Thursday, September 25, 2008

Queens of Cabaret

Back in my Manhattan years, I was a big old Cabaret Addict. And, I think, very, very lucky - for I happened to be there, in the late 80s and through the 90s, at a remarkable and rather sad time, one that saw something like the end of the traditional cabaret scene.

The big rooms are pretty much gone like the dodo: the Ballroom, where once I saw British oddity Julian Clary literally cause people to fall over laughing; the Rainbow Room, most fabulous of them all, where one night I was there for the last time that Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert, West Side Story's first Maria and Tony, sang together.

The Café Carlyle hangs on, in a way, even without Bobby Short as its presiding genius, as does the Algonquin's Oak Room, and Michael Feinstein does seem to have found a way to make his club work, although it also doubles as a hotel breakfast room.

The smaller spaces and piano bars we haunted seem as far off as speakeasies or Vaudeville: The Five Oaks, home to 30s survivor Marie Blake, who made a rollicking blues out of Blondie's "Rapture"; 88s, where Karen Miller and Rochelle Seldin created a kind of cabaret salon for musical-theatre queens; Danny's Skylight Room, Rose's Turn, on an on.

One old hangout, Don't Tell Mama, hangs on. One real dive, Marie's Crisis, seems indestructible; I wonder if Sam is still playing the piano there, singing "Blue Champagne."

Luckily, some of the great ladies are still performing. In my time, my favorites included the timelessly elegant Julie Wilson:

Musical archaeologist Andrea Marcovicci, whose innate glamour is enhanced by her warmth and intelligence:

Regally sly Karen Akers; anyone who's heard her live (especially her song about a lovelorn Statue of Liberty - "who wants a date, with a large, green lady?") knows that no one more effectively combines fire and ice than she:

And, of course, Miss Eartha Kitt, about whom no more need be said than that she is Perfection:

Some of the other Grand Old Gals still make occasional appearances - Barbara Cook remains a phenomenon, and Maureen McGovern, Blossom Dearie and Barbara Carroll all come to mind, while Elaine Stritch has only gotten more and more active in recent years. Margaret Whiting is alive, but seems to have retired, and it's been many years since Lena Horne last sang.

So many, though, have gone on that big lounge in the sky; just from my memories of who used to come in for annual seasons or who were local fixtures, I can think of Dorothy Loudon, Peggy Lee, Sylvia Syms, Nancy Lamotte, Hildegarde, Jo Stafford.

Oh, dear. Too much nostalgia. Thankfully, there are some wonderful new voices out there; you likely have your favorites (do tell!), and here are two of mine:

Patricia Barber is as much as jazz star as a cabaret lady, but I'm very fond of her smoky, lazy vocals, which her deft piano playing complements just about ideally.

And then there's rising Canadian thrush Chantal Chamberland, a reflective, moody singer who turns the Eurhythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again" into a saga of erotic longing.

And that's not to mention Madeline Peyroux, Jane Monheit, KT Sullivan, Mary Cleere Harran... But are they, any of them, really cabaret? I suppose I'll have to spend some time back in New York some day and find out.


  1. I love Andrea! One of my best friends has become a really good friend of Andrea. She is so down-to-earth and genuine.

    Her Love Songs of World War II show is one of my favorite acts (and cd).

  2. Fabulous post, darling!

    About a hundred years ago, Ms Marcovicci starred in a show that previewed---and ended, I believe---in Chicago, called (if memory serves) "Nefertiti". I remember when it played there, but missed it. Apparently it was awful, but I'm quite curious about the music. And the costumes and sets. Oh no, here I go again...

  3. I believe they tried to revive "Nefertiti" a while ago (in the wake of "Aida"'s semi success?), without either Andrea or much result.

    Once in a while she used to joke about it in her act (which is more than she ever did for her appearance in The Concorde: Airport '79). Until she found her way as the new Mabel Mercer, it really was an odd little career.

  4. I LOVED the 5 Oaks and Marie's crisis when I lived in NYC (early 80s). My last visit to Marie's about 3 yrs ago was rather sad--no good voices, no Broadway chorus boys working off their energy after a show--instead just tourists and a few drunks who thought they were Maria Callas....

  5. Yes, the Oaks faded pretty quickly after Marie Blake died, especially after a disastrous facelift left it looking like a low-rent chain ice cream parlor. And Marie's - it's always been a faded rose, but as you point out, while it's always had the drunks and tourists, it used also to have real music people to keep things moving. Not to mention Albert the Waiter and his trick coloratura...

    Good times.