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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cabaret is a Life, Part Two

From the Vault Dept.: She made her stage debut at 15 in a Nazi interment camp, in “As You Like It,” and went on to learn folk songs – including traditional Yiddish tunes – while living in London after World War II. Martha Schlamme was born in Vienna, fled to France, further fled to England, and ended up in the U.S., where she gained increasing success as a Broadway and cabaret performer. She also specialized in the songs of Kurt Weill, several of which she presented at a 1985 performance at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, for which the theater stage was transformed into a nightclub. This proved to be her final tour; six months later she suffered a stroke while onstage, and died two months after that. Here’s a piece I wrote in advance of her Proctor’s appearance, followed by my review of the show.


SHE’S CURRENTLY ON a New York City stage with her “Kurt Weill Cabaret,” but it will be closed for the night while Martha Schlamme comes to Proctor’s Theater for one performance at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“I will do the show on Friday, then drive up with my manager the next day. Unfortunately, I can’t stay long – I have to be back in New York for a Sunday matinee,” she said in a phone  conversation.

Since her arrival in the United States in 1950 – following a perilous childhood traveling throughout war-torn Europe – Ms. Schlamme has worked as a singer and an actress and, more recently, as a teacher. But it is in her cabaret-concert that she offers her most personal view of life.

“I have divided the concert into two halves. The first one has songs which deal with the possibility and impossibility of relationships between men and women. It’s personal, without it being about me. The emotions come from personal experience, but the songs were written by other people. I use poetry and song to string the thoughts together. I sing one of Stephen Sondheim’s songs, and a song by Richard Maltby and David Shire and a quite a bit of Jacques Brel. The poetry is by Judith Viorst, Edna St Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker. It’s a fun program, but it has depth, too, coming as it does from real human experience.

“The second half begins with folk songs I used to sing, and the themes are survival and immigration, war and triumph. The first half, you see, might lead people to think I’m cynical – which I am to a point – but at the end I say that without love, you might as well pack it in.”

Pianist for the cabaret is Harry Huff, who has been accompanist to Ms. Schlamme since the beginning of 1983.

For the concert, which will be taped for future telecast by WMHT, Proctor’s is providing cabaret-style seating on stage. With a $15 ticket, patrons will get wine and cheese along with the show. Orchestra tickets are also available at $10 and $7.50.

In this age of specialized marketing, the show may be seen as a risky venture.

“It doesn’t have any age limit imposed upon it,” Ms. Schlamme said. “I believe the appeal is equal for young and old, but what has surprised me is how much the college students enjoy it. Whether I take the show to colleges around the country or perform it at schools in Manhattan, the students are always very open to what I have to say. I’m working with the emotions that are very powerful, and these are things that young people deal with more poignantly perhaps than older people, because so much of that emotional power is new to them. But you never lose touch with those emotions – or you shouldn’t – and therefore the show isn’t limited to an age group. My best audiences are a mixture of old and young and everything in between.”

The format has both impressed and confused reviewers trying to put a label on Ms. Schlamme. “She has the audience ... eating out of her hand, playing their emotions with consummate artistry,” one critic wrote.

“This extraordinary entertainment – part nostalgia tour, part nightclub cocktail act, part personal history and part lesson in musical nuance and phrasing – captivated a full house,” wrote another.

Tickets for Saturday’s program are available at Proctor’s box office in Canal Square, from Community Box Office outlets, Drome Sound, Carl Co. stores and the Palace Theater box office, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, 1 February 1985


A LIST OF THE SONGS Martha Schlamme performed during her cabaret show at Proctor’s would seem to need as many distinct performers as formats to make any sense or continuity out of them. That’s one of the things that makes her so special: These songs reflect the many facets of her own background and personality, and she is the common denominator.

That also explains part of what makes a performance like the one she gave Saturday so magical: She doesn’t play out to an audience. Rather, she draws the audience in, touching on very personal subjects we all share but aren’t usually comfortable speaking about.

Ms. Schlamme sings about them, or recites poetry about them. Only she doesn’t simply sing and recite: she becomes a character, with her posture and expression adding significance to the song.

Proctor’s set up the stage cabaret style, with wine and cheese served at tables surrounding the piano, singer’s chair and microphone. Ms. Schlamme entered in tight black pants and a loose heliotrope blouse. With pianist Harry Huff, she started off with the song “Come in from the Rain,” and followed it with a wonderland of material, all of it giving us slyly cynical looks at men and women together.

“O Life,” by Dorothy Parker, was followed by a scene from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow Is Enuf.” There followed a German song by the satirist Kurt Tucholosky, and a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

This kind of material takes direct shots at the emotions and can be quite a relief to an audience of secret sorrow sharers, which probably is why Ms. Schlamme has acquired a fanatical following.

She went on to sing songs from her early days as a folksinger and observed how much they contributed to her survival (she grew up in Austria just as Hitler was coming into power). She sang Yiddish songs of her grandfather, and songs by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, whose material she is currently performing in Manhattan.

She closed her show with “Everybody Loves Saturday Night,” a song of West African origin which has been translated into many languages – in fact she (with the audience) sang it in English, French, Russian, Yiddish and a West African dialect.

Harry Huff was a most sensitive pianist, providing expert support all through this varied show, which was unobtrusively videotaped by WMHT for future telecast.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, 5 February 1985

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