Modern “cabaret” has its origins in the restaurants of 16th century France – Paris, of course – where customers were allowed to sing if they had drunk enough wine. In time, this convention was replaced by what we call the “cover charge” in America.
From its beginnings, the world of cabaret brought together in a democratic spirit people of all classes and walks of life – workers and artists. If one had wandered into the Mouton Blanc on rue de Vieux-Colmbier and later the Croix de Lorraine in this early period, he (not sure about she) might have found himself clinking classes with La Fontaine, Moliere, and Racine.
As cabaret continued to evolve in France over the following centuries and as it spread to other countries – Holland, Germany, Poland, UK, Sweden, and America – it maintained its spirit as a form of popular entertainment in which the “common man,” as we call him in America, might rub shoulders (or touch elbows if one was drinking) with serious artists and intellectuals: Toulouse–Lautrec,
I recall going to a café in Montmartre as a young man on my first trip to Europe and finding myself seated next to Erich Remarque, author of All Quiet On The Western Front, and his wife, Paulette Goddard, ex-wife of Charlie Chaplin and star of City Lights. Chevalier was singing that night.
(I didn’t know then that he might have been a collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Paris, so my pleasure was uncompromised.)
Even if a person never went to a museum in the 1920’s, unlikely in Paris, she might find herself in a room with paintings and murals designed and painted by Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, and Wyndham Lewis.
If memory serves me, the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan has an exquisite mural by Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), one of America’s great artists from the period of Tiffany (Art Nouveau) and the early 20th century.
I once took my daughter there for a drink in the hope that she would imbibe some of the spirit of what we sometimes call in America — “upper bohemian” life.” I may have succeeded too well.
From its beginnings, cabaret became a form of self-
expression in song in which longings and aspirations,
cries of the heart and subversive political dissent, could be vented in an intimate space and “under the radar,” as we might say, of official and state surveillance. Often, the venues for cabaret were literally underground, caves.
One thinks of the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill Three Penny Opera and the 1966 film Cabaret (based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diary). It should be noted that some voices of dissent against the Nazi regime still could be heard in Berlin cabarets until they were silenced…forever.
“Intimate” is a key word in this history. More than anything else, accomplished cabaret singers (and some good popular singers like Frank Sinatra) express what Walt Whitman, America’s national poet, called “song of myself” in his Leaves Of Grass (first edition, 1855).
Cabaret singers condense and compress the longer forms of autobiography and memoir into emotional lyrics that bear some resemblance to Renaissance sonnets and songs in which the complexities of love are given expression.
Even Shakespeare comes to mind as does the great English composer and lutenist John Dowland (1562-1626) whose song, “Flow My Tears,” might be the title of many songs in the cabaret repertoire, including “blues,” of course, and doubtless “fado” whose notes of anguish can be heard in the Bairro Alto.
It should be added that the elements of rhyme and wit have more of a place in good popular American music, including the cabaret songbook, than they do in serious modern American poetry. One need think only of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”: “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/Was Looked on as something shocking.”
When modern poets abandoned rhyme in a revolt against bourgeois convention – part of the experimental atmosphere of the 20th century – they separated themselves from some of the deeper resources of popular entertainment, including a fondness for clever lyrics. The brilliant work of Gilbert and Sullivan marks the near end of this kind of tradition.
One exception is the poetry of Richard Wilbur, a superb translator of Moliere, who wrote most of the lyrics (rhyming couplets) for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
It also may be the case that more of the enduring truth’s of the human condition are given a clearer statement in good popular music than in many academically praised work. Just imagine setting the words of Harold Bloom or Jacques Lacan to music!
Some American songs come to mind whose tittles capture the many moods associated with love: loneliness, longing, enchantment, rapture, loss, regret, renewed longing and hope: Ira Gershwin’s “But Not For Me”: “ They’re writing songs of love but not for me….”; Frank Loesser’s “Luck Be A Lady” as sung by Frank Sinatra (CD: Sinatra/Nothing But the Best);
Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Mercer, “I Thought About You”; “Strangers In The Night” (English lyrics by Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder); Oscar Hammerstein’s “Out Of My Dreams.”
Duke Ellington, the Picasso of American jazz, composed quite a few cabaret classics: “Solitude,” “Something To Live For,” “Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.” These songs capture perfectly a mood of lonely interiority and self-reflection – the way someone can feel in the “wee small hours of the morning” when the party is over, everyone has left, and one is left alone.
Needless to say, the royalty of African-American music – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole – have made enduring contributions to the genre of cabaret music.
More recently, Stephen Sondheim has elevated American musical theater beyond the great achievements of Rogers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma) and Lerner and Lowe (My Fair Lady) by incorporating the profound realities that good cabaret music often does.
His “Send In The Clowns” is a good example of his merger of cabaret “soliloquies,” as I call them, with big-stage Broadway entertainment. That is, his work is not just “That’s entertainment…” (Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, Bandwagon, 1952t.
It may not be wholly coincidental that the cabaret came into fashion in France during the lifetime of Montaigne, the father of the “personal essay” (1533-1592). Montaigne asked famously in his preface to the Essais (1580, 1588), “Que sais-je?”, (“What do I know?), and then tried to answer the question in his essays. “Je” – THE I – is a key word.
In many ways, this is what cabaret singers do as they “cover” standard songs through the instruments of their individual voices and graft their life-experience onto the song. Edith Piaf and Billy Holiday (the American Piaf) may sing the “same” song, but they make it “their own” soulful outpouring.
We might say that the best of cabaret singing is an outgrowth of the birth of individuality that emerged in the Anglo-European period of 1550-1650 — the seedbed of Democracy (the American and French revolutions).
Cabaret singing is to the individual what the chorus is to institutional entities: Red Army Chorus, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, University of Wisconsin Marching Band (pace to the masses and oratorios of Bach and Handel).
It’s revealing, in this sense, that “cabaret” first appears as a word in 1665 in France. The age of Rembrandt’s and Vermeer’s portraits prepare the way for Rodin’s modern equivalent of Greek sculpture, a celebration of heroic individuality.
Our parents lived for ten years in an apartment house on 54th Street and Broadway, just off Times Square. I was in graduate school at the time, working on a doctorate in American and British literature.
Their apartment looked down on the marquees of Broadway Theaters and nightclubs (Copa Cabana, Versailles) whose neon signs and lights glowed with the titles of musical shows and star performers: Guys and Dolls, Piaf Sings.
It occurred to me when I visited them, in the midst of writing something complicated about America’s most complex author (along with Faulkner), Henry James, that I might have been better off, if had the skills, to speak directly from the heart and mind in clear, emotional, and playful (entertaining) ways.
Alas, I earned the Ph.D., and left it to others to sing directly to us from the depths of their own personalities and vocal uniqueness words they have made their own.
Howard R. Wolf (SUNY-Buffalo) has devoted his life to teaching and writing. Practicing psychoanalytic criticism early his career, he focused on progressive pedagogy during the 1960’s and then “character” as a writer – the culmination of which has been a cycle of stories about one wondering American Jew, “Ludwig Fried.” The author of a novel, Broadway Serenade, and The Education of a Teacher, he is a graduate of Amherst College (BA) Columbia University (MA), and The University of Michigan (Ph.D.)