Yesterday morning, as I cycled past the cherry trees budding along the river, I drifted into a Kander and Ebb state of mind. I sang “How Lucky Can You Get’ and really meant it; I sang ‘Marry Me’ and really didn’t. I do no justice to their canon, rasping their percussive melodies and grinding their piercing lyrics while enduring the startled glances of passing runners who realize, just a moment too late, “Hey, that guy is singing.” By the time I reached the Fiedler Footbridge I was in a Kander and Ebb trance, channeling Cabaret.
My first Cabaret was 1968 summer stock at the Beach Haven Playhouse. I am sure that my mother had no idea what she exposed me to; no Daughter of the Holy Name Society takes her thirteen year old chubby sponge of a son to theatricals that celebrate decadence and fascism. But she was starved for culture along the Jersey Shore and I was always her willing companion, especially if live actors, song or dance were involved. The emcee was a rail thin, incredibly tall man-child with eerie white makeup, hollowed cheeks and maraschino cherry lips that turned every smile into a leer. He wrapped his spindly legs around the Kit Kat girls with an angular suggestiveness that gave me night shivers for weeks.
The imprimatur in my teenage mind that Cabaret represented the epitome of debauchery was permanently established by Bob Fosse’s brilliant 1972 film that sharpened the outlines of the love story between Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw. When Liza Minelli’s solid thighs caressed that Thonet chair I understood that homely people can paint themselves up in the search for love, but that love might get a little twisted. At the same time, beautiful, ambiguous people, like Michael York, can dip into the underworld for a stimulating diversion but can always retreat to the comforts of wealth and aquiline breeding. Being no Michael York, I embraced Cabaret as a thrilling but cautionary tale. I developed a haunting rendition of the title song on my guitar; I sang it in a minor key.
For forty years Cabaret has titillated my heart strings. When people ask where I would most like to visit in the world, I always answer Berlin. Yet I have never gone. The raw brutality of The Kit Kat Klub intrigues me, but I preserve my distance.
Then last night I went to the graduate cabaret at The Boston Conservatory. April is high performance season at TBC; in the two weeks I am in town I have five different gigs on my calendar. As a passionate supporter of TBC, it would be enough that the students are so talented and their productions so fresh. But my love runs deeper, for I project a bit of myself on every student, that past of me that was too tentative and too conventional to nurture, that craved a life of theater yet bowed to the ruthless odds against success. TBC is so vital because every student ignores society’s insistent rants about money and employment and material success. They have a dream grand enough to stake their future on.
The MFA students develop 30 minute solo acts of song and story, just a stool, a mic, a piano, and themselves under the spotlight, facing an audience in a black room. I imagined that compressing your cumulative talent into a single act would result in majestic, sweeping performances, yet the vignettes were quite the opposite. Each student worked a story line close to their heart, and since they are young, the stories revolved around personal family experiences. Mike Maloney’s trip to Disneyworld at age six inspired a wonderful journey across the Magic Kingdom, Marissa Roberts brought a perceptive edge the challenges of being a fashionista and Leora Bernstein convinced us that after school escapes into Jedis and wizards are not only the fantasies of little warrior boys, but also gawky girls with too big voices.
Each set distilled a wide emotional range, included pathos and humor and a songbook that highlighted their particular talents. What impressed more than the talent, which was evident, was how deeply these people understood themselves. They were not twenty-four year olds gaping platitudes, but fully formed adults revealing the contours of their hearts, and through their specificity they tapped universal human experience. By the time Mike tells us the inspiration he derives from his handicapped brother or Marissa agonizes that her thighs rub or Leora strides back into high school after a Facebook thrashing, they have drawn us into their world with such generosity that we care. And by revealing themselves so perceptively, their performances stir the particular joys and wounds of our own hearts.
I left the performance with a new appreciation for cabaret, an art form based on soul bearing which, when done right, nurtures our own souls. Perhaps in 1930’s Germany life was so brutal that the only sane response was ‘admitting from cradle to tomb is not very long a stay’. But cabaret can inspire higher aspirations as well. After all, “Fate is kind. It brings to those who love, the sweet fulfillment of their secret longings.” Riding home I let Kander and Ebb slip from my mind; Jiminy Cricket guided me through the starry night.