Ute Lemper was quoted by Barry Singer last week in The New York Times as saying the following: "Cabaret in New York is dessert entertainment. Audiences here view it as a public ego demonstration of one's private personality. The German tradition of 'kabarett'--the cabaret performer as activist, as opposed to 'cabaret,' which is just entertainment--makes people extremely uncomfortable, particularly right after an expensive dinner."
Strange that Lemper should distance herself from New York cabaret, since--by dint of two Joe's Pub appearances in the last year--she has made herself a part of what she so negatively characterizes. The only explanation for her ungainly outburst is that the entertainer--who couldn't be bolder in her act, grabbing patrons' wallets and extracting the cash, cajoling ladies onto the stage for a slow fox trot--didn't have the opportunity before or after performances to survey the local scene more thoroughly. Sightings of her sizing up colleagues were rare at, among other possible venues, the FireBird Cafe, Don't Tell Mama, Danny's Skylight Room, Arci's Place, Feinstein's at the Regency, and Judy's Chelsea.
Apparently she didn't even hang around Joe's Pub to catch Lea DeLaria. Indeed, everything Lemper looks for in cabaret--or 'kabarett'--could be found in the fearless DeLaria, who chided and challenged the cocktail guzzlers in her wise-guy pin-stripe suit with her torch song intros that, she made plain, referred to spoiled romances with women. She was confrontational about gender and the bending of it--the embodiment of political activism.
But if international boite star Lemper could plead time limitations as a reason for negligence, what is Singer's excuse? Although his surname implies an understanding of cabaret, his dismissive--even insulting--article belies it. Professing an affinity for 1920s cabaret, which he can't have experienced first-hand, he describes today's Manhattan manifestation as "[c]lassy song recitals of old music in smart rooms by good singers." And he unfavorably compares contemporary cabaret to Weimar Republic cabaret--which in its proliferation of satirical material--was, he insists, "sardonic, sophisticated, gorgeously profane."
In so doing, he defines the cabaret of both periods narrowly, and makes the additional and unfortunately common mistake of holding up the best of a bygone era against the bulk of the current day. He's right about the fact that there are existing formulas by which a certain percentage of today's cabaret is prepared, but he's wrong to think that they are the all-encompassing rule. Any fair-minded historian would inform him that there was an abundance of 1920s chaff in the Berlin music halls, and--wised up!--he might more reasonably conclude that today's bad is about equal in quantity to yesteryear's.