One could argue that this should be about composers and singers, given the untimely loss of Marvin Hamlisch this week.
But, I am a lover of lyrics … especially the lyric that takes your breath away in its exact wording and gut-punching meaning. Marvin Hamlisch was expert at marrying lyric to singer by musically engineering the tune. Think of how perfectly the beginning word “Memories” is tuned up for, and then “owned” by Barbra Streisand’s lushly sad singing style (The Way We Were, 1973.)
I was drawn into the cabaret world because I could understand the lyrics as they were being sung. Having spent my teen years being the one who sang gibberish to the car radio because I couldn’t understand the words of rock songs, it was cathartic to sit in the beloved and now lost Oak Room at the Algonquin in New York City, listening to Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers or Jason Grae captivate and inform the audience with words set to music.
To get to know artists who respected the words … I had found a home!
Great cabaret singers, in fact great singers, understand the importance of balancing lyrics and vocal ability. When Le Chat Noir visiting performers did master classes at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, instruction technique varied, but one theme was a common one: Maturity in a singer requires that you forget that the world thinks you have a pretty voice, and learn to think of your instrument as the messenger for the creative team of the lyricist and composer. Subjugate a bit and glow.
A favorite story of mine came from, I think, Amanda McBroom, who explained that Frank Sinatra would sometimes write out lyrics to a new song up to a hundred times before attempting to sing them. He wanted to peel back the obvious and discover exactly why the writer selected every word; then he felt competent to stylize these words into meaningful song.
What an extraordinary story. Good singers approach a song this way. It is this sort of love and respect for songs from the Great American Songbook, a collection of perhaps the greatest Broadway and standards lyricists ever assembled, and the intimacy of a small venue, that makes me love cabaret singers above all others. But that’s just me.
If you want a taste of how this approach to singing looks and sounds on stage, Maureen Brennan (Hal Prince’s Candide) and George Dvorsky (Scarlett Pimpernel, Passion) accompanied by friend and Le Chat Noir vet Alex Rybeck, will be at the Stagedoor Canteen this weekend.
If you go, listen to the lyrics. You may discover, like Marvin Hamlisch, “One Singular Sensation” phrase for your own diary.
If you want to kibitz about lyricists, watch for Lyrically Speaking of Lyricists, where I will opine and then brag about my framed thank-you note from Stephen Sondheim … who is actually a friend of a friend, but who’s asking.
Broadway Vets: Two for the Road
This column, Theatre Musings, follows the informal quest of New Orleans author Barbara Motley to verbalize why live theater matters.