the ’90s. For the past eight years, the Mabel Mercer Foundation, an organization founded to honor the legendary British-born diseuse whose heartfelt singing influenced Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and other vocalists, has sponsored a weeklong Cabaret Convention at Manhattan’s Town Hall, showcasing over 100 established and neophyte performers. Cabaret Scenes, a monthly magazine, offers fawning interviews, tub-thumping nightclub reviews, and a national schedule of cabaret appearances. Significantly, the only area club listed is the Willard Hotel’s Nest lounge. “Call for entertainment schedule,” the magazine advises, but the Nest, arguably the best jazz room in D.C., does not book the artists who participate in the Cabaret Convention.
“Cabaret” has become an amorphous, catch-all term generally applied to singers who work with solo piano or acoustic duo or trio backing. Their repertoire blends standards from the golden age of American songwriting with selections from current Broadway shows and new compositions by Dave Frishberg, Craig Carnelia, and other nonrock composers and lyricists. Cabaret performers realize that the audience for their work, however enthusiastic, is too limited to catapult them to fame and fortune. They are driven by a passion for words and music and the opportunity to share that love in clubs hosting, on a good night, fewer than 100 people. Major record companies geared to mass marketing are reluctant to record these artists, but a number of independent labels, among them DRG, Audiophile, and After 9, have sprung up to fill the void. Many performers now produce their own CDs to sell at club engagements and distribute through specialty stores.
Locally, we are forced to rely on these recordings to keep track of what’s happening in cabaret. Judging by a bunch of recent releases, one would have to say that the new crop of supper-club vocalists is a decidedly mixed bag. As in other musical genres, the mediocrities far outnumber the rare, striking talents. Here’s a rundown of some of the singers we could be hearing if we lived somewhere else:
When Australian singer-actor David Campbell made his New York cabaret debut barely a year ago, reviewers went bananas. Time Out hailed him as “a volcanic performer,” and Entertainment Weekly reported that he “caused the biggest splash on the village circuit since Barbra Streisand.” The son of Oz rock star Jimmy Barnes, Campbell is an uncommonly handsome young man in his mid-20s, and while he may be spellbinding in person, on record he’s clearly a work-in-progress.
The very title of his debut CD, Yesterday Is Now, recorded in Sydney with a small backing ensemble, announces his reactionary estrangement from the music of his (and his father’s) generation. This gesture is reinforced by the opening track, “Whatever Happened to Melody!,” a waltz asserting the superiority of yesteryear’s movie stars, prizefighters, politicians, and popular songs. This nostalgic strain is echoed on some of the subsequent tracksrevivals of vaudeville chestnuts (“Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”) and Rodgers and Hammerstein and Arlen and Mercer standards. Even the compositions of more recent vintageAmanda McBroom’s “Errol Flynn,” Marshall Barer and Hugh Martin’s “On Such a Night as This”have a retrospective flavor. Campbell’s thin, quavery tenor and sensitive but undynamic approach to lyrics impart a disconcerting sameness to his repertoire. The exception is a frisky, affectionate five-minute medley of cornball songs from Australian stage musicals handled with a lighter touch than the singer displays on the other selections.
Taking the Wheel, recorded last summer, is an upmarket production featuring a string and brass orchestra, Bruce Weberish glamour shots, and typically self-serving liner notes by Michael Feinstein. Overall, Campbell’s material is fresher, emphasizing new tunes by John Bucchino, Don Walker, Ann Hampton Callaway, and Craig Carnelia, mixed with some lite-rock revivals (“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “I Honestly Love You”) and vintage show tunes (“I Got Rhythm,” “Old Devil Moon”). The most memorable track is a voice-and-piano interpretation of Tom Andersen’s “Yard Sale,” a dramatic vignette that indirectly but affectingly addresses the AIDS epidemic. Although Campbell’s vocal and emotive skills have not matured since his previous CD, his promise remains evident. He chooses his songs carefully, and his desire to communicate is apparent in the thoughtful commentary he includes in both CD booklets. But at 24 he lacks the seasoning and authority to optimize the possibilities of his repertoire. Prematurely overhyped, he runs the risk of career burnout before realizing his potential.
KT Sullivan’s In Other Words, recorded live at Manhattan’s Rainbow and Stars, showcases 19 songs by composer-lyricist Bart Howard. Born in Burlington, Iowa, Howard dropped out of school at 16 and, following stints as pianist for performing Siamese twins Daisy and Viola Hilton and female impersonator Rae Bourbon, and four years in the Army, he arrived in New York, where he became Mabel Mercer’s accompanist and one of her pet songwriters. In the early ’50s, he was hired as house pianist at the Blue Angel, the upscale supper club that launched the careers of Carol Burnett, Harry Belafonte, and the Smothers Brothers. Howard’s cosmopolitan lyrics and melodies were recorded by Mercer, Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Johnny Mathis. “In Other Words,” written in 1954, turned out to be his cash cow when, in the early ’60s at Peggy Lee’s suggestion, he changed the title to “Fly Me to the Moon,” and it hit the pop charts.
Four decades later, most of Howard’s songs (the seductive “Let Me Love You,” with its surprisingly cynical tag line, the breezy “Who Besides You,” and the worldly “You Are Not My First Love”) hold up quite well, though a few (“Beautiful Women,” “If You Leave Paris”) have become chichi antiques. The octogenarian songwriter was present at Sullivan’s tribute, on which she is backed by composer-pianist William Roy (who also contributes several tasty solo vocals). Sullivan’s singing leaves much to be desired. Her lower range is rather colorless, and when she shifts to head tones, her voice becomes unpleasantly sour, harsh, and wobbly. Though informative, her between-song spoken account of Howard’s remarkable life (he hung out with Garbo, Cole Porter, and Noel Coward) is delivered in an arch, giggly manner that is apparently intended to be provocative. Despite vocal flaws, she is often effective in conveying the songwriter’s romantic and comic conceits, to the obvious delight of a suspiciously enthusiastic audience. Near the finale, Howard is introduced and, after admitting that he is not as old as God but indeed older than the pope, croaks “Young Just Once,” a tuneless, autobiographical observation about aging. In Other Words is an evocative chapter of cabaret history, but Howard’s work is heard to greater advantage in Mercer’s definitive interpretations (which have yet to appear on CD) and on songstress Portia Nelson’s recently reissued 1956 collection of his songs.
DRG’s single-disc reissue of Nelson’s first solo albums, Love Songs for a Late Evening (1952) and Autumn Leaves (1956), takes listeners back to the heyday of cafe society. Born in Utah, Nelson left home at 17 and headed for Hollywood, where she worked as a publicist for Universal Studios and wrote songs for Jane Russell and Donald O’Connor. In 1950, she came east to make her New York debut at the Blue Angel. Since then, she has developed her considerable talents in a variety of artistic fields. She has performed on Broadway (The Golden Apple), in movies (The Sound of Music and Dr. Dolittle), and on television (an eight-year run on All My Children). In 1977, she wrote There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk, a book of philosophical reflections that is still used by psychotherapists and substance-abuse counselors and is quoted in a translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Her song “Make a Rainbow” was performed by Marilyn Horne at the first Clinton inauguration. Although her voice has been affected by throat surgerya consequence of two bouts with cancerin 1996 Nelson released This Life, a new CD of her own compositions, on which her talk-singing is supplemented by guest appearances by Margaret Whiting, Amanda McBroom, the late Nancy LaMott, and other admirers.
Recorded at the peak of Nelson’s supper-club career, Love Songs for a Late Evening evokes the glamour of ’50s Manhattan nightlife, an era when mink stoles, cigarette girls, champagne cocktails, and flaming desserts were still chic rather than camp. Nelson is a very ritzy singer; her light, ladylike soprano, backed by Norman Paris’ keyboards-guitar-bass trio, caresses the urbane lyrics of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart, and, inevitably, Bart Howard. Some idea of the rarefied tone of her repertoire can be gleaned from this couplet from William Roy’s giddily romantic waltz, “Come Away With Me”: “Better pack your belongings and bid all your dear ones adieu/This itinerant escapade’s planned for a lifetime or two.” Like the idealized ’30s fantasies of the Astaire-Rogers movies, Nelson’s stylings document midcentury aspirations to elegancemannered and brittle but unexpectedly endearing.
I want to recommend Love Songs for a Late Evening, but something has gone terribly wrong with DRG’s reissue. Portions of the 1952 album, which has been out of print for 45 years, are unlistenably distorted. The version of the CD released this week sounds as if the master tapes have stretched; some of the tracks, notably “My Ship” and “Just Love,” resemble performances by a quartet of drowning gerbils. DRG is recalling this pressing and replacing it with a corrected version. Meanwhile, buyer beware!
Hey, Love, a revue of songs by Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary, began as a Rainbow and Stars attraction and now appears in a studio-recorded version. Although, predictably, her compositions are no patch on those of her incomparable father, Rodgers has created a lively, neglected body of work that includes the scores for Broadway’s Once Upon a Mattress and other musicals that flopped or have yet to be produced. In Hey, Love, her songbook is performed by a vivacious trio: Faith Prince, who played Miss Adelaide in the recent Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, Mark Waldrop, and Jason Workman.
Twenty-two of Rodgers’ catchy melodies, with lyrics from the pens of, among others, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Maltby Jr., and William Shakespeare, have been cleverly woven into a love story about a woman courted by two suitors. In addition to the expected ballads and rhythmic pieces, the program contains an adventurous variety of musical forms, including a rondeau (“I’m Looking for Someone”), a madrigal (“Oh Mistress Mine”), a march (“Love Is on Parade”), and a bossa nova (“The Boy From…,” a malicious send-up of “The Girl From Ipanema”). Two ballads are standouts (“Once I Had a Friend,” a little-known Sondheim lyric recast as a touching homoerotic awakening, and “Something Known,” a haunting setting of lyricist’s Marshall Barer’s oblique definition of love) but there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. Prince’s crisp, clear voice and the assured baritones of her cohorts intelligently capture the humor and tenderness of the material, sympathetically backed by Patrick Brady’s septet arrangements featuring cello, harp, and woodwinds. Although targeted at fans of musical theater, Hey, Love’s songs are bound to reappear in the upcoming acts of discerning cabaret performers.CP