Styles & Forms | Cabaret | Soundtracks & Theatre
Cabaret thrived on sensuality, wit and an intimacy between performer and audience. Its essence lies in intimate, escapist venues, where charismatic artists perform with ad-hoc backing from piano, brass and bass. Unlike the popularist music hall, cabaret was born from experimentation and a desire to explore the space between mass entertainment and the avant-garde.
A French word that alluded to any business serving alcohol, ‘cabaret’ acquired its modern definition in 1881, when Le Chat Noir opened its doors to the bohemian denizens of Paris’s Montmartre district. At a time when newspapers were controlled by the ruling classes, Le Chat provided a democratic forum where artists could swap ideas and rub shoulders with aristocrats, ne’er-do-wells and inquisitive members of the bourgeoisie. Audiences were treated to a heady mixture of music, dance, poetry, satire and theatre. The biggest cabaret stars were the diseuses, multi-talented female performers who were as much actresses as they were singers, and who accompanied their songs with dramatic expressions and expansive gestures. Foremost among these was Yvette Guilbert, who delivered wry, topical chansons and re-worked French folk standards in a voice rich with gruff melancholia.
Spreading across Europe during the inter-war years, cabaret found a particularly grateful home in Berlin, where a dangerous menu of jazz, satire and pornography flourished. Visual display equalled vocal performance in importance, and the most pungent evocations of this era are on film: Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. The former rocketed Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood stardom, but with her outlandish, half-sung and half-spoken vocals, the German was a relatively minor figure on the live cabaret circuit. More important were such seminal diseuses as Rosa Valetti, an oft-overlooked icon of the Roaring Twenties. Valetti was committed to cabaret as a socio-political tool, and roared out provocative political numbers such as ‘The Red Melody’ in formidable, iron-lunged fashion.
Despite the intentions of wistful 1960s commentators such as the singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, modern cabaret has been a shadow of its former self in political terms. In France, it retained a strong sense of sensuality, humour and audience interaction, as the likes of Edith Piaf and the sashaying American Josephine Baker enjoyed considerable popularity. In America, cabaret was reborn in the speakeasies of the Prohibition era and, surviving alongside the gambling halls of Las Vegas, cabaret clubs also enjoyed a glamorous association with vice, as dramatized in films such as Cabaret (1972). Performers began to incorporate gutsy torch songs, jazz numbers and Broadway tunes into their routines.
This period was epitomized by the British-born Mabel Mercer, the piano-playing Barbara Carroll, and Sylvia Syms, a New Yorker and protégée of Billie Holiday who took the night-spots of the Big Apple by storm during the 1960s and 1970s. Syms’s husky-voiced renditions of jazz-tinged originals, as well as inspired covers of pop favourites such as ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’, influenced artists from Tony Bennett to...
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