I've only just seen, in the New York Times, the sad news that we've lost Donald Smith, the impresario extraordinaire who did an incredible amount over the past three decades to keep the sputtering flame of cabaret alive. In his honor, then, let's spend a moment with the woman who inspired him, the immortal Mabel Mercer.
What, exactly, this slippery art form is, remains the subject of much debate. To purists, it's the kind of intimate, sophisticated singing Mercer personified, one in which interpretation trumps voice - Mercer's style is called, after all, parlando; in France, she would be called a diseuse. To too many today, it's a kind of over-amplified karaoke, tipsy people singing "Memory" from Cats too late at night. I think it's just honest singing, to an attentive audience, preferably with cocktails.
If Smith didn't exactly win the battle to keep the cabaret flame bright (the obituary carries another sad piece of, for me, news - that not only is the Algonquin closed, but when it reopens, it will be sans Oak Room), he did start people thinking seriously about this kind of music. Now it's often called the American Songbook, and if the Oak Room has now gone the way of the Ballroom, Reno Sweeney's, the Rainbow Room, the Ruban Bleu, the Five Oaks, and so many other rooms, we still do have singers like Michael Feinstein, Audra McDonald, Betty Buckley, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers, and many more, some of whom still spend at least some of their performing time in small rooms filled with transfixed listeners.
When it comes to cabaret, I should mention, I got lucky: my initiation came from Mercer herself, when she was singing in Philadelphia at a place called Café Society, in 1977. I wish I could say I remember every moment of the performance, which in memory was a brunch concert (something hard to imagine with this most late-night of singers, but I suppose possible). I don't. I was just a teenager dragged along to something by his parents, to something that was meant to make Grandmother Muscato, in failing health, happy. That it did; for me it opened up a world. My memory isn't the songs, but rather that regal figure, in her armchair, and the incredible warmth that washed across the room when she performed. I didn't know anything about Cole Porter, or Alec Wilder, or why this music made you feel so good, so much, but somehow, it clicked. I've heard a lot of singers since, from the sublime (Miss Lee at the Ballroom; Miss Akers at the Rainbow Room) to the ridiculous (late nights at Marie's Crisis, anybody?), but Mercer set the standard.
Many thanks, then, to Donald Smith, for his lifetime in the service of night life. The obituary does pass on one piece of good news: his great invention, the New York Cabaret Convention, looks set to continue, under the expert eye of the wonderful KT Sullivan. With any luck at all, that means that there will be more teenagers pulled into the spell of cabaret - even if, for some of them, it does involve "Memory" from Cats...