The Stubborn Survival of Cabaret

I spent a truly wonderful evening this week at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, where a couple of dozen singers paid tribute to one of my favorite composers, Frank Loesser. It was part of the Cabaret Convention, an annual series of concerts sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, dedicated to keeping alive the classic cabaret tradition and the Great American Songbook. Cabaret is a boutique art form with an aging audience that always seems to be hanging by a thread — but the thread is still unaccountably strong. Familiar New York cabaret venues like the Café Carlyle, 54 Below, and Birdland were joined recently by a snazzy new one, the Green Room 42; Michael Feinstein has spread his brand to the West Coast, opening clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles; and newer, younger performers seem to be coming along regularly.

Several of them — new to me at least — were on hand Tuesday night, joining veterans of the cabaret scene like Liz Callaway, Karen Akers, and Andrea Marcovicci (who co-hosted the evening with Jeff Harnar). Danny Bacher, a boyishly winning young singer who doubles on saxophone, gave a high-spirited performance of “If I Were a Bell,” from Guys and Dolls.  Marissa Mulder, an acclaimed newcomer who will soon be touring in a show of Lennon-McCartney songs, resurrected the lovely wartime ballad “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” with delicacy and passion. (Only Loesser would have the guts to close an achingly romantic torch song with that simple, homespun last line: “Nosiree.”) Marta Sanders, a more seasoned belter who looks like she came straight from vaudeville, delivered a lusty,  earth-shaking rendition of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” that nearly brought the house down.

The program was impeccably assembled, with lesser Loessers — like “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So,” from the Betty Hutton movie The Perils of Pauline, and “The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students’ Conservatory Band,” from the Broadway show Where’s Charley — mixed in with the all-stars, and a minimum of gab between numbers. The piece de resistance was 91-year-old Marilyn Maye, who closed the evening with two Loesser show tunes that are typically performed by men — “Joey, Joey, Joey” from The Most Happy Fella and “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls. She was the hometown singer when I was growing up in Kansas City, spent decades as a lesser light in the pop world (and frequent guest on Johnny Carson), but is now the reigning queen of cabaret, her smoky voice and jazzy authority undiminished by age. Like the art form itself, she endures.


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