By Barry Bassis
of cabaret sing the Great American Songbook
(1900 -1984) was a legendary cabaret singer, who was admired by audiences and
by other singers. Frank Sinatra said, “Everything I know about singing, I
learned from Mabel Mercer” and called her “the best music teacher in the
world.” She didn’t give formal lessons, but Sinatra, Billie Holiday and others
religiously attended her shows, where she was regally seated as she performed.
Mercer Foundation just put on the 29th annual series of concerts
called the New York Cabaret Convention at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln
Center. There were four concerts, each with a different theme, of which I
the Night and the Music Celebrating
Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson” paid tribute to three great
singers, all of whom sang in cabaret, though Clooney also starred in movies and
Cook created some of the iconic roles in Broadway musicals. Wilson, known as
“the Queen of Cabaret,” was also a Tony nominated actress for her part in the
musical “Legs Diamond” and acted in movies and television.
featured songs at least one of the three honorees sang, though there was some
overlap in their repertoires. The performers at the concert made no attempt to
recreate the styles of the three women. For example, Darius deHaas sang
a smooth “Sophisticated Lady” (from Clooney’s album of Duke Elllington songs,
which she recorded with Duke), with more melisma than she did.
credit Richard Termine
started with Karrin Allyson, one of the leading jazz singers, doing “The Surrey
with the Fringe on Top” and “Body and Soul.” Both have been sung by innumerable
jazz vocalists as well as instrumentalists. She really swung on the Rodgers and
(who is not only a terrific singer but also a dancer and actress) first did the
“My Dog Loves Your Dog” and later a sweet “Count Your Blessings” (which
Rosemary Clooney recorded on her Christmas album).
Naughton delivered a resonant “The Folks Who Lived on the Hill” with his firm
baritone and later returned with “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues,” where he
sounded a bit like Joe Williams.
showed off a pure soprano that recalled Cook in “’Til There Was You” (from Music
Man) and “Vanilla Ice Cream”(from She Loves Me), two songs that Cook
introduced in the original Broadway productions.
delivered a soulful version of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and a
lively version of the theme song from the t.v. show “Maude.”
Photo credit Richard
(the excellent bassist who accompanied the singers) himself sang “Hey There”
from Pajama Game. While he doesn’t have the vocal resources of the other
performers, he demonstrated that he could put out a song without much voice.
Mayes Photo Richard Termine
showstopper of the evening was the phenomenal 90 year old Marilyn Maye. She
first sang Sondheim’s defiance of time and setbacks from Follies, “I’m
Still Here.” She returned near the end of the show with songs with the same
theme of perseverance: “I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do,” “The Secret of Life”
and “Here’s to Life.” At the end, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
They Invented Champagne: The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner
Lerner was a brilliant lyricist, with Frederick Lowe and Burton Lane and other
distinguished composers, including Kurt Weill, Andre Previn and Leonard
Bernstein. His songs won Academy Awards, Grammy’s, Golden Globes and Tony
Awards and he also wrote scripts for stage and screen, winning an Academy Award
for the script for the film, An American in Paris and again for Gigi.
His greatest triumph, with Lowe, was My Fair Lady, currently revived in
high style on Broadway. In 1971, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of
co-hosts of “The Night They Invented Champagne” (a song from the screen musical
Gigi, also a collaboration with Lowe) were Jeff Harner and Andrea
Marcovicci. In addition to providing occasional nuggets of information, they
sang separately and together (the title song and the comic “I Remember it
Many of the
classic songs were refreshed by switching genders. Thus, Iris Williams sang
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to his Face,” Sally Mayes sang “I’m Getting Married In
the Morning” and Joshua Lance Dixon performed “I Could have Danced all Night.”
Gillette stayed in gender for “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins,” preceded by her
account of being coached for the part by Rex Harrison’s understudy.
feigned humiliation at being told the perfect song for him to do at the concert
was “I’m glad I’m not young anymore.” Barbara Brussell spoke about Lerner’s
depression after his French wife abandoned him, taking their son with her to Europe.
In response, Lerner made the comment that the marriage was his most expensive
French lesson. In a more sober mood, he penned “If Ever I Should Leave You”
(from Camelot), which Brussell sang with sensitivity.
rocked the house with the torch song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,
“What Did I Have that I don’t have?” She started quietly and her singing grew
in volume and intensity.
One of the
more obscure songs was the witty “Garbage” from an uncompleted musical version
of My Man Godfrey.
was a reminder of the extraordinary cabaret singers carrying on Mabel Mercer’s
tradition and the tremendous body of songs written by Americans in the last
century. I look forward to returning to the New York Cabaret Convention next