I recently went to see my friend Dawn Derow perform her show, Music 4 Two, directed by Lina Koutrakos, with music direction and lead guitar by Sean Harkness. She opened the show with "Some Kind of Wonderful," by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and in my opinion, it was.
Dawn completely revamped her show and brought it back, to Metropolitan Room this time, and recorded the entire thing, one time through, live, for a new cd. Here is a performer with a highly trained voice, who can emotionally connect to a lyric, can play the guitar herself and can write her own music. She's the whole package.
And I'm not just saying this because she happens to be a friend of mine in the cabaret community. It's because, as an artist and vocalist myself, I admire my peers in the business, who have the ability to inspire my own creativity, and Dawn does just that. Lina Koutrakos helped her meticulously fine tune her patter for this show, reorganize songs to provide a more clear and concise storyline, and Sean worked with her to create some amazing and inventive arrangements.
Some of these new takes on songs included "This Masquerade," by Leon Russell, where Sean actually scatted while playing his guitar solo. Dawn had great connection to the lyric, and has the ability to seamlessly transition between belting and soft, lighter tones. She has a smokey quality to her voice. "Waiting In Vain," written by Bob Marley, was also well done with Sean providing strong backup vocals. I love it when songs I know are presented in a new light and brought to life, like I'm hearing the lyric for the first time. In this show, Dawn experienced a wide range of emotions, from tongue-in-cheek coquettishness to flirtation, from intense passion to vulnerability, from tenderness and hurt to toe-tapping excitement and fun, this performance was jam-packed with excellent transitions. Raised Catholic, she did a great version of "Forgiven," by Alanis Morrisette, followed by an original, beautiful melody written by Sean Harkness, which Dawn herself loved so much, she wrote Italian lyrics to accompany it. I felt like I should be drinking a fine Tuscan wine, while sitting on the steps of the Vatican, listening to music like this.
She does it all, and included four songs in the show that were her own originals. She is a talented performer, but surprisingly did not have a large turn out of support from the cabaret community, and I found this interesting. Why do some people get so much support, and others, who are clearly very talented, do not receive as much recognition from our peers? I think the answer to this basically boils down to one thing: The Great American Songbook (or as I'll now refer to it as: GAS). There are some cabaret purists out there who believe that our art form is all about GAS. Yet, others in our industry, hardly have any GAS at all in their shows. And this got me thinking about cabaret: what it is, where it came from, why people think it should be a certain way. After all, I've only been in the cabaret community for the past three years, what do I know about it? Not a lot. A little. I started looking at some information online, and found it incredibly interesting. Now, some of what I'm about to say may ruffle some cabaret feathers, but I think it is something that provides some interesting discussion.
Where did I go to find a plethora of knowledge about this subject? Uh...Wikipedia. I know. It sounds crazy, but I actually learned a lot, and here's a brief synopsis of what I found. Wikipedia defines The Great American Songbook to be, "a hypothetical construct that seeks to represent the best American songs of the 20th Century, principally from Broadway theatre, musical theatre and Hollywood musicals from the 1920s to 1960s, including dozens of songs of enduring popularity. The Great American Songbook became (and remains) a vital part of the repertoire of jazz musicians, who describe such songs simply as 'jazz standards'." Wikipedia goes on to talk about a man named Alec Wilder, a songwriter and critic, who wrote a book entitled American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950. This man is considered to be our defining expert on the subject. Alec Wilder was born in 1907, to a wealthy family living in Rochester. He was an eccentric and deliciously scandalous man, who, before Lindsay Lohan even existed, divorced his family and won part of their fortune. He loved music from a young age, but disliked school. When he was young, his mother would bring him to New York, and they would stay at the Algonquin Hotel, where he eventually ended up living the last 40 years of his life. He went to the Eastman School of Music, but never graduated. He basically taught himself how to compose music, and was awarded an honorary college degree in 1973. In his book, he believes the top 6 contributors to GAS are, "Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. Vincent Youmans and Arthur Schwartz share a chapter; Burton Lane, Hugh Martin and Vernon Duke, share one more. Wilder provides one chapter covering songwriters he deemed 'The Great Craftsmen': Hoagy Carmichael, Walter Donaldson, Harry Warren, Isham Jones, Jimmy McHugh, Duke Ellington, Fred Ahlert, Richard A. Whiting, Ray Noble, John Green, Rube Bloom and Jimmy Van Heusen. For many, the Songbook era ended with rock and roll; Wilder ends with 1950." Wilder wrote a number of songs for Mabel Mercer and was friends with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, and Peggy Lee. An impressive resume. He was a cool guy, living in an exciting time, surrounded by amazing music. There is no doubt, whatsoever, that the contributions these songwriters made to our culture and our history should not be forgotten. It is an outstanding body of work that touches music lover's souls.
However, just as the musical theatre industry has grown and changed over time, breaking away from traditional standards and trending towards a more contemporary pop sound, so is cabaret changing. And just because certain artists don't utilize a lot of GAS in their shows, this does't mean that they don't respect it, or that they don't belong in this genre. It just means that they more closely identify, and want to tell their story, with a more contemporary feel and wording -- just like Dawn Derow. There is a great body and depth of work from composers that have come since the 1950s. And if we didn't identify with it, then we wouldn't think things like Barb Jungr's Bob Dylan show were so outstanding, and Lauren Fox wouldn't have just won a MAC Award for a Joni Mitchell show, and we wouldn't cry every time we hear Baby Jane Dexter sing that R.E.M. song, "Everybody Hurts." Just because certain artists choose more contemporary music, it doesn't mean they want to be rock stars, they are just telling their cabaret story in a different way. Don't get me wrong -- I love the GAS! But I don't think that GAS alone is only thing that should define whether you are truly part of the cabaret community. These contemporary artists deserve to have their story be heard, and have a lot to say. And Dawn Derow -- a vocalist, a musician, an instrumentalist, a storyteller, and a songwriter -- is part of the new face of cabaret. Cabaret...it's a gas!