Forget Madonna - my kids crave cabaret

The performers had just finished "Anything You Can Do," that classic battle-of-the-sexes duet at a young people's concert at the Cabaret Convention, an annual fall event in New York. The applause was generous, but my 10-year-old daughter, Karen, wasn't putting her hands together along with everyone else in the audience. "They didn't sing the part about baking a pie," she pointed out disapprovingly. Karen takes her Irving Berlin seriously. She also loves a Gershwin tune. How about you?

My husband and I have made many mistakes with our children, all of which, no doubt, will be revealed when they finish their memoirs. Still, I feel pretty certain we've done at least one thing right: exposed them early and often (every available weekend) to cabaret.

Between them, Karen and my 12-year-old son, Matthew, have seen singers Stacey Kent and Peter Cincotti; K.T. Sullivan (who won my daughter's heart forever with her medley from "The Wizard of Oz" - Karen all but sang along, and Ms. Sullivan beamed like a missionary with a convert); Andrea Marcovicci; Jeff Harnar; John Pizzarelli; The Manhattan Rhythm Kings; and Mary Cleere Haran, who, after her steamy rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame" during a show at New York's Algonquin Hotel last spring, looked over at my son and asked, "Have you ever heard that before?"

"I have now," he said in a response that nicely mixed honesty and - dare I say it? - gallantry. This is what repeated exposure to the likes of Bobby Short will do for a guy.

Since my attendance at iconic Manhattan night spots like the Oak Room, the Café Carlyle, Feinstein's, and Birdland is generally tied to profiles or stories I'm writing, and since I'm always invited to bring a guest, my children's presence is no strain on the pocketbook. But the reality is, even with a cover and minimum (two Shirley Temples, please), Dave Frishberg, singing Matthew's favorite "My Attorney Bernie" in a rare New York appearance, is a far more economical proposition than "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Mama Mia!" - and, come to think of it, Major League Baseball when you throw in the peanuts, Cracker Jack, chicken fingers, and French fries.

My children's presence invariably drops a club's median age by a few decades. Their presence also inspires delighted smiles by fellow patrons and a certain amazement that preadolescents - 21st-century ones at that - could find something to savor besides the rolls and butter, that they could take pleasure in "People Will Say We're in Love" sung to a bossa nova beat.

Now, when we tune the radio to certain stations on weekend trips to Connecticut and there's Frank Sinatra singing "Swinging on a Star," Ella Fitzgerald singing "Manhattan" or "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (known around our house as "You say 'tomato' "), there are frequent shouts from the back seat. "I know that one! I know that one!" And it was heard first - lyric and melody - in a place where glasses clink, couples hold hands, and performers, besotted by their work, are close enough to touch.

As a mother, I have spent more time than I care to admit trying narcissistically to convince my children to love what I love. This runs the gamut from Cream of Wheat to the comedies of Ernest Lubitsch to cabaret. I have pretty much given up on the first and can report reasonable success on the second. Cabaret - which has the distinct advantage of starting at the nice grownup hour of 9 p.m. and clocking in a modest 60 minutes, give or take an encore - was a slam dunk.

Between songs, the performers talk about movies made and songs written long before my children were born. Yes, even before I was born, I tell them. They hear names (Johnny Mercer; Larry Hart; Harold Arlen; The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe), words (speakeasies, flivver), and emotions (mood indigo; good morning, heartache) that don't yet mean anything to them. But here I am sitting between the two of them, in some little way passing the torch. To say nothing of the torch song.

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