People who complain that “they don’t write ’em like they used to” are not only wrong; they’re missing the point. Writers laboring in what is thought of as the Great American Songbook tradition still abound. Beholden to Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and Mercer, these contemporary melodists and word-smiths—many of them helping New York celebrate Cabaret Month as we speak—are eager to add their names to an 80-year-old roster of sophisticated tunes and wittily rhymed lyrics.
Unfortunately for them, the beat has moved on. Whereas entertainers and A&R scouts once relied on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley for material, they now—especially since the ’60s and the advent of the singer-songwriter—focus attention elsewhere. (Hollywood still counts, but, aside from Disney, few studios keep songwriters under contract.) Moreover, the time has gone when there was anything like pop-music homogenization, where the entire population knew a hit song because it was played on every radio station—or, before that, was plugged at department-store sheet music counters. Broadened broadcasting has, paradoxically, led to narrowcasting.
Nonetheless, would-be composers of the next “Over the Rainbow” refuse to be discouraged and, hoping the spotlight will sweep their way once again, have gravitated to cabaret—a marginalized and often insular community where songwriting conventions in place from the ’20s to the ’50s continue to be celebrated and, its denizens hope, perpetuated. Cabaret’s younger writers have absorbed cultural and artistic changes—more diverse rhythms, loosened vocabulary, new social freedoms—and have incorporated them into material, while remaining adamantly dedicated to older criteria. Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, for instance, could be ranked with the cleverest of their predecessors. Their jubilant love paean “There’s Nothing I Wouldn’t Do” is also that old standby, a list song. But, from “quesadilla” rhyming with “Ikea” on down, how imaginative a list it is: “I want to lick your stamps/I want to squeeze your fruit/I want to copy your keys/I want to polish your skis/I want to dry-clean your suit.”
As with Heisler and Goldrich and many of his other peers, John Bucchino’s songs (16 of them collected on Grateful, due out in April on RCA) often come from unproduced musicals. So it’s understandable that he sometimes exhibits Stephen Sondheim’s influence, but at his frequent, superlative best he can be as moody as Schubert or jazzed as Bernstein. Perhaps his drive is best represented by “Taking the Wheel,” which sounds as driving as its title suggests: “Throwin’ down the pencil and writing in ink/This is how I feel, this is what I think.”
Because Lina Koutrakos decided to let a rock sensibility flourish—and perhaps to escape the stigma that’s attached itself to cabaret—she’s left those confines but nevertheless refuses to deny her roots. She allows the best of both worlds to enliven items like the Fender-bass-and-piano-key-propelled “Miss Jones”: “She’s a cliché in the middle of a love triangle/The third hand in an established affair.”
Cabaret is heavily patronized by homosexual men—always has been—but only recently have gay-specific issues been openly addressed. Yet although in his “Beware the Anger of Soft-Spoken Men,” Steven Lutvak thought he was employing the adjective “soft-spoken” as a code for “gay,” he reports that its most appreciative audience is women. Which maybe shouldn’t surprise him, given lyrics about “the man who smiles as he opens up your door/The man who smiles as he offers you some more/Anyone whose smile shows you too much teeth/Beware the anger that’s underneath.” Tim DiPasqua’s “Big Hairy Man” is more explicit: “There’s a big, hairy man waiting round the corner/But there’s a small, balding man waiting back at home.”
In another music-business climate, these songwriters would be contributing Top 40 hits; in the current climate, they’re merely doing high-quality work. But it’s pertinent work. Tom Andersen’s “Yard Sale,” for instance, which has become a cabaret staple, reflects the significance AIDS, even if only evoked obliquely, still has for boîte-goers. “Take a look around/ There are treasures to be found/It’s the greatest deal in town, you’re sure to find/Some of it’s old, some barely used,” Andersen writes. “But no offer is refused/’Cause I’m moving on and running out of time.’
Tom Andersen performs at Rutgers Presbyterian Church March 26, Steven Lutvak at Arci’s Place March 27, and Lina Koutrakos at the Bottom Line March 28.