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Rock for the Cabaret Crowd

Actor/singer Philip Littell's words - at an L.A. cafe - give rock tunes a witty, ironic dimension

By Merle RubinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1989


THE performance calendar at Cafe Largo, an avant-garde supper club in this city's Fairfax district, lists an unusual act: ``Philip Littell & What Is Said ... the inventor of cabarock.'' Mr. Littell, a singer, actor, and dancer, would hesitate to add ``poet,'' but the word is apt: He writes and performs his own lyrics, set to a collaborator's music. The style is primarily rock but also embraces ballad, jazz, even rap.

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``What Is Said'' is Littell's band. And ``cabarock'' is (in the words of one fan) a kind of ``Wagnerian'' performance incorporating drama, music, words, and dance. As the prefix ``caba'' suggests, the songs are witty and ironic - geared to a sophisticated cabaret audience.

The crowd here - professional people in their 20s and 30s, plus a sprinkling of older people - listened raptly to a recent performance. ``He writes wonderful lyrics and sings them so that you can hear every word,'' said one fan.

Some audience members return week after week. What do they find so exciting? Their answers range from ``His energy'' to ``The songs are so funny and intelligent'' and ``What he does always surprises me. It keeps changing.''

Indeed, the songs vary from satire and social comedy to intimate self-revelation, from the whimsical to the serious, from high-voltage verbal barrages to soft ballads. The subjects range over love, betrayal, anxieties - the minor irritation of ``My Date is Late'' to the larger question of homelessness in ``Where Do They Sleep at Night?''

``Philip handles the social issues very well,'' says Jean-Pierre Bocarra, owner of the cafe. ``Not preachy, but just the right amount to touch people and get them thinking. ... The songs are filled with phrases that you remember. ... Not just the same old love songs - she came, she left me, dah, dah, dah. He has a vision of something that can be a whole territory of his own.''

``Let's Get Out of Here,'' for instance, is a number that's half-spoken, half-sung, with the loose rhythms of conversation. It deals with the meeting of two people who quickly become romantically interested in one another. Littel's lyrics capture their mood of charm tempered by wariness:

``I think it's swell that we are so well matched/ I also think that you are otherwise attached./ I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but we're past a certain point./ See, when an opposite attracts/ I need facts.''

Littell agreed to discuss his work in an interview at a small Ethiopian restaurant in the anything-but-trendy area where he lives. Arriving on a bicycle, he looked younger than his 39 years. Over a meal of spiced meat and spongy Ethiopian bread, he spoke with poise, wit, and quiet passion about what he's doing.

LITTELL likes to talk about the rhythm of words, about timing, about the way that words sometimes assert their own wit. He recites a poem he's written but not set to music. He talks about a desire to find more time to write - although he's composed well over 60 lyrics in the past three years.

``I write what's on my mind,'' he says. ``I come from a family of writers and journalists - going back to the War of 1812.''

A typical Littell song contains more words and verses than a song by anyone since W.S. Gilbert. Asked about Broadway lyricist Stephen Sondheim (``West Side Story,'' ``Sunday in the Park With George,'' ``Into the Woods''), Littell politely disdains the comparison: ``What he's saying is: `These are lyrics.' What I'm saying is: `These are thoughts.'''

Mention of Lorenz Hart (``The Girl Friend,'' ``The Boys from Syracuse,'' ``Pal Joey'') pleases him better. ``He's my favorite lyricist!'' Indeed, Littell's lyrics display a similar verbal inventiveness and a capacity for expressing complex emotions: ``My father's family - they're all very witty: Enter and exit on a laugh. My natural inclination is to be soppy and serious. The wit is a defense but also a way into the material.''

Littell agrees that his lyrics are strongest when he's sailing closest to the edge of self-revelation. ``I'm not indulging in self-pity, I hope, but in self-examination. One of my lyrics, `Only a Man Could Be So Foolish,' came directly out of a time when I had acted like a jerk.'' A typical couplet: ``Nothing but dust is left of a man/ While time does its worst I will do what I can.''