Getting Into the Act

by Barry Drogin

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As a polyglot myself, I enjoy encountering other "non-specialists" in this non-age of the Renaissance man (or, in this case, woman). When Beth Anne Cole introduced herself to me and invited me to a showcase the next night, I had no idea how interesting a person she would turn out to be.

She handed me a CD, which contained recordings of her wistful singing of her own poetry that she had set to music. Okay, I'm thinking while listening to it: poet, singer, fancies herself a composer as well. We met at a music-theatre event, so I should have caught on to the story elements in her songs, but most poets write about themselves, and some of the material may have been autobiographical. When she rhymed "Demetrius" with "mishigas" in the first song on the CD (called "gifts in the old, old ground" - what is it with some people and capitals? She’s identified on the cover as both "beth anne cole" and "Beth Anne Cole"), I was taken aback. More than a few of the songs had what I'd call Jewish (or at least Middle-Eastern) melodies and harmonies. The one piece she didn't write is a Yiddish lullaby (sung in Yiddish), and the CD ends with a piece titled "Psalm," sung a cappella. The CD was recorded in Toronto, Canada, and I was aware that there was a strong Jewish community there. I called her up to ask about these matters, and in the course of conversation she told me that she had studied acting in London and Toronto. Wait, it gets better.

I cancelled my original plans for the next night and headed out to see her showcase. She was performing in two sets - one with music by herself (which she calls "Newspaper songs") and with folk songs, and the second, excerpts from "A Kurt Weill Cabaret," subtitled "Songs Degenerate & Otherwise." Now let's take one at a time.

Chansonnier. Troubadour. Traveling minstrel. This is how her artistic management is billing her. She cites "French cabaret legend Yvette Guilbert," and is capable of singing songs in English, French, Yiddish and Ladino. But in the very first song she sang, "Emile Benoit," about a Newfoundland fiddler, she suddenly put on a strong accent, adopted a voice not her own, and embodied this old, strong-willed, opinionated man. Cole was not a singer who could act - she was an actress who could sing. She wasn't singing a song about Emile Benoit - she had become Emile Benoit.

The second set was just as surprising. This was not a Kurt Weill Cabaret, this was the Kurt Weill Cabaret, which ran a year on Broadway with Alvin Epstein and Martha Schlamme. Ms. Schlamme, born in 1923 and dying on stage in 1985, was a cabaret phenomena; Leonard Lehrman claims she made "at least" 18 records, of French, Yiddish, German, English songs - two audio CDs of her work in Yiddish are available (The Legendary Martha Schlamme Sings Jewish Folk Songs, originally released in 1957, and volume 2 (or is it 3?), Raisins and Almonds, originally released in 1959 - samples from all of the tracks can be heard at those links). But like Lotte Lenya, I don't know the sweet expressive soprano of the woman in her thirties, but the experienced lower-registered powerhouse hitting sixty, whose "Pirate Jenny" has never been matched, in my experience. And there, up on stage with Ms. Cole, is Mr. Epstein, nearing eighty, although you couldn't tell it from the lively singing, dancing, acting letch he has to portray. Ms. Cole, with enormous shoes to fill, holds her own - her "Lily from Hell" from Brecht/Weill's "Happy End" galvanized me. I love the way the chorus spills out of its four measure phrase structure, as if it can't be contained. Epstein picks and chooses from his translations, so there were a lot of surprises for me. He even barks out the too famous "Mack the Knife" in its original German and original arrangement, G-d bless him, where it recovers its original theatrical context, beauty and meaning.

I started my career working with actors who could sing, and I've had to transition to working with singers who could act, and, you know, I prefer the former. I'll take a raspy note, a voice with "personality," and a story over a perfect tone any day. I'm keeping my eyes on this Beth Anne Cole, and I suggest you do the same. If she's come this far in the seven years since that 1998 CD was released, we’re going to be astounded by where she arrives seven years from now.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007