Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Play It Again: Cabaret's "Cabaret"

PLAY IT AGAIN: Cabaret’s “Cabaret” 

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week’s entry compares five recordings of the title song from
Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, a song which I assume needs little introduction. The versions considered below span 55 years and feature some legendary singers and singing actresses. All of them sing essentially the same music and lyrics, but I found there to be a stunning amount of variety among these five performances. This is a song that not only happily accommodates different voice types and orchestral textures, but also allows for wildly different approaches in terms of tone and emotional impact.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities.

- YouTube

Sally Bowles: Jill Haworth; Emcee: Joel Grey

SINGING: When a show has had numerous high-profile revivals over many decades, it can be hard for an original performer to compete with her many painstakingly selected successors, and so it is with Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Haworth’s vocals are strong, clear, and appropriately (for the character) straightforward and unadorned, and she builds up a nice intensity at the end of the song. Still, her interpretation lacks the actorly details of most of the others below (and of course the virtuosity of Minnelli).

ORCHESTRA: The original orchestration leans heavy on rhythmic banjo and piercing brass, features that are used more sparingly in later versions.

SOUND: Generally quite good. Orchestral details are easy to hear, but the vocals are perhaps a bit too loud where they don’t need to be.

MISCELLANEOUS: Like the other stage versions below, the track begins with a drumroll and introduction from the emcee (a very quick one here). The song is performed with a moderate tempo, with fewer shifts than subsequent versions. 

- YouTube

Sally Bowles: Judi Dench; Emcee: Barry Dennen

SINGING: Dench approaches the song as an actress who can carry a tune rather than a vocalist, with little attempt at vibrato or other effects; the result is generally very satisfying. Her voice conveys a kind of unsavory vulnerability throughout, and I enjoyed her little touches of humor (especially on “by the hour”) and anger (in the final verse). Still, Dench’s delivery is significantly more restrained than more recent versions.

ORCHESTRA: Essentially the same as the original Broadway recording.

SOUND: Similar to the original, but with a slightly fuzzier mix between voice and orchestra.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is basically the same as well, but this one slows to an absolute crawl during the Elsie “quotation” of the main verse.

- YouTube

Sally Bowles: Liza Minnelli

SINGING: Minnelli’s iconic take is unique among these five versions, with its emphasis on vocal virtuosity that leaves less room for dramatic interpretation. The sustained notes (as on “when I go...”) and little melodic leaps are impressive, but also contribute to the feeling that this Sally is not as sincere as most of the others. (Somehow I still haven’t seen the movie, so I readily admit that in context this may be a feature rather than a bug.)  This recording is unquestionably beautiful and probably the one I would pick for pure listening pleasure, but it doesn’t paint the vivid character portrait that most of the others do. 

*ORCHESTRA: Compared to the original stage versions, this one has a very lush and jazzy texture, with more significant contributions from the woodwind and string sections. The brass is more subdued, providing little punctuations rather than dominating the musical accompaniment. 

*SOUND: The sound is absolutely superb in every way. (This seems to often be the case with film soundtracks vs. cast recordings; I imagine the former face fewer limitations in terms of time pressure and technical resources.)

MISCELLANEOUS: This version lacks the emcee’s speech, replacing it with a nice “big band”-like orchestral introduction. The tempo is very brisk - this track comes in at 3:31 compared to about 4:30 for the previous two (and nothing was cut from the song). Whether by composer’s design or Minnelli’s choice, the melody is notably altered in several places (including at the very beginning of the song).


Sally Bowles: Natasha Richardson; Emcee: Alan Cumming

*SINGING: Richardson’s bravura delivery is closest in tone to that of Dench, but she significantly amps up the dramatic intensity. Direct and nonchalant at the beginning, her emotional state builds to an almost weepy sadness during the Elsie section, and then to furious defiance in the final part of the song, all without ever seeming the least bit over-the-top. Uniquely, she pauses at the word “corpse,” as she fully takes in the implications of Elsie’s story. Despite the ironic distance of the lyrics, this is a Sally who feels everything she sings, and I wish I had had the opportunity to see Richardson sing it on stage.

ORCHESTRA: These later stage versions are more restrained than the earlier ones, with brass sharing space with the rest of the orchestra. Although it can’t approach the lushness of the film soundtrack, this orchestration allows for lots of variety and color to differentiate the song’s contrasting sections.

SOUND: This is a well-recorded cast album, very clear and with an ideal balance between voice and orchestra.

*MISCELLANEOUS: Cumming’s striking delivery of the introduction, slow and evocative, makes it sound like the emcee is gradually being tortured to death (and it works). The tempo shifts frequently but is on the pleasantly fast side (coming in at 4:14 despite Cumming’s languid opening). 

- YouTube

Sally Bowles: Jessie Buckley; Emcee: Eddie Redmayne

SINGING: Buckley’s singing voice initially resembles that of Haworth, but her performance diverges markedly after the first couple of verses. Most of her Elsie story is spoken, delivered as if in a stand-up act, enhanced by titters from the live audience. This, along with her brief mocking of Elsie’s voice, creates a sense of emotional distance in this section, but this is abandoned in the final stages of the song, where she steadily builds to a crazed shriek. This is a unique performance that I can imagine might work nicely on stage, but on the recording it’s a little too much for my taste.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration comes off as fairly similar in style to that of the Broadway revival.

SOUND: Generally well-recorded, with maybe some “topping out” (for lack of a better technical term) on the loudest and highest notes.

MISCELLANEOUS: This version features a wordier, and quite eccentric, introduction, delivered by Redmayne in a raving sprechstimme. The tempo here is rather slow, with the track coming in at 5:31, a minute or more longer than the others. This is a live recording, so audience reactions can be heard, including some laughs (as noted) and applause at the end.

1 comment:

  1. Sally is basically having a breakdown during the song which is why ---for me--Minnelli's version doesn't work. It's very showy. For a truly crazed Sally, check out Jane Horrick on youtube from the first "reimagined" version with Cummings. Sally totally loses it and it works.


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