You’ll never find Drake on a standards album or a cabaret rendition of any Chainsmokers songs. Though while time still has yet to tell whether or not these musicians will retain a legacy, there already exists a collection of timeless music sung all over the world, from Broadway stages to school choirs to holiday CDs at Starbucks: The Great American Songbook.
On Saturday, Feb. 4th, at 8:30 p.m., Skinner Hall of Music turned back time to the 20th century for Cabaret Night, an annual Modfest performance dedicated to the Great American Songbook. With an opening concert of a string quartet comprised of Vassar sophomores, students from the Music Department were accompanied on piano by Music Department Accompanist David Alpher, with vocalist and lyricist Jennie Litt as the director.
The Great American Songbook refers to a compilation of American composers from the 20th century that have remained cultural mainstays today. Some of the well-known songwriters include the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. Many of these songs originated as Broadway standards before gaining even more widespread significance.
“What [The Great American Songbook] means to me are songs written in what I believe to be the golden years of American music,” as Alpher described the appeal of the genre. “Essentially these were people who were specialists in writing songs. Today we have the singer-songwriters, but back then they were writing for others.”
For the audience, which included many Dutchess County community members, these songs hold a warm place in their hearts; those unfamiliar with these songs, on the other hand, were be able to connect with their universal themes.
Litt talked about the importance of these songs in connecting the audience and the performers: “Well I think that a lot of the people that have attended these shows, in my experience, are members of the community of a certain age, familiar with the material, coming to hear songs they know and love and going to go on an emotional journey along with singers on stage.”
“What I hope is that the singers will help them to be expressive and inclusive in their performance, directly communicative,” she continued, “so audience members will not only enjoy music but come along for the emotional journey.”
Among the dozen performances from the night were “Goodnight, My Someone” from Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” performed by Sally Roberts ’17; “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Lerner & Loewe’s “Camelot,” performed by Ari Bell ’18; and “Wheels of a Dream” from Ahrens and Flaherty’s “Ragtime,” performed in a duet by Logan Pitts ’17 and Bianca Barragan ’19. In addition to the Music Department students performing, Senior Lecturer in Music and Director for the Madrigals Drew Minter made a surprise appearance, singing “The Cosmic Perspective,” which is a song written by Alpher and Litt.
Each performer found a song that personally meant something to them, with Vassar Music Department faculty helping them determine what piece to use.
For Pitts, his duet with Barragan in “Wheels of a Dream” had a tredmendous amount of relevance to today’s world, despite the song being written in the last century. “The theme of Modfest this year is Raising Voices,” he expressed. “This theme directly calls me literally to sing out with power and metaphorically to seek justice in these turbulent and unsettling times. ‘Wheels of a Dream’ captured these ideas perfectly.”
The performance also held a lot of personal meaning for Pitts. As he described, “It was so special for me to sing with one of the most important people in my life, Bianca. We share a special connection and have helped each other grow in many ways over the years. Singing together was very important to me. But it’s not even about the two of us. Its bigger than that. It was for all the unheard voices in America and the world. Like the opening lyrics to the song, ‘I looked in [her] eyes’ and saw such hope for our futures and knew we must all rise together to create the peace, love and equality that we so deserve.”
Cooperating with the disadvantageous schedule Winter Break created, Litt and Alpher explained their process for rehearsing this show. “I meet with all the students individually for 30 minutes in November, then semester break happens. There’s six weeks off where Jenny talks to them,” Alpher explained, speaking of the initial stages for developing Cabaret Night.
Litt elaborated: “Last Saturday, we had individual sessions, with David at piano, me as director, and figured out what the order of the show will be,…coach the song as it’ll be appearing in the show, and work with each participant. They might not be used to the conventions of cabaret, since it’s different from classical pieces or theatre, so we work with them to get more consistency, how they can make the song personal. Then we meet a week later and put it on its feet.”
Litt and Alpher have been the main proponents for Cabaret Night for the last several years, after Dee Wilson, the co-founder of Modfest, personally invited them to establish the annual performance. And every year, Vassar students and members of the community come together to hear the music of yesteryear, still potent today.
In the introduction to the event, Seamus Taylor ’17 and Cami Hippee ’17 expressed the contemporary message these songs still express, that the themes of love and hope never go out of style, even in today’s political climate, and that their timelessness proves the power they truly have.
Reflecting on the Cabaret Night as a whole, Alpher echoed these sentiments of the enduring nature and universal appeal of the genre, saying, “I hope the audience sees there is still tradition of musical theatre, of cabaret theatre, that has never stopped.”